Tag Archive | inclusion

Pining for Commander WASP and his sidekick, Biff; or, your sf/f golden age not the only one

The May 14, 1921 cover of Argosy All-Story Weekly,  illustration by P. J. Monahan

The May 14, 1921 cover of Argosy All-Story Weekly, illustration by P. J. Monahan

Once again while I was merrily surfing to some of my favorite web sites (when I should have been writing), I came across a link to a ridiculous and judgmental comment on the state of science fiction. More specifically, it was intended as an indictment of the reading tastes of “fans these days” while nostalgically lamenting that the genre is no longer defined solely by Heinlein’s juvenile novels and Niven’s hard SF novels. This is a complaint that I’ve written about more than a few times, but these guys keep finding new ways to make their really bad arguments, and I just can’t sit idly by while the misrepresent both the genre that I love, and the people who love it. This particular person, unlike some of the folks who have inspired me to write on this topic before is not my age or older. He’s young enough that all of those Heinlein juveniles were written more than a decade before his birth, and the Niven books he thinks are definitive were written when he was in diapers and such.

I realize that this means he’s still old enough to look down his nose at fans in their 20s and dismiss them as clueless kids.

Anyway, I’m not linking to the diatribe for reasons. I do think that it is very telling that he cites Hidden Figures as an example of what’s wrong with modern sci fi (never mind that it is historical non-fiction). When I first saw the screen cap of what he said, I had to do some research to figure out who he was. I’d never heard of him. And in the course of doing that, I found that this is a topic he has ranted about many times. And in those longer rants, he asserts again and again not just that he thinks the writings of Heinlein and Niven are the best (which he is perfectly free to believe), but that they defined science fiction—and specifically that Heinlein is the origin of the genre.

Mary Shelly, H.G. Wells, Jules Verne (and others) may have a bone to pick with that assertion.

He also talks a lot about how the perfect protagonist for science fiction stories in Heinlein’s “competent man.”

I get it. I literally grew up on Heinlein. I’ve mentioned that my mom is one of the biggest fans of Heinlein’s stories from the 50s who as ever walked the earth. From the time I was an infant until I was old enough to read myself, Mom would read to me from whatever book she had checked out from the library or picked up at the used bookstore. I read every Heinlein book I could get my hands on during the late 60s, 70s, and into the 80s. And yeah, as a teen-ager in the 1970s, I started reading Larry Niven’s books—not as enthusiastically; I admit I was a bit more taken with Asimov, LeGuin, Pournelle, L’Engle, and Bradbury during those years. But I still liked Niven.

It’s true that Heinlein and Niven were very influential writers who inspired many fans to become writers themselves, and so on. But science fiction wasn’t just those two authors even at that time, and there was a lot of science fiction that existed before either of them wrote their first story.

Also, a lot of their stories haven’t aged particularly well. It happens. It’s called the passage of time. The text may be the same, but we, as people, change over time. Society changes. Our understanding of what certain things about society mean changes.

The image I included above is an illustration for a novel called The Blind Spot, written by Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint. It was serialized in a number of issues of Argosy All-Story Weekly beginning in May of 1921. It was eventually published in book form in 1951 (it took so long because one of the authors died shortly after publication, and it just took a long time to sort out who had legal right to agree to a re-print), at which point the Forward was written by Forrest J Ackerman, who had been at one time the literary agent of such classic sci fi luminaries as Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and A.E. Van Vogt. At the second ever Worldcon (Chicon I, 1940) at the very first Masquerade ever held at a Worldcon, the second place costume was a person dressed as one of the characters from The Blind Spot. As late as the 1950s, sci fi writers, editors, and reviewers were referring to The Blind Spot as one of the honored classics of science fiction.

By the 1990s, the opinion had changed considerably. The Blind Spot is available on Project Gutenberg. I gave it a whirl. I mean, all those famous sci fi writers of the 1940s and 50s said it was fabulous, right?

