Some ways I am racist

Not racist but

I have my first contracted copy-edits, and with them indisputable proof that I am, in fact, a horrible person.

Whilst most errors are of the repetition variety – a pain to fix but mostly harmless – there have been highlighted a number of more serious faults of taste and discretion.

Let me share some of them with you:

  • Describing a black female character as a janitor

I was unaware that the role of janitor was considered especially lowly, and the sort of role that might be viewed as uber-menial: in other words, a typically ‘black’ job. By giving someone that title, and by making her black, I was unwittingly playing into stereotype. In my mind it was a jokey act of self-deprecation that had become a badge of honour. That’s not necessarily how it came across.

  • Introducing a white man and a black man, describing one by his job and the other by his race.

Yeah, this is bad. These are two fairly minor characters and I wanted to give my cast diversity. But by treating them differently I was creating an atmosphere where personality matters less than the colour of the skin. I don’t have a good excuse for this, unless ignorance and stupidity can be accepted as mitigating factors.

  • A chain round the black man’s neck

…and just to ram it home, here’s a little nod to slavery slipped in sotto voce. I thought I was just giving this chap a little individuality, but a black man wearing a chain around his neck? This is the sort of thing that, apparently, gets noticed.

  • Describing a Latin American character as ‘having a little rodent in his ancestry.’

You might think this is bad enough as it is. Given the current political climate this looks a whole lot worse. First Katie Hopkins calls migrants ‘cockroaches’, then – and more pertinently – Trump describes illegal immigrants (notably Spanish-speaking people) as animals. I thought I was making a nice, concise allusion to a character’s untrustworthiness. Instead it seems I am allying myself with people I detest.

  • Having a command structure where all the leaders are white

This wasn’t even a decision. It just happened. And that’s much worse than making a conscious choice because I can’t justify it: excuse me, sir, but your subconscious biases are showing.

Now I could go on at length to try and explain myself, but basically what I’m left with is this: I didn’t know what I was doing. It took a professional copy-editor to point out these errors. And whilst I feel crushed by the realisation that I’m not the careful, concerned liberal I try to be (have you read any of my recent posts? I’m now virtue-signalling at an expert level), I now have the chance to make things right. I am a very lucky boy.

What’s really struck me, though, is how easy it is to go astray. I wrote this novel, through all the drafts, thinking with smug satisfaction that I was doing the right thing. That I had diversity, that I wasn’t being a horrible thoughtless person. But what to me is a simple nickname, or character note, or description, is to someone else a red flag.

I don’t know who the copy-editor who spotted my sins is. I do know they’re American, and in this case that’s proved critical (such a small thing, isn’t it?). This is why getting diverse feedback matters. This novel has been read by around a dozen betas (for the record: all white, save one British Indian), has been assessed by an agent, and none of them saw anything wrong with the manuscript.

I’m not necessarily saying that a specialist diversity reader is essential for all books. I am saying that having a diverse assemblage of readers pre-release can help you kill this sort of mistake before the pitchfork-shaking mob arrives to serve a judgement of fire.

I am humbled. I have seen through a mirror, darkly, and am not the man I thought I was.

So all praise to the editors. They’re not just there to point out your dodgy spellnig.

Inappropriate

Shannon Wright.jpeg

Art by Shannon Wright

I have noticed something. Although I’m not too bad about reading female-authored work (around a third of my reading is by women, which isn’t terrible but it should really be half), I am not great at reading books by non-Western people. I know little of Indian literature, of Chinese, South East Asian, of Japanese writing. South America is a total blank and Africa also is hideously unrepresented.

This matters for several reasons. It matters because I’m not getting the full range of human experience; it’s limiting me as a person. It matters because I’m missing out on some great stories. It matters because I’m missing some great ideas for the stealing.

If you’re only reading books by white heterosexual middle-class males then your well will only be drawn by their experiences. You will have only the white-vs-black simplicity of Tolkien. Any attempt to fantasise will have a fundamentally familiar feel, no matter how creative you are within that area. The ‘others’ – be they peoples, races, species or artificial intelligences – are simply ‘us’ through a lens.

