Racism in SF: Two Articles

The first article is a great interview over at WorldSF: Charles Tan interviews the provocative Ashok Banker who had the gall (bless the man) to turn down a NYT interview on matters of principle.  Ashok says a lot of interesting things that need to be said, without pulling any punches whatsoever.  I don’t agree with him on everything but the man’s experience is different from mine, and who am I to deny his experience?  For instance he accuses big publishers in SF of pretty overt racism.  If that’s his experience, that is not to be denied.  I’ve had a pretty mixed experience of bias (mostly of the subtle kind) but I’ve also had the good fortune of coming across fellow writers and editors here in the US who are genuinely interested in listening to what I have to say through my stories.  But I have no doubt that a sort of institutionalized racism does exist here in America and therefore in the SF world, which, without its vocal POC critics, probably wouldn’t spend too much time in self-examination.

The other article I’d like to point to is one by Anil Menon about Simpson’s Paradox in the Slush Pile, as he so elegantly states it.  This is the sort of article I love because it shows us how careful we have to be in a) backing what we have to say with data and b) interpreting it correctly.  I do have a response to it below, which will make sense after you read the article.

One reason I hesitate to make sweeping statements about racism in the genre is because of the paucity of data.  Anil’s article shows that even data is not enough if not interpreted correctly.  But we cannot conclude from it that there is no racism in the genre because (among other things: see below) as far as I know, we don’t have enough data.  I am not aware that sufficient analysis of race has been done in the field (compared to, for instance, gender bias).  Anil’s assuming that people in other countries send their stories only to the top, best known magazines.  But with the internet there are now a slew of smaller markets that anyone with internet access can get to.  So can we say for sure that the assumption is valid?

However there is another way that we know there is racism in the genre (where I define racism to include cultural bias that assumes superiority of Western modes of thinking/doing) — and that is from personal experience.  Here, too, one has to be careful to interpret correctly because an individual may make a racist statement out of ignorance.  But even that points to a subtle or institutional racism, where it is not necessarily the individual but the social belief system that propagates this kind of blindness or ignorance.  I’ve come across racism in this sense multiple times from both white writers and some editors.  I’ve also come across more direct manifestations, unfortunately.  And obviously folks like Ashok Banker have experienced it (although I would like to hear more about exactly what his experience was). 

A related way that racism might enter the picture is when stories that are good stories are rejected because they don’t fit Western preconceived notions of what a good story should be.  Stories that challenge, through subject or structure or both, Western notions of good SF, might fall by the wayside.  I don’t know if this actually happens (I have no data!).  But it sounds plausible in a genre that is still expanding its historically pathetically limited world-view.  And how the so-called third world or non-whites in general are represented in SFF by white writers is another indicator of possible bias.  Much has been said on this already via the RaceFail discussions so I won’t add more. 

It might be instructive to compare the situation with the gender bias question.  Here is an article by Susan Linville in Strange Horizons from 2007 about gender bias possibilities in SF publishing.  Interestingly her analysis is magazine by magazine (so Simpson’s paradox as Anil has stated does not apply).  She finds that overt editorial bias is not the problem with the issue of so few women getting published, because the percentages of women authors are roughly representative of the proportion of women submitting stories (the possible exception is F&SF in 2007).   She identifies the problem as fewer women submitting stories.  There may also be a contribution from the possible factor I suggested in the previous paragraph.  (If you want an example of the sort of attitudes people in the field can have toward certain kinds of women writers, read the comments quoted by Timmi Duchamp from Ken MacLeod — talk about both racist/imperialist and anti-feminist overtones!)   

I would argue that fewer women submitting stories might be because of social factors that have to do with wider gender issues in society at large.  Here also I yearn for data; it seems that the number of women identifying as writers of SF keeps going up by leaps and bounds (I speak only from a personal impression obtained at cons).  Why don’t they submit as much?  What keeps them from it?  I leave the possible answers as an exercise for the reader. 

I’ve also heard pointed out that reviewers tend to review fewer works by women and this is an indication of women’s works not being taken as seriously.  I imagine it should be easy for someone, given sufficient time, to gather data on this.

I bring up the gender issue as an interesting comparison with the race issue.  I feel that both are real issues but to what extent (we need data!) and for what reasons (we need sociologists!) — these are still open questions well worth investigating.

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10 Responses to “Racism in SF: Two Articles”

  1. Niall Says:

    I imagine it should be easy for someone, given sufficient time, to gather data on this.

    Broadsheet did this for Locus in 2000 and 2007. They also worked out the gender (but not race) breakdown of “books received”, which is the other obvious number you need.

    It would be worth doing stats for other sf review venues, I agree. In most cases outside of Locus I think it would be trickier to do it by reviewer, though I agree the information would be valuable — most sf reviewers write for multiple venues, and you’d want to be sure you hadn’t missed any to avoid mixing up publication and reviewer bias.

    • vsinghsblog Says:

      Thanks, Niall. I found the survey most interesting. I wonder if the reviewers mentioned in the survey looked at it.

      All this is reminiscent of the current debate on the Publishers Weekly best books of 2009. Apparently having a uterus is an issue if you want to make it to that list.

      I find it interesting to ponder whether/how these issues of race and gender shed light on each other.