Writing styles have changed over the years, so part of why it is difficult to slog through it is just how slow the action is and how dense some parts of the prose are. But, first, it isn’t science fiction. The titular Blind Spot is a place where periodically a magic hole opens to another world. Now, a lot of science fiction does include portals or gateways that aren’t always explained, but the other side of the portal is a temple in this other world, and various people, some of them immortal, hang out in this temple because of prophecies about the opening of the temple and how people who go through it will ascend to god-like powers and so forth. The plot involves necromancy, spirit writing, an immortal queen, the transmutation of people into spirits, and a mystical intelligent flame that enforces the sacred law.

In the pulp era they didn’t have the same kind of rigid genre definitions we’re used to today, so a weird tale like this with elements of magic and psychic powers and a hint at Lovecraftian horror was common. But that’s the thing. This is a story that for several decades was held up as a defining example of the genre. Yet by the 1990s it was being described as a “beloved book devoid of all merit.”

Because we changed. What we are willing to suspend our disbelief for in 2019 is considerably different than the expectations of readers in 1921. Their are spots in the opening chapters of this book when many paragraphs are spent describing how a couple of characters take a train through San Francisco, cross the bay in a ferry, take another train in Oakland, then hire a cab. Modern readers expect if you’re spending that many paragraphs talking about transit that it will eventually figure into the plot, right?

I sincerely doubt that the guy who is upset that the sci fi field doesn’t look like the way he remembers those Heinlein juveniles would think that The Blind Spot is fabulous. Although, given some of his comments about what he perceives as being wrong in what modern fans like, he might like some of the casual racism.

Even in the 50s, science fiction protagonists weren’t confined solely to blond-haired, blue-eyed lantern-jawed Anglo-Saxon Protestant heroes who always beat the bad guys and got the girl. Certainly by the time Niven was writing his most famous books, the genre was more diverse than that.

It’s okay to have personal preferences, but science fiction is supposed to be about leaping into the future. You can’t do that if you have fossilized your brain in the past.

No true Martian… or, the myth of the true fan

Art by Bruce Pennington

Art by Bruce Pennington

I find that if I dither over a blog post I feel strongly about, eventually someone else writes something on the topic that says some of what I want to say much better than I have been. I don’t find the phenomenon frustrating, in fact often the publication of these posts help me hone in on an aspect of the topic which I feel most strongly about in such a way that I can express the idea better. This week, there were multiple posts on the topic of what constitutes a “real fan” that are worth sharing. For instance, Camestros Felapton posted: You don’t control who gets to be fans in which he talks about people who, when faced with evidence that a majority of people like things that they don’t, look for ways to exclude those people from fandom:

“It’s the same con-game as used by Palin, Sad Puppies and most recently by Vox Day… declaring themselves the champions of the ‘real’ fans or the ‘real’ people. If you are leftwing or heck, just want to read comics with more realistic women in them, then magically you aren’t real anymore and your purchases don’t count.”

Many years ago this phenomenon was referred to, in fannish circles, as the True Fan Fallacy. Who gets to decide who is a true fan and who isn’t? But it isn’t just in fandom where it happens (which is one of the point Camestros makes in the above linked post).

From a fairly early age I was frequently teased, harassed, dismissed, and/or bullied for not being a “normal boy.” I was called sissy by other kids, and I was called a faggot and a sissy by various adults—including teachers and pastors—because I was interested in things or acted in ways they didn’t think a boy ought to. Then I was accused of not being a real Christian when I pointed out contradictions between things some religious leaders said and the actual words of Christ recorded in the Bible. Then I was accused of not being a real American for a wide variety of reasons (my favorite is still being told I wasn’t a real American because I believed in the separation of Church and state—you know, a concept championed among the Founding Father’s by both the author of the Declaration of Independence {Thomas Jefferson} and the author of the Constitution and Bill of Rights {James Madison}, and further actually enshrined in the Constitution itself!

Just as this last year I found myself being accused by some people of not being a real Star Wars fan because I actually enjoyed The Last Jedi? Me! Who saw the original Star Wars in theatres on Opening Night as a teen-ager in 1977, and then scraped together money from my part-time job to go see it in the theatre twelve more times that summer. And then stood in line over night to see Empire Strikes Back and two years later again for Return of the Jedi on their opening days. I’m not a real Star Wars fan, though, because I disagree with these man-babies who actually think the original trilogy, which was all about a Rebellion against an Empire, wasn’t political???

