Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Publishing by Omission (or, Fighting Racism from Your Very Own Nightstand!)

I've been sitting on this little article for awhile, not sure quite how to write it. But I'm going to try today. Many people smarter and better-versed than I have brought up a little problem we have in publishing, but it looks like that's not going to stop me from saying it in my own little way.

But before I start, I want to say this is not a rant--it's a brainstorm for productive change. I look forward to your thoughtful insights.

So I guess I'll start here. Racism sucks. It sucks even more in publishing, since mass media is basically the only "thing" with the power to reach lots of people fast, and instead, for the most part, media generators--book publishers among them--find that it is comfortable, happy, and money-padded to carry on with the status quo, give people what they're used to, and ignore the problems. But yes indeed, racism we have.

The thing about racism, particularly among well-meaning people, is that it's not overtly, deliberately malicious--most of it is just passivity, or, like I said, people doing again what made them money before. There are some (profound and terrifying) exceptions, examples of actively racist and/or bigoted publishing. But the majority of our sins are sins of omission--of failing to represent authors (and/or characters) of color the way we do white authors.

I'll borrow the words of Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, who writes that some examples of passive racism include "letting exclusionary hiring practices go unchallenged, of accepting as appropriate the omissions of people of color from the curriculum, and of avoiding difficult race-related issues... All that is required is to maintain business as usual" ("Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" 11).***

Dr. BDT is talking about life and the work force in general, but an awful lot of that applies freakishly to publishing. Publishers have a limited number of slots on a given list, so when a strong-selling (white) author comes back with a second book, it's hard to say no to it--you've already seen how it performs. Similarly, if a similar book appears by a new author, it's awful easy to say yes--seems like easy, sure money. Now round out your standard list-filling for financial security with some standard misunderstandings or platitudes about what readers want and expect, and boom! You have a top-down problem. Writers of color aren't disadvantaged, per se; it's just that white authors are very, very advantaged. You know. No one's trying to be mean. (Or, at least, most people aren't.)

Some of the unfortunate products of the time-honored establishments run like this:

-Lots and lots and lots of books by white authors! Like, most of the books that get major marketing billing from trade companies.

-"Pet project" or "ethnic" books by authors of color taken on to "diversify" a list! Only, you know--they should be "ethnic" in a way readers will understand. That's why you see one "ethnic" splash, and then lots and lots of kitten would-be splashes following. Sigh. This also leads to phenomenon like the racialized "Other" in mainstream fantasy--keeping the "ethnic" characters in an exoticized context that makes them easier to swallow for white readers (you've seen this in everything from Dune to The Wheel of Time). A whole other debate, but here's a taste over here at this blog, in which well-known fantasy writer Elizabeth Bear's blog hosted a long and hurtful debate (the whole blog fiasco is being called race!fail 09).

-A general perpetuation of a separate but equal publishing system--people acquiring what they know from agents they know, agents learning to specialize their pitches, and a widespread building of walls between separating communities who let one another specialize.

And more insidious consequences of those three central tenets. They get insidious quickly after that point; just imagine the damage privileged media does when it only represents one angle, or how the people profiting from that arrangement say hurtful things in an effort not to feel responsible.

The point is, we want our national literary culture to reflect our country--diverse, complex, and interesting in thousands and millions of ways, not on one very limited way. It's in everyone's interest to break down these accidental dumbnesses, and the first step is building awareness that there are problems.

What can I do to help this? Well, that's "easy." Obviously, I'm trying really, really hard to acquire books that represent overlooked perspectives of our beautiful, complicated populace, and I'm shying away from things that remind me too much of things I've already known and seen. But I need help--after all, I don't control the money, and I can't control the chains or their understanding of their markets. If I by a great book that the chains don't see a market for, it doesn't really matter how great the book is. The battle is for getting mainstream review coverage and national stocking on a much more diverse collection of books. And why should the chains take a chance and think outside the box (the box they've built themselves) when they're making (some) money the way they're going now?

So what you, personally, can do is kind of simple. Just *think* about this when you're buying, borrowing, and/or reviewing books. Take a little affirmative action in your TBR list. It sounds cheesy, but it's not as obvious as you'd think--most of what bookstores and reviewers are throwing in your face are going to be books that are part of that mainstream we're trying to get away from. You'll have to make a positive effort to look around for other suggestions than what you're getting from most venues. But if you buy books by authors of color, those authors will become more successful, and will get the chain's ($$$) attention. If you show up at your local library and request titles they're not used to carrying, they're going to have to start thinking about their stocking orders, too. If you blog about a book that hasn't gotten mainstream coverage, you're personally making a difference by making yourself a review venue.

Luckily, a lot of people are doing a lot of work on this already. Carleen Brice, for example, is one of the major reasons I've been thinking so much about this whole issue recently. Her blog's mission is to bridge the distance between the Fiction and the African American Fiction sections in the bookstore. Here's a fantastic recent post about memorable female characters--a perfect starting checklist. I hope people who read this will cough up other site or source recommendations.

I'm here to be proactive--that's my schtick. So please, everyone, help out with your ideas and suggestions.

***I do recommend that everyone read this book. It helped me understand and be much more aware of the world around me, and how to make a difference.


writtenwyrdd said...

Very insightful. Thank you.

I've been reading fantasy and science fiction works about ethnic main characters and authors more lately as I've 'discovered' them via blogger recommendations. Author Octavia Butler was already in my list, but there is Tananarive Due and a number of others whom I'd not noticed previously.

I hadn't considered the aspect of how the fantasy genre sort of categorizes ethnicity like that, but I suspect you are right. Which gives me some fodder for thought about tropes and standard treatments which have soaked into my subconscious.

Kristy Colley said...

Really enjoyed this, thanks. I especially will go out of the way to request more at local libraries. I usually pshaw it and go buy it privately if they don't have what I want , but this way I think it will benefit the library's collection and options for other readers.

Anonymous said...


I'm a regular reader of your blog. I'm posting anonymous because well, my whole time on the blogsphere, I want people to see me as a writer first, race aside. I want people to see my books of multi-cultural characters in a 'commercial' setting, but not think, oh because he's got an African-American detective in there, it should go in the AA section. I want my books to appear with the rest of the thrillers and I must admit, the placement of books by races has always made me uncomfortable. I'm unpublished, but I hope that if I'm lucky enough to get published, my books won't be stuck in a corner because I'm one race and perhaps my potential races are another. In my first novel, I have every race under the sun. Why, you may ask, because I live in a place where I see people from many cultures.

Nice post. Since finding your blog, I've gained great respect for you and you deserve every bit of it.

Anonymous said...

oops, typo

above I meant

potential "readers"

Kevin Hisel said...

I'm sure that I will be the only one with my stance on this topic but I believe that it is a grave misnomer to call the lack of "ethnic" books in circulation "racist."

Now I understand that you are in the publishing business and therefore you have a far greater knowledge on the issues than myself, but I must disagree.

I believe the lack of "ethnic" books could be attributed to a lack of "ethnic" writers, which may be due to racial stereotype of a writer (white male) held in a majority of the public eye.

To give an analogy of modern proportions I will turn to the music industry. Particularly the rap genre. The amount of "ethnic" rappers to white rappers I feel safe in saying is proportional to the amount of white writers to "ethnic" writers. But you're never going to here of anyone in the music industry calling it racist nor will you ever find a producer saying, "today I'm going to find a white rapper to display our American Culture and Diversity."

With that being said, I don't hold in my belief system that it is common for a agent or editor to say to themselves, "is this author ethnic- well golly, pass."

I believe the solution to a lack of ethnic books is not to lower the standard and actively seek out ethnic books. The playing ground is level and should remain level - in that everyone who writes is welcome to submit their work for publication, may those worthy of it be published. To do anything less would be demeaning to all "ethnic" groups.

The solution (part one) is to actively seek to encourage more "ethnic" writers. Math and Probability say you increase the amount of writers of a particular group the amount books published by said writers will increase.

The solution (part two) is to actively seek to encourage "ethnic" readers. Because that's who the "ethnic" writers will be speaking to and as you said the more of a market there is for a product the more product will be given shelf.

I'm not saying that we as Americans shouldn't reach past our comfort zone and get to know the great diversity that is America but then again I'm not going to read a book simply because it is outside my comfort zone.

If the story is gripping, the plot page turning, and the character's memorable then I will read it - whether the writer be Black, Asian, Mexican, or someone from Mars. Same with who the protagonist is.

Thank you.

Kerry said...

I've been doing a statistical analysis of book sales vs. book marketing for my dissertation and if it's any consolation, books about/by people of color seem to do much better than their marketing ever predicts they will. (America: overcoming racism through old fashioned consumer voting. ;-)

MaLanie said...

Wow, thank you for sharing. I would have never known this was even an issue if you did not post this. It’s freaking 2010 not 1950! I am so far removed from the publishing industry (Oklahoma to be exact) I really do not have a clue to all the politics and nonsense of the business, and I am hoping if possible I can stay away from all that crap.

I am all about fighting for the underdog. I will look for the books you suggested to help create the much needed change. Thanks again!

