Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Essay: Sexism/Racism in Anthologies and Balance

Every Wednesday, I have an essay or feature article on any topic that catches my fancy!

This was originally written before John Ottinger III retracted his statement. Still, I believe this is an important topic to discuss.

I wasn't originally going to talk about this topic, mainly because these are points I touched upon in last week's essay at BSC Review entitled The Taboos of Editing. However, with John Ottinger III's now-deleted post entitled "For Those Who Cry Sexism or Racism in SF Anthologies, Shut Up" (and due to Shweta Narayan's retort), allow me to elaborate.

First off, when I originally saw Ottinger's original post, I knew this was a train-wreck in the making. I got to hand it to him, he has balls for posting it, and while there are some points that I agree with, for the most part it has me shaking my head.

Wait, you might ask. I agree with some of Ottinger's points? Well, there's one in particular: "I don't think these editors set out to create anthologies that have too few women or minorities." Although I'd like to qualify that I'm not psychic (and last time I checked, neither are most people) so while there are editors out there who are biased and prejudiced, some editors who took some flak (such as Jonathan Strahan, Mike Ashley, and James Cooper [although not for fiction]) from such accusations aren't. Or at least not consciously. And here the qualifications begin. Unlike other editors, the people I mentioned admitted, at the very least, that maybe they should have tried harder. And for the conscious part, sure, we can say that the editors didn't plan on being prejudiced, but unfortunately people aren't rewarded based on intentions (blah blah blah, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and all). If your unconscious part is biased (and let's face it, we all have our own unconscious biases) and your final output is biased, well, it's biased (it's the only thing people can judge). And so the aforementioned editors produced bias work, even if they might not have intended to do so from the beginning. (And if it's a solicitation anthology, I can sympathize with assembling such a book. What happens if you did invite female/minority writers, and they all happened to back out for one reason or another?)

Now let's get back on track with regards to sexism and racism in SF anthologies. The problem here is that some people believe in the platonic idea that in assembling an anthology, the quality of the story is what matters the most. Well, it is an important factor, but it's not the only factor. I mean if quality was the only factor, why not simply reprint your favorite classic story twenty times? Or, hell, let's just reprint the classics.

In reality, in assembling any anthology, there are other elements that come into play. For example, if it's an original anthology, the editor tends to look for new stories, hence disqualifying reprints. Another criteria is that the editors tend to showcase as many contributors as possible, so the anthology is actually an anthology instead of a short story collection. And if you look at my BSC Review essay, there's a lot of other concessions an editor must make. So why not make gender and minority balance one of them?

Another problem with Ottinger's rant is that he doesn't qualify which kinds of anthologies he's talking about. If it's a blind-reading for an open-submission anthology, sure, his arguments might have some merit. Why are you supposed to like a story didn't enjoy in the first pass just because it was written by a minority group or someone of the female gender (and yes, let's face it, there is a certain male dominance that when we talk about sexism in the genre, it usually means it's the females that's oppressed; perhaps the only field where it's the opposite is the romance genre). And for some people, a blind-reading, open-submission is the way to go for anthologies and absolves you from all faults but honestly, there's not a lot of genre publications that has that practice (or at least not that I'm aware of).

There's a part of me that goes out to Ottinger. I want story to be king, independent of all other factors. But the fact is, there are other factors. If you want to be cynical about it, including the other gender and minorities is a publicity move. Honestly, you can't release a book these days and misrepresent people. There'll be a lynch mob after you. Plus, you widen your possible demographics (it's not rocket science that women like to read about other women, or say African-Americans like to read about fellow African-Americans).

If you want an ethical reason, well, it's simply about being a decent person. The status quo is oppressive if you're not the dominant culture. When an editor starts to include fiction from the female gender and minorities, it's usurping what's previously established, and giving the less-dominant culture a chance. Most likely the anthology will prominently feature the dominant culture nonetheless, but at least this time you're giving other, less-established authors a chance.

And if you want a literary reason, it's either about discovery or overcoming your subconscious biases. It's discovery in the sense that you might be reading a story you actually enjoy, it's just that you haven't encountered it previously because such writers aren't encouraged to publish their work, or because it was originally written in a language you never heard of. It's the same reason why you might publish a new, previous unestablished writer. As for subconscious biases, it might be a story you don't actually like no matter how much you try, but it's well-written on the craft level (mind you, there's a difference between acknowledging that a work is well-written and that you actually like it; I can certainly recognize the former but it doesn't automatically fall into the latter category) and fits the theme of your anthology. What many inexperienced editors think is that an anthology should comprise their favorite set of stories. In actuality, an anthology typically represents the thesis of your anthology and covers a wide spectrum as possible. This might mean including stories you don't personally like because it's very different from your preferences, but is nonetheless well-written (by your own assessment).