And yes, I understand that my invoking my history with the original trilogy sounds an awful lot like gatekeeping. But here’s the thing—I don’t believe that anyone who wasn’t alive back then and didn’t see the movies the same way I did are not fans. I admit that I’m giving those who are so clueless as to think the original trilogy wasn’t about politics some serious side-eye, but I’m not saying they aren’t fans of the original series.

I have a good friend who was barely one year old when the original movie came out—and he’s one of the most passionate Star Wars fans I know. It doesn’t matter that he came to the movies later than me. It doesn’t matter than he and I disagree about some things in the various movies. He’s a fan, and the myth of Luke and Leia and Han and Chewie and Obi Wan belong to him just as much as they belong to me.

This discussion of who is a real fan and who isn’t lately centers around stories where white straight men aren’t the only characters who get to be heroes. Guys are upset that a black man, or a woman, or a non-white woman may get to have major roles in the story. And heaven forfend if some of these characters in the spotlight are queer!

Back in 1983 I was sitting in a theatre on opening day for the Return of the Jedi and I was very confused early on in the movie. Why, oh why, was Jabba the Hutt, a slug-like alien, so lasciviously interested in two different mammalian female characters? I mean, I realize that in a universe with many sentient races, there will be some characters no matter what species who get off on putting any other sentients in leashes, but what possible reason would Jabba have to put Leia in that damn metal bra? It made absolutely no sense to me at all.

I understand that thousands (or maybe millions) of straight fanboys in the audience didn’t notice that discrepancy. I understand that it jumped out at me because I’m a queer guy and I wasn’t distracted by Carrie Fischer’s bared midriff. But that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a valid quibble for me to have with the movie.

Also, for each of the original movies that I saw in those theatres, at every single showing it wasn’t just guys in the audience. There were just as many girls and women in each crowd as there were boys and men. And even in the very whitebread part of the Pacific Northwest where I was living at the time, it wasn’t exclusively white people in those audiences, either. Furthermore, I wasn’t, by any means, the only person sitting in all of those theatres back in 1977 who went home to fantasize about Luke and Han hooking up romantically.

Queer folks, and women, and people of color have been fans of sf/f for as long as there has been science fiction and fantasy. We love those stories and those characters and those worlds just as much as any other fan. We’re buying books and going to movies and watching the series because we actually enjoy those books and movies and series. We’re not pretending. I don’t have the time to watch movies I don’t really like, and I certainly don’t want to spend money on books that I don’t enjoy reading.

You don’t have to like the same things I do, just as I don’t have to like the same things you do. But if the only fiction you object to winning awards is stuff that is written by people of color or women or queer people (and you insist that those authors’ sales are the results of “affirmative action” or “virtue signalling”) you aren’t fooling anybody. Everyone can see your bigotry, and we’re not impressed.

Holding the reader’s attention—and really keeping it

“The writer's object is —or should be—to hold the readers attention.” —Barbara W. Tuchman

“The writer’s object is —or should be—to hold the readers attention.” —Barbara W. Tuchman

I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard and read people give the advice that writers should write for themselves, and not for the audience. It’s a warning not to fall into the trap of trying to please everyone. It’s also encouragement to trust yourself as a writer. And I understand why both of those intentions are needed, but I think that in the process of hearing and trying to accept this advice, that some writers take it a bit too far. You’re not writing something for the individual audience members, that’s true, but you are writing to them.

We tell the story that we have to tell and we tell it the best that we can. The whole point of storytelling is to tell the story to someone, right?

So the audience isn’t superfluous to the process. A writer who thinks that the audience doesn’t matter—or even worse, a writer who holds their audience in contempt—is not doing the best in any way. Of course you don’t contort the story to cater to the wishes of every reader, but respecting the reader is not the same thing as catering to them.

I most often think of this topic when I find yet another example of queer-baiting. But queer-braiting is hardly the only way that storytellers show contempt for at least part of their audience, and I’ve been seeing a lot of examples lately in television (though it also happens in book series).

I understand that with a television series (or web series or movies or plays) you don’t have a single storyteller. It’s a collaborative process where the writer, the actors, the director(s), the designers, the show-runners, et al work together. But it is still storytelling. And just because it’s a collaboration doesn’t mean that no one is to blame when the reader is cheated, mocked, or otherwise abused. And when decisions are being made out of cynicism, that is what you’re doing to at least some of your readers.

