Recently, folks inside of a writers’ organization I’m part of have been discussing whether or not we should have a diversity initiative. Now, I need to be clear that the organization in question has never discriminated on the basis of race, gender, national origin, sexual orientation, religion, or anything other than whether or not a potential member is a professional science fiction or fantasy writer, and so the conversation is not whether or not diversity is a good or a bad thing, but rather is focused on whether or not it’s necessary to specifically reach out to members of underrepresented groups, especially when doing so could be seen as marginalizing those who don’t fit neatly into the groups we identify as underrepresented. The feelings I’ve been expressing there I think deserve to be summed up publicly, because diversity matters.
I know I’m treading a fine line with my rule about not mixing politics into my writing blog, but ultimately for me this does come down to business. But to get there, I need to start at the beginning.
First of all, why are certain groups underrepresented in the first place? After all, we live in a free country where anyone can write, and anyone can buy a book. This isn’t Soviet Russia where state permission is required to publish, and anything that the Party doesn’t agree with doesn’t get out there. So it’s very easy to dismiss a diversity initiative by saying that the only thing a member of an underrepresented group needs to do to succeed is to write a good book. “It’s all about the quality” is usually the mantra.
This argument should be able to be disregarded on its surface, because every writer believes that there are lots of good books that due to accidents of timing, marketing failures, etc., don’t get the traction they deserve. And it can also be disregarded because if you ask just about any reader about the current crop of bestsellers, it won’t take long before they declare one of them “crap.” So, great books fail and crap sells millions of copies. Obviously, it’s not all about the quality.
But let’s dig deeper. What is “crap”?
We can attempt to rattle off objective criteria. We can try to make rules for “good” writing versus “bad” writing. We can wax poetic about that je ne sais quois that the true masters have. But, in reality, for each of us as individuals, Good = “what I like” and Crap = “what I do not like.”
But surely that’s oversimplified, you say. After all, isn’t there general agreement that certain books are masterpieces and certain others aren’t worth the paper they’re no longer printed on?
But let me ask you this: Who decided which books go on which list? The answer is academics and critics. Now let’s look at the history of both fields. Until very recently, who were the academics and critics with only a few — extremely noteworthy — exceptions?
The answer is straight, white, middle- or upper-class men.
For centuries, people from one specific demographic have been dictating to all of us what we should consider to be “great” writing and what we should dismiss. Most of us like stories that appeal to us, and must of us don’t define something we don’t like as great writing. And, hence, the only way a writer from an underrepresented group could make the “great” list was by embracing this straight, white, upper-class male rhetoric (or, at the very least, making sure the writing remained palatable to this demographic while carefully wording itself so as to remain accessible to straight, white, upper-class men).
Like the proverbial snowball rolling down the hill, the dominance of one demographic’s rhetoric perpetuated itself year after year.
And this is not historical. Check out Ursula K. Le Guin at the National Book Awards this week talking about how people who wrote realistic fiction have been given preference over those who write speculative fiction just in her lifetime:
(Very provocative speech on a lot of fronts, many of which are off-topic for this post.)
Certain individuals decide what is “good” and what is “crap,” and those of us who like the “crap,” like Le Guin, find ourselves railing against the machine. As science fiction readers and writers, we’ve been on the receiving end of being dismissed as crap. We know what it feels like.
Now, remember that this happens to women, too, despite the fact that they’re actually a majority of readers. We dismiss books written by and for a female audience as “chick lit.”
And it happens for racial minorities. It happens for QUILTBAG fiction (where gay fiction is thought of as exclusively existing as porn for straight women, which makes it doubly de-valued). We are marginalized every day by the straight, white, male definition of what is “good” writing.
And this is not even addressing the structural barriers that prevent a member of an underrepresented group from being able to take up writing in the first place.
So, if we let go of the notion that “Not my cup of tea” = “crap” and we accept that there are lots of different audiences out there for lots of different types of writing, we’ve made an important first step. And we must then acknowledge that because straight, white, upper-class, male rhetoric has dominated for so long, these other rhetorics that aren’t the straight, white, male, upper-class cup of tea have greater barriers to getting published, getting marketed, and generally finding their audience.
And the end result of this is that if you’re not someone who likes that straight, white, male upper-class rhetoric, you feel like there’s nothing being published that’s any good at all. How many people do you see on facebook every day who, if you asked them, would tell you they don’t read? If they’re on facebook, they’re reading every day. They’re just not reading books. Ask them why not, and odds are they’ll tell you that books are boring, books are crap. In other words, the dominant rhetoric isn’t working for them.
Now, let’s imagine that we can convert those people who read facebook every day to people who read science fiction and fantasy. Think of the untapped market. But how do we do that?
We do that by putting books that they would like in front of them.
And, in a great many cases, the books these people would like are books that come from different demographics than the dominant rhetoric. So if you’ve got a working-class kid whose friends are all different races and religions and genders and sexual orientations, that kid probably wants a book that reflects their reality. Sticking a book by a working-class black woman in that kid’s hand has a far, far greater chance of exciting the kid about reading than any amount of proselytizing about the virtues of Heinlein (or Stephen Crane) would.
And once you get that kid reading, realizing that there’s “good” (by that kid’s definition) stuff out there, you’ve created a reader. And that reader is a market who can be tapped by all writers, including the straight, white, upper-class ones.
And that’s why diversity matters. It raises the tide for all ships. Diversity is good business.