I_am_Tulsa said...

This might be too long...so sorry if I am not following blogger etiquette.

I might wonder about this more often when watching movies or TV, but with books, for some reason, I don't count how many ethnic groups are being represented...I guess this is because as a reader I make each character look the way I want to in my head...fitting in actors and "make believe faces" that suit my reading.

For me, telling an author to delete or even include an ethnicity into the story for the sake of being “fair”, (or for any other reason that has nothing to do with the plot), is nonsense. The story is the authors. Like what a child is to a parent, the book is to the author…both will be judged and there is nothing that can be done about it. It is what it is.

We can also choose not to read stories by authors we don’t like. I have almost zero toleration for anyone racist but I don’t know if all the authors that I enjoy are racist or not. If I enjoy the story for what it is, I don’t want to judge the “parent”…. unless of course the writing is…bad….

I wouldn’t want a racist person to (one day) pick up my book and say “this person is a female Asian American and she is not racist, I’m not reading this!” (I could be the author that helps to change that person with my cool multi cultural characters!)

If agents/publishers are deliberately not releasing good quality literature because of the color of the characters or authors, then I say “shame one you” to them.
However, I also say the same to readers! I used to work in a bookstore, and I know that lots of people are timid about buying new authors REGARDLESS of race. If they know it’s on a “best sellers” list…then it becomes a different story.

It is also very important for booksellers to read all kinds of books. Writing blurbs about them for their customers to see…this has helped me sell books that I imported without any help from the major publishing houses! Stuff I found on the internet by new authors! (Instead of relying on posters and blurbs provided to us by the publishing houses…) I’m sure a lot of places do this, I don’t know if it is enough… If not, we the readers can always help by ordering for those books too.

With the internet the possibilities are huge!
We have so much to look forward to with great blogs like this and…after all, we are people that READ…..BOOKS!

Anonymous said...

Like Anon 11:42, I'm also a regular reader of this blog, and I've chosen to withhold my name for the same reason. I don't want my work to be associated with African-American lit just because I'm a black woman. I write fantasy and science fiction with characters of all races, and I'd like my work to be treated the same as white authors in that genre.

Moonrat, I agree with your thoughts entirely. What we're talking about is not only omission, but thinly disguised segregation. For some reason, all writers of color (not just blacks) are often shelved together in the same section of the bookstore--a section that is pitifully small. At the same time, that writing is usually limited to erotica or poetry. I've seen very little literary fiction and no SF/F whatsoever.

Kevin, while I respect your opinion, I must strongly disagree with your belief that the lack of books by people of color is due to a lack of writers. I am a member of several large online writing groups. I can assure you that the numbers are there, but those numbers do not translate to the bookstore.

As Moonrat suggested, I don't think literary agents and editors consciously omit minority writers. However, many will only purchase books that fit within a certain mold (i.e., erotica, romance, chick lit, etc.).

Octavia Butler is the only SF/F writer of color I have ever seen in a bookstore, and I have looked HARD for others. And yet, I'm a member of an online SF/F group for black writers with over 300 members. Kevin, you claimed the playing ground is level, but it is truly not. Why, out of all the potentially thousands of minority spec fiction writers in the country, does only ONE name make it onto the store shelves?

I am also deeply disturbed by your assertion that "ethnic" writers should seek out "ethnic" readers. That's exactly what I meant when I spoke of literary segregation. Books by minority writers shouldn't only speak to other minorities, any more than books by white authors should only speak to other white people. It's very dangerous to label books as being "for" one audience or another.

That's the whole problem with the "multicultural" part of the store. It puts writers of color in their own corner and says, "This is where you belong" whether the books fit there or not.

Publishing more books by people of color would not "lower the standard" of literature at all. This isn't affirmative action. If anything, it would raise the standard by allowing minority authors to be competitive in a variety of genres (i.e., SF/F, historical fiction, mysteries, etc.). In this industry, as in any other, competition is good. Everyone benefits from it.

Excellent post today, Moonrat! Thank you, thank you, thank you for bringing this to everyone's attention. It's a discussion we desperately need to have :)

Brian Keaney said...

I don't know what the situation is in the US but in the UK you can't get into publishing without working for free as an intern for several months. Who can afford to do this? Middle class families, of course. Which means mostly white families. So very few black people ever make it into positions where they can take publishing decisions. Publishers could begin to address the problem by paying proper salaries to people at the bottom of the pyramid and dropping the system of exploiting interns. Then there might not be a need for special schemes to recruit ethnic minorities.

pacatrue said...

One thing that might be worth adding to this is the role of linguistic prejudices. Standard literary writing has traditionally been based on an ideal that, not at all coincidentally, is close to the dialect of English spoken by the white middle-to-upper class mostly around the Northeast (particularly in decades past). This doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of very successful writers who have very different voices than that, and we can all start rattling them off, but those voices are often interesting precisely because they differ from the expectation. One is considered educated-sounding if one speaks the prescribed dialect which is closest to that of upper class white speakers. (There are of course lots of complexities to this.)

Now, it's certainly the case that lots of people of different ethnicities and social backgrounds speak this same standard dialect, but the proportion is less and the expectation of that dialect by others reduces the number of people who are considered writers. There must be a great number of children who spoke some non-standard dialect, such as African American Vernacular English (a dialect of English which has been rooted in black America, but is not spoken by all or only black Americans), who never considered themselves as possible future writers because their teachers were always trying to get them to drop their own dialect for the standard (white in origin) dialect.

Some of those children will convert over to the standard dialect, some will not convert but succeed with their original home dialect, but some will just internalize the belief that they are uneducated and could never write well.

This could affect who gets published in many ways. 1) By people never trying to write since they don't sound like they've been told they should; 2) By agents, editors, and publishers expecting a certain style and rejecting things that don't fit that style with only periodic exceptions, and 3) the readers not buying books that don't fit their model of what an educated writer should sound like.

I hate to say, but many readers are extremely particular about what they think good writing looks like. They'll get all "eats, shoots and leaves" on you. You would hope that people who love words would love to hear words in all the different varieties of English that exist, but the opposite seems more often the case to me. (Actually, there are good and bad reasons for this.)

Final note: No, I am NOT saying that everyone who is not white speaks in a different dialect. More often than not, it is very difficult to tell the ethnicity of the writer from, say, the style of their blog comments. I am only saying that this is one contributing factor.

It's similar to the bias on language tests in standardized testing like the SAT. I happened to grow up in a household where people spontaneously used words that could show up on the SAT. So I only had to actively learn some portion of the words through my own efforts; the rest I just picked up. But if you grow up in a household that uses words of a different dialect, you get no benefit from that, because the standardized test never tests for those words. They only test for the words of the standard dialect.

If we always expect good writing to be in the dialect originally spoken by some white Americans, then we will end up with fewer non-white writers.

Vixen said...

It is good to see you raising the ugly storm of Racefail here on your blog so bravely. So many people have tried to calm the waters only to find they've inadvertantly poured kerosene on the fire instead and their blog has gone up in an inferno of protest...

I've watched the furore without commenting or becoming involved - until now. I'm one of the silent observers - we're probably legion in our numbers.

Thing is, I'm white and I'm a woman. A clueless one, as this issue goes, as it turns out. Until Racefail came along, it never occurred to me consider skin colour in my writing or even to register that Sff doesn't routinely mention POC. (I think they call that the luxury of unexamined white privilege...)

I didn't even realise that I had a default position and that my default position was white. Actually, I was so focused on trying to write a compelling story I didn't consider that having a default position is in itself unwritten subtext. The subtext that was in my head was more about the subjugation of women and humanity and our arrogant treatment of the world's creatures, more than anything else.

I'm not making excuses - I'm still getting my head around the fact I had a default position. Because I'm one of the crowd who doesn't consider myself a racist and would be horrified if you did.

But sometimes you don't know something is there until someone points it out, you know? Before, if you'd asked me, I would have said, well I don't mention colour of skin - any colour - because my work is not focused on race.

What I've learned from Racefail is that the absence of characters of colour in my work is a default position of white, and in itself an agreement with supression.

Now I know how we SFF writers are failing at this, I can try to do something about it on my own front. I have to admit though, I'm thinking myself around in circles a little. I don't want to start creating CharactersofC just to please people - that smacks of the worst kind of hypocrisy.

So I'm going to learn. I'm going to write with more awareness and try harder to make my work a place of equality.

Because what I learned from Racefail is that the absence of characters of colour in my work is an agreement with supression, and that me saying that it was unintentional does not solve the problem.

And here's the good thing; I learned something from watching the massive mess that is Racefail. And that's good, right? Because it means the massive mess wasn't wasted.

nightsmusic said...

This isn't going to be a long post from me. I think the subject is being covered well here.

All I can say is, I would love to see more authors like Beverly Jenkins, and more contemporary characters like Louis Kincaid.

That said, I agree with your error of omission premise. But *whoever* is picked up for publication has to be able to write first, and that should be the deciding factor before their ethnicity is. There's an awful lot of crap out there from 'white' authors so I have to wonder how many non-white authors are submitting to begin with.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

First to Kevin: in the late 80s, rap/R&B artists had a fit and pretty much made MTV start playing more of their videos. They demanded a show such as Yo! MTV Raps, they demanded more airtime for their music. They got it by threatening to sue and scream discrimination.

