Race Fail III: Quality and Incomprehensibility?

22 Aug


One of the comments made about the recent Fireside Report – and its ultimately flawed methodology – is a suggestion that Science-Fiction written by non-whites (I have a peculiar loathing of the term ‘People of Colour’) is harder for whites to understand. Such works are written from a very different cultural background and can be quite different from more mainstream pieces of work. Accordingly, editors – who are overwhelmingly white (and politically liberal) reject these pieces of work.

Is this actually true?

I agonised backwards and forwards over this question for hours before deciding that the answer was ‘maybe.’

Some time ago, I read The Satanic Verses. I found it to be a rather tedious read. Indeed, I suspect that it would have vanished without trace, if Khomeini had kept his mouth shut. I certainly have no great inclination to read it again.

Now, the reason I mention that particular book is that I was told, some time afterwards, that it was written in a distinctly Iranian style. Indeed, that in many ways the book was a masterpiece. I have no idea if that was actually true or not, but I didn’t think much of the book when I read it – I considered it to be grossly overrated. But yes, it’s possible that I don’t have the cultural background to meet the book on its own terms.

But really, one doesn’t need to look for a non-white author to run into cultural incomprehension. Many of Jane Austin’s novels suffer badly from ‘Values Dissonance,’ simply because the cultural background of the novels is very different to modern-day British society. Even Sherlock Holmes can run into problems because readers are often unfamiliar with the ins and outs of Victorian/Edwardian society. Unlike more modern books, these books are written by people who assumed – correctly – that their first readers would understand the background and wouldn’t need detailed explanations of why Lydia marrying Wickham – who was in his late 20s to her 15 – was so important (instead of having him arrested for statutory rape).

There are plenty of more modern books – Jonathon Strange and Mr. Norrell, for example – where the author does an excellent job of explaining society while at the same time telling an entertaining story.

Is this true of non-white writing?

I don’t know.

Certain non-white writers – NK Jemisin in particular – are very good at explaining their world to us in the course of their story. Both The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and The Killing Moon establish two very interesting worlds – The Killing Moon showcases a very different society and renders it comprehensible. (This book deserves extra credit for not only devising the society, but explaining why other societies regard it with genuine and understandable horror.) Other books – science-fiction, fantasy, thrillers – may be written by non-white writers, but writers who are culturally identical to their white counterparts. It is simply impossible to tell the skin colour of the authors by reading them – and really, why would you want to try?

In fact, the suggestion that black works are somehow incomprehensible to white readers carries a very odd set of implications.

Publishers – smart publishers, at least – need to publish books that sell. It’s every publisher’s dream to get his hands on the next JK Rowling. If there are books that are incomprehensible to the vast majority of the reading public, why would publishers publish them? Why indeed?

Now, I suspect that someone will put forward an argument that boils down to ‘if you build it, they will come.’ Publishing books written by non-white authors may turn off white readers, but it will attract new black readers. Is that actually true?

I suspect the answer to that question is no. The problem facing publishers – and comic writers, movie producers, etc – is that the people who make a fuss about including diversity are not the ones buying their product. People buying books don’t buy them because they give a damn about identity politics, they buy them to be entertained. White readers may be put off because of an invasion of Social Justice Bullies; black readers may be put off by characters that are effectively pandering or stereotypes (or grossly unrealistic) rather than actual rounded characters.

The blunt truth about publishing (as I have noted before) is that publishers get far more submissions than they can possibly handle. It isn’t uncommon to have your work rejected after you failed to hold the slush reader’s attention for more than five minutes. Things that prove you’re a sloppy writer – not following submission guidelines, for example – can get you rejected without ever having your work read. It is highly unlikely that the editor will pay enough attention to you to determine your skin colour, if you’ve bothered to include it in the cover letter. Black or white or whatever, if your work doesn’t meet the minimum standards, it’s going to be rejected.

But if you get through this barrier, you generally get to work with an editor.