  2. vivek Says:

    ‘A related way that racism might enter the picture is when stories that are good stories are rejected because they don’t fit Western preconceived notions of what a good story should be. ‘

    A doubt crossed my mind, reading this- what if there is some such objectively definable, psychologically testable, model of a ‘good story’ but only those who feel their sub-culture is on the rise, and will inherit the earth, have the confidence to use that ‘strong’ template?
    Members of other sub-cultures may feel too diffident to use the strong template and to write stories which focus on achievement and successful ego-integration.
    As I write this, I recall that there were American Social Psychologists who wrote on issues like this back in the 1960’s- like McLelland with his ‘n achievement’ index.

    However, since India has such large micro-climates where Achievement is possible irrespective of gender or family background, there should be no bar for diverse voices using the ‘strong’ template.

    Yet, I must confess, I would find something aesthetically lacking in these ‘good stories’ in which Devdas marries Paro, they join Dhan Gopal at Berkeley and set up a successful chain of restaurants, before returning to India to drive out the evil Colonists with the help of Captain Nemo (who is actually the former courtesan Chandramukhi)

    A quite separate point has to do with what constitutes the best topos for fantasy literature at any given time. Why at a certain moment, at the end of the 18th Century, should it be an Islamic topos as for example in Beckford’s or Poltocki as well our own Dastan tradition? Why then and not again later?
    Or why should so many people of my generation suddenly find a small town Steven King type topos so captivating? Or how is it that the small town American High School campus has emerged as such a powerful topos? I remember, I first tuned into Buffy the Vampire Slayer to chuckle at its camp effects. Instead I was mesmerized. Dawson’s creek, I’m afraid was too grown-up for me. Still, the question remains in my mind- is there really something special about the American High School which speaks to us at this historical juncture- or was it just one or two exceptional writers creating a trend which attracted other good writers?

    It occurs to me that these questions have been answered in those big books my Marxist friends have on their shelves. But don’t lets tell them shall we? Let this be our little secret.

    • vsinghsblog Says:

      Vivek, thanks for your thoughtful comments. It would be very interesting to see how the notion of a good story changes with moments in history, and with culture and region. Write a post about it!

      • vivek Says:

        This is a link to a brief rant about Tagore vs. Kipling -http://polyglotpub.blogspot.com/2009/11/gora-vs-kim-tagore-vs-kipling.html

        It is interesting that Joyce and Beckett sidestep the whole question of muscular young Ireland confronting the Imperial power by depicting the Irish as caught up in philosophy and poetry and rhetoric- i.e. comic characters who pose no real threat.
        Shaw admits the Irish have military talent but tries to show that Ireland is so divided that John Bull- provided he is naive enough politically and shrewd enough in business- can still rule the roost.

        In other words, writers may want to show that their community is not a threat but rather to be pitied. or at least empathised with. Magic realism may have its inception in an attempt to engage the Metropolitan power’s sympathy with the provincial so that the countryside is not seen as swarming with ant-like Maoist rebels who must be exterminated.

        Still we see a lot of ‘humanist’ (i.e. non Marxist) lit of the 5o’s 6o’s etc follow a sort of ‘arc of achievement’ like a proper Reader’s digest book. However, either the achievement is ironic or else the author deliberately changes the end so as to rattle no cages- in particular the big taboo of inter-racial sex.

  3. Ken MacLeod Says:

    What racist/imperialist overtones are there in what Tim Duchamp quotes from me?

  4. Ken MacLeod Says:

    I meant, of course, Timmi Duchamp!

  5. Kurt Says:

    If we interviewed a variety of authors and scoured their essays and talks from the last 50 years, we could gather a mountain of anecdotal evidence on the influence of personal bias by popular authors–perceived or real–in determining through their celebrity or cronyism who has a better chance of being published (or, if published, has a lesser chance of being adequately marketed)–and how often this was successful, over time.

    We’d also find larger publishers acting conservatively and pushing stories written in forms that they think their largest audiences will buy, regardless of what authors in their stable may thing, and a smaller (usually more interesting) set working to expand smaller markets and transmogrify the mainstream (and often creating the classic novels).

    Large publishers market authors who they think will make them lots of money (or, today, keep the lights on). Making lots of money is a game with conservative rules–very conservative when the taps are dripping and not flowing. It’s very hard to be different during such times. One male-centric way to say it–our balls shrivel as our horizons broaden.

    And not everyone can be an Ashok Banker, building freeway bypasses around those who he feels impede his success as a writer–although in some ways he’s an inspiration, even if you’re a 40somethin’something’ white guy like me. He’s an example of how the softening at the edges of big box publishing (and the growth of personal publishing/media tools and channels) may be helping smaller (and nimbler) publishers and individual authors reach readers directly (there’s a funny and tragic humor piece on the New Yorker site about the modern author’s marketing responsibilities)–if we can cut through the noise. Or, if there’s no time to market ourselves (or we’re too shy, unsure, etc.), then find another adept who can help, whether it’s a more well known author (or other celebrity) or just a damn good geek.

  6. vsinghsblog Says:

    With regard to racism/imperialism in SF and in Ken’s comments, I can do no better than to refer readers to Timmi Duchamp’s excellent and erudite response in the comments section of the blog where she quoted Ken: http://aqueductpress.blogspot.com/2009/10/different-drummers-but-see-sousas-just.html. Scroll down to see her comment. Thanks, Timmi!

  7. shoorrura Says:

    Waow enjoyed reading this post. I submitted your feed to my blogreader.

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