Should writers be ready to present a pedigree?

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Recently I mentioned a friend whose literary agent told her major US publishers are no longer interested in books about black characters written by white writers. Is this a paradigm shift in the marketplace—publishers backing off prior requests for diversity of characters because of concerns about authenticity and cultural appropriation (i.e. members of a dominant culture taking cultural elements from an oppressed minority to use in their work)? It could be a market trend toward segregation by ethnic heritage.

So, assuming we’re headed in that direction, how are we going to define it? In the larger culture, there’s been a movement toward more strict definitions of ethnic heritage because of questions about affirmative action benefits. Recent examples include Nkechi Diallo (a.k.a. Rachel Dolezal) who is accused of falsifying African American heritage and Elizabeth Warren, accused of fabricating Native American heritage. The discussion about Warren’s status is especially interesting. She recently released DNA results that indicated native heritage somewhere along the line, but this was met by jeers that one ancestor didn’t entitle her to call herself Native American—that she had to show tribal membership in order to be a “true” Native American.

Jewishness is tricky, too. Because of benefits available to Jews, there are requirements for documentation. DNA testing can identify Jewish markers, but an mitochondrial DNA test is necessary to identify the required matrilineal connection. This is important in Israel, but hardly ever mentioned in the US. People with matrilineal Jewish heritage in the US may know it—but maybe not, as their names may not be traditionally Jewish—while people with traditionally Jewish names may not have the required matrilineal DNA. Confused yet?

Less tricky, the Jim Crow “ one drop” rule means that anyone with any African American heritage at all is considered black in the US. This makes it very easy DNA-wise to be recognized as African American. Many “white” folks who have run their DNA recently have found they actually qualify as non-white under this rule. Sure, there may be squabbles about black culture and not being black enough, but that’s beside the point. A rule is a rule. Right?

So, how are publishers going to sort this out? Do they take the word of writers about their ethnic heritage, or is greater documentation going to be eventually required? If my DNA shows I had an African ancestor somewhere along the line, can I claim that heritage for special consideration from publishers? What if I have a Jewish gene? What if my name is of Latin origin? Or does the fact I look mainly white mean I’m out in the cold?

Several times I’ve hosted arguments in the comments section about whether Larry Correia and Sarah Hoyt qualify as Hispanic and/or minority. Should we also have a conversation about Rebecca Roanhorse, who claims Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and African American heritage? The African American part is easy because of Jim Crow, but is she really a tribal member? A “true” Native American? And should she be writing about Navajo culture and not her own? Or is that cultural appropriation?

Should I start work on documenting a racial heritage pedigree? I don’t want to be left out of the “own voices” paradigm shift. Ah, what to do…

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Diversity versus cultural appropriation—Best current practice?

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Here’s a current report on the subject from professional writers in the field.

Thursday night after Halloween, I went to a program at the local writer’s guild that included African American poets and musicians. Excellent program. Then afterwards, some of us went across the street for a couple of brews and had a great conversation about art and marketing your work. One of the gals in the guild is an established novelist who writes research-based historical-type fiction, and she mentioned that she’s having trouble finding a publisher for her latest work: a story about a civil rights riot that took place in 1919 and includes African American characters.

Far be it from me to judge the racial heritage of others, but the writer looks pretty German. Her agent has told her the problem is the African American characters in her book. According to Agent, major US publishers are no longer interested in works from Caucasian writers that feature African American characters—not just lead characters, mind you, but any kind of prominent characters at all. Presumably this is based on the recent movement to call out cultural appropriation from “privileged” white writers.

So what am I doing today? I’m going back through my marketable works to remove anything that might identify characters by race or ethnic heritage. Sure, that really cuts down on the diversity, but that’s the end result of the cultural appropriation and/or “own voices” movement, isn’t it? A curtailment of ally-ism in support of minority issues (e.g. my friend’s novel on civil rights riots)? Less diversity in the works available for sale? Greater segregation of the market?

Cultural Appropriation and the Dilemma of Halloween Sales

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So, it’s been kind of entertaining to watch people try to sort through the costume issue this week. First, Megan Kelly lost her job at NBC for saying white kids should be able to dress up as black characters for Halloween. Then a lot of other people checked in, horrified at the idea of white kids dressing up as person-of-color characters. Of course, this would be the worst kind of cultural appropriation for “privileged” white kids—pretending to be some white colonialists’ black-face vision of POC like Moana, maybe, or characters from the Black Panther movie. It just not done in this enlightened age. But then the issue of costume sales came up. This is a $9 billion market in the US.

I was in a pretty good position to assess the costume market this year. I worked a Trunk or Treat event for a small church in a little town up near the Tennessee/Kentucky line. This is middle America, folks, trending heavily to the working class, with a few professional families mixed in. The most creative was a Transformer costume built out of cardboard. There was the usual collection of ghosts and zombies; one Jason Voorhees and a Freddie Kreuger. A couple of Wonder Women came by, a Flash, a Batman and one Superperson, However, a good third to a half of the costumes were Disney or Marvel characters—princesses for the girls and superheroes for the boys. Quick calculation: this works out to be maybe $4.5 billion in US sales.