And that’s fine. It’s great, in fact. You can write wonderful novels with that base. But by denying yourself the knowledge of all human experience that’s all you have. You could do so much more; aliens who really feel alien; elves that are strange and terrifying, not merely slightly effeminate humans.

When the original Star Trek was made, Russian was foreign enough to stand for a whole alien species. Now we have to look a little further. Would it not be interesting to model an alien race on the beliefs and practices of native Australians or Amazonian tribes? Why not look into counterculture communities to help escape from capitalist orthodoxy and give your creations a totally different feel?

‘But wait,’ I hear you cry, ‘aren’t you just advocating cultural appropriation?’ To which I reply by shifting awkwardly in my seat and mumbling incomprehensibly, before gesturing vaguely in the direction of Joanne Harris, who considered the subject thusly:

1. A growing number of young authors are torn between the desire to write diverse characters and the fear of seeming to appropriate the experience of others. I think it’s possible to do one without the other.

2. Basically, the difference between representation and appropriation is this. In the first case, the author portrays another’s experience with informed respect. In the other, the author re-invents it in their own image, with no attempt at accuracy.

3. And although yes, authors are (quite rightly) free to write on any subject in any way they choose, anything that belittles, or falsely claims knowledge or experience of other cultures is disrespectful of the readership.

4. It’s important, when writing about experiences different to our own, to listen to people who have had those experiences. That means reading their books, too, where possible, and where necessary, hiring them as beta readers.

5. Some authors find they just can’t write diverse characters. This may be due to a lack of research, skill or sensitivity. Either way, if this is the case, they should avoid trying to do so.

6. If an editor comments on an area of perceived cultural insensitivity in your novel, they are not trying to “censor” you. They are trying to safeguard your book, and to stop you making an ass of yourself.

7. You may not always get diversity right. That doesn’t mean you should stop trying to write diverse characters. It just means you need to work harder, listen more carefully, and ask for help when you need it.

8. The further away a person’s experience is from yours, the harder it will be to depict it. Know when to draw the line. Everyone has limits.

9. If you find yourself arguing with people about your depiction of their culture or experience, or trying to tell them that you know better than they do, consider stepping away.

10. If, even after research and consultation and meaning well and working your socks off, you realize you’ve got it wrong, just say so. No-one should be above doing that.

It’s a tricky subject, and is often misrepresented, I think, by people who haven’t quite realized that they’re doing it.

#TenThingsAboutAppropriation
@Joannechocolat, used with permission

If you still doubt, read Terry Pratchett’s Thud. What are the dwarfs and trolls but a stand-in for the two main branches of Islam?*

An excellent way to consider a culture is through its myths, its origin tales, its folk stories. You’ll all be fairly familiar with the Viking gods and the Classical religions of Greece and Rome are scattered throughout our modern writings. But what of Vietnamese, Guinean, Polynesian legends? What am I missing?

Tracking down and researching folk legends is hard work, so, whilst I won’t kick them out of bed for snoring, I’m going to put them onto one side for the time being and focus on simply diversifying my reading. I’m missing out on so much.

Recommendations gratefully received. I’ll be a better writer as a result.

 

*Or possibly two other religions. It’s been a while since I read it, I confess, but Islam’s the one that’s always stuck with me

The trouble with women

2hrs 37mins. That’s how long it took for a woman to speak in my latest audiobook. A tenth of the whole story without a female speaking part. More than that: only one other woman was mentioned in the first three hours, and she a nameless ‘wife’.

This post isn’t about this book in particular; it’s as much about the way this struck me as strange. See, I’ve read other books with heavy gender imbalances. Catch-22 has very few female characters. Jane Fletcher’s ‘Caelano Chronicles’ are entirely man-free and I love them. Hell, even Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – one of my all time favourite books – has only one prominent female character and the supporting cast is resolutely masculine. So why did I particularly notice this one book above all the others? Why has it prompted me to write about it?

I’ve touched on politics in writing before. Elsewhere there’s been great reams of metaphorical ink spilled on the lack of people of colour and women in fiction. Maybe the difference is simply my awareness: exposure to issues raised by others has sharpened my awareness of the imbalance.

