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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Genre Inclusivity: The Fundamental Paradox of the Love/Hate Relationship in SF/F

Last week, Weirdside and I discussed M.D. Lachlan's article on the inclusivity of the genre community in the second episode of The Skiffy and Fanty Show. While we both agreed that, generally speaking, the genre fiction community is far more open and welcoming than other segments of the writing world, we never properly addressed what I think is a potential destroyer of genre fiction. I'm not talking about disinterest in reading science fiction, or the lack of respect by academics, or the various other things that people cite as the downfall of SF/F or other genres. I'm talking about the internal conflict within SF/F, induced in part by the ability of the Internet to provide a space for any voice, opinion, thought, and so on, often without serious consequences for the speaker. The conflict usually appears with a "fail" at the end of it, such as GenderFail, RaceFail 09 (and 10), and so on.

The problem with these moments in SF/F isn't so much that nobody is addressing a legitimate issue. It would be foolish to claim that race and gender are not important problems in our culture. It's unfortunate that we still have to deal with things like the casting calls for The Last Airbender or the fact that not enough women are being given their due in today's SF/F book culture. Despite how inclusive genre seems to be, it still has a lot of problems that need to be worked out. This is part of the paradox of inclusivity, because the genre is not as inclusive as it should be, and moments when that inclusivity is questioned have created more uproar and divides than were present before (the result not just of the people on the "bad" side, but on the "good" side too; these arguments have no innocent parties, sadly).

The problem with RaceFail and GenderFail is the way certain individuals have used these moments not to help solve a problem or bring attention to it, but to divide us further by ejecting innocent people from the discussion, disregarding key facts, and generally using these moments as soap boxes for a view that may or may not be as true as they think. Racism exists, yes, but one racist instance at one time doesn't necessarily mean that other instances that are similar are inherently racist. Sometimes the dice just roll that way, and that's life. The same is true of gender. Again, I don't deny that racism and sexism exist; if the last year has taught us anything (and the last couple of months especially), it is that both are very much alive and well and on the rise, a fact that, for the vast majority of Americans, should be disturbing, but which has not been appropriately addressed by people in the various movements in which such racism or sexism are rearing their ugly heads. But, despite that, what I have said before, and will inevitably repeat somewhat here and in the third episode of the Skiffy and Fanty Show coming this weekend, is that the SF/F community is in need of a massive overhaul, not just in its publishing realms, but in its engagement among fans, producers of SF/F products (writers, editors, and so on), and academics. We've continued to become divisive in nature, and this is a problem that needs to be solved now before more and more people get shoved out of the SF/F mainstream or movements once regarded as legitimate are sunk in a sea of unproductive anger.

Case in point, and an issue I recently discussed with Weirdside in our third episode (albeit not in as much detail as I would have liked), is the recent controversy over Paizo Publishing's Before They Were Giants anthology. Bloggers and critics grew angry over the fact that the anthology contains only one woman and excludes a vast number of excellent big name female writers. The editor, however, came out of the woodworks and explained his editorial process, part of which involved a number of women SF/F writers turning him down for the anthology (many, we're led to assume, rejected the offer for very good reasons); some writers who were mentioned in the comments were actually excluded by the editor not because they were women, but because they had been published in a series of anthologies with the same concept years before, and the editor didn't want to create an anthology of repeats. These are only two of the points that the editor made, but bloggers and critics wouldn't have any of it. Some went so far as to ignore the most important points made by the editor, as if desperate to keep the onslaught going. In all of this, only a few people came out with honest faces, and a number, some particularly prominent members of the critical/academic SF/F community, came out looking like ruthless trolls so sunk into the bitter world they've created for themselves that they can't see what their actions are actually doing: creating more divide and solving nothing whatsoever.

The one thing I have always wondered about these "fail" movements is whether it is possible for the SF/F community to take a step back and perhaps use the community itself as a vehicle to make the changes to publishing and production that need to be made, without all of the vitriol flooding the Internet and poisoning the community. How important is it to people to bring more women into the SF world? Or people of color? Or international authors? To me, they seem monumentally important, so much so that I can take a step back and think about ways to create change without alienating or destroying people. I don't want more female or PoC writers and characters if the exchange is one of the following:
  1. Many good editors, perhaps who make a mistake or have legitimate reasons to have left out some female/PoC writers, lose their jobs and become ostracized by the community that inevitably wants them to change. It seems impossible to change something if you are no longer able to produce for the publishing world. If catching a few bad eggs means potentially throwing out a lot of good ones, then I don't think the trade off is reasonable.
  2. Publishers change, but the change isn't because they actually care or because they get it or because they really feel that people are right. They change because you've screamed loud enough and long enough that they just can't ignore you. My problem with this is that you might get what you want out of it, but the end result is nothing more than a hand-me-down pat on the head, as if to say, "there there, we'll give you want you want, little one." It's more condescending than anything else.
  3. Nothing happens at all on a significant scale. We might get some small publishers who publish more women, but inevitably the divide in the SF/F community created by the bitter and verbally abusive segments of the population will have no real mainstream change. To me, this is the scariest of them all, because the potential for anyone with an even-headed approach will be shoved into the radical group, despite fitting there as much as a rhinoceros fits in at the table with those poker-playing dogs. If you don't think that's possible, then look at the mainstream view of Muslims, who have been unfairly portrayed as extremists who hate their women and so on. Or perhaps the assumption that all feminists (ALL) are bra-burning raging lesbian lunatics. If you've met people from any of these groups, you'd know that the stereotypes are almost always a load of crap. Yet, the stereotypes still exist and continue to do damage to these communities, sometimes because the stereotypes turn out to be true, and sometimes because the public assumes that the stereotype is the end-all-be-all. True, some change gets made, but the change is too slow and at a cost that I don't think we should be paying, especially not in the SF/F community.
As I indicated before, I am curious about how the SF/F community can be used as a vehicle for change. What would happen if we spent more time in open, honest, but friendly discussion about the issues that plague our genres? What if we organized the community and mobilized it for peaceful engagement with the producers of the material we so enjoy? Why aren't we sending more email pointing out that we're concerned and that we would really like to see more women, PoC, and so on? Where are the petitions? It might seem weak to talk to the publishers directly and tell them what we want, and maybe it won't produce real change either, but it's a step in the right direction.

We need an SF/F community that largely doesn't resort to kneejerk reactions and instead engages with publishers and members to figure out what is going on and to bounce ideas off one another to figure out ways to move forward. Punishing the publisher doesn't do anything; in fact, it harms the authors and editors who rely on publishers for their income (a fact pointed out by Scalzi here). But talking to publishers and figuring out how they think would help the community get a grip on the market. Pointing out to publishers that there's something that needs fixing in a way that doesn't belittle or tear down the foundations might very well get them to open their eyes and see what's happening around them. It happens, and maybe if we can get the community to open the dialogue we'll see some real change.

Then again, maybe I'm naive.

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