In which a white, male, heterosexual author continues to indulgently agonise over how best to represent diversity in his (largely unread) work.
It may not be a new topic, but you can’t argue that awareness of diversity in science fiction and fantasy hasn’t snowballed lately. This is due in no small part—and here’s one of life’s delicious ironies—to the actions of the sub-gamergate ‘sad/rabid puppy’ movement who, in classic, backward-looking, reactionary fashion, have been fighting for several years against the increasing acceptance and recognition of diversity in SFF (“But, no! Actually it’s about ethics in awards ceremonies!”).
The puppies’ efforts to disrupt this year’s Hugo Awards have produced miles and miles of commentary, some of which has even come from beyond the traditional sff press and blogosphere. Much of this has served to highlight two seemingly contradictory facts: (a) there are a lot of non-white, non-heterosexual, non-male authors out there producing fine work; and (b) those authors aren’t getting anything close the representation they should be.
It was a tweet illustrating the second point that caught my attention a few nights ago:
— Liam Meilleur (@RainyDayEden) August 26, 2015
Although this statistic isn’t very surprising, I did have some issues with the methodology. Some of the thoughts that flicked through my mind included:
- How many of these stories acknowledged, included or mentioned relationships of any kind?
- Isn’t not mentioning gay relationships in a story a very different thing to trying to pretend that they don’t exist?
- How many stories acknowledged pineapples? If none did, are we to assume that the sff community is militantly opposed to pineapples?
I drafted about a dozen responses, but I couldn’t find any way of getting into the discussion without making myself sound like a rabid puppy (certainly not in 140 characters or less). In the end I decided to leave it well alone. There are enough people out there saying arseholish, contrary things without me trying to get in on that action.
But, as I invariably do, I kept pondering this. Before long I began to realise that I was probably thinking about it the wrong way (except, perhaps, when it comes to the pineapple thing). To flip Mary Robinette Kowal’s initiating tweet around, the best response to “Why should [thing happen]?” is not to anticipate half a dozen counter-arguments, but to simply ask: “Why shouldn’t [thing happen]?”
“We should have more queer relationships in the stories we write.”
“But why do you need to shoehorn gay relationships into your stories?”
“Why shouldn’t we shoehorn queer relationships into our stories?”
As a writer I can choose what sort of world I want to represent in my stories. I have absolute control over where my characters live, what they do, and who they do it with. As a person, I hardly have any control over the real word (which is probably a good thing, unless you all really, really like pineapples). As a person I want to live in a world where queer relationships are considered as normal by everyone else as they are by me. I have limited ability to make that happen. However, as a writer I can make one small push towards promoting (yes: promoting) that normality by representing it in my stories. Even if my story is not overtly about a relationship, I can still have it take place in an environment where the existence of all manner of relationships is, at the very least, acknowledged.
Sometimes it’s just not enough simply to accept things. I can sit back on my sofa each night, comfortable in the knowledge that I’ll accept people from all walks of life, just so long as they’re not arseholes. For the record: arseholes, who expend their efforts trying to fling shit at other people simply for existing, warrant neither my tolerance nor my acceptance (“But why won’t you tolerate my intolerance, you bigot!”).
Unfortunately, me sitting on my sofa being smug about myself doesn’t really help anyone else. I don’t even have that many good ideas about how to help other people (unless you’re a pineapple, in which case leave me a note in the comments). Although passively accepting diversity is still better than actively opposing it, the harsh truth is that being passively supportive about something has the exactly the same material impact as demonstrating absolutely no support whatsoever for that thing. In other words: if I happen not to mention queer relationships in a story I write, it’s not really any different to me utterly denying that they exist at all. I may as well be participating in the whitewash.
I won’t say that, as writers, we have an obligation to represent diversity in our work: I very much believe that the story comes first, that every word we write should, first and foremost, be in service to the story. Our obligation is to tell good stories that will, in whatever small way, enrich other people’s’ lives. But it must be said that diversity exists in our world—the same diversity that gives us such a rich canvas to paint up and draw from—and we fail as writers if we fail to reflect the world around us (because what else is art, otherwise?)
Equally, as writers we have an opportunity. We have a rare chance to represent worlds that inspire us, or to interrogate domains that challenge or confront us. And, more than anything, we have the privilege of other people reading about those worlds. So why wouldn’t we seize that opportunity?
Or, perhaps I should ask:, why shouldn’t we?