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].