So, what are Disney and Marvel supposed to do about the cultural appropriation dilemma? Given that $4.5 billion is on the line, this is a huge crisis.

The problem, of course, is that these companies have worked themselves into a corner through trying to provide “diversity” in their productions. A few years back, providing more diversity was considered progressive. There’s still a push for it—all productions need more POC, more POC as lead characters, more role models for POC children to identify with. But then, a recent shift in focus has identified this movement as cultural appropriation instead of diversity. When Disney makes a film featuring native Hawaiian characters, for example, the (privileged white) company is appropriating a minority culture, making millions in profit off the backs of the native Hawaiian characters. Should Disney be allowed to do this? Or should only native Hawaiians be allowed to make films about their own culture?

Worse, one of the most popular movies this year was the hugely successful Black Panther film. Only 13% of the US population is African American, so if only children of African heritage are allowed to wear these costumes, it puts a pretty strict limit on sales. So how did the companies react? By promoting sales to white children, of course. There were all kind of people out there giving them permission.

Doesn’t profit always trump cultural sensitivity?

More on Virtue Signaling vs. Independent Thinking

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In the last blog about social issues, I commented on David Gerrold’s essay ”Humanity’s R&D Department: Science Fiction.” where he discusses the requirement to virtue signal in order to preserve your reputation in the SFF community. My response was that this prevents independent thinking, or even any kind of reasonable discussion about the current direction of the publishing community. I also mentioned that it was an example of “groupthink” where a desire for conformity leads to dysfunctional outcomes. I’m sure a lot of people will disagree about this, so let’s look at some examples:

  • Readers recently complained on the Tor website about K. Arsenault Rivera appropriating Asian culture in her recently published novel The Tiger’s Daughter. This fell into silence when some more perceptive individuals pointed out that Rivera isn’t white. I gather that means it’s an attack that should be reserved for white people.
  • Writer Jenny Trout led a child rape and racism campaign against Fionna Man for writing a fantasy novel titled Thomas Jefferson’s Mistress about Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemmings. The campaign succeeded in getting the book removed from book shelves, but then it turned out that Man is an activist African American woman writing about her own cultural history.
  • Speaking about the results, author N.K. Jemisin complained about the 2013 SFWA election in her Guest of Honor speech at the convention Continuum in Australia, “Imagine if ten percent of this country’s population was busy making active efforts to take away not mere privileges,” she said, “not even dignity, but your most basic rights. Imagine if ten percent of the people you interacted with, on a daily basis, did not regard you as human.” This seems like a stretch as an attack on the SFWA, but other people piled on regardless.
  • Generally virtue signaling provokes an avalanche of “me, too” responses, some of which can turn into vicious attacks like the one against Fionna Man. This is where the conformity problem comes into play. Everyone knows they need to publicly express certain views (as Gerrold pointed out), so once an issue is suggested, they pile on the opportunity to show their conformity. This is regardless of whether they have put any thought into whether the attack is justified or what effect it might really have in the long term. Some people really don’t care.

    Last year there was an argument at File770 where posters discussed freedom of expression and how it should be used to dictate morality. Posters apparently supported the idea that it’s fine to attack people regardless of the accuracy of your claims because this publicizes you own views (virtue signaling) and also indicates what views should be considered morally wrong and unacceptable to the public. This also assumes any injury done by the attack is socially advantageous because it will intimidate others who might be tempted to express the “wrong” views. There was no concern about what kind of personal damage this does to individuals who are erroneously attacked.

    Meanwhile, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, says in his new book Principles: Life and Work that independent thinking is the most important principle for an “idea meritocracy” to rebuild our society in a better way. What should we do about that?

More on Fascism and Freedom of Speech

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I notice in the website’s analytics that this is a popular topic this month, so maybe I should add a few more blogs on the subject.

I’ve had something brewing since back in September, when you may remember that President Trump posted a gif of himself hitting Hillary Clinton with a golf ball. I was pretty busy that week, so didn’t sit down and listen to the usual hue and cry in the media. My impression was that the gif was sort of juvenile and a bit humorous. There’s a clear symbolism there, too, about Trump defeating the forces of liberalism in the recent election. It might not be very presidential to needle people like that, but all in all, I thought it was a pretty well done statement. Then on Sunday I had the TV playing and caught some of State of the Union, a show on CNN hosted that day by Dana Bash, where guest Ana Navarro made the comment that a six-year-old would be punished for this, so it shouldn’t be acceptable from Trump. The impression I got was that she thought Trump needed to be punished for it.

So, here we are back at the question of freedom of speech, and whether statements people don’t like should to be punished through the popular method of ganging up on the speaker or writer and shouting slurs. More recently, there’s been a move to punish unpopular speech with actual physical violence.

Reviewing what I’ve already said about the First Amendment, it only protects freedom of speech and freedom of the press (including symbolic statements and hate speech but not inciting to violence) from government censorship. It doesn’t provide any protection against consequences of speech in public forums or guarantee that statements will be accepted at all. Regardless, there is a popular expectation that everyone has a right to be heard. Some of this is supported by other legislation, such as whistle blower laws that protect people who alert the public to questions of safety, corruption, etc.