You disrespect the reader when you mislead rather than misdirect. You disrespect the reader when you play on their feelings by raising hopes you intend to dash. Not every story has a happy ending, but you can tell a tragedy while still playing fair with the reader.

The usual counter argument is that the storyteller is simply putting the reader in suspense. ”We’re supposed to keep the reader’s attention, after all!“

The word people are missing there is ”keep,“ not just to the big reveal. The stories I love are tales I come back to again and again. Not because they always ended the way I wanted them to, but because they made me care, and the ending—even in the tragedies—rang true.

Yes, we focus on keeping the reader turning the pages until the end, but as artists we should want our stories to settle into the reader’s heart and make themselves at home. Stories don’t do that when the storyteller intentionally kicks some readers in the teeth then points and laughs at those readers.

If you can’t be moved as a writer to treat all your readers with respect out of artistic integrity, think of this: A reader who decides, midway through a story that it isn’t for them puts down the book and finds something else to read. They may never pick up another book by that author again, or they may simply wait to get recommendations from others before taking the plunge. But a reader who gets the feeling that the writer is cynically baiting them or otherwise comes to the end feeling mocked, used, and/or abused, is someone who will emphatically warn other readers away from your work for the rest of their lives.

So tell your story. Tell the story you want to tell. Tell it the best way you know how, but tell it truthfully. Build suspense honestly. Payoff the misdirections with integrity. Make the reader go, “I should have seen that coming! Wow!” or “What a great plot twist!”

Don’t treat reader as an enemy, and they won’t become one.

Stock characters exist for many reasons

Stock characters: comic, victim, braggart, pretender, fool. (

Stock characters: comic, victim, braggart, pretender, fool. (Click to embiggen)

One of the things I’ve been getting used to since the move is the new bus route. I used to ride the Rapidride D line, and now I’m on the E. My old bus commute was usually just under half an hour. The new one is usually about 45 minutes going in, but usually at least an hour coming home. Of course, when I was walking home it took more than an hour, so the time isn’t all that different.

But the crowd on the E is very different than the D. There are always interesting people on the bus, of course, but since most of the E route goes down Aurora Ave (aka Highway 99, aka the old Pacific Coast Highway), well, there are a lot more marginal people on the bus.

And everyday on at least one trip I wind up sitting near & seeing a couple (a guy and a gal who are obviously together) who dress, act, and talk like a particular movie cliche. Note: it’s seldom the same couple! I have seen one couple twice (and the female half of the couple two other times, once hanging out with a different couple who matched the trope).

What trope am I talking about? The couple who are dating/romanatically involved in some way and are also a pair of less-than-bright petty criminals who have gotten into something way over their heads which will cause no measure of awful problems for the actual protagonist in the movie. That couple.

And seriously, if I transcribed their dialogue–often a monologue because usually one of them is very talkative and the other either nods and says “uh huh” if the talkative one is the male, or sits there stone-faced and occasionly grunts or mutters something if the talkative one is the female–it would sound like comedic dialog written for a ludicrously incompetent criminal. Monday night there were three sets, though not at the same time. And one of the freaky parts was how similar the guys were.

In the first couple, the guy was wearing a Seahawks baseball cap and carrying a filterless cigarette. While the gal babbled, he kept adjusting is hat and fiddling with the cigarette. He would pack the tobacco in the cigarette a little denser crimping one end a bit more, then tamp that end on his knee or his cellphone, then crimp the other end tighter and flipping it to do some more. Meanwhile he would randomly lift his cap and reposition it on his head, sometimes seemingly exactly as before, and sometimes he would flip it so the bill was in back, then several fidgets later he’d put the bill in front again. Every now and then he’d stick the unlit cigarette in his mouth as he did something with his phone.

In the second couple, the guy was wearing a UW Huskies baseball cap and fidgeting with a filtered short cigarette (I kept hoping he’d pull out the pack and confirm my suspicion that it was a Marlboro Red, which would have nailed the stereotype further…). He would put the cigarette in one side of his mouth, then adjust his cap. Half a minute later, he’d take the cigarette out of his mouth and flip it around in his fingers a few times. Then he’d stick it in the other side of his mouth and pull off the cap, smooth his hair, then put the cap back on. And so on. He flipped his hat front to back once, then later flipped it back.

