Monday, December 28, 2009

I Write: Problems With SF

Here's an editorial by Nuno Fonseca, a Portuguese spec fic writer / editor at the WorldSF blog, talking about (I think, anyway, the text is dense - no fault of the writer) representation of minorities (e.g. women, LGBT) in World SF. A relevant tidbit:
Every time I see a flame war, a heated commentary discussion or simple online tantrum about the derision of a specific, be it gender-based, or around the colonialist-nationalistic axis, or about race discrimination, or even senseofwonder uberall-ism and whatnot, I feel happy and sad. Why? Because in most of these cases what we see is a plain bellyful attitude, even though it is a post-inclusive one. Let me explain.

I happen to live in a country where there are no women writing science fiction. Or black people. Or gay, or whatever you may think about as a specific. Oh it’s true there are a few one-off examples, but way too few. It is a country where the few people who do write SF, are inclusive ones, as it is possible in our global information society. The problem is not one of segregation, but a far more problematic one: we have been getting no one to include here. And this, I tell you, is the truly sad thing.

....

... the main problem remains that of the whole genre market itself and its poor expression. In the last couple of years, two main publishing houses (Saída de Emergência and Gailivro) have been betting on genre, with low but steady rising success. But mainly in Fantasy, because Portuguese SF works published in this timeframe just number… two. Though more are planned for the next year, fortunately. The rest of the publishing world just treats genre as non-existing or a fad, with the occasional one-offs.

So, you see, I marvel constantly when I see people passionately flaming editors for not including women in an anthology. Or whatever. And I also feel sad, because this is a “comfortable” discussion. Because people, be they women, black, foreign, gay, etc. do get published a lot in the anglo-speaking SF market. And because I remember that the SF fandom, writers, fans, publishers and editors, throughout the years, have been the most socially inclusive and tolerant and active people in the literary world.
There is a response to this post by Luis Filipe Silva, another Portuguese writer, and is pretty rage-making:
The fundamental question that arises from Nuno’s take is that a (literary) criticism about the state of a World SF done on a full stomach is substantially different from a criticism that has to crawl into the other people’s bins and live on crumbs.

By criticism we refer to the set of international authors complaining that there are not enough women to write SF or enough people of colour or of alternative sexualities - arguments which, I confess, always leave a hint of defending a particular, very personal condition, more than reflecting a generalized condition of the genre as they purport to be. On the other hand, I do not belong to any of these alleged conditions of exclusion nor do I live in a country where conflicts of race are socially dominant, so my opinion may be unfair. But in essence, it’s not as if we were still living in the 1950s, as if we hadn’t already gotten rid of a set of damaging social and cultural prejudices (so much that someone holding prejudices becomes a target for prejudice) – and by ignoring this change, the exclusion argument risks becoming stale and repetitive.

Perhaps in the end the real issue is about wishing a shift on the themes addressed by SF - say, from a technological vision of the future into a mystical vision – that will make SF closer to the cultural heart of the complaining person. It is natural that, as an example, the perspective of the all-American-hero not only has little to say to an Eastern citizen but, to a large extent, will be seen as offensive in a region formerly colonized by the West.

And yet, as well Nuno points out, that complaint is still done on a full stomach, because one of the benefits of colonization has been the legacy of English – as was the Latin here in the Iberian Peninsula (yes, Western Europe was once a colonized place - by the Romans...). It’s a legacy that allows authors to express themselves more easily in the global lingua franca, that helps them read and be read and, of course, engage in a debate with a fair amount of easiness, without the hassle of translation.

Admittedly, those crumbs we receive are full of nutrients - after all, our country has equal access to all works published in the Anglophone world - and, thanks to technology, there is now a true democracy that allows anyone to engage in those global debates.

