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Diversity Questions

At two in the morning, Tom (ataxi) left a bunch of questions relating to promoting gender in writing, and today, I answered them and they go on and on, and I reckon that is my blog post for today.

So, here's my response and Tom's questions:


In your opinion, to what extent does the correlation of gender to the production of works satisfying particular aesthetic preferences or genre conventions modulate the ethical correctness of selecting works based on the expression of that preference, or on their adherence to those conventions?

If I understand that question correctly, what you're asking is do I think that work is being picked because it is a good piece, or because it is a genre piece written by a woman or man, and how often is that nudged in favour of genre over the actual work?

Personally, I reckon it's probably not that often. There are editors and publishers with agendas, be they positive or negative, and I would not say that it doesn't happen. But given the amount of writers that there are, and the sheer diversity to chose from in a publishing schedule, or book of short fiction, I would probably say that for the most part the ethical side does not influence choices hugely.

That's for good and bad, mind you. Some people will say it does need to be more, others less, and I can see both sides of it.

In some sub-genres there's a vast preponderance of (for example) either male or female writers, and the readership and writership within the communities around these sub-genres often seems to be a strongly gendered ghetto. Two examples: paranormal romance, traditional sword and sorcery. Is that something that it's important to challenge? Why?

Same reason it is important to challenge such ghettos in every walk of life, really: so that people are free to do what they wish without a glass ceiling. While it may be strongly thought that paranormal romance is another word for chick lit, and sword and sorcery is boys stuff, they are simply genre forms, and not born as either a male or female domain, and people from both genders do enjoy reading it, and having writers of both genders helps break down the walls and barriers and cliches that exist in each genre.

In short, I think it creates better fiction. Diversity always does, in my opinion.

Could it be the case that the varying tendency of fiction (and particularly sf) to challenge or console its readers is an important - possibly the most important - axis of aesthetic distinction, and that therefore dogmatic insistence on particular levels of challenge or consolation is itself often a fairly tedious form of harassment across the boundaries of aesthetic micro-communities?

Yeah, it isn't without its moments. The recent Bitch drama in which Margo Lanagan's TENDER MORSELS was featured was a border line harassment of the site, I thought. It bought it upon itself by not reading the book in question, of course, and for then deciding to censor it rather than letting young women think for themselves, so they got what they deserved, in the grand scheme of things.

But, there was something that bordered on bullying in the way that hordes of young adult authors swept down on the site to correct them for their error. Authors demanding to have their books pulled off the list, authors telling Bitch they were wrong, and the such--the impartiality of the authors was never questioned, nor did anyone seem to suggest that authors should not band together, ride into an electronic town, and beat up people because they did something they didn't agree with (no matter if they deserved it).

So, it exists, yeah, that harassment. Often, what is done for a good cause can be done in a less than admirable way, but it's always the risk when people are passionate about an issue, such as with the above mentioned example. It also ignores the fact that, for most readers, these events are pretty much uninteresting, and what they care about is the work at the end--which, really, is what the authors care about, and if they were not arguing, were not constantly pushing for change, would probably result in a scene full of work created by people who didn't give a shit.

And that would result in bad work.

Could it be reasonable to tacitly accept that a new collection, or a new venue for the reproduction of written work is likely to dramatically favour one demographic and even appreciate the related uniformity of the presumed reference points of the works themselves, and the distinction that brings the collection itself in relation to those that are more eclectic?

Sure.

But, in the case of gender, it is worth remembering that this favourtism has long existed, and has long favoured male writers. They call it the Old Boys Club for a reason, after all, and after such long a time, new venues that pop up with the same bias get unacceptable, especially given the diversity of the authors out there.

Can such a micro-readership's consensus aesthetic with respect to literary works, that need not be explicitly actualised in any questionable wider social expression justifiably be used as a basis for ethical judgement? Would the efforts expended exerting this ethical judgement for the perceived social dividend actually do more good if expended in some other venue, in some other way?

So, in other words, you shouldn't bother if it doesn't have a broader justification?

Nah.

I mean, you want things to change, they have to begin in your own home, so to say. Chaning small pockets of the world is, eventually, how you change larger parts of it--but mostly, you have to fight where you stand first, before you take it out onto the street.

Comments

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ataxi
Mar. 12th, 2011 07:52 am (UTC)
Thanks for your responses Ben. I'd like it to be understood that I asked the questions above to provoke discussion rather than because they precisely articulate my own point of view.


To my mind the representation issue goes mainly to the idea that there are writers unfairly going unpublished, or uncollected because of their identity. As such I'd rather such debates went straight to the point, which is to applaud the quality of the works of these writers, rather than demand a quota for non-white, or female, or non-hetero, or non-cisgendered writers in any given collection or venue for publication.

As far as the question of demographic representation within literature engages with the project to dismantle unearned social prejudice, it must be acknowledged that literary accomplishment is one of the hallmarks of a life of privilege, and that therefore we should expect the socially privileged, the educated, the leisurely to be massively over-represented by proportion among the ranks of published writers.

They always have been throughout the history of literature, a history the greater part of which has been characterised by illiteracy among the socially disadvantaged, let alone their mere exclusion from anthologies.

There are of course, great works of writing that can only be produced from outside privilege, relying on the translation of the artist's marginalised life to the work. However, it is within the nature of these works that their resistant, skewed qualities are attenuated if they begin to predominate - if they do predominate, then they no longer arrive from the margins. The bulk of artistic production must by definition always come from the artistic establishment.

Taking this as a given, rather than deny the accomplishments of the privileged, I think the project should rather be to appreciate the best works of fiction we can find all the time, and work on giving everyone an equal opportunity to obtain the knowledge and experience, and the practised gifts of creative expression which go towards good art, should they choose to do so.

When the tower leans you correct it supporting the foundations at the bottom, not by shouting from the top.

So with that in mind, and returning to your original post of March 10, where are the specific examples of works by minority writers which should have replaced specific works by mainstream writers in published collections? What are the arguments based on aesthetic or literary merit, or on the merit of the resultant composition of the collection from a reader's viewpoint, for these replacements to occur?
benpeek
Mar. 13th, 2011 08:19 am (UTC)
yeah, man, i know it was just to provoke discussion, rather than anything else. it's why i linked it on the front, to see if others would get into it. but, you know, seems not a whole lot. what can you do, huh?

i personally don't have a list of writers that shouldn't get published for others. i have a list of authors who deserve less exposure, and others that deserve more, but i feel that such a discussion is maybe getting away from the point. you are right, in that the achievements in literature is something of an accomplishment for the privledged, but that doesn't mean that those who are privledged shouldn't use their position to discuss those without.
benpayne
Mar. 12th, 2011 10:20 am (UTC)
I've definitely felt uncomfortable that some discussions become a form of bullying. Which isn't to discredit the argument itself, in that particular situation, simply to suggest that being right doesn't necessarily always go hand in hand with doing the right thing. IMHO.

I've been on both sides in discussions like that and felt uncomfortable being in both places.

Such discussions are necessary and vital, but we always need to watch out for abuses of power, on all sides of the debate.
benpeek
Mar. 13th, 2011 08:20 am (UTC)
yeah, we do need to watch the abuses of power, i think. especially since sometimes it is done for the very right reasons, occasionally.
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