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.