Race Fail II: Measuring the Unmeasurable

18 Aug

One of the fundamental problems facing bureaucrats – among others – is that, as they lose touch with what’s actually important, they find themselves struggling to find newer and better ways to measure things. For example, bureaucrats charged with monitoring education in a given country might decide to judge a school based on how well its children do in a single exam. But this leads to the inevitable end result of teachers deliberately teaching to the test and a slow rise in the number of exams until actual learning is pushed out of the classroom.

The bureaucrats in this example are not openly malicious. But, in reducing thousands of helpless children and hundreds of even more helpless teachers to numbers, they have done vast damage to education. The children are trapped in a school system that is severely dysfunctional, while teachers have no choice but to cooperate on pain of losing their jobs.

When it comes to writing, what’s actually important?

It does not matter if the writer is black or white, male or female, straight or gay; it simply does not matter. All that matters, the only thing that matters, is writing skill. You need to be a good writer. That’s all.

Now, writing is actually a learned skill. To put this in some perspective, I started writing in 2004, had my first rejection in 2005 and kept going until I finally enjoyed some success (through self-publishing) in 2012. I had my first book contracts with small presses within the same year. That’s eight years of rejected manuscripts from various publishers.

And when I look back at my first manuscript, I cringe. I made a whole string of mistakes, any one of which would be more than enough to justify the rejection I received. What was I thinking?

Ok. Why am I saying all this?

Last week, as my regular readers are aware, this article was published. I responded to it on my blog. (As you can tell, I wasn’t impressed.) And quite a few others have also responded, ranging from Larry Correia  and P Clark to NK Jemisin. Jemisin, in particular, attacked the publishing industry in a savage bundle of tweets.

Now, the problem facing the publishing industry is two-fold. First, they have no way of knowing the race of whoever submits a story unless they are told specifically. I have never been asked my race, not once. Second, they have to concentrate on what sells – what makes money – rather than anything else. But leaving all that aside for the moment, Jemisin asserts that she – a well-known (and very good) black author – received a number of hasty requests for short stories in the wake of the fireside report.

I find that quite believable. The cognoscenti who govern much of the publishing industry these days are more sensitive to appearance than reality, to feels rather than cold logic. Their instinctive response, when faced with such an (apparently) damning report, would be to seek cover by virtue-signalling as loudly as possible. Jemisin, quite rightly, scorns this pathetic attempt to take cover. But there seems to be a shortage of other black authors they can look up in a hurry.

Or is there?

The thing about affirmative action (or positive discrimination or whatever else you want to call it) is that it is poisonous. Anyone who benefits from it – or appears to benefit from it – arouses suspicion that they did not truly earn whatever they got, that they did not truly deserve it, that they are profoundly unsuitable for it. These suspicions might be completely misplaced, but they are not easy to dispel. And if something happens to confirm these suspicions, it can be disastrous.

If someone comes to me and says ‘X is a great black writer, my response would be ‘so what?’

Skin colour does not have anything to do with writing skill. What does it matter if X is black or white, male or female, etc, etc?

But if someone comes to me and says ‘X is a great fantasy writer,’ my response would be ‘cool, I’ll look him up!”

Because I read fantasy, among others; I’ve read and enjoyed writers from Rowling to Sanderson, Jemisin to Clarke. I love fantasy books! I’m not saying that I have enjoyed every fantasy book I’ve read – I have a whole list of books I didn’t like – but generally I will try a new fantasy author at least once.

The point here is that people are becoming increasingly suspicious of ‘affirmative action’ policies. If you have to market a writer on the grounds that he or she is non-white, or homosexual, or whatever, it strongly suggests that their submissions were accepted because of those traits. And none of those traits have anything to do with writing skill! Being marketed as a ‘diversity’ writer might easily damage a writer’s career outside the elite literacy circle.

People read to be entertained, not hectored. People are turned off by being scolded, for being told they should like this instead of that – this probably explains why the recent Ghostbusters movie was a flop.

What counts in writing isn’t the colour of your skin, it’s the number of satisfied customers.

I’ve been reading fantasy and science-fiction since I was five (I learned to read early). In all of that time, I have only ever deliberately looked up an author’s appearance once. (I was going to meet him at a convention.) I do not, as I said in the last post, waste my time looking at the author’s photograph before I buy or borrow the book. I read the blurb, decide if I want to read the whole book and then do as I see fit. Is there any reader who does otherwise?

If you are a writer – of any skin colour – prepare yourself for rejection. You will be very lucky if your first completed story – or novel – gets through the first set of gates. Do not give up. Write your next story while waiting to hear back from the first. (That’s what kept me going when I finally got the rejection letter.) Submit that story, get on with the third … and keep going.

Do not fall into the trap of assuming you’ve been rejected because of colour, gender, politics or whatever. The editor doesn’t know you from Adam. Trust me on this – no editor has the time to waste looking you up. If you haven’t told him you’re [whatever] he doesn’t know.

And keep writing. Success comes with hard work.

I wish there was a shortcut, but there isn’t.

Don’t be a [whatever] writer, to borrow Heinlein again; be a writer who happens to be [whatever].


11 Responses to “Race Fail II: Measuring the Unmeasurable”

  1. shrekgrinch August 18, 2016 at 7:14 pm #

    Speaking of bureaucrats:

    Pournelle’s Iron Law of Bureaucracy states that in any bureaucratic organization there will be two kinds of people:

    First, there will be those who are devoted to the goals of the organization. Examples are dedicated classroom teachers in an educational bureaucracy, many of the engineers and launch technicians and scientists at NASA, even some agricultural scientists and advisors in the former Soviet Union collective farming administration.