Editors are wonderful people – behind every successful author stands an editor. Imagine them as the typical Drill Instructor from Camp Pendleton. They’re not out to be liked, they’re out to shape up your work so it succeeds in the open market. The editor will say things like ‘your plot hinges on Abdullah not being able to inherit his mother’s wealth without a wife – why is this so? You haven’t explained it.’ And you will realise that it is a great deal easier to correct these problems before the book hits the presses and people start asking these questions in reviews. A good editor can turn a promising manuscript into a great one.

(To put this in some context, each of the Schooled in Magic books has had two editors poking and prodding at it.)

And so, if there are cultural references in your books that are incomprehensible to your audience, an editor should be able to point them out and show you how to improve them.

But there is a seductive way to cope with the problem, in the short-term, that leads to long-term disaster. Insist on publishing writers because of their skin colour rather than their talent! Insist on staffing your publishing division with men and women who have nothing in common with your audience! (Although a cynic would probably say this was already true.) And accuse anyone who doesn’t like your work of sexism, racism or simply being unwilling to meet your book on its own terms.

And while this may get you somewhere in the short term, in the long term it will merely discredit publishing still further.

The problem with many of the proposed solutions (to a problem that may not actually exist) is that they are fundamentally misplaced. They represent earnest solutions that are, at best, purely cosmetic. It is more important, for example, to have a black editor or a female publisher than to actually put competence ahead of ability. They prefer to parcel out the deck chairs on the Titanic than patch up the hole before the ship sinks.

The market always wins. Always. And if what you’re producing isn’t selling, you have a problem. Not your readers. You.

22 Responses to “Race Fail III: Quality and Incomprehensibility?”

  1. Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard August 22, 2016 at 3:47 pm #

    I agree that “cultural incomprehension” can exist but a black middle-class writer’s “cultural background” likely isn’t that different than that of a white middle-class writer living in the same country as the black writer.

    Sure there will be “differences” but then there will be differences between two white middle-class writers. 😉

  2. Issac August 22, 2016 at 4:25 pm #

    Personally I have noticed that a lot of modern books go out of their way to make minorities look better, then there are books that I simply put down because of racial overtones… mainly when it has nothing to do with main plot. Now am not sure if this is a publisher’s or author’s idea. On adifferent note… Do you know when the could you place in your website when the next audio version of SIM will be out… I have some audible credits and other books am interested in, and having an idea of when the release dates will allow me better reading management(so many book, so little time)… Keep up the great work… and writte faster…

    • chrishanger August 22, 2016 at 8:30 pm #

      I think it should be out in the next three weeks, but I don’t control the dates.


      • Issac August 23, 2016 at 2:24 am #

        Thanks… sorry about grammar, cheching that I don’t miss my train stop is not conductive to posting… 😕

  3. Bret Wallach August 22, 2016 at 4:46 pm #

    Chrishanger wrote: “People buying books … buy them to be entertained.”


    Unfortunately, given about 1 million books are published per year on Amazon alone, those of us looking to be entertained, look for shortcuts that filter the choices down a bit and those might well discriminate. Indeed, by definition they discriminate – that’s what a filter does.

    For example, I no longer buy books by female authors. Not that I’ve hated every book by female authors (Rowling’s not too bad for example), but I’ve noticed, on average, that I’m simply more entertained by male authors. And since I’m trying to maximize entertainment per unit effort, that simply makes sense for me. For some reason, also unfathomable to me, I tend to like male authors will female lead characters (for example, Schooled in Magic), so I even whittle it down to that type of book for the most part.

    I’ve never checked out the race of authors (it’s not readily available), but if I noticed that I preferred certain races of authors, on average, over others, I’d quickly eliminate reading authors of those races who, on average, I didn’t like as much. I wouldn’t care why and I wouldn’t care that I was racist. I’d just be betting on averages. Once again, my goal and my only goal is to be maximally entertained for minimal effort.

    Obviously, my attitude is exactly what many SJWs worry about.


    Chrishanger wrote: “…behind every successful author stands an editor”

    Well, probably not behind every author. For example, Jonathan Moeller has sold more than 300,000 books and doesn’t use an editor or even beta readers at this point. While maybe not at your level of success, that sounds at least somewhat successful to me and I suspect at least some authors would be happy with that level of success.