The third couple had the additional trope that both of them were burdened with backpacks and such that were, technically, each bigger than them. The guy was wearing a Mariner’s baseball cap, bill forwards, with a filterless cigarette behind one ear. As they were getting situated in their seats, he flipped the hat front to back, and moved the cigarette to the other ear. As they talked, he kept adjusting the hat–each time pulling the cigarette from behind his ear and moving it to the other side. There probably would have been some more flips, but as we approached a bus stop with several people waiting, she suddenly jumped up, very agitated, and ran to the back door. I thought that she had seen someone waiting at the stop that she didn’t want to ride the bus with, but as the bus stopped, the guy (who had gathered up his backpack, her duffle, and this rolling suitcase with two more backpacks attached and ran over behind her) started shouting for the driver to open the back door. As soon as the doors opened, she leapt out, landing in a little strip of landscaping beside the pharmacy there, and proceeded to puke her guts out. He followed with their stuff, and seemed to be offering some comfort as the bus pulled away.

Those were just one bus ride. As I said, I’ve seen couples like them at least once a day, four days a week, for seven weeks, now. The ages of the couples have varied quite a lot, as had the apparent ethnicity of each member of each couple. But there have been a lot of similarities in mannerisms, the sort of things one or the other talks about way more loudly than someone ought about cheating drug dealers and such in a public place, and so on.

The late, great author Terrie Pratchett observed on more than one occasion that there are really only a small number of people in the world, you just keep meeting some of them again and again and again in different bodies. This phenomenon (which is at least partially the result of social and economic circumstances that cross cultures and time periods) is one reason stock characters exist in fiction. But there is a difference between a stock character such as the morally impair braggart or the gullible minion and a racist/sexist/homophobic stereotype.

For storytelling purpose, you sometimes need a stock character to move the plot along or add a bit of verisimilitude to a scene. You don’t want or need to put a lot of effort into these characters’ backgrounds, but you do want to make sure you aren’t just pulling a bigoted stereotype out of the drawer when you do it. This may be helped with a sensitivity reader, beta readers in general, or an editor. But the burden shouldn’t fall solely on them.

Any character you put in a scene, no matter how minor, ask yourself a few questions.

  • Is there a reason you made the character one apparent gender rather than another? Does anything change if you change the gender?
  • If you mention race is there a reason you made them that ethnicity? If you didn’t mention it, but realize you are imagining them a specific ethnicity, why? And does it change anything if you change it?
  • If you mention any physical characteristic or their clothing, is there a reason?
  • If you mention apparent sexual orientation, again, why? If not, how are you imagining them? Why?

Having all of the characters apparently white, heterosexual, and cisgender serves an agenda, whether you mean it to or not, because the real world (yes, in every era of history and every part of the world) has characters of different races/ethnic groups, different economic classes, different sexual orientations, and different genders. If you aren’t including them in the world, you’re promoting an agenda. Is that what you want?

And if the only time certain marginalized groups are mentioned, they fall into lazy stereotypes (petty criminals are people of color, nurses are always women, doctors are always white men, et cetera), you’re also promoting that agenda. Is that what you want?

Queer Plus, or Intersectionality Isn’t Just a Noun — more adventures in dictionaries

“#MoreColorsMorePride” Supporters of Philadelphia’s revamped version of the Pride flag say it’s meant to be more inclusive to nonwhite LGBTQ persons.

“#MoreColorsMorePride” Supporters of Philadelphia’s revamped version of the Pride flag say it’s meant to be more inclusive to nonwhite LGBTQ persons.

When I first saw a link to an article about the More Colors More Pride campaign and their new flag, I admit I was a bit confused. My specific thought was, “But the black stripe goes at the bottom…” because I’m already very familiar with the Victory Over AIDS version of the Pride flag. In that flag, the black stripe represents our being in mourning for the loss of hundreds of thousands of members of the queer community due to AIDS, and it is the bottom stripe on that flag because the idea is that we are determined to be victorious over AIDS, right?