The white artists began disappearing from the airwaves.

I was part of the industry at the time, albeit in college radio. Yet word trickled down through the heavy metal ranks to me. I remember being sad; so much good music was being shut out in the face of what was essentially a bunch of bullies. (Then again, I never cared for the music or culture that became so mainstream as a result of this, so it's possible that my tag of bullies is a bit harsh.)

As for writing, the name escapes me, I've got to get the kids off to school, but I'm being tortured by the inability to recall the name of a very famous, influential SciFi writer who wasn't only black, he was gay. There ARE writers out there of color and ethnicity. Many of them write outside of commercial fiction, however.

I wonder if part of the issue we're now facing -- and calling racism -- is twofold: one is an education disparity. Look at the educational (test scores, college attendance) records of all these groups you're discussing. BIG disparity there. That doesn't exactly lead to great writers, ya know? Illiteracy rates are high among the groups with low test scores. Illiterate people simply can't write books that are any good.

The other reason might be that of culture. I've come across many books written by women, especially, of color. They are all set in the gangster culture, as if that's all that can be put out on shelves. Umm, sorry, but I don't like that culture. I'm not going to read books full of drug dealers and gang bangers.

On the other hand, we're seeing lots of books set in the Middle East -- Iran, Iraq, India (not really the Middle East, but close enough) ... the trouble areas of the world.

Again, though, it's not commercial fiction. We're not seeing vamps take out al Queda (although that's quite a concept), or seeing shifters run amuck in the woods of China with the Pandas.

Instead, I'm seeing this increased multi-culturalism on the more literary end of the fiction world. A lot of it is quite good, too. If more people knew of these books so that they knew to buy them, perhaps we'd be seeing a real revolution where the author's skin color and ethnic background doesn't matter, but the contents of the story do.

Joseph Lewis said...


Racism today is defined as the exercise of power informed by prejudice. People making publishing decisions are exercising media power, and if those decisions are influenced even subconsciously by assumptions about authors/characters of color, then that is racist.

Also, your closing statement that you are open to writers who are "Black, Asian, Mexican, or someone from Mars" is offensive. It's a somewhat common sort of argument, and I doubt you meant to offend, but you've just proven the point of subconscious prejudice. You have just equated three real populations of people who experience forms of racism every day with a non-existent fantasy race. You've just sent the message that you respect people of color as much as you do Martians.

I understand that was not your intent at all, but you could have stopped at "Mexican" and been fine, but you felt the need to throw in Martians, probably because you thought it sounded reasonable.

Take a step back and think about that for a minute.

Kaz Augustin said...

The point is, we want our national literary culture to reflect our country.

Ah. Right there is something that you're probably not aware of. As a brown-skinned post-colonialist child, I read so much more about the adventures of white children when growing up. As far as I knew, with the exception of the odd Kipling, children of my own (or darker) hue were savages, shifty and/or smirking. In this blog, you are talking about YOUR culture to reflect YOUR country, while remaining interestingly myopic about the fact that YOUR books transcend borders, whether you like it or not. I'm not trying to be precious or rude about this. It was just an interesting observation while reading your very sensitive blog post.

That was the first thing that occurred to me. (Susan, the black gay SF writer you're thinking about is Sam Delaney.) While books are not divided along white/AA lines in south-east Asia, they are certainly demarcated along Asian/everyone-else lines. I related a little of this in a short article Sue Burke and I wrote on genre fiction in our respective regions (Spain & s-e Asia), due to be published soon by Broad Universe's Broadsheet newsletter (unabashed plug). That one (Asians dissing their own writers) is a battle I fear I'm going to have to take up as well -- being the opinionated ass that I am -- and I have the sneaking feeling it will probably end up being a more fruitful avenue for my time than getting into the whole Racefail imbroglio that's been going on for more than a century now. We'll see.

The rest of this comment is for Susan. Susan, you said I've come across many books written by women, especially, of color. They are ALL [my emphasis] set in the gangster culture. Again, surely not true. I am a woman of colour and yet not one of my stories is set in gangster culture. So I am confused. When people like you and EA are talking about POC (and all the others that were part of the original Racefail, er, debates), were/are you referring only to African Americans? Or are you referring to the POC that collectively make up more than half of the world's population? It's just that I'm not sure if I should even be here if the debate does not affect me (I can't speak for an AA writer and what they've gone through), but my ears just perked up at the "colour" thing. So I'm wondering if I'm in the right place and offering anything of value.

Educational disparity may be an element to consider in North America, but it's more of a cultural blindness in Asia, having been told on several occasions that there's "no relevance" in SF. I splutter in disbelief. SF? No relevance? Are you nuts?! But, there you go. SF only seems to happen to white people in places far away and there is no connectedness to how most people in the world live. So I fear that, outside the USA, you may find the cultural perception a greater contributing factor than mere education. This would help explain the slant towards more literary, rather than genre, works.

A lot of it is quite good, too. Thank you, on behalf of coloured people everywhere, and I'm being only a little snarky, and hope you understand.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

Kaz, thanks for the Sam Delaney. I was going nuts on that one!

As for the rest of what you've said, let me elaborate... most of the books I've run across written by African American women ARE the same, at least as presented in the reviews I come across. Granted, I only read a few sources for reviews; I've only got so much time in the day. (and yes, in this instance, I'm referring only to African Americans -- but that's because it's all I've come across.)

I WANT more. I want to be exposed to more than that. I am actively seeking it, but other than erotica, I've yet to find it. If you've got suggestions for me, please e-mail them to me.

And that raises a point here, Taz, don't you think? Visibility. People can't read (or be exposed to) something they don't know exists.

As for the "some of them are quite good," I was thinking in a different vein. I do not like much literary fiction, for all that I've earned my MFA in fiction. To say I loathe a lot of it would not be an understatement. Thus, "some of them are quite good" in my mind is aimed at highbrow fiction, which is what the rest of that particular paragraph was discussing. I apologize for insulting you.

Seriously, Taz. Please drop me an e-mail. Not only do I want you to broaden my horizons, I'd really like to share a pet project of mine with you. I suspect you can help and together, we can begin to change this issue for the better.

JES said...

Frankly, I have two irreconcilable wishes: (a) that we -- publishers, authors, and readers together -- had never created whole genres devoted to [insert ethnicity of choice Literature in the first place; and (b) that we'd never needed to.

Some interesting considerations, looking at this from a writer's viewpoint:

Even if we accept it as a given that ethnicity (of author, characters, situation) shouldn't matter (do we accept that as a given?), can a writer of Ethnicity X fairly presume to feature a protagonist of Ethnicity Y, let alone Z?

If I expressly announce, on the page, that a character is of Ethnicity Y, doesn't that establish expectations for that character's behavior, memories, hot buttons?

If OTOH I don't assign ethnicity to any of my characters, will the reader take it for granted that they must be of Ethnicity X (because I am) or of Ethnicity Y (because the reader is)? Does the reader search, consciously or not, for "tags" which signal characters' ethnic affiliations?

Forget marketing for a moment. If we -- authors, editors -- feature specific ethnicities and not others, are we subtly saying, Well, ethnicity DOES matter just as much as traditional genre?

Does any of this matter? Should it?

moonrat said...

Gosh, so much to respond to, and I have to work instead...

Where to start?

How about here--Brian Keaney--thank you for mentioning that. It's absolutely true, and a horrible, horrible part of of the top-down problem. You're so, so right--I bemoan that editorial casting fact everyday, and for some reason forgot how it comes directly to bear on this topic.

moonrat said...

Vixen--I'm like you, a white woman who needed to be told to think about her race. I feel much, much better now that I do. You should check out WHY ARE ALL THE BLACK KIDS SITTING TOGETHER IN THE CAFETERIA? It will help even more.

moonrat said...

Anon 2:02: I would LOVE to know about some of those forums you mention--they seem like exciting places to direct people (for writers) and/or find people if you're an agent/editor. Do you have any info it's ok to list publicly?

pacatrue said...

I could say a lot more as well here, but will stick with one thought, which is just: How one presents ethnicities is a WHOLE lot more complicated when you get to create a different world in Speculative Fiction. Depending upon the world, none of the actual ethnicities or cultures of the real world may exist in the created world. It has no meaning to identify someone as European or Asian in a speculative world without Europe or Asia. Instead, you have to deal with the ethnicities and races in that world.

Geez, the complexities of all this are enough for a book, so I'll delete it all and stop here. My language post was long enough.

Joseph Lewis said...

I think the simplest message for SFF writers is this:

When you create your team of heroes (with swords or spaceships), avoid the stereotype of having five white people with normal back-stories and healthy relationships along with one person of color who has a tragic background and wears his/her ethnicity on their sleeve/face/dialect.

The Asian guy doesn't need to be a martial artist, the Latina doesn't need to be a dancer, the black guy doesn't need to have been in a gang, etc.

Simply avoiding shallow stereotypes would be a great first step.