    • robert godfrey August 22, 2016 at 7:31 pm #

      If the market always wins, when can we expect slavery, after all it is the perfect expression of capitalism. (And indeed was on the Libertarian party platform as recently as the 1980s)

      • Bret Wallach August 22, 2016 at 7:39 pm #

        There are indeed between 10 and 30 million slaves in the world (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavery#Contemporary_slavery). I’m not sure how that relates to authors though.

      • shrekgrinch August 23, 2016 at 12:42 am #

        As slavery is totally antithetical to Libertarianism, I can see that you are just posting more of your BS, Robert. That was low, even for you.

      • Bret Wallach August 23, 2016 at 1:26 am #

        Enslaving by force is totally antithetical to Libertarianism.

        The allowability of selling yourself into slavery, say to produce substantial capital for a child or spouse or community, has been debated by libertarians and I don’t think it’s been unanimously settled.

      • shrekgrinch August 23, 2016 at 7:14 pm #

        “The allowability of selling yourself into slavery, say to produce substantial capital for a child or spouse or community, has been debated by libertarians and I don’t think it’s been unanimously settled.”

        The very term ‘slavery’ requires that no free will is present in order to exist in such a state. So ‘selling yourself into slavery’ is a contradictory term.

      • Bret Wallach August 23, 2016 at 7:42 pm #

        At the instant of selling yourself you clearly still have free will. Indeed, what you are selling is that free will going forward.

      • shrekgrinch August 23, 2016 at 7:43 pm #

        No different than entering any other contractual agreement. That’s what makes the reference ludicrous.

    • GX August 22, 2016 at 7:33 pm #

      That was an interesting post.

      I like to read science-fiction, fantasy or urban fantasy books and when I buy a book from these genres, than I expect to get exactly that. But in my experience male and female authors have a different understanding what is important for such a story.

      A male author will have a main plot about the science-fiction or fantasy part and a subplot of romance (a good romance can make a good book even better), but the female author concentrates too often on the romance/love part.

      I would even go so far to say that some female authors write a romance story and “disguise” it as a science-fiction or fantasy book. I am not saying every female author does this, but I have enough bad experiences that I am very careful to buy a book when the author is female.

      Surprisingly, I also tend to like male authors with female lead characters. I am not exactly sure why this is so, but my best guess is I have read to much books with a male mc in my past and enjoy now the female perspective.

      • Bret Wallach August 22, 2016 at 7:58 pm #

        Yeah, I think that’s a good explanation – that female authors tend to focus more on the romance (and if I encounter even one more Twilight like book I’ll scream!). Not that they all do, but probably more so than male authors. Of course, that reminds me of a hysterically funny article regarding male and female authors:


        I agree with your explanation regarding “male mc” as well. In addition, perhaps it’s also that male authors write female characters the way I wish that females were – that’s just my fantasy.

      • PhilippeO August 23, 2016 at 3:54 am #

        Yeah, agree with your assessment here. not every female author, but most female author do rather heavy on romance, the worst among them create ‘faux action girl’ who need to be constantly rescued.

        I also like male author female mc. male author with male mc often write story about overpowered character who win every fight simply because he is the strongest. wuxia fiction, post-acopalypse and transported to another time/world is especially bad on this. michael o’neill casere series is example of this, powerful male character who win every fight, know about anything, and charm every girl.

        male author female mc is a way to simply filter various novel and finding right balance between ‘faux action’ and ‘overpowered’.

      • PuffinMuffin August 24, 2016 at 3:01 am #

        Same here. I’ve had some more bad experiences with female authors vs male ones. For instance, Maria Snyder: “Touch of power”, good idea and execution, apart from a completely unnecessary romance that could have been ripped out without losing any of the plot. Then there was “Queen of the Tearling” which had some romantic nonsense in (I can’t remember what exactly, but I won’t be buying the sequel).