I have to take umbrage to several things, and they don't just apply to these two fine gentlemen:

1) We don't "flame" editors for not including women and LGBT writers; we criticize them, because surprise surprise, women and LGBT folk happen to be part of the reading audience too! Thus it's generally in an editor's best interests to include stories that are representative of them. I thought we already had this covered when the Mammoth Book of Mind Blowing SF came out. OK, mockery happens, but you know what? If you say something ridiculous and nonsensical that dismisses valid concerns held by your reading audience, you deserve to be mocked.

2) Is it really a lack of writers in these countries? Or a lack of opportunities? In Malaysia, I knew a lot of people my age looking to get published, only to be turned off by the lack of a market, and the idea of sending our stories off to American publications (plus SASEs and stuff) was a turn-off. Also, I get the sense that horror is the leading genre in Malaysia and if there are markets for spec fic voices, I can't see 'em.

3) Well, yes, of course arguing the lack of representation in spec fic is a goddamn personal thing. Fuck the male privilege horse you rode in on, because this isn't an intellectual exercise; issues of representation are serious and personal, because when we read stories, we would like to find some stories that represent us. There are the narrow few perspectives which are overrepresented compared to many other minority perspectives. The fact that you can even pretend that these attitudes don't exist anymore or are so 1950's is a sign of privilege, because even while overt racism is rare, what makes you think you don't subconsciously hold racist attitudes? And did I really see the whole "being called a racist is a horrible thing" malarkey trotted out? 'Cos that's bullshit. Quit it.

4) And don't even talk to me about how these books simply aren't being bought. There are a ton of factors which contribute to this phenomenon: unconscious prejudice against minority writers whether on the publishers' or readers' part, lack of marketing, no one's paying attention, first week's sales aren't representative of how well a story is received, so on, so forth. It's like Hollywood all over again, Warner Brothers saying, "We won't make anymore movies with female leads because they don't sell." Do editors invest in translations if they have no guarantee the book will sell?

5) What is this "shifting SF from a technological vision to a mystical vision" nonsense here? I'm sorry, but last I checked, the image of the East being mystical and magical and mysterious is Orientalist, which incidentally, happens to be a racist stereotype. Maybe I, as an Asian woman, would like to see a technologically-advanced world that includes people like me, and, oh! oh! oh! how about, a narrator or main character just like me too, that would be a nice bonus. Is it so hard to imagine a technologically-advanced society that is culturally Asian? This doesn't have anything to do with shifting the videion, so much as expanding the types of themes, narratives, and stories told by the spec fic genre. (Now, I'm sure people are going to get defensive, but look here: this is an example of internalized racism, wherein we hold to stereotypes unconsciously. This is why we "complain" and "talk about" issues of racism and sexism: because if we don't challenge or deconstruct your own views, what kind of stories are we telling?)

6) I'm not offended by all-(white, straight, male)-American perspectives and main characters. I'm offended by the fact that these perspectives are the dominant voices on the market, and marginalizing others in due process. I'm much more offended by the suggestion that this is okay and doesn't require indepth examination. I am infuriated by know-it-alls who assume that now that the problem is out in the open, it no longer requires discussion. I am appalled by the dismissal of the "exclusion arguments". This is not the first time we have spoken up against being excluded. It will not be the last. And if it gets "stale and repetitive" to you, maybe you should actually pay attention.

7) These benefits of colonization he's talking about.... where to start? Speaking English isn't a benefit, it's a necessity. Are minority writers always read? They may read but they may not get fair opportunity to be read. And if debates were really that easy to engage internationally - no wait, never mind, because they're not, taking into account different cultural environments and contexts, which cause people to talk past each other and not necessarily be on the same page as is going on here in this very post.

And I like the number 8. So I will add an 8th point: the rest of their points ring true - it IS difficult non-English spec fic to flourish outside their linguistic contexts. We do face prejudice on whether our books will be picked up or not. Genrecan be a difficult market, what with varying tastes and diverse opinions on what it really should be like bouncing around. Yes, it can get better, but it can't get better with folks trading on stereotypes and sweeping assumptions like the ones I've pointed out above to make their points. 

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