Anita said...

My main character and I are both Latinas. My main character accompanies her Air Force officer husband to pilot training and (while trying to find a killer!), she tries to fit in with a very caucasian crowd. That was my experience as a young woman (minus the killer hunting) and it was a difficult, soul-searching time for me. I try to infuse the difficulties I experienced into my manuscript in a light-hearted manner, because that's the voice of my manuscript and it's also my present attitude towards past events.

I hope my caucasian readers (if I should ever find an agent and publisher) learn interesting/fun facts about my culture and experience, while my fellow latinas readers go "Hah! That is so me."

Anyway, that's my two cents. Good for you, broaching this subject.

jimnduncan said...

I just came across this whole racefail debate yesterday. I'm not an overly active blog surfer, as it takes far too much of my time away from more important things, but it certainly has made me stop and think. One thing that I became curious about after reading your post here Moonrat, is just how aware are agents/editors of race when they are requesting material? Do they know before a contract is signed? Unless a query states something specifically about the race of the writer, is it possible or likely a book can get clear to publication before the publisher is even aware of this information?

I know most in publishing will say it's all about the writing, but really it's all about the money. Publishers have to make it, and they have to put out books that will sell in order to stay in business. Which of course by itself is fine. Problem is, you're trying to sell to a society that has racism intertwined through everything. Their buying decisions, what they want to read, expect to read, what they see as 'good' writing gets informed by this. Not in a blatant, overtly racist manner mind you, but in all those subtle and insidious background ways that obscure it from awareness in everyday life. Then, in essence, you have Publishers perpetuating a problem without realizing anything is wrong. What is wrong? I'm not going to pretend to know all the vagaries of that. Not even close.

It does bring up some interesting questions though. I don't believe publishers are purposefully excluding ethnic writers, but are they responsible for trying to get some equal representation in the marketplace? Do they have some accountability to us as readers to present the vast and wide range of culture in our country? Probably. They have the power, control the media, so it kind of goes with the territory. One could also say however, that it's not their place to tell readers what to read. They're just in business to give people what they want and make a profit. Of course, we also know that it's very easy for media to shape the desires of the reading public, so that's a bit of a false claim. Publishers should be accountable and responsible for this fact and publish with the understanding that they can shape the mind of the reading public as much as the reading public can demand certain kinds of reading so that they can stay in business.

There are obviously a great many factors that influence this relationship between writers, readers, and publishers. The publishers can decry the fact that there just aren't very many ethnic writers out there doing sf/f in relation to white writers. Or they could say that there is no market for it. In some ways this is probably true, but then we've got an education system that gives systematic advantage to white kids. A greater percentage of white children grow up with the ability and desire to read and write, and the publishing industry pretty much perpetuates this fact. They need to buck up and look at changing how they do things, and not in a, "Oh look, we have an Hispanic and Chinese author on our list," sort of way. I don't have answers for this.

As a reader, I can't say that I've ever specifically looked at the race of the author before buying or considering to buy a book. Unless their picture is on the flap, I have no clue. I look at the blurb, thumb through a few pages and see if I like the writing and decide if it's something I'd like to read. Admittedly, this is informed through the lens of a white, suburban male. Having thought about this issue some, I should probably actively seek out writers whose perspective comes from a place different than my own. We as readers can influence what gets published, so we can take a little responsibilty here to support a more diverse literature. Being oblivious or ignorant isn't an excuse.

As a writer, this is a bit trickier in my opinion. I do have a responsibilty to not be biased, prejudiced, or racist in my writing. I have a responsibility to be informed. If I'm going to have a Hispanic character in my story, I better make the effort write them in a way that accurately refects the circumstances of the story. This isn't to say I feel obliged to write as though I know what it's like to be Hispanic. I can't. I'm not Hispanic. It's not my place to try and define that. If you aren't going to be informed in your writing then don't do it. A lot of Writers (white ones at least) help perpetuate this whole problem because they don't want to make the effort to inform themselves. They stay within the comfort zone of what they know, and write what they know. Which of course, writers should do, but I'm beginning to see here that white writers are to a certain extent lazy and/or ignorant. It's far easier to stay within the bubble and write 'white.' It's far easier to write white characters informed by the dominant white perspective about predominantly white issues, than it is to do the work to inform yourself about how the rest of the world might view things. I'm generalizing here. Some writers make the effort, but many don't. I'll freely admit to being a rather lazy writer in this regard. I do make a great deal of effort to make sure my writing is not biased, prejudiced, or racist, but have avoided being better informed. I write white characters and 'white' stories because it's what I understand and know. After examining things more closely the past couple of days, I realize I have some work to do, to inform myself, and get my writing out of this comfortable, white bubble.

The above is all thoughts in progress. It's as much an effort to help inform myself and work through things as it is to try and get other people reading blogs to think about the issues as well.

Carleen Brice said...

Thank you for saying out loud what so many of us know to be true. I'm having a very good writing/blogging week--hearing that my blog has made even one person think even a little about the topic-Wow! Thank you for saying that!!!

Ivy said...

I don't know the race of something close to 99.9% of the authors whose works grace my shelves or sit on my Kindle. I couldn't get a fig.

Give me an author who can write, and they can be purple with green splotches, I'll buy their next book. Give me an author who can't, and I'm just not buying. Give me a different perspective, and I'm there. That's what fiction is all about.

I'm totally with Kevin. A book shows up as printed words on the page. Start reading with the title, and stop when you realize it sucks, or when you realize it's sucked you in, and respond accordingly. Don't worry about the ethnicity of the author.

MaLanie said...

Moon, have you ever thought about starting your own publishing company? I know it would not be easy but it has been done before.

moonrat said...

MeLanie--I figure I would need about $250,000. You know any philanthropists? ;)

Bernice L. McFadden said...


Lisa said...

Kudos Moonie for posting about this issue. I don't know much about the publishing industry, as compared to others, but from what I've seen over the past several years, it appears to be lagging a bit behind other industries, simply in terms of finding ways to evolve and continue to generate revenue. All businesses are all about the bottom line and publishing, in particular, seems to be more risk averse than other industries.

Strictly from a business and marketing standpoint, I am seeing very good news these days in other forms of media. With the election of our first African American President, we are talking about race, and we're talking about it a lot. I have noticed a marked increase in the number of magazine and online articles, movies, television shows and commercials that feature Black stories, characters and actors. Modeling agencies are looking for children who look like the Obama girls and like it or not, Michelle Obama is now a fashion icon. Black is beautiful and Black is the new Black, so to speak.

I predict that this can only be good news for Black authors and for the reading public. Our interest in the Middle East and in Asia for political reasons over the last decade spurred a marked increase in the number of books published about those cultures and I think smart marketers are going to recognize (if they have not already) that whether it has been through the sin of past omission, misconceptions about what Black authors write about or a simple dollars and sense recognition that people want to read these stories, we are going to see an increase in stories by Black authors on our bookshelves. You heard it here first! (ok, maybe not first) ;)

Lafreya said...

God bless you for putting this up. I’m going to be up front and say that I’m an African American writer.

On the website of e publisher Dollorie Press(publishers of Mythic Fiction) they have an excellent list of diversity sites. It is one of the most complete I have seen. http://drolleriepress.com/resources/reading-and-writing-diversity/. As an African American writer I am so grateful for their work in the area of diversity and their out right declaration that they will not consider submissions that include magical negros or other crappy stereotypes. While you are there please consider purchasing some of their wonderful books.

Now my rant.

I am so tiered of some people’s assumptions that African Americans aren’t writing novels using Standard English or that we aren’t writing excellent literary or commercial fiction. On my blog or on the side of Carleen’s blog is the link to the blunt letter I received from an agent about how most editors and publishers were simply unwilling to consider a variety of African American novels.

It is not African American writers fault that the only things white publishers, editors and agents think we can or should write is urban lit or romance or erotica. Every new black writer I know is trying to get literary or commercial fiction published and being turned down.I have an agent and she can't make any headway in the literary or commercial markets.

Black writers aren’t clamoring for bookstores to place our book only in the African American section many of us would really prefer to not have that done. In the up coming e-issue of the April QBR: Black Book Review (http://www.qbr.com/) they are going to publish a point of view article called "Killing Me Softly: How Publishers Are Killing the Black Reader Market." It should be interesting, because as the introduction states:

“There has been a steady decline in the number of readers of black fiction. The street lit crowd is 'thugged out' or 'growed up'. The black hyper-sex stereotype is played and the blow-back has black book clubs turning to "general market" fiction for their reading. Still, publishers push writers to greater graphic detail while rejecting literary fiction that crosses their desks as "not selling right now". We go inside...”

Indeed I can’t wait to go inside.

Now back to working on my second novel.

MaLanie said...

Moon, even though I do not know you, I have fallen in love with your heart. Your passion for what is good and what is right clearly shines through on your blogs.

If I had $250,000 to give (notice I said give not a loan because I never loan but always give) I would give it to you in a heart beat. Hmm...maybe that is why I am broke all the time?

Moanerplicity said...

