Back in the mid-1980s I read the one line that had the most profound impact on my career as a writer. It was from Vonnegut by way of Gardner Dozois, quoted in his contribution to the book Writing and Selling Science Fiction put out by SFWA in 1977. (Back when there was only one “F.”) Vonnegut ‘s line was the complaint that science fiction writers “write about Earthlings all the time, and they’re all American. Practically no one on Earth is an American.”
In the same essay, Mr. Dozois, at length, deconstructed the perennial slush-pile story where “There are no races: everyone is white , middle-class, American” and “no one has ever heard about homosexuality.” Back in 1977 he was writing about, to use the current buzzwords, diversity and inclusion. The lesson I got at the time was a profound one: If the world I wrote about had a population less varied than the city I lived in, I was being a lazy writer. If I wrote about humanity creating an interstellar empire, the demographic makeup of that empire should probably resemble that of humanity as a whole, or I was straining credulity. If I wasn’t afraid to get in the head of a genetically engineered creature, I shouldn’t be afraid to get in the head of a woman. Again, to use the current buzzwords, one old white guy was telling a younger white guy how it was a useful thing to step out of the default straight white cis male POV. Being open to that has certainly made me a better writer.
Which is why I had to think a while about why this post rubs me the wrong way. Of course, there is the superficial identity-politics aspect of it. The title, “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year,” is obvious troll-bait for the Sad Puppy brigade, and it seems to be serving its purpose of raising the profile of the blog post in question. But that isn’t really what bugs me about it. This Guardian article covers almost exactly the same ground and is much less troubling to me.
So what’s the problem?
A good part of it is the framing. K.T.Bradford frames the exercise as one of exclusion, while Sunili Govinnage frames it as an inclusive process. There is a damaging message there, and I don’t mean hurting the feelings of us straight white cis male dudes.
There is a large difference between foregrounding someone because of who they are, and doing so because of who they are not. The former engages someone as they are, who they are. The point of interest is the person themselves. The latter engages a person as an absence, a negative space, a silhouette cut out of a larger (and by inference more important) whole. When you are dealing with someone as a negation of something, the something is still the primary attribute. If a woman is important because she is not male, maleness is still what’s important. If a gay man is important because he is not straight, heterosexuality is your normative characteristic. If you think Samuel Delaney is primarily important because he isn’t a straight white cis male dude. . . well fuck you, he’s Samuel Delaney, and you deserve to be smacked upside the head with a hardback copy of Dalghren.
The other issue I had is best illustrated by a pair of quotes from the two articles:
From “I read only non-white authors for 12 months. What I learned surprised me” by Sunili Govinnage
Rather than restricting myself, my decision to be conscious about what I read introduced me to books I ordinarily would not have bothered with. Instead of my usual crime/procedural/legal thrillers, I actually read some science fiction. And some fantasy. And I loved it. Saladin Ahmed’s Throne of the Crescent Moon and Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death are now two of my favourite books. I would never have heard of them had I not deliberately sought them out.
I was also lucky enough to get to read chick-lit and young adult novels with non-white central characters: Ambelin Kwaymullina’s post-apocalyptic series The Tribe, Antia Heiss’s Manhattan Dreaming and Rebecca Lim’s The Astrologer’s Daughter were particular highlights.
From “I Challenge You to Stop Reading White, Straight, Cis Male Authors for One Year” by K.T.Bradford
[E]very time I thought about delving into one of the many science fiction and fantasy magazines at my disposal, or even reading compilations of the “best” stories that had been nominated for and/or won awards, my brain resisted.
Because every time I tried to get through a magazine, I would come across stories that I didn’t enjoy or that I actively hated or that offended me so much I rage-quit the issue. Go through enough of that, and you start to resist the idea of reading at all.
Then I thought: What if I only read stories by a certain type of author? Instead of reading everything, I would only look at stories by women or people of color or LGBT writers. Essentially: no straight, cis, white males.
Cutting that one demographic out of my reading list greatly improved my enjoyment of reading short stories. That’s not to say I didn’t come across bad stories or offensive stuff in stories or other things that turned me off. I did. But I came across this stuff far less than I did previously.
The impressions I get from these two passages are very, very different. From one I get a sense of exploration, of pushing boundaries, of self-challenging. From the other, I feel a sense of retreat, of avoidance. One writer is moving outside their comfort zone, the other seems to be digging into it and fortifying it against outsiders. One is a model for growth, the other stagnation.
That said, I do agree with Bradford that “Reading Only X Writers For A Year” challenge can be a valuable exercise. But only if you do it to actually challenge yourself, not to reinforce your own biases and preconceptions.
Also, bear in mind that there are more types of diversity out there than are dreamed of in your intersectionality. Read outside your genre, your century, your politics, your religion. There’s non-fiction, history, and biography out there. Screenplays and poetry. Read things that make you mad, and make you think, and make you want to write about what the stupid author (cis male or otherwise) got wrong. Read something that might make you change your mind about something.
That’s challenging yourself.
And, if you’re lucky, you may find something as meaningful for you as that one line from Vonnegut was to me.