Identifying with Characters Different from You

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Some time back, after reading Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country, I wondered in the blog about how deeply readers from different ethnic groups and different cultures identify with the protagonists in stories. This seems like a timely subject, as there’s been a recent movement in the SFF community toward “own voices,” complaints about cultural appropriation and comments about how POC need to be the only ones to write about characters that reflect their own heritage. The scenario in the novel was that Ruff’s (culturally appropriated) Jim Crow era African American characters were represented as enjoying the works of classical SF writers now attacked as racist (Asimov and Bradbury). It’s uncertain whether Ruff meant this as irony, but he writes it dead-pan, as if his characters really are classic era SF geeks.

The novel is quite a mash-up of social taboos, and given the current climate, I’m really surprised there weren’t more complaints about the book being a) published and b) nominated for awards. However, it did raise the interesting question about identifying with characters from other races. I didn’t really get an answer from POC in the comments on my blog, so I went looking. Here’s an interesting perspective from Turkish-American Elif Batuman writing for the New Yorker.

As you might expect, Batuman describes no problems in using 1) suspension of disbelief and 2) imaginative projection to identify with alien characters. For example, to read period works, Batuman says, you have to BE the privileged, upper class male Englishman in Lady Chatterly’s Lover. This means that for the purposes of reading, you have to shift your perspectives of race, gender, social class, religion and whatever other characteristics are present in order to feel what the character is feeling and worry about his or her conflicts. Along the way, you broaden your own horizons and learn about other worldviews, some of them historical, some fantastical, some science fictional, etc. This makes perfectly good sense, and I’m sure it’s been experienced by avid readers everywhere.

Where this breaks down, Batuman says, is when she runs across references to “Turks” in these old books that betray attitudes toward her own ethnic group. This event jars her out of her projection and back to the reality of evaluating “expired social values.” As I read this, mention of Turks is one problem that she snags on, and the other is the insulting quality of the references. Presumably the first really can’t be fixed in contemporary writing, but the second one can.

Everyone is pointing out that the SFF community readership is getting more diverse. So, is “own voices” the solution for problems like this? Will it remove the speed bumps to suspension of disbelief? Or (there’s always the Law of Unintended Consequences to consider) could “own voices” just reduce diversity by segregating the SFF readership into more strictly separate groups?

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Follow-up on “Little Widow,” et al.

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Since I’ve been discussing David Gerrold’s take on the requirement for virtue signaling that indicates your affiliation in the SFF community, it occurs to me that the recent spate of stories with a social/political bent are a form of virtue signaling. The writers use them to signal their political stance, and the publishers signal their own virtue by supporting the views through publication. This means that the current marketplace is heavily politicized, with no sign of the extremism letting up.

Writers seeking publication would do well to take a look at the political stances of the magazines and anthologies currently in the market and pick those that match their own philosophy and steer clear of those that don’t. From what Gerrold says, this will seriously impact both writer and publisher’s reputations, and it will be difficult to stay neutral in the culture war. For one thing, neutral stores don’t advance the publisher’s agenda, and according to Gerrold’s analysis, remaining silent on the issues just gets you lumped with the opposing side. Plus, unpublished.

Is there any room here for real freedom of expression?

Vicious circles

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55327_girl-writing_mdAm finally back from vacation. Besides the NFSPS conference, I attended a couple of writing workshops and actually managed to write a little bit of fiction. It’s not the most productive vacation I’ve ever had, but it ranks up there for inspiration. I’m going to pick up on the market analysis issue again here on the blog.

I’ve noted below that Connolly’s research (published in Clarkesworld) shows which magazines publish more women than men and vice versa. Checking through the data, I notice F&SF (pre-Findlay), for example, shows one of the most dramatic gaps, where 80% of stories published were by men. The data also seem to show that F&SF (pre-Findlay) took most of its publications from slush; however, there was no data provided on the number of submissions received by gender in the slush pile. That leaves us wondering if F&SF (pre-Findlay) actually received 80% of its submissions from men, or whether there was a strong gender bias at work in choosing stories for publication.