Somebody say AMEN! I applaud you for writing this entry and for even tackling this subject.

Some of what you'd stated here I too have questioned, and other things you've only confirmed what I'd long thought about the industry at large.

I never understood why bookstores deem to keep books by Black authors separated in the *ghetto* of their literary terrain. Is this their not-so-subtle way of judging something as inferior to the rest? Most Black writers don't speak in another language. We don't feel a different set of emotions than our White counterparts. Humanity is colorless.

If a book is labeled as fiction, regardless of its author, why isn't it simply placed in the fiction section?

Rhetorical, I guess.

I write what's generally considered to be 'literary fiction.' I'm a Black man with an extensive background in poetry. The common reaction to my over 200 HUNDRED query letters is often met with typical rejection, as if what I offer could not possibly be of interest to anyone outside of my race, thus, NO MASS APPEAL factor. How sad. How exclusionary! How WRONG!

The one thing I detest is to be limited in any way, so there is an embracing of all strata, a purposeful direction toward depth, poetic and lyrical expression and rich thoughtful prose that features Black, White, gay, straight, rich, poor, old and young characters. However, because I'm a Black man, it is deemed "Urban." While I feel this is insulting to the nature and humanity of my work, others simply call it 'marketing.'

Marketing? I think that's a polite word for blind exclusivity... or a more socially-acceptable form of elitist racism.

This is no typical reactionary hair trigger response. I'm not so quick to use that word, unless it truly fits.

Thanks for this article.

Bravo for penning it!


Anonymous said...

Great post. It just gave me a much needed boost. I recently refused to make an change in a children's ms that I felt would have played into an outdated paternalistic attitude toward aboriginal peoples. I know the suggestion was made inorder to make a "better" product and was put forth with the best of intentions, but I couldn't bring myself to do it and would rather have the story left unpublished. Now, I am waiting to hear a verdict. The decision may have been suicide, because I don't have a contract yet, and I love the publishing company with my whole heart, but even a very subtle sentence or two can have long lasting effects and contribute to collective attitudes (ones people aren't even aware they have) in a negative way.

Jo said...

Thanks for bringing this to our attention.I'm absolutely going to make a conscious effort to read more of the new writers out there. I have a pretty good library featuring the classics- Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Langston Hughes for example- but I am woefully uninformed now.

Silicon Valley Diva said...

I've been thinking about this a lot. Luckily, I had many courses in college that tried to represent diverse cultures. I would love to hear if you ever come across any new authors. I will also try to search out other forums and blogs that explore writers from diverse backgrounds. Thanks for opening up an important topic!

pacatrue said...

I think what I wrote about English dialects has been understood in a way I did not intend, so I'm going to try to clarify, and then maybe I will just be wrong and people can say so. I think people are reading my long comment as something like, "Well, black writers don't speak normal English, so they are not getting published." This interpretation both deals in stereotypes and puts the blame on black writers, and it would cause me to rant, too.

This is not what I was attempting to say at all. Instead, I was trying to add to the list of reasons that Moonie and others have already brought up. Since I'm a linguist, I focused on language aspects. Linguists are always fighting for a respect for linguistic and dialectal diversity. People speak in different ways and that's awesome to us. This general idea is in opposition to many self-identified language mavens who attempt to force everyone to speak in the same way if they want to be seen as educated.

Now, it turns out that millions upon millions of Americans do not speak in that prescribed dialect at all. As an example, I'm in Hawaii where tens of thousands of people grew up speaking what is termed Hawaii Creole English or just Pidgin locally. This is really a different language than English that borrowed most of its words from English. These thousands upon thousands of people have gone to schools over the last 100 years and been told that their speech is uneducated and poor. Many of those children will internalize that they are not writer material and never even try.

Many people of various language backgrounds, which also often has an ethnic basis of some sort, are going to not write due to linguistic prejudice or never be "taken seriously" due to linguistic prejudice. I thought this was interesting in addition to the larger issues of the post about ethnic and racial biases. It was not intended to be an explanation of racial biases in publishing.

I am NOT saying that all people of a certain ethnicity speak in one way.

I am NOT saying this is the only reason people of color are not published.

I was only trying to add a bit of info about linguistic biases that exist since I know a little bit about them. However, I understand how what I in fact said could be insulting and I apologize for that.

Merry Monteleone said...

Moonrat, I love you!

I've been pondering this issue a bit since your last post on it and thinking back to different things I might have missed in my own bookstore meanderings... I think the situation can be twofold, but the booksellers started it :-)

I think there are a great many readers out there who are color blind. We don't give a flying fig what color, creed, or orientation the author is... is it a good book? That's it. Look, I like voice. Every voice. I actively seek out that which is different from me because, hell, I can tell stories to myself all day long. I want to hear something authentically it's own... not me...

But if they shelve certain books into a tiny section based on the color of the authors' skin - how the hell are the rest of us supposed to find those stories we might really like?

I happen to be one of those very strange eclectic types who will wander around the entire store. I've gotten strange looks in the African American section... I've even been told I must be looking in the 'wrong place'... Sometimes it takes you a minute to figure out what they're trying to say... I had someone ask me that time if I was looking for something assigned for school... because obviously that would be the only reason for a white girl to be in the African American section...

Silliness. Silliness on the part of the person asking, and silliness on the part of the bookseller who thinks they're making their products more easily found by some demographic. I think we've come farther since then... but let me tell you, I'm not the only reader who revels in voice... I'm not the only reader that wants a story that I can sink my teeth into, who doesn't care what color the hands were that typed it up on their keyboard.

I like your solution... and I didn't read the entire comment trail, so forgive me if I'm repeating, but it's not just an effort to seek out books by other races and nationalities... I think it's going to have to be an effort to get these book sellers to stop being so dense and show them they're costing their own self profits.

TheGreenQuibbler said...

It would also be helpful if certain mainstream bookstores, like Borders, would quit engaging in practices like shelving biographies of Barack Obama in the ethnic section instead of the politics or biography sections, and continue to place steamy romance novels in that ethnic section because the novels feature black people. I mean, when I'm looking for nice steamy sex with a happy ending, the ethnic section is not what jumps to mind. Why aren't those books in the romance section?

Marie said...

A very well respected editor at a very well respected house rejected my book because she already "had a half-Japanese writer" and the marketing team had struggled to sell her work.

The editor did not fault my work at all. She did not say that my book was "exactly" like the other half-Japanese writer, but that the marketing team was going to have difficulty figuring out how to position me "differently."

Now, whether or not I'm in a minority group is debatable. But this particular rejection really, really rankled me. There are few professions where you can be rejected because someone else of the same race has already entered the corporation ahead of you, and therefore the marketing team is going to have difficulty seeing you any differently.

Having said that, there are plenty of white writers I know whose books have been rejected for being too much like "X." In the arts, you can be rejected for any reason.

I don't doubt that the truth here is complex, and I really, really like Brian's point; having spent a year working in the publishing industry myself, I can attest to what he says. If you want to break into publishing, you will have to do it out of love, and work for no money for possibly your entire life, but enjoy the glamor of being part of "the culture" and this is easier to do if your family supports you financially and if your family also enjoys the glamor of being part of "the culture."

I'm heartened by how the past decade has seen so many first-generation writers break out. But I think it's naive to think that the market is simply choosing the very best writers, and that those who aren't published are deservedly being left behind.

MaLanie said...

I do not get it. I know I am still new and wet behind the ears here, but where in the heck is the passion for the books? From what I am learning it is all about the dollar.

I care more about teaching equality through my characters than I do about being on any bestsellers list. Sure, it would be nice. However I just want to get my message out to help bring about change.

I have to get on my soapbox as this subject really hits home. While researching the treatment of the Jews during the Middle Ages for my current project I kept coming across the history of the Gypsies (The Roma).

I was curious about them and dug deeper only to find today they are treated like the African Americans were treated a 100 years ago. I was shocked to see this is happening in the 21st century!

You may recall the story of the two young Roma girls that drowned in Italy and were left on the beach for hours as locals went about their picnics. (A year ago I believe) When I seen the picture of their precious bodies laying there I was horrified as in the background people were sun bathing as if nothing happened. There was no respect for them whatsoever. And that only represents the treatment of the Roma today.

I have since decided to add them to my story. I want the world to know the extent of their needless suffering. With enough people standing up change can happen just as we have seen in our own country.

On Youtube, you can see how bad it is for them. I was taken back as I got a glimpse of the racism; people post horrible, mean things about the Roma.

Segregation and Racism will stop if we all do something about it.

Ok Moon, Sorry this was so long. I will get off the box now.

M. said...

my first time here and wow - what a thoughtful and proactive post. I personally now very little more than zip about the biz, but my own preferences do run toward liking diversity in my protagonists. But, I also live in Canada - I'm not aware of African-Canadian authors being shelved separately/differently than other authors, in stores or libraries. AFAIK, it's all done alphabetically by genre, across the board (which, IMHO, makes sense).I wonder how the sales figures would compare?

Merry Monteleone said...

