The Internets are abuzz lately with talk about inclusiveness and diversity in Science Fiction/Fantasy/Speculative Fiction. There’s the whole dustup with SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America) which NKJ touched on in this post. There’s the Hugo nomination list that includes only one female writer and about two or three writers of color. There’s this insane argument pertaining to that. And then there’s the issue of diversity in fiction markets and the slush pile*.
That last issue came up several times in the last few weeks both in public (see Mike Resnick’s comments here) and in private conversation regarding Fantasy magazine. (Yes, again… it never ends.) In both instances, two editors who differ in age, experience, and probably ethnic or religious background said nearly exactly the same thing to me. To wit: ” I didn’t know (or care) if [the people who submitted to my markets] were black, white, purple, or polka-dot” (Resnick) or “I don’t choose stories based on race or culture or gender, I just choose the best stories” (an editor friend).
I really, really hate this excuse – for several reasons. The first of which is that it gives the appearance of being reasonable, thereby shutting down further discussion or debate. In writing, only the story should matter, not the writer! It also assumes that the submission pile represents an adequate and accurate cross-section of writers and stories. Therefore, by picking the best, the editor is automatically being fair.
The appearance of fairness, though, is false. That’s not readily apparent. Thus, anyone who disagrees seems, to the casual listener, unreasonable and strident.
I submit that I am neither unreasonable nor strident (at the moment). I hope that means people will hear me out.
The problem with the argument is several-fold. First, any given slushpile at any given magazine (with few exceptions) is not balanced. There will likely be far more male authors. There will certainly be a high percentage of white authors. Most of these authors will be of the same class, the same or similar cultures, and from the same country. Given that there will be so few stories from women, ethnic minorities, people of different classes, cultures, and countries, and given that very few stories in any given submission pile will be accepted, the chance for diversity is very small.
Why isn’t the slushpile more diverse? There are several factors, some of which have nothing to do with the magazine or editor. Writing requires free time, some measure of economic stability, money, and a supportive environment. There are some writers who, despite all of these drawbacks, were able to make sales and become famous, but they represent a small minority.
Beyond those factors, there is some fault that lies with the markets themselves. How do markets choose to advertise that they’re looking for submissions? In the old days (a whole 7 years ago) most markets listed themselves in the Writer’s Market or the Literary Marketplace and probably called it a day. This pretty much ensured that mostly well-off white men submitted because they had more access to the knowledge that such books existed and the time to pore over it.
Nowadays, there are more options. Most markets in the SF field have a website and their guidelines are listed there. We also have sites that collect market information and keep the list updated with news, warnings, etc. So now the information is more widely available. But, again, this is usually the end of an editor or publisher’s efforts to reach writers.
As I mentioned in this post, not all authors gather in the same places and know about the same stuff. In our genre, many writers and fans of color specifically don’t get involved in the wider fandom because they do not feel welcome there. (And if I hear any crap from assholes out there about how people of color need to get over themselves about this, I will smack you – that’s not a valid argument.) This isn’t as true about female SF writers as it used to be, but the perception of SF as an old boys club hasn’t disappeared completely.
If a market is serious about promoting diversity in the slush pile — and therefore upping the chances of diversity in the magazine — the editor/publisher needs to seek out non-normal venues to alert people about submission guidelines. This doesn’t mean taking out a full page ad in Jet or Ebony, but it does mean doing some investigative work and maybe talking to people who might know about these ‘secret’ enclaves.
Even this is not enough. The next component is the magazine itself. An editor can shout from the rooftops all he or she wants that they would love to see more stories by women, or by minorities, with female and minority characters. However, writers will not believe them if they look at the magazine and see nothing but Blandy McWhitey White in Blandy McNeighborhood in America or Blandy McMedieval Europe or Blandy McDefaulty Man in any setting anywhere.
As a reader, I’m not only looking for authors who are non-white or non-male, I’m also looking for characters who are non-white, non-male, non-American-acting, non-default. Honestly, I think about that more than the author’s background because the story really is the important thing.
At first an editor may not get a lot of this in the fiction that comes over the transom. So turn to the well-known writers who submit to you instead. Encourage them to send you more stories that will help transform the image of a magazine by and for Defaulty McWhite into one that is interested in exploring a wider spectrum of ideas and viewpoints.
In order to attract stories of this type from newer writers, an editor or publisher has to work hard. They have to advertise this fact. There are plenty of submission guidelines that say something like, “We don’t see enough science fiction stories.” How about “We don’t see enough/We would like to see more stories that feature different cultures, female/ethnic minority characters, non-American settings.” In fact, it would work better to be even more explicit and detailed than that.