Anyway, my confusion lasted only milliseconds, because I hadn’t even finished reading the headline before I understood that for this flag, the new stripes represented Queer People of Color. Which made perfect sense. But, as an article that I included in the most recent Friday Links noted, the new flag wasn’t greeted enthusiastically by everyone: The Surprising Controversy Surrounding A More Inclusive Pride Flag.

I’ve seen some of the negative reactions on my own social media, and one thing I couldn’t help noticing was that every person I saw objecting, if you checked out their profile, they were white and male (Full Disclosure: I’m white and male, myself). And their objections are, to a one, ludicrous. I especially liked the guy who said something along the lines of “if you don’t see yourself included in the universal symbol of the rainbow, you need to do some soul searching.” Because first of all, it isn’t a universal symbol, is it? As just one example, we have all the whacko Christian fundamentalists who get all angry and in our face claiming that we’ve stolen the rainbow from god. When the flag was first created (and hand sewn) under the direction of artist Gilbert Baker in 1978, some people in the queer community didn’t like it for a variety of reasons.

Gilber Baker's original flag design had 8 colors: hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet.

Gilber Baker’s original flag design had 8 colors: hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo, and violet.

And it isn’t as if the flag has remained completely unchanged since its original creation. In the fall over 1978, after the assassination of Harvey Milk, there was a sudden demand in the San Francisco area for more of the rainbow flags. To meet the sudden demand, Baker and a flag company decided to use existing stock rainbow fabric (red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, blue, and violet), so they lost the hot pink and changed the indigo to a lighter blue. And a year later the official banners for the San Francisco Pride events switched to a six-color version ( red, orange, yellow, green, royal blue, and violet). There are two different explanations given for that change: some say it was because when the seven-color versions were hung vertically from street lamp poles the middle stripe wasn’t always visible, others say that there was difficulty getting both the turquoise and indigo fabric. The point is, the rainbow flag changed several times, with the original artist’s blessing, in the first few years of its existence.

Many groups within the community have felt that the rainbow didn't explicitly include them, and have opted for other flags to use either instead of the rainbow or along side it.

Many groups within the community have felt that the rainbow didn’t explicitly include them, and have opted for other flags to use either instead of the rainbow or along side it. (Click to embiggen)

I mentioned above that not everyone was happy with it. Some weren’t happy because they thought the rainbow was two generic. Others because there were already symbols being used by lots of queer people (for example: a pink triangle or a labrys on a black triangle), and they thought we should stick to those symbols for various reasons. Other folks have made other variations. And a lot of people in the community didn’t think that the rainbow (or the Pride marches themselves) should include anyone other than exclusively gay men and lesbian women. I remember public arguments about whether the words bisexual or transgender should be added to the official name of the Pride Parade in Seattle during the 90s, for instance. There many other arguments still raging about who should be included.

Many, many more variants and alternatives to the rainbow flag.

Many, many more variants and alternatives to the rainbow flag.

I wasn’t around the community for the arguments about the rainbow flag when it was first introduced, but in the late 80s and early 90s, when I was just coming out, the arguments about why the rainbow wasn’t a good symbol for LGBTQ+ people were still raging. I knew more than one person who was adamant that the Pink Triangle was a better symbol because it represented a time gay men were targeted for extermination in Nazi Germany, and we had taken the symbol back. Of course, there were plenty of people who didn’t like the Pink Triangle, either (some because it was considered to represent only men; others because of its origin as a symbol of our oppression). Or only liked it if it were used along with other symbols commonly associated with lesbians.

So claiming the current six-color rainbow flag is universally recognized as including everyone even within the community simply isn’t true.