Here's another question that occured to me... and I might be opening a can of worms, but I figure the best way we make change is by being able to talk honestly and bat these things around to understand all sides... so here goes:

Do you think there are readers, who are non-writers and don't necessarily understand that putting works on a separate shelf will hinder their ability to reach a wider audience. Do you think there might be a segment of that group that would feel like there was something being taken away by NOT having a section devoted to authors of color?

I'm just wondering here. Personally, I'd like anyone who wants to read my work to find and enjoy it, and I know that goes for most, if not all authors. But I don't know that readers necessarily go that far. Is it possible that there's a segment of the population that thinks, "These are OUR authors, not yours..." kind of thing?

pacatrue said...

Merry, I only have one experience related to this. About 15 years ago I worked at a nationally known indie bookstore for a single summer, just shelving and the like. While I was there, the owner decided to abolish the AA lit section and move everything into the general "Fiction" section. Before I left, they decided to recreate the AA section after complaints from mostly African-American customers who were having more trouble finding stuff. This is just one experience in one place 15 years ago, so I have no idea what it means about things today. The owners who made the decision to recreate the section could also have been misunderstanding the requests.

The only other separate fiction section the store maintained was for Southern lit.

Tiffany said...


Another way to support black writers and artists is to visit our blogs. Get to know us and comment on the work we post. Let us know we have a wide, diverse audience, if you are genuinely into what we do. You can reach my blog by typing 'Revolutionary Picture Book' into google or just go to bassabassa.blogspot.com. That said, the biggest barrier to my own success as a black woman writer and artist is my own internalized racism, that is believing that no one actually cares what people of color and more specifically, women of color have to say. I convinced myself of this so much that I actually started desktop self-publishing low low budget, raw and gorgeous stuff, and getting into book arts which has been wonderful and empowering. However, I will acknowledge some of this as a sort of reaction or defense mechanism toward what I believe to be true about the racism that exists in the publishing industry. I haven't given up on mainstream publishing or even independent publishing but I do feel the need to establish my own vision independent of the needs and quotas of the publishing industry. In other words, I am not going to wait for someone to publish my work. I will do it myself. Consequently, I allow my imagination free reign. That said, of course I would love to be recognized, respected, and supported as a writer and artist along the mainstream route. Right now I am doing it my way. You are welcome to check my blog out, regularly, and bookmark it. Support me and other 'people of color' bloggers and writers as much as you can. The blogosphere is an excellent way to connect with 'people of color' writers who are not published in mainstream presses. The words and images I create aren't just for black people they are for everyone. Get to know an independent, avante garde Black woman writer and artist right here online. Most importantly, spread the word about us. Enjoy.

writtenwyrdd said...

Merry/Paca/everyone else, I posted on this yesterday, saying I figure shelving in both sections m ay be the only way to ensure the books found there audience. The thoughtful responses from a couple of librarians underlined that the people served by the "ethnic ghetto" shelving actually do sometimes demand this segregation for their own convenience.

As someone who wouldn't normally go browsing for genre fiction in a section of the store that is not devoted to that genre (sff) this doesn't serve me because it hides books I'd be glad to read. But there you go. Can't please everybody.

Mary Witzl said...

It is sad that many people tend to think of books written by minorities as FOR those minorities exclusively. It would be nice if we just read good books, whatever the racial (or other) background of the author. Gish Jen found it hard to get published because everyone expected her to write about Chinese-Americans. She was persuaded to 'write ethnic' again and again, even though that wasn't what she wanted to write.

Having read some of the other comments here, I am heartened that a lot of writers bemoan this tendency.

Carleen Brice said...

Kerry, Very interesting statistic!

Lafreya, Thanks for letting us know about Drollerie Press and for the heads up about the QBR editorial!

Michelle H. said...

Well, this is a downer!

Sarah Laurenson said...

Moonie - Thank you so much for this post. And what thoughtful discussion in the comments. I picked up a book at random this past weekend - Passing For Black. The title and the cover caught my eye, so I read the first page (not the prologue, but chapter one) and I was hooked. I'm assuming the author is not white, but I don't know for sure. I am also planning on writing a review on my blog once I finish it.

Although I am a white woman, I was raised in an inner city black neighborhood and my cultural beginnings are there. I then moved to a Jewish neighborhood and have some roots in that culture. And I won't even go into how much BBC television I watched. Even with my cultural mishmash upbringing and my fascination with other cultures, I have found prejudice where I never expected it to be - in me. It's amazing what we accept as normal and right simply because it's what we grew up with. I have been trying to eradicate it wherever I see it in myself and that includes in my writing and my character descriptions.

When Whoopi Goldberg said she would call the fighting in Africa a Black on Black action when the rest of the world called the fighting in Bosnia a White on Whate action. Yeah, huh. Love how that made me stop and think. When I read that link I put in the comments the other day about the default race in Harry Potter, that also made me stop and think. I never noticed it when I read the books, but it is defintely there.

I, too, am trying to be conscious of not assuming everyone is straight in my writing. Very interesting to me that my default is straight even though I am gay. And I wonder if the same is true of POC. Is their default white simply because that is the default they grew up with? Because that is the default of the majority of books out there?

Sarah Laurenson said...

So my question is - do British black authors get shelved under African-American?

Sara J. Henry said...

For some people, it may be completely true that they don't care about the race of an author - but most of us are swayed subliminally without realizing it. From author name and photo to cover design to book description, we make snap decisions about purchasing based on many layers of things of which we may not be aware. (Me, if I see the words CIA or suicide, I put the book down. If the cover shows a bucolic meadow scene, I think Yikes, the kind of book my mother reads, and put the book down.) Media or personal experience or simply feeling more comfortable with people who look like us can lead us to veer toward authors of our own race, or to assume on some level that an author of a different race may not have written a book we'll be interested in.

If we see a book by a Chinese author, do we think Oh, a Chinese story? If we see a book by a black or Hispanic author, do we think, Oh, this must be from the black/Hispanic viewpoint?

On some level, many of us do, and until we realize that, we haven't made a step toward leveling the playing field.

The fact is, many of us live in a segregated world. When I worked at a huge major publisher, pretty much every person was white. Where I live I go weeks without seeing anyone who isn't white. Almost, and perhaps all, of my non-white friends I met through writing.

As writers, we can take a good look at our own characters - is every person who moves through your pages the same race? Should they be?

As readers, we can make an effort to pick up books by authors who look different from us.

As long as - at least for me - they don't write about suicide or CIA or have bucolic meadow scenes on their covers.

moonrat said...

thanks, everyone who's chipped in, commented, emailed, linked, etc. i'm sorry i haven't been responding more; this conversation is SO interesting and important. but i think a lot of people are more qualified to talk about specific points than i am, and on top of that, i've been really busy at work and didn't think it was wise to dash off a half-baked comment.

thanks also to those who've linked and blogged about this--building awareness is Huge Step #1. i don't want to be oppressive in my ideas, but i just feel better about myself when i feel like i'm doing what i can to make a difference, you know? i hope others feel the same way.

peggy said...

I know that what I say may not mean much, but as a reader...I never ask what color folks are. Our book stores here don't have a section for different races of folks. Sci fi etc are all together etc. I guess in a way, I was not aware this happened. I belong to a writer community on Zoetrope, unless it's brought up, no one asks. Maybe I'm just colorblind. Good writing is good writing. Very interesting blog Moonie.

Ello said...

Good for you Moonie! That was a wonderful post! I've been having a lot of racism related posts these days so this is heavy on my mind.

Mommy C said...

I blog a great deal about Native American/ Inuit authors and children's books about their stories. My children are part Inuit and it is my gift to them. I try to bring as many Native books into our house as I can.

Can I direct readers to Michael Kusugak (great Inuit writer and author of "A Promose is a Promise") and David Bouchard (who writes many different types of stories, not just Native ones)? David Bouchards website is really neat and he deserves a major pat on the back for helping to promote the First Nations not just in literature, but art and music, as well.

And, I am thankful to be Canadian. At least in our bookstore in town, we don't have a seperate "ethnic" section. Also, authors such as Michael Ondaatje have not been held back by ethnicity.

I understand having an ethnic section so that minority groups can search out books with their own stories, but honestly, i am thankful that this practice seems less prevalent here. I fell in love wit hthe words of Mordecai Richler when I was about 14. What did I have in common with an aging Jewish man? Nothing but the human eperience. I would have never considered searching out an author like Richler or Ondaatje in the ethnic section.

Trixie said...

Thanks very much for this post and for directing me to look into the racefail conversation more.
What an interesting set of comments you have drawn so far. I've been looking for more African and African American authors to inform my writing because this is the culture in which I am immersed in my other work in medicine.
I am on my own personal soapbox by writing fiction (and non-fiction medical research in health disparities) about the historical basis of racism, separation, and inequality in this country. My greatest hope is that conversations like racefail and others proliferate and continue on a larger national scale. I also hope that as a country and as individuals we can begin to overcome some of the unconscious (and conscious) bias that we have developed by talking more about these issues and informing ourselves and others by reading and writing about them.

sewarf said...