    Secondly, there will be those dedicated to the organization itself. Examples are many of the administrators in the education system, many professors of education, many teachers union officials, much of the NASA headquarters staff, etc.

    The Iron Law states that in every case the second group will gain and keep control of the organization. It will write the rules, and control promotions within the organization.

  2. BobStewartatHome August 18, 2016 at 7:57 pm #

    Your advice applies to every field of endeavor. The rule of thumb is that it takes about 10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” including actual competition/performance to become truly proficient at anything. There are two books that are fun to read and emphasize this point. One is “Talent is Overrated” by Geoff Colvin and the other is “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. One of the nuggets you’ll discover in these books is that the “deliberate practice” for the Beattles was playing in a brothel in Germany while they were still in their teens, but the audience was critical, and they logged a lot of hours. There are also academic studies that show the same thing for musicians such as concert violinists.

    The current crop of American students, hiding in their “safe spaces”, will not begin accumulating any of these hours until long after they’ve moved out of their parents’ basement. And by then they’ll really be incorrigible.

  3. James Crutchley August 18, 2016 at 8:15 pm #

    Hello. I find your blog post well thought out and correct. I read a book or two a day. I am on disability so i have the time LOL. I have never paid attention to author’s skin color, age, religious views, or anything other than whether i like the story. I can’t imagine a situation where that would affect the authors ability to get published on amazon or by a small or big company. The only time i was ever aware of any details about the authors age or skin color was the one time i went to a Con and met a few authors of books i had read.

  4. Sergiu Moscovici August 18, 2016 at 11:40 pm #

    Completely agree with you.
    Finally a subject that you are familiar with
    and it shows.

  5. PhilippeO August 19, 2016 at 4:48 am #

    ” I do not, as I said in the last post, waste my time looking at the author’s photograph before I buy or borrow the book. I read the blurb, decide if I want to read the whole book and then do as I see fit. Is there any reader who does otherwise? ”

    a LOTs of reader do otherwise. most people here are regular reader who read 4 or more books a month, we read a lots of books, but for irregular reader who read only rarely, many factor influence their decision, book cover, book title, and for some book author.

    JK Rowling feel need to hide her name so boys will want to read Harry Potter books, its only after Harry Potter become popular that her become well known female author.

    in reality, subconscious matter a lot, whether to reader or publisher. Very good book will be accepted, very bad book will be rejected, but a lots of books are mediocre, they might or might not become popular, on such case, subconscious decision matter.

    that why statistics is important. a lot of things could only be seen when seen not in individual scale, but society wide scale. if percentage of minority author / white author differ widely from percentage of minority reader / white reader, then it would means lots of minority author is ignored in obscurity for various reason.

    • BobStewartatHome August 20, 2016 at 5:39 pm #

      “a LOTs of reader do otherwise …”

      Mediocrity is the new norm.

      Those who base their friendships and transactions on race or some other innate criteria unrelated to their purpose are destined to fail.

    • chrishanger August 22, 2016 at 8:24 pm #

      I’m not so sure, to be honest. I read a lot of Dyanne Jones when i was a kid.


  6. merr49 August 19, 2016 at 12:52 pm #

    Relax the report is terrible i don’t know what the actual percentage is but the so called report barley even tries to be accurate.
    Hell they don’t even cover the possibility that two magazines published the same story instead presuming that each story is unique.

    • chrishanger August 22, 2016 at 8:25 pm #

      I wouldn’t expect a cross-publication, to be honest. Reprints would be something different. But yeah, the methodoly was awful.


  7. Big Ben August 19, 2016 at 11:23 pm #

    First of all, I’m glad you persevered. I’m also glad the digital book boom has made self publishing and relatively wide-spread distribution possible. Most of my favorite authors of the last decade haven’t come out of the traditional publishing industry.
    Great writing definitely matters, but a good storytelling matters just as much in my book. I’ve read quite a few self published ebooks with more than a few … grammatical errors, to be kind, but the tales they told were so much fun that I didn’t care. Like a good action movie – if it gets bad reviews from the “professionals” but good reviews from the fans, I’m in.

    The affirmative action, test test test culture in education gets a bit trickier.
    I saw a news report a few days ago about the ever-increasing numbers of female American Olympic athletes and how many of them are winning gold medals. The report attributed this in no small part to the introduction of Title 9 back in the day, giving female athletes (supposedly) the same access to sports scholarships as their male counterparts. I like this in principal – not preferred access or special privilege based on gender or race, just equality. But knowing human nature, if Title 9 hadn’t been enacted to address that area of gender discrimination, would anything have changed?
    Of course, sports and education drive me a little nuts. They’re building a nearly $70,000,000 high school football stadium and events center in McKinney, Texas. This made the national news recently when it went – surprise, surprise – several million over budget. Sure, the voters agreed to this, but seriously, channel your inner Doctor Evil: “Seventy Milllllllllion Dollars!!!” For a public high school sports stadium. Now I’m reading reports where school board officials are saying that since the stadium has gone almost 8 million dollars over budget, they’ll have to cut “from other areas of the budget.” Libraries? Music? Actual education?
    Send all those idiots back to school and test ’em. Bet they fail.

    • BobStewartatHome August 20, 2016 at 4:33 pm #

      “Bet they fail”

      U. S. elementary school teachers were asked to solve the following problem and to provide an explanation that would be helpful to a child:

      “What is 1 3/4 divided by 1/2?”

      Forty percent (40%) were able to provide the right answer, but only 5% were able to provide an explanation that would have been helpful to their students. In contrast, about 90% of Chinese elementary school teachers got the right answer and were able to explain it. Chinese elementary school teachers have far fewer years of training, about 10 in their public school and 3 preparing to teach kids.

      Fail doesn’t begin to describe the problem in the U. S.

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