There’s another big hint that something like the More Colors Flag is needed: white queers wouldn’t be offended (and the folks objecting are definitely offended) at the flag if the problems it addresses weren’t real. Not only that, all of the arguments I’ve seen used to explain why the More Colors Flag is unnecessary sound exactly like the homophobic arguments given for why queers don’t need representation in movies, books, TV and such or why laws against queer discrimination aren’t needed. And they also are exact parallels to racist arguments used to argue we don’t need laws about racial discrimination (among other things). As they say, if it looks like a racist argument and sounds like a racist objection…

None of this will sound unfamiliar to anyone familiar with discussions about intersectionality. In case you don’t know what intersectionality is, let’s start with the definition (I warned you in the title we would get to dictionary topics in this post!):

intersectionality noun the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, gender, and sexual orientation as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

So another reason that you can’t claim that the rainbow is a universal symbol that applies to all queer people is because the experience of being queer isn’t the same for all categories of queer people. It’s kind of like the people who make that argument that you shouldn’t let a black actor portray James Bond or a woman portray Doctor Who because that would make the shows political. Insisting that the hero must be a white male is just as much a political statement as asking why the hero can’t be something else. Similarly, suggesting we should do something to make people of color feel more welcome is not racializing the Pride flag any more than resisting that inclusion is.

I’m a cisgender white man. I also happen to be queer. I have faced discrimination (and worse) because I’m a gay man. But I also know that I have been shielded from certain types of discrimination because I’m a guy and because I’m white. I don’t know all of the times that this happened, but I understand how systemically racism and sexism are baked into our culture, and therefore there are times when I experience no obstacles, where a person of color or a woman would find things less welcoming. The types of discrimination I experience and the ways I encounter discrimination as a gay man are often very different from the types and ways experienced by queers of color. The same kind of discrimination that I might be able to somewhat sidestep because of a bit of white male privilege I don’t even notice at the time can be a much more devastating experience to someone who does not have those two advantages.

“If your profile says: No Latinos, Blacks, Asians, Fats or Fems then you SHOULDN'T BE HERE.” PHOTO BY BOOMER BANKS (Click to embiggen)

“If your profile says: No Latinos, Blacks, Asians, Fats or Fems then you SHOULDN’T BE HERE.”
PHOTO BY BOOMER BANKS (Click to embiggen)

Recognizing this isn’t about trying to decide who is more oppressed. This isn’t the Oppression Olympics. The truth is, that a lot of white queer people are unaware of their own racism. Most insist that they aren’t at all, which is literally impossible. You can’t grow up in a racist society without being conditioned to the assumptions of racism. Asserting that the rainbow already includes everyone ignores the fact that there is a lot of racism within the queer community, some of it really subtle because it is just a manifestation of the systemic racism of the whole society, and others of it quite blatant. It’s blatant while also being rationalized away. The photo here of the sign that was seen at the Equality March earlier this month talks about one of those examples. Please note that this sign was at an Equality March, not a Pride March. But it underscores a real truth: a lot of queers, particularly certain white gay men, have these racist attitudes. And yes, it absolutely is racist to say in your dating profile “no blacks” or “no asians” or “no latinos.” The usual counter argument is that they’re just talking about a preference.

No.

I have a preference for redheads. Yet I have never refused to date a non-redhead. And a good thing, too, since neither my late partner, Ray, nor my husband Michael are redheads. I lusted after and occasionally dated redheads, but I wound up falling in love with two different men for reasons other than their hair color. That’s because while I have an attraction toward redheads, I recognize that’s all it is, and that there are other reasons to like or dislike a person than their hair color. The same holds true for race. If you completely exclude someone from consideration because of their race, there is no word other than racism to describe it. And while we’re on the subject: fat-shaming and fem-rejection aren’t any better, and if you’re doing that you’re just being a different kind of bigot, but no less of a bigot than the racist, so don’t do it.

This is another variant rainbow flag that's been around longer than the More Colors Flag.

This is another variant rainbow flag that’s been around longer than the More Colors Flag.

Nobody’s free until everyone is. And one of the steps to setting everyone free is recognizing that not everyone is as free as everyone else. We have to find a way to actually be inclusive, not to simply say that being inclusive is a good thing. And being inclusive requires us to recognize intersectionality. To understand that there are different degrees of discrimination. Society imposes different types of disadvantage on people based on categories of race, gender, sexuality, economic class, and other things. Those differences are real. The pain and suffering they cause is real. And the benefits that other categories of people receive at the expense of that pain and suffering is also real. Fighting for equality means not just giving lip service to inclusivity and intersectionality, it means taking steps to do something about those problems. You have to look for the people who are having trouble getting into the freedom tent and work to help them inside and to feel welcome. That requires first listening, really listening to try to understand–not pretending to listen while we’re really just waiting for our turn to talk.