        And then there’s Sarah J Maas: “Throne of Glass”. Seldom has a book been so badly mis-sold. The blurb, cover and first chapter are really promising. You think you’re going to read about some kick-ass assassin having lots of exciting adventures. But no, it’s all romantic fluff, a 3-way love triangle and lots of trying on ball gowns. I kid you not.

        Call me sexist, but there’s a reason for my preferences. It’s not the author’s sex. It’s what they write: it’s just not interesting to me.

    • PuffinMuffin August 24, 2016 at 2:47 am #

      Regarding Moeller, I think some of his covers help sell his output. As do Michael McCloskey. That’s what they’re for, eh?

  4. Anita August 22, 2016 at 7:40 pm #

    What Bret said, entertainment is what I am interested in, too. I pretty much am only interested in books with a female lead, rarely do I get excited about a series with a male lead … too many years of reading Sci Fi with only male’s doing the fun stuff.

    Taking it one step further, I try not to learn too much about an author, reading most of your blog posts breaks that rule but you are one of the few authors that actually has interesting and insightful things to say, even if I don’t always agree … years ago I attended a few local author conventions and even exchanged a few emails with other authors or read their forums (in the early days of the internet) …. meeting or chatting with some of those authors pretty much killed my interest in their books 🙂 so I don’t really care to learn more about an author other then through their writing.

    I do agree that the Market will always win, why else are we inundated with soooo many mediocre fantasy books about vampires and werewolves?

  5. Vapori August 22, 2016 at 11:16 pm #

    Hmm among my top favorite Autors are 5 females and 8 males.
    That is not enough for me to make a decision like I don’t read females anymore.

    I think female lead is also just more common lately.
    Just as powerful females become more common.
    But it might actully be based on the fact that males write females in a way that male readers like them.
    Anyway I like it.

    I actually read a SF book by a black man from NY and it was very different, when compared to anything I read before. it was mind blowing in one way, but annoying in others. (heavy slang use in parts.)

  6. shrekgrinch August 23, 2016 at 12:40 am #

    Survival Guide for the Conservative, Classically Liberal, & Libertarian Science Fiction & Fantasy Author


  7. PhilippeO August 23, 2016 at 4:20 am #

    The problem is vast majority of publisher and editor is white college educated middle class, so their taste dominate the market.

    before FOX News people can argue that conservative viewpoint in TV is simply unpopular, now because Murdoch they become one of niche market on TV, and large niche at that.

    before Harry Potter, fantasy is very small niche market, now they proven that fantasy can be popular. Fantasy Novel is now oversaturated with many potter clone that should never be published.

    female superhero movie is example of underdeveloped niche market, yes many female superhero movie had been flopped, but many male superhero also flopped, only rare movie (Spiderman, X-Men) succeed because repeated trial. Just because successful superhero movie until now is Marvel Male superhero doesn’t mean there is no market or niche exist for female or DC superhero movie.

    Publisher and Editor can be wonderful people, but they limited because they can only be guided by a) their own knowledge, experience and taste and b) past successful product.

    so ‘good story’ sometime fail during filtering. while ‘bad story’ sometime published because they fall into well-known niche. so we have oversaturated market in vampire paranormal romance, teen in dystopia, kid go to magic school, while some ‘good story’ fail because they have no ‘precedent’ of success yet.

    And should be remembered that vast majority of story is ‘good enough’ and ‘not that bad’. I didn’t doubt that ‘great’ work by minority author can be successful and ‘awful’ work by white male author will be rejected. The problem is many ‘not that bad’ work is from white author on popular genre is published, while ‘good enough’ work from minority author or new genre get thrown out.

    This might be anecdote, but MLK once said, is not that important that universities employ good black professor, its when universities employ mediocre black and white professor that i know when equality is achieved.

  8. bc August 23, 2016 at 8:22 pm #

    Chris the solution is simple, you and your fellow authors must follow in the foot steps of that great trail blazer Rachel Dolezal and self identify as whatever minority is under represented.
    If you are challenged just do what the left does and start screaming incoherently about racism, sexism, homophobia, etc.

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