I've been reading EA for a while now, but this is my first comment. I'm currently writing a young adult fantasy novel, and it actually occurred to me in the writing, just how white-washed the characters are. I considered trying to broaden the ethnicity a bit, but I'm almost afraid to. Not because of any perceived prejudice in the publishing industry (although I will admit that it rankles me that most AA authors get shoved into their own little section; a section that is often advertised using the most stereotypical of the books on the endcaps)but because I'm white, and I feel like I can't really speak from a position of ethnicity if I really haven't experienced it.

If there's one thing worse than not including ethnic characters, its including cardboard ethnic characters who act just like your white characters, because you really can't speak with that voice; or even worse, including nerdy Asian characters who are good at computers, or sassy black chicks who are your white protagonist's best friend. GAH!

I think its presumptuous if we think that just by virtue of being writers we can write from everyone's perspective equally well. I damn well know I can't, and I wouldn't want to offend someone by trying and failing.

Sara J. Henry said...

Sewarf - I agree it can be presumptuous to try to write from a perspective we're not familiar with or haven't lived: say someone who must use a wheelchair or grew up in a black ghetto. And we shouldn't just plug in characters of color into our writing. But as writers, it's our job to inhabit the characters we write about. I have a character who is a male Canadian policeman, and while my brother was a policeman, I've never been, but I'm doing my best to write through the eyes of this character. It's not presumptuous - it's being a writer. The same can be true of characters of color or of another race.

Michael Robotham does what I think is a brilliant job of this in THE NIGHT FERRY, writing from the first-person perspective of a female Sikh London police detective who is (I think) a first-generation Brit, and who was a peripheral character in his previous novel LOST. Granted, if it were clumsily done, I'd probably be grumbling Who does he think he is, writing from the perspective of a woman? - but he carries it off, superbly. (The veracity of Sikh London detective part I can't speak to, but it rang true.)

Jamie Ford wrote about a young Chinese boy and Japanese girl in the 1940s in his novel HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET, on the NY Times bestseller list this week. Jamie's father is Chinese, but creating the Japanese girl's life and family, especially in an internment camp, required research and imagination. Was it presumptuous to write from the perspective of a 12-year-old Japanese girl? His book required it.

You say "I feel like I can't really speak from a position of ethnicity if I really haven't experienced it" and in a sense that's true - but you can experience it, through reading, through research, through observing, through friends. Yes, it's a lot of work, but your fiction will be the better for it.

If we all wrote only about what we have experienced first hand, we'd have some pretty boring books. The power of fiction is to enrich our worlds - both writer and reader.

Dara said...

Why does there have to be a multicultural section in a bookstore to begin with? I think that just creates further division. An entire bookstore should be multicultural, not just one section hidden away somewhere.

I also wonder if writers are "typecast" so to speak into writing about "their" race. I know that half the book ideas I have are actually from a variety of cultures around the world--and I'm Caucasian. I often wonder how readers would react to my current WiP--a distinctly Asian storyline (in fact much of the book deals with racism as my MC is half Japanese and half American and considered an outcast among both her Japanese and American counterparts)

I suppose the whole race thing was never something I thought about simply because most of my stories are multicultural to begin with.

Sally said...

"but you can experience it, through reading, through research, through observing, through friends."

I'm not trying to disagree just to be disagreeable, but I think there's so much more to it than that. Speaking as someone who grew up in Appalachia, I can say with some authority that, having seen what is often portrayed as Appalachian in movies/TV/lit/general American consensus, the reality is so nuanced and different that it almost never translates into something fictional, unless you've lived it.

That's not to say that it isn't worth trying, or isn't worth understanding. But I will say that what we "know" and what we "think we know" in terms of ethnicity or minorities are very different things. And oftentimes we end up writing based on what we think we know, and that's where we screw up.

No amount of minority friends, or minority research will change that, because what we think we know comes from a very different place--a place based on our own experiences rather than others--than does actual knowledge. And its way too easy to confuse one with the other.

Sally said...

PS-I futzed around with my profile, and the comment from "sewarf" above was me. Same person! Sorry about any confusion!

Sara J. Henry said...

Sally/Sewarf - Good point, and I do see that doing it badly is far worse than not doing it at all. And to get the true nuances, you need to have lived it. But I think there's a balance, and that varies from book to book and writer to writer.

Persia Walker has created a rich world of black characters in 1920s Harlem in her novels HARLEM REDUX and DARKNESS AND THE DEVIL BEHIND ME. Persia of course didn't live in the 1920s, but may have had family history to draw from. I, as a white person who never lived in New York, never would have attempted that.

But some of my peripheral characters can be a different nationality or race without my having to understand every nuance of their cultural experiences, and without creating cardboard cutouts or resorting to cultural stereotypes.

It's subtle change, but I think a step in the right direction - like seeing people of different ethnicity on television on in your favorite clothing catalog. They become part of the landscape. Which is, I think, a good thing.

PS I am from Tennessee myself (and cringe when I hear people attempt a Tennessee twang or dialect).

BSwatcher said...

Salient points highly appreciated moonrat.

I recommend the anthology, "Dark Matter; A Century of Speculative Fiction From the African Diaspora", edited by Sheree R. Thomas.

To my thinking, in a-metaphorically-kind-of-way, it answers the question, "WHY ARE ALL THE BLACK KIDS SITTING TOGETHER IN THE CAFETERIA?"

Venus Vaughn said...

So many comments, and I haven't read them all, but I wanted to put my two cents in now before I forget.

jimnduncan mentioned that if he as a 'white guy' wants to write Hispanic, he'd better get educated first and make sure he's writing from a place of authenticity. (aside: I wonder, does he say that about women in his manuscripts? psychopaths? murderers? Englishmen?)

As a black woman who grew up firmly lodged in the middle-class I look at myself and wonder, "am I supposed to be different, but I just missed the memo?" Call me Oreo if you want to, but my morals, experiences, outlook, expectations ... my life, really, is as mainstream as it gets.

POC are as 'diverse' as white folk. Some of us are rich, some poor, some had sucky childhoods, some great, some care about our clothes, some care about our bank account instead. It's all just the experience of being human.

If you want to write about a Latina woman who, according to all stereotypes, is first generation in the USA, immigrated from Mexico, parents can't speak English, is part of a large family, grew up in the barrio and is 'spicy', then you're missing the mark on what makes that woman a HUMAN BEING just like the rest of us. Take a white woman, grow her up in the same conditions, learn something about the experience of humans the world over, and then change the skin color. If the white woman fits, with all attendant characterizations goals, and life experiences, then the Latina woman will fit just as well.

You take that same Latina woman ans grow her up as a 5th generation immigrant (like most of us) in the suburbs, worrying about money to go to college and rolling her eyes at her parents when they are slow on a computer, 2.3 kids, a dog, trying to find a date for her first prom and hating the popular kids who used to tease her and you have an experience you already understand. She may have a higher tolerance for spicy food and know what a quincenera is, but do you really think she's going to have a different character than a white woman in those same circumstances?

As an author, it's your job to know how the experiences of living shape our characters, our expectations, our willingness to act and react. The authenticity of the character is developed from their experiences, not their skin color.

If their skin color has had a direct bearing on their experiences, then it's the author's job to know how anyone would react to that experience, and grow your character out of that.

What I'm saying in my long-winded way is that we aren't Separate on the inside, we're all Equal. Write us as such.

Anonymous said...

Can I say an amen to Venus! As a former teacher who taught in a school whose socioeconomic status was 70% below the poverty level, I can tell you from personal experience that the difference in the students was not based on race, but their financial backgrounds. My super poor white, latino, and black students had the SAME issues. On an interesting note, my white,asian and latino students mixed together more than my AA students. I was shocked to find a large amount of discrimination on the part of my AA students against ALL the other races and had to deal with it on more than one occasion. That's not to say there wasn't racism from other groups as well, but it was more prevalent with my AA students against others. This is a specific situation and I do not believe it is indicative of a wide sample for statistical purposes. My point is that this issue of racism seems slanted and focuses in on one group of color when there are several. I also heartily concur with Venus' take in general!

Glen Akin said...

@ Sally,

You're right and you're also wrong. It's almost impossible (almost, because for some it isn't) as an author to be 100% convincing when writing about a life you haven't lived or a role you haven't played. I write, but I'm not a police officer. So naturally even if I wrote about a police officer, a REAL police officer would look at my character and think, "Nah, not convincing enough."

But that doesn't mean I or anyone else shouldn't try. Through extensive research and hardwork it is possible to pull it off. People have done it plenty times.

Just because you're not something or you haven't lived a particular lifestyle doesn't mean you shouldn't write about it or can't be convincing about it in your writing. If that were the case then there wouldn't be a lot of interesting books out there right now.

Dal Jeanis said...

Ummm -

Wow. Racefail. Default position of white oppression in SFF.

Ummm. Yeah.

Don't know about what SFF those Racefail guys might be reading, but they might try something written since 1970 or so. There's a lot out there.

I grew up in the late 1960s and early 1970s reading stories about different races. Of course, they were a little more different than just varying in how much they could tan... some were green and some had tentacles and some were fuzzy and some thought in modes so different that translation was nearly impossible. See CJ Cherryh, for example.