So why do people feel they need to punish some statements? When you look at the definitions of censorship, you’ll see that it’s often connected with moral judgments. In other words, people who are out there shouting slurs have made a decision that some ideas are dangerous to the moral fabric of our culture and need to be suppressed. Censorship is also used to protect a position of power, such as when a political interest group tries to suppress the opposition.

This kind of censorship is fascism. It used to be a popular technique of the politically far right, who were trying to protect the US from dangerous communist ideas. However, the pendulum has swung so it’s now often a tool of the left, which tries to frame unpopular ideas as sexist or racist in order to incite public opinion against the speaker or writer. Over the course of history, fascism has not shown up in a good light. Classic fails include Puritanism and the Nazi Party.

Besides that, I’m worrying about Ana Navarro’s child-rearing ideas. Who would punish a six-year-old for drawing silly cartoons?

Why are all these potential Nebula nominees so sappy?

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There’s one more story with between five and ten recommendations on the Nebula Reading List. This is “The Continuing Saga of Tom Corbett: Space Cadet” by James Van Pelt, published in Analog. I gather from other reviews that this is an entertaining read, but it’s not available online so I’ll have to defer comments. That’s means I’m done with this set of reviews and ready to sum up some thoughts.

As I expected, the message fiction thinly disguised as SFF dropped off as I got deeper into the list, to be replaced with the usual highly sentimental stuff that all the pro magazines publish these days. There’s heavy emotional content in every one of these stories. Limited themes. Four of the eight are about abused children, and one more is about elderly dementia. That suggests the Nebula is a competition to see who can provide the biggest emotional whallop.

Other than that, science fiction in general is clearly in trouble here. The two stories that might be SF only use that as a framework to present the story—it’s not at all necessary to the plot. There are no serious questions or ideas offered up, no real predictions of where we might be going in the future. I have to conclude that science fiction, what Pamela Sargent calls “the literature of ideas” is dying. Instead, people want to cry about something.

So why is this happening? Some of it is social trends, of course. People may be just less interested in questions and ideas these days and more interested in emotional chills. But there’s something else, too, which is that this is how people are now taught to write. Last year I meant to comment on this, and I located this quote about teaching methods for children: “…an emphasis on emotions and feelings and ‘expressing’ them. This pressures children to produce work that is cathartic and trite—a very bad combination—and puts the teacher, to say nothing of the classmates, in the position of acting as an untrained, ersatz therapist…”

Unfortunately the link I have for this now seems to be bad, meaning it may have been taken down. More fortunately, there are other sources available. For example, Advanced Writing: Fiction and Film by Wells Earl Draughon offers advice on how to get started on a successful story. Draughon suggests that opening with a character is dull and boring unless some kind of suffering is also attached. This hook attracts the reader and produced sympathy for the character that will lead into the story. By definition, this emotional hook has to be trite or “stock” in order for the reader to quickly understand it. Everyone now expects this. So, in order to get your story published, you have to sift through all the trite trigger situations out there and try to find a creative way to incorporate some overused theme, i.e. child abuse, into your story. If you’re really good at it, then you can be a star writer.

But where does this leave SFF as a genre? As a potential reader, I end up with a choice of the same stock situations used repeatedly as themes because they’ve got great emotional hooks. As a writer, I’m limited in what I can present because I have to stick to these strict requirements to capture an editor’s attention. Add to this the apparent trend to progressive message fiction in the pro magazines that the top of the Nebula list indicates, and you’ve got content that’s restricted to emotional, hot-button issues with no new ideas, and heaven forbid that there be any actual science in there. It’s too cold and clinical for a story to actually ask questions about space travel or the future of the human race.

Is there any hope for change on this?

Tribalism in the SFF community

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In 2015 Brad Torgersen wrote a an interesting piece about tribalism in the SFF community. According to Torgersen, much of what is taken for racism and sexism in the US is actually a form of cultural tribalism, where people from different cultural backgrounds distrust and disrespect one another because of their difference. He lists some fundamentally different groups as examples, including religious groups, regional groups, progressives and conservatives, and notes that even people who think they are the most open-minded often exhibit sharp limits, if not open hostility, which faced with opposing cultural viewpoints.

Torgersen goes on to discuss the current battle over the Hugos, noting that the organizers of WorldCon and the Hugo Awards are a very exclusive group of trufans who consider themselves the in-tribe of science fiction and fantasy. According to him, this explains the small size of the convention and the elitist title, which suggests its members represent all real SFF fans in the world. Torgersen’s explanation of the current situation is that the Sad Puppies represented a different tribal group which was seen as a threat to the convention culture by WorldCon insiders. Of course the situation deteriorated from there. This explanation makes me wonder what the small group of core WorldCon fans thought about opening up the membership to a broad swath of Internet “supporting memberships?” Doesn’t this dilute the trufan blood?

As a side note, Torgersen calls himself a perpetual out-tribe because of never fitting in anywhere. He may have written this blog in response to attacks on Twitter, where one poster called his African American wife and biracial child “racist shields.”

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