Do you know what tokenism really is? Tokenism isn't about including one (or X number of ) female/minority author(s) in an anthology. Tokenism is about including one female/minority author despite the editor not liking their story. And here's the problem with subjectivity. Who's to say that an editor genuinely didn't like a particular story but included them nonetheless? Admittedly, there might be circumstances where that's the case, but for the most part, the editor is risking his or her reputation on the line: it's bad enough that they're including stories that they like but others might not, how much more stories that they don't enjoy? (Unless the editor himself told you that they included your story solely because of that fact... which was the case with William Sanders I believe.)

Having said that, it is possible to end up with an anthology that doesn't feature a lot of women or minorities. For example, from what I heard of Jeff & Ann VanderMeer in assembling the book Steampunk, there weren't a lot of women writing steampunk during a certain era. It's not that they didn't want to include female authors (and they did try to look for female steampunk authors) but there wasn't a lot of them. In the case of horror, there really is a disproportionate number of female vs. male writers (but just because that's the case doesn't mean it's okay for you to produce a horror anthology that's devoid of female authors). Or in the case of minorities, there is a limited set of fiction to be found (precisely because they are minorities!). Right now for example, I don't think it's possible to create a speculative fiction anthology of, say, reprint Taiwanese science fiction stories written in English simply because there might not be a lot of such work and still retaining a certain level of quality (or maybe I'm wrong and it's just that I'm ignorant). Another possibility is that in an open call for submissions, no minority actually submits (assuming, of course, your call for submissions was widely disseminated).

I'm not sure whether it's Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics or Reinventing Comics, but the author makes an important distinction between the perils of writing about females the other gender vs. that of other cultures (to a certain extent, this may or may not extend to minorities). It's honestly impossible to go about your life and never encounter the former while there are people who've lived a lifetime and never met, say, a resident of Fiji (although that's also changing with the Internet and globalization). I think the same extends to fiction. While there are genres in which females are under-represented, it's certainly not the case where there are absolutely no female writers. That is the tragedy of In Conversation: A Writer's Perspective; Volume One: Horror. Potential readers weren't looking for a 50/50 split of male/female horror writers, but to totally exclude female authors is simply devastating.

Nor are editors looking to fill up their anthology and represent every minority. That's simply not possible (there are too many minorities) but that doesn't mean they can't include a minority or two when the opportunity arises. Because I champion Philippine speculative fiction, some editors do ask me if I know of a local story that fits their particular theme. Unfortunately, because there's a limited pool of stories here, it does occur that I don't have any stories to recommend. Or sometimes, I might have some recommendations, but the quality isn't up to par with what the editor is looking for. They're certainly not obliged to take the stories I recommend simply because it represents Philippine speculative fiction.

As for reviewers pointing out gender and minority imbalances in anthologies, it's their right! It doesn't necessarily make their argument automatically valid, but honestly, there are a lot of reasons, both significant and inane, as to why people like or don't like books. It might be something like the cover ("don't judge a book by its cover..."), it might be the paper, it might be the actual stories. Who cares, it's their right! It might not be a significant factor to you or to me, but obviously, it matters to some people, or else they wouldn't have brought it up in the first place.


Christopher Fletcher said...

Excellent comments, Charles. It's a very balanced assessment of the issue.

As an editor, I do not deal in quotas or tokenism or really think much about the gender of authors as I am reading stories. When I make my selections, it always works out naturally that there are some males and some females among the writers. So when I see collections of stories that ARE all-male it makes me suspicious. Of course there will be things like reprint collections of, say, sf stories from the so-called "Golden Age" when barely any women were publishing in the genre. But I am thinking more about contemporary collections of fiction of more recent vintage.

Given all the attention to this topic lately, I have to say I am quite pleased that the antho I just finished putting together happened to end up half-and-half men and women without any intention of having it be that way. It suggests (at least to me) that balance and diversity can be achieved without resort to quotas and tokenism but simply by selecting good material that fits what you describe as the thesis of a book.

Thanks for this essay, Charles, and all the good work you do!

Kaz Augustin said...

Nicely put, Charles.

Anonymous said...

I think this is a great, balanced post, Charles.

There really wasn't much from women to choose from for Steampunk, given our very specific brief. We just made a note to rectify that for the second volume, which would be less about capturing a view of iconic Steampunk and more about the last ten years. In fact, we'd be totally remiss if there wasn't more diversity in the follow-up.

Although completely sympathetic to and in support of diversity and the points of view expressed by Shweta, for example, I did wonder if Steampunk had come out a year later if we would've been hung out to dry for having too few women and minorities in it, and where the line exists? In other words, if we did 20 anthos with balanced TOCs and then one that was 10 men and 1 woman, would we be given the benefit of the doubt? I'm more than willing to put up with a little butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling--are we going to be hoisted from the yardarm?--on that score to support progressives on these issues, but it does cause some stress at times.

If I were to edit a gritty noir antho...well, most of my favorite noir writers are men. If I were to edit a short fantasy fiction antho, traditional or avant garde, almost all of the writers I'd invite would be women because those are my favorites. Would I be within my rights as an editor to have those kinds of imbalances or not?