Note that many modern minority authors seem to intentionally avoid being labeled as minority, so *how would you know*???

Even ignoring spec fic genres where the races are completely different -- ogres, elves etc ---, just take the last ten years of Hugo awards nominees, and look at whether there are characters of various races. You will find important minority characters even in Victorian England.

Then give me "racefail."


P.S. Standard literary writing is based upon imaginative use of the vocabulary and sound of the English language. It's silly to claim that whites have any real advantage there over people of color, although many school systems have admittedly handicapped their students by "natural language instruction" -- intentionally failing to teach spelling and syntax.

Anonymous said...

Dal Jeanis--I hope you'll reconsider what you just wrote on this. As mentioned once previously in this comment thread, comparing "other" races to eg elves and ogres in itself shows that we have obviously NOT reached a point where there is no racism in literature. Depicting a character "of another race"--ie not white, since white IS our standard default--is far from a comprehensive solution to racism in literature. In those Victorian novels, for example, most "minority" characters are just like Fagin in Oliver--hurtful caricatures that buy into the worst stereotypes in order to "build character."

Dal Jeanis said...

Okay, Anonymous 5:00 - My comment was clearly about SFF - speculative fiction, and specifically Hugo nominees, not "Victorian novels" in general. If you know enough Hugo-nominated Victorian novels in the last ten years to make a plural, please list them. I'll even accept Nebula, World Fantasy Awards, Stokers, Edgars and so on. Paranormal RITAs need not apply.

I read, study and write speculative fiction, and while no one can read everything that's out there, I'm very familiar with the best that gets published, since it's what I aspire to.

I refuse to allow anyone, especially anyone too cowardly to leave their name, to make blanket statements about the literature that I read. Especially ignorant statements based upon prejudice. You want to play, back it up with facts. So put up or shut up.

I'll even give you a single character to research. You tell me exactly how the very capable Stephen Black character in "Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell" is a "hurtful stereotype", given the social context of being a black human being in 1800's England.

Do it without cribbing from Wikipedia either. Read the book and use quotes from the actual text.

Or backpedal graciously. Your choice.


NOTE - I said "even ignoring spec fiction genres where the races are completely different". So I was specifically walking away from the discussion of nonhuman races, whether cliche D&D types like ogres or fanfic Klingons, or exceptional and subtle examples such as those crafted by CJ Cherryh, Robert Sawyer, AE Van Vogt, David Brin, Octavia Butler and Samuel R Delany. I walked away from discussing all the spec fic stories where the races have real, biological differences that have full expression in behavior, rather than being primarily cosmetic such as those within our own species. Those are cool, awesome, deep stories, which allow a full and honest metaphorical examination of the subject of race.

I also didn't deal with the hard scifi fast-forward posthuman characters for whom race is a silly retro concept - you can't even really determine their species, since it's just a matter of convenient reference.

Spec fiction has grown up. Go insult an easier target, or at least read enough to have an informed opinion.

Or come over to my blog and discuss further. I've set up a post for it to land on here.

Dal Jeanis said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
gempress said...

In early 2000 tens of thousands of rejected yet determined African American (AA) writers ventured into the self-publishing arena. Many were quite successful.

Several Publishing houses created imprints just to pick up all those great self-published titles. The sad thing, we fell for it. AA Book stores popped up all of the country. For a hot minute we were ecstatic that finally publishers were giving us a chance to put out books in masse that spoke to who we were as a people. mind you, we are a very diverse people, not one note robots.

For you who believe there are not many AA writers out here, you're wrong. we are tens of thousands strong, but so many are never mainstreamed published. So many are self-published or published by small presses.

Why have you never seen these books? The chain stores only permit a small section in their stores for AA books.

In the last four years, if the books we present to the publishers are not filled with graphic sex, street violence, and profane language then publishers are not interested. Authors who refuse or do not write street lit or erotica have been given the boot by their publishers.

As controversial as this subject is, this argument is about balance within the literary market---equal publication and marketing for AA writers who do not write what's "popular". This argument is also about choice that Publishers are not permitting the reading public to have. However, while there are those who point fingers at erotic and street lit authors as well as at the publishers who publish these books, the truth is, publishers are capitalists. How they spend their money to garner the greatest profit is what determines which books will make the best sellers' lists; which books the book stores will place prominently in their stores and eventually sell; and in the end, which authors will achieve the greatest success.

Since Publishers are not accountable to the people as government agencies are, we can't demand that they publish more literary AA authors. Publishers will continue to publish works they deem profitable for them regardless of the negative impact upon the reading public and the authors who have been eliminated or rejected. Therefore, no amount of labored gripping at the publishers will change a thing. Only time and a discerning, tight-fisted reading public will alter the course of publishing as we now know it.

Still, we have to ask ourselves, why are major publishers steadfastly continuing in their role as gatekeepers over the AA experience?

Is it solely for profit or is it in keeping with the historic suppression of the creative and literary expression of a people?

Why is it that literary works by lesser known and prominent white authors critically acclaimed and received, while such works in the AA market on the whole get little notice or never see the light of day?

Why the sustained annihilation of positive AA literary works and why the blatant ostracism of the authors who write them?

That being said, where do we go from here? Do we bury our pens and keyboards? Do we silence our creative voices? Or do we work to find a solution?

Self publishing hasn't solved the problem. Now that 80% of the AA bookstores have closed their doors due to the economy and other reasons, most of us can't get into white owned book stores or distribute through white owned distributors. The internet has been somewhat of a saving grace but even that has its challenges. Besides, most people think if a book had to be self-published then it can't possibly be good. Wrong. There are some real gems out here.

For generations, AAs have consistently read white authors; but white America wear blinders when they see a black face on a book. But publishers know this which is why they insist that AA novels have black faces on the cover.

I'm done. I'm tired. I've sang this song to ad nauseam

Sarah Laurenson said...

This cover should be showing Michelle Henke from the Honor Harrington series. If memory serves me, she's a very dark skinned woman. I'm not seeing that here. In fact, she looks more ambiguous than anything.

Anonymous said...

This is a conversation that is long overdue, and I feel incredibly grateful to have come upon it via a dear friend. As an African-American writer, I write in the fashion that my muse dictates, and if it is not "black enough" that's unfortunate, but it is how I write. If my characters do not have the kind of jobs or speak in a manner people expect, then that too is just the way it is. I have sent my screenplays to producers and had them initially accepted, but when it is discovered that the characters are not white, there is an attempt to encourage me to allow them to change the race of the characters, and if I won't do it, then they lose interest. This is a problem endured by many of us who do not write about drug dealers and prostitutes. We know that we are a multi-faceted people just as other races are multi-faceted. We do not think of race among ourselves. We only think of race when the issue of nonacceptance arises, or when we know we have a good product but somehow it is not good enough for the publishing industry to accept and properly market it so that ALL readers know we exist. This brings us to realize that race is an issue throughout all areas of life -- even in movies and publishing. The world deserves to know African-American literature, but they are being deprived of a special product by the publishing industry, which I trust will soon be remedied!

People always want tried and true. However a bonafide reader will read many things if given the opportunity. The best example of this is the Harry Potter Series. Most mainstream publishers felt there was no hearing for books about a boy wizard. Were they wrong@ Unfortunately, it wasn't long before they forgot the lesson and continued their ancient ways of mass producing the same story lines over and over again! A true reader will read whatever is offered. This is not to say that they won't read something different, but you have to expose them to it!

leevyne said...

I have a book publishing background dating back 40 years, most of that in sales and marketing, though always, to my occasional benefit, with an editorial "sensibility". I have also been an editor, albeit (you guessed it) with a commercial sensibility.
My academic background (and lifelong interest) has been in African American History amd Culture, and I can modestly state that I have been somewhat instrumental in offsetting some of the obstacles mentioned by several subscribers, including simple (and not so simple) racism. I would hear otherwise intelligent executives say (let me put this euphemistically) that there is insufficient interest within the black audience tio publish and/or market such-and-such a book.
But I think some subscribers overstate editorial autonomy in publishing decisions. At the very least, editors are subject to peer review at editorial meetings and, for the past 20 or so years, there is input as well (sometimes well-informed) from sales and marketing. But these sales and marketing folks are not (or should not) be speaking purely as individuals, but rather as emissaries from the major chains and wholesalers, and are often armed with very quantitative input from those sources. And THAT is the dead hand on editorial autonomy.
The procedures for selling to the chains and wholesalers is quite cut-and-dried, almost wholly lacking in creativity these days, and bound by very specific rules regarding categorization and on what information should and can be submitted.
Any discussion of how editorial decisions are being made lacking an understanding of the basic nuts-and-bolts of selling will be shortsighted and will as a result miss the point. Editors themselves are often lacking in an understanding of these "rules", a situation exacerbated by the often adversarial relationship between sales and editorial.
Throw in not only malignant racism but subtle racial ignorance, plus individual whim, plus procedural difficulties, plus cultural vicissitudes, plus (in the case of African American writing) the simultanheous existence of "street" and "literary" writing, and you will then only be scratching the surface of the problems involved in multicultural publishing..