The thing is this: it is perfectly justifiable to write a novel without (many) women or men or small furry animals from Alpha Centuri. Certainly this particular book is set in a very male-orientated world and the absence of women is not irrational. I believe that people should be able to write what they want; I don’t believe in quotas or that people should be forced to write in a spot of diversity just because it’s the prevailing culture. My wife – who is a woman – defended the novel when I said how strange I found it. Why shouldn’t an author be able to present a masculine culture from a masculine point of view?

If you’re a man, in general, it’s harder to write female characters than male ones. Fact.’ This is from Joe Abercrombie’s blog, the author of the book in question. Now before you go and make your snap judgments based on that I should say that the quote was posted in 2010 and the blog has a coda in which he says that he now winces at some of the things he said. So don’t rush out to hang him.

I enjoy writing female characters. I can’t honestly say that I write women as well as I write men (or small furry animals from Alpha Centuri) because I don’t know, but no-one has said that I don’t do it with at least equal incompetence. Is it fear that stops us from being diverse? The fear of doing it badly?

That doesn’t stop me finding a lack of diversity a little odd. I’m used to fiction containing many different notes, perspectives and tastes. Maybe the strangeness I feel is more of a reflection of my own experiences and the fact that – as I first began this post – the story seemed a little one-note and needed more colour. Since then the novel’s been growing on me as the characters have developed.

It’s an author’s right to describe a civilisation in which I don’t feel comfortable. It’s an author’s right to add or omit elements that strike me as uncomfortable or unreal. But it’s the reader’s right to find it all a little strange. Ultimately it’s their right to put the novel to one side and never pick it up again.

The title of this blog, incidentally, is stolen from Jacky Fleming’s book, which is excellent.

Joyous Puppies

I’m fed up with the Hugos. Not the awards themselves, but in the stupid, pointless and vitriolic campaigns by the Puppies – both Sad and Rabid – to swing the vote in a way that in no way serves to promote the work of themselves and their bestest buds.

I suppose I should bung up some links to get you who haven’t been following up to speed: just one second…

Here’s a good overview
And another
Some analysis of their motives
…and what I’ve said previously about writing and politics.

Right. That’s that out of the way. Now here’s my perspective.

I am a man. I’m white. I’m middle class (by upbringing if not by dirty dirty moolah). I’m heterosexual.

I also love reading books by people who aren’t like me.

I love books with black, white, gay, lesbian, intersex, disabled protagonists. I like to read thought-pieces on politics and society, whether left-wing or right-wing – if they’re well-written I’ll read them. Some I might disagree with. Some might make me feel uncomfortable. Some may challenge my preconceptions or just make me massively angry. But how are we to learn if we don’t empathise, don’t explore the lives of others? How are we to grow, to make ourselves stronger if we limit our intake to that which we already know?

There is a place for the kind of fun novels that the Puppies promote. Although I detest the political agenda that seems to dominate their thinking (and what is it but the last fearful grab for power that’s been theirs solely by accident of birth, and now they feel slipping away?) I don’t have a problem with the writing in itself. Unless it’s bad.

But I am fed up with this non-controversy. I am fed up with science-fiction/fantasy being tarred with this pathetic mudslinging. I am fed up of talking about it.

So I am hereby launching my own group. Let us be known as the Joyous Puppies. A group that delights in diversity, who feels that there is room for all members of the writing community to be who the hell they want, to write what the hell they want for the sake of producing great stories.

Happy puppy

A joyous puppy. Because it’s all we need

The SFF world has never been in ruder health. Hell, all of writing is in a golden age. Never has there been more diversity; never have I seen more people reading, talking about, loving books. Finally, after years of being a slightly embarrassing secret, readers and writers from all walks of life are stepping out into the sunlight, stretching, and taking a good long look around them.

Let us celebrate all voices. Let us promote authors who don’t have the fortune that we’ve had. Let us read widely; let us learn and be challenged – hell, let us argue passionately about the merits of particular writers on the basis of the work they produce, not what they look like or where they come from.

Let us celebrate a community where there are no hard and fast rules about what we can write or who can join. Let us be open to all.

Let us dance and sings and get drunk and pass out in the dewy grass and wake with blinding hangovers in the blazing sun of an alien world.

Let us reclaim the SFF world for great books and let’s celebrate those books.

Joyous Puppies – saddle up and ride out!