I've thought about these issues a lot, and thought about the economic pressures--which is to say, most anthos require "names" with mega sales behind them in order to sell an antho to a big or even an indie publisher. Very few minority writer names get bandied about in that context--I am not saying this is a good thing, I'm simply reporting a fact--which means editors have to be even more proactive and on guard. What would be more impressive and useful than a list of minority writers is a list of minority writers who sell really well--this would give antho editors more ammo.

I do think radical pressure from places like Angry Black Woman has served a very useful purpose: it has actually made some *publishers* begin to think of something other than the bottom line--which helps loosen up things other than just minority diversity. That's not the only benefit of such activism, but it's been interesting to see that pressure eat away at the monolith. A more balanced approach may be needed in future--wave 2?--so there's not some kind of horrible schism with perfectly nice people who are sympathetic but can't stand the shouting, but it's got a definite use.

I do think that some of this issue will go away over the next ten years as it seems to me there are more "next gen" minority SF/Fantasy writers now than at any time in the last decade, aided by the activism. Which means there will be more minority genre writers in mid-career in another ten years.

Does this make sense? I always feel weird when I comment on these kinds of things.


bloggeratf said...

Charles, I appreciate the thought and measured tone that went into this essay. Though, you seem to stop just shy of saying exactly how an anthology should be composed to be acceptable; you eliminate the extremes and leave a narrow middle-ground. I also feel that some statistics would have gone a long way towards developing a more comprehensive argument.

I don't assemble anthologies, but I can't help but feel that to not be criticized in some way editors need to balance so many variables that they are left with very little room to navigate. The proof is simply the length and depth of your own arguments, which are entirely reasonable.

Charles said...

Thanks for the comments everyone.

Alec: Unfortunately, assembling anthologies is more Art than Science. You might have a plan where you solicit 50/50 male/female writers for example, but honestly, the stories you actually receive (much less accept) won't be 50/50.

It also varies in theme: if I were to do a pulp fantasy antho for example, while there are A FEW women writing in that field a few decades ago, the antho won't be a 50/50 split (or 60/40, or even 70/30). There needs to be context.

And as JeffV pointed out, what is acceptable? There is no objective "acceptable" number. For some people, nothing less than 50/50 is acceptable. For others, a few high profile authors might be enough.

Another thing to consider is space. What if there's only one woman in an anthology but she gets a novella and the rest of the authors just short stories (or to an extreme, flash fiction)?

And yes, editors need to balance a lot of things. It's not an ideal world. See my BSC Review post that I link to in the essay for other variables that enter the equation aside from gender/minorities.

(Also, there is no "perfect" anthology. Everyone will find strengths and flaws in them.)

Charles said...


Re: Steampunk -- it's a dynamic and evolving scene. For example, we have authors like Cherie Priest now which weren't available, say, 5 years ago. So context plays a big role.

As for diversity and people's reactions, we honestly don't know. Some people will cite your track record as proof that you're not prejudiced/sexist, while others WILL use your track record as reasons for not coming out with a balanced TOC.

Yeah, lots of other variables. Including, say, soliciting two stories from an author for the same anthology. Or compromising with your publisher. (Hate to sound like a broken record but tackled some of those points in my BSC Review essay linked in the blog entry.)

Yup, Angry Black Woman serves an important role but some of the contributors, in my opinion, are a bit too aggressive to the point that it makes people afraid of discussion (but then again, would people be listening to their ideas if they weren't aggressive?).

Your thoughts are always welcome.

John Ottinger III (Grasping for the Wind) said...

Thank you for putting into words what I could not. Your points are cogent and wise and I appreciate JeffV's thoughts to. It is getting the information from the horse's mouth, as it were.

Anonymous said...

Charles--I've thought long and hard about that very issue regarding Angry Black Woman. The fact is, I don't think people would be listening without the aggressive approach. I know for a fact it does stop people from commenting out of fear, but although at first this gave me pause the more I thought about it, the more I was okay with the trade-off. Because the fact of the matter is: most people don't post about a lot of things out of fear. And as I understand it ABW and efforts like it were born out of a frustration of not being heard. So it's hard to criticize the approach.

The reason I mention a wave 2 is that I do believe that the progressives are now a powerful voice on the internet, and that editors and others do take them into account when making decisions. Being in-your-face made that happen. But there needs to be a wave 2 that's about outreach and building things rathe than about tearing things down. I mean, Angry Black Woman is called Angry Black Woman. What are ya gonna expect to get when you go there? And that's probably an important component for awhile. But long-term, radicals of any description--in my opinion--can only effectuate further actual change by outreach, dialog, and creation. So you get the attention of the elites by being aggressive and take-no-prisoners. Then you either morph into something that does many other things, or you develop another arm or division that does the more nuanced things.

Theoretically, you could say this is already in place to some degree--Aqueduct is a potentially powerful publishing arm of progressives and radicals. And so on and so forth. There's probably a lot of stuff out there I'm not aware of simply because I'm...really busy. LOL.

Anonymous said...

erm, that was me, JeffV

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