Another idea NKJ offered was for markets to pick regular themes which touch on different areas that might invite in a more diverse mix of content. For example, a fantasy magazine might ask for works derived from a different culture each month, or based on the folktales of a different nation.
Much of the problem here is perception. If writers don’t perceive that markets are friendly toward them as minorities or toward stories that don’t just feature white males, they won’t bother to send to those markets. They also won’t bother to buy the magazines. If editors and publishers change their attitudes and change their perceptions, writers will take a closer look. The submission pile will, slowly, become more diverse.
There’s still one more step: selecting submissions. I would never suggest to an editor that they should choose a story simply because the author or main character is female or black. However, I would suggest that editors take a harder look at the stories they like from the slush pile. Does the story contain a heavy infusion of Blandy McDefaulty character/setting? How many stories have you accepted lately with these qualities? Have you received any stories that you love that aren’t Blandy? Is it worth it to maybe be really selective about the Blandy stories and try harder to find non-Blandy stories you really love? I’m willing to bet that most editors don’t think about this at all. They just say “Hey, I liked that story!” and move on. How much thought is given to the balance of stories you’re publishing?
If a market just isn’t getting a lot of diverse stories, that’s an acceptable reason. It’s the editor’s job to then do everything she or he can to draw in that diversity and then be very conscious of how well they’re implementing it.
None of this matters if a given editor doesn’t care about diversifying their market. If you just want to continue publishing the same kinds of stories by the same kinds of people because that’s what you want to read and promote, fine. But don’t then tell me you’re “choosing the best stories” because, as you can see, you may not be seeing the ‘best’ all of SF has to offer, you’re only seeing the best of what white men have to offer.
I am well aware that when I post this there is every chance that a horde of editors and people who know editors and people who think they know what they’re talking about will come here and tell me how wrong I am about one or more of the points I raised above. I’m going to head a little of this off at the pass with three points:
1. I was an editor for two small press SF magazines for five years. I read a lot of slush. Though the markets I worked for are not nearly as well known, high paying, or prestigious as the Big Three** or even ‘second tier’*** markets, the ‘zines did publish authors who’d also appeared in those other arenas. The slush piles are not identical, probably, but not so very different.
2. If anyone disagrees that their slush piles or Table of Contents are not diverse, I invite you to post your stats in the comments. The Male/Female author breakdown is easier to tell from names, etc., but I understand that someone’s ethnicity or cultural background is not readily apparent. However, you can take note of where the submissions come from – that’s one data point. And you can also take note of the gender, race, class, and culture of the characters in the story. (Here’s a hint, if the race, class, or culture isn’t explicitly mentioned, you can usually assume white, middle class, American.)
This post will be here for a long time, so if it takes you a while to gather this data, don’t worry. We’ll still be interested in a month or a year or whenever.
However, if you can’t back up your counter-argument with numbers, then don’t bother claiming that you’re absolutely right and I’m absolutely wrong. It doesn’t work that way.
3. Before you start to get upset that I’m calling editors and publishers racist or sexist, please read this post on White Liberal Guilt. The main thrust is that just because I or anyone else points out that a person is being insensitive to these issues doesn’t mean we’re calling you a bad person. Sometimes it takes people from outside pointing out things you can’t see/aren’t aware of in order to bring it to your attention. That’s all I’m doing here, bringing stuff to your attention.
So, to review. To promote diversity in your slushpile and then, by extension, your market, you must:
- Make sure a wide range of people know that your magazine accepts unsolicited submissions by reaching out and posting notifications in venues frequented by non-white and non-male individuals.
- Put your money where your mouth is. Publish more stories by established authors that feature non-default people and non-default settings so that newer authors (and readers) will see your market as open to diverse views and ideas.
- Update submission guidelines to very clear statements of what the market is looking for or lacking.
- Get creative with ways to attract more diverse subjects, settings, characters, and writers.
- In the fiction selection process, think carefully about the stories you choose. Publish stories that reflect a true balance (but don’t lower your standards to do so).
Agree? Disagree? Bring it on.
*Slush Pile – how editors refer to the stack of unsolicited (i.e. non-asked for or non-agented) submissions they get. Going through these stories is sometimes called ‘slushing’.
**Big Three- Asimov’s, F&SF, Analog
***Second Tier – my own term for prestigious, well-paying markets that aren’t the Big Three. This includes Realms of Fantasy, Strange Horizons, Weird Tales, Interzone, etc.