Minority Report

29 Jun

Concern for the number of minority genre writers being published, or rather, the lack thereof, seems to go in waves. For a while, people worry that not enough minority writers are being published and whether straight white males ought to lay aside the pens to make space for them. Then, the concern dies down with little or nothing practical having been done to encourage more minority writers and the publishing world goes on much as it ever did until the next wave.

Of course, when we talk about minorities, we’re usually talking from an American point of view, where the disproportionate number of white as compared to black or Latino genre writers is more of an issue. From a British point of view, minorities really are minorities and although encouraging more to read and write genre fiction is good, seeing more whites in the field doesn’t smack of injustice in the same manner (instead, issues of regional voices to counteract metropolitan dominance is likely to be more of an issue). If we were to look at the issue globally, then there probably is a dominance of WASP (and particularly American) writers in the English-speaking world, but there are other language markets, some of which English-speaking writers have penetrated in numbers and some they haven’t, and we are seeing more and more translated into English. In terms of sexuality, even when publishers and broadcasters avoided blatantly homosexual characters, genre fiction had always attracted a disproportionate number of LGBT readers and writers, so that inclusivity on their part is far less of an issue than the inclusion of non-whites. As for women, although the same issues apply to them, it seems almost an insult to include them when talking of minorities, given that they aren’t, although we may perhaps think of them as a minority in terms of representation in the field rather than absolute numbers, for the purposes of such discussion.

Now, I think there may be genuine barriers confronting minority writers. For example, science fiction, traditional fantasy and some types of horror (as opposed to, say, urban fantasy and paranormal romance) do tend to be perceived as male arenas, meaning woman won’t be as likely as men to read or write the genre and there may be some resistance from editors and readers to female authors. However, I don’t think that perception is very strong and it’s only likely to be a significant impediment if the woman herself believes it. Then, there is the fact that black people tend to be disadvantaged in education, but the same could be said of the white working class and they are usually lumped in with the rest of the straight white males – nor is it a hurdle that can be directly addressed by publishers or readers in the field of publication, being an educational issue (although they may, of course, involve themselves with initiatives to improve literacy rates)..

The real issues that apply for getting minority writers published fall into the areas of exposure and publication. Many people have little awareness of genre writing and some will not think it is something respectable or that they can do. If someone has little awareness of fantasy or thinks it isn’t for them, they are unlikely to write it. Thus there is valid reasoning behind increasing the number of minority characters in genre fiction and ensuring that plots and settings are attractive to minorities (although such things must be done with care to avoid token characters and making patronising assumptions about groups – a lot of women might enjoy romance, making adding romance to fantasy a good way to attract more female readers, but assuming that all woman only enjoy romance and little more than romance would be an effective way of putting lots of women readers off the genre).

Not that offering up such characters, plots and settings need exclude the traditional straight white male reader. Although some people want to only read the same things rehashed over and over again, most readers enjoy variety and have interests in other viewpoints and cultures. Broadening genres beyond the usual conventions offers more for everyone.

The second element of exposure is actually making people aware of what is available. For major publishers, this isn’t a problem, as they have the budget and personnel to get the message out (unfortunately, they tend to shy away from doing anything new). It’s much harder for small presses as they are generally run on a shoestring by just one or two people, often as a hobby, so are not placed to publicise themselves as widely as they would like. Indeed, the small presses often struggle to publicise themselves to the limited readership of those likely to read their product, let alone try and reach new readers beyond their usual. This is where readers and contributors come in. If you want fresh blood added to genre readership and writers, it is vital that readers and writers themselves play their part in spreading knowledge of the presses (especially where they fall into a minority category).

The other issue is publication. Now, the vast majority of editors welcome anyone who writes the sort of work they publish. Most would be happy evaluating submissions anonymously as the identity of the writer is of no relevance unless specifically-relating to their authority on a topic. Those publications that are restricted as to who may submit are usually aimed either at new writers or minorities, so do not adversely impact minority writers. Of course, there may be some issues of style, but I cannot say I have detected any reliable difference between male and female or black and white writers. There may be stereotypes we tend to associate with certain groups, but like all stereotypes, they are only applicable in the broadest and crudest of ways.

It could be argued that readers tend to associate certain types of writer with certain genres and would avoid reading stories by writers who don’t fit their preconception. That may be true of some readers, but I cannot say I’ve ever encountered any when it comes to speculative fiction. Most readers, like most editors, select fiction they enjoy, rather than judging fiction by the author’s identity. (They may, of course, favour or disfavour individual authors on experience, but that’s nothing to do with this issue.) Outside of some of the big publishers, playing things carefully out of fear of losing revenue, I doubt any editor of speculative fiction would turn down a writer because of their gender, race or sexuality out of fear of losing readers.

No, the real problem when it comes to publishing minorities is getting them to submit in the first place (and, although not an issue I’ve encountered, getting them to submit as frequently as the straight white males). Although I haven’t conducted a proper study, a look over recent issues of Bard showed more male contributors than female (although, of course, I’m going by name – for all I know, they could be pen-names and, in some cases, I’ve assumed a writer to be one gender and then discovered they’re the other, while some I have no idea, not needing to know it). As far as race goes, it is more difficult to tell from names alone, although it is probable I publish more whites than non-whites, and sexuality is something I could only know if they tell me directly or indirectly. However, I cannot publish submissions I don’t receive and I do receive more from men than women. And that is the real hurdle that needs to be overcome – under-represented writers need to submit more work in order to stand a chance of being accepted.

But, even if all the odds were stacked against the minority writer, and I don’t think they are, there is no excuse for them to sit back and bewail their lot. In the past, when publishing a book or magazine was a costly exercise that took up a lot of time and probably also required storage space, minorities had little opportunity to set up magazines or self-publish for the simple fact that they tended to have less money, smaller homes and less free time, as well as often a poorer education and even legal restrictions on them. Today, none of that matters thanks to epublishing and print-on-demand (POD) books. It is easy to create an ezine or anthology aimed at minority readers and writers and if a minority author felt they were being overlooked because of who they were, they can self-publish their work. Of course, there is no guarantee of a readership, but there is no guarantee of a readership for anything that is published and a passionate editor or author can achieve phenomenal success.

All of which essentially brings me to the point that success is largely in the writer’s own hands. Submit your work if you want to be published and keep submitting, as much as you can as often as you can, and if that fails, publish it yourself. If your work is any good, you will find success eventually; it may not always be great success – millionaire authors with huge readerships are few and far between, after all – but it’s success nonetheless.

So, whoever you are, don’t let myths put you off forging ahead as a writer – everyone’s welcome!

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