I do have personal experience that might shed light on this question. I used to hang around on the F&SF (pre-Findlay) Forum where Gordon Van Gelder checked in from time to time. When one gal asked him about the gender split (fairly obvious well before Connolly’s research), he replied that it was a matter of persistence. According to Van Gelder, women writers tended to give up quickly and stop submitting. This suggests the number of submissions from women dropped for the magazine as the gender bias in its publications of women’s stories became evident to writers.

Because F&SF (pre-Findlay) didn’t supply any submissions by gender data for Connolly’s study, this theory has to remain in the realm of speculation. The other possibility, as mentioned above, is that F&SF (pre-Findlay) actually received a reasonable percentage of well-written women’s fiction in the slush pile and the readers practiced a strong bias against women. However, Van Gelder’s statement suggests this isn’t the case.

So what conclusions can I draw from this speculation? Not much, because it is just speculation. Still, I think that markets get a particular reputation based on how they treat writers. The fact that someone asked Van Gelder about the gender split on his forum means that women writers knew they were unlikely to get a story published in the magazine. Then why take the time to even put together a submission? Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons or Apex look like much better bets.

Connolly did her research on gender. Unfortunately, data isn’t likely to be available on submissions and the diversity of writers (sexual orientation, ethnic background, etc.). Still, I suspect writers will do the same kind of rough market analysis as women on the F&SF Forum based just on the type of stories published. The decisions writers make about where to submit their stories counters the decisions editors make about what to publish, which can result in a sort of vicious circle of declining submissions for the magazine.

In a year where women writers swept the Nebula Awards (for example), pro markets are seeing the awards shift from the old guard to newer magazines more open to diversity. It leads to a situation where editors like Vox Day feel like they have to game the Hugo Awards in order to even get on the ballot. There are better ways, folks.

Why should I write SF, and who should I send it to?

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Edward LearStill in ignore-Vox-Day mode, how does a writer decide whether a SF story is worth writing? The first part of this blog is applicable to everybody, but then I’ll get down to what women might think.

First, life is short. Second, everybody wants to maximize the chances they’ll get their story published. Assume I’m a reasonably competent SF writer and I’ve got an idea for a SF story. Should I devote the chunk of my life that this will require? In order to make this decision, I’ll take a look at the available markets.

First, let’s check out Asimov’s. This is popular market, with slightly in excess of 10K submissions a year. The response time runs about 6 months, so I can make two submissions a year. This suggests that I have about a .02% chance that someone would randomly pull my manuscript out of the pile for publication, nevermind that it’s actually more complicated that than. Asimov’s reserves a lot of room for longer fiction, which cuts down the space they have for short stories. It looks like they published just over 60 SF works of all lengths in 2013. They also have a particular style that they try to maintain to suit their readership. Plus, they’re angling for awards. This means that a story has to be both outstanding and suited for their readership in order to attract their attention. Who are their readers? Hm.

Next, let’s look at Daily SF. This publication posts stories online, but also works on an e-mail format, where the publishers send out a story a day. This means they’re interested in VERY short works and lean to vignettes rather than fully developed stories. Again, they have a very high number of submissions every year, but they advertise a response time of one month. This means I could whip up and submit twelve 500-word pieces each year instead of the two labor-intensive, fully developed stories that I might submit to Asimov’s. Daily SF might also be interested in awards, but the format makes this unlikely. They published about 160 SF stories in 2013.

Given that I’m looking to maximize my chance of publication, which format is the better use of my time? Vignette or fully developed?

Now assume I’m a gal who wants to write SF. I can go to the websites and glance down through the list of who’s been published recently. Asimov’s isn’t the worst, but it looks like only 30% of the authors published in 2013 were women. Daily SF was about 50%. Which is the friendlier market for me?

Of course, there are other considerations, but this is the basic economic analysis. It also answers Connolly’s question in a way. Women are making economic decisions about the best use of their writing time. Regardless that more women (or non-binaries) are writing SF, there are still expectations and complexities that make fully developed SF stories a poor use of writing time.

I like Asimov’s BTW. I always give them a try.

Illustration by Edward Lear.

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