If my queer kindred of color tell me that they don’t feel welcome in many queer spaces, then I have to take that seriously and ask what I can do to help. And then I have to actually help. Which is why I say that intersectionality isn’t just a noun. Because those of us who have some privilege, however little it may be, have to stick our necks out and use that privilege to help those who don’t.

Pride should be for all of us.

Handling feedback, critique, and suggestions for your book

“Not every book is for every reader.”—Meg White Clayton

“Not every book is for every reader.”—Meg White Clayton

Earlier in the week I wrote about responding to reviews (short version: don’t be a jerk) and dealing with diversity critiques (stop, listen, learn), so I might as well talk about the process of deciding whether and how to incorporate feedback into your story in a more general sense.

Most advice I’ve read about using feedback as a guide for revision assumes that every writer feels compelled to immediately change their story to comply with every suggestion, and that most of us need pep talks to remember the story is ours. There’s nothing wrong with such pep talks, but my experience has been that many writers (myself included) are more inclined to dismiss most advice, critique, and suggestions unless such feedback comes from someone we know and trust.

Be open. Don’t dismiss feedback out of hand, and resist the urge to argue or explain.

Yes, if you are attending a writing workshop taught by an author you have long admired, and bonding with your fellow students, you’re likely to take every single piece of advice to heart, even the contradictory ones, and tie yourself in knots trying to rewrite your story to address every issue. Similarly, if you have a critique group you trust, you may find yourself in a similar situation after they go over a story. In that circumstance it is important to remember the Neil Gaiman quote: “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

People are making suggestions because the story isn’t working for them. Some of the suggestions are contradictory because the people offering them are misidentifying the root cause. Before discarding contradictory advice, see if you can find an intersection. For instance, one time I received feedback on a draft novel from three people whose opinion I trust. One was quite insistent that I needed to add some dream sequences or some other sort of mystical experience to more explicitly explain why the reclusive shrine-guardian was compelled to undertake a quest to save the world. Another thought I should remove several characters (including the shrine guardian) that (in their opinion) weren’t contributing to the main plot, because there were just too many things going on, and clearly the center of the action was the cursed thief. The third person wanted me to split off the shape-shifting fortuneteller (and a few other characters) into their own book.

The intersection of those comments was a fundamental issue all three readers were missing: the novel doesn’t have one protagonist, it has three protagonists whose fates are intertwined and that all come together in the end. Now the reason these readers were missing that detail was not because they were dense or didn’t appreciate the story; they were missing it because I as the author hadn’t made it clear. It was not working in the story. I needed to fix it, but the fix did not involve removing characters, or adding dream sequences, or splitting the book in two. The fix also didn’t require massive rewrites. The fix required dropping a few scenes that weren’t carrying their weight, replacing them with some that did more, and making tweaks to several others.

Look for the unobvious connection. Just because advice seems contradictory doesn’t mean it is wrong.

Sometimes the feedback you get appears to come from a different planet. I’ve mentioned before the reader who complained about my happy endings. The story that was the straw that broke the camel’s back for that reader was a tale which ends with two of the main characters saying good-bye as one is going to escort the corpses of several murder victims on their journey to their families. The story had featured some graphic violence long before getting to that scene. While the killer had been caught and was going to be facing justice, and some of the characters had survived, given how many didn’t and where I set the final scene (literally next to some coffins) I had trouble thinking of it as a happy ending.

I’m a person who fundamentally believes in hope. I’m never going to write stories that will appeal to the sort of reader who insists that happy endings never happen for anyone. That particular story had already been published, so it was a bit late to revise it. But I still found the feedback worthwhile. It was worth asking myself if I had written something earlier in the story that had led this reader—who was really looking to read something grim and dark—to think that that’s what this one was going to be. Did I raise an expectation that I failed to deliver?

Maybe I did. A lesson I took away from that was to remember to look for those unintended expectations. Everyone has heard the famous advice about the gun on the mantlepiece: if you show the reader a gun on the scene, the gun needs to figure in the plot before the story is over. The advice doesn’t just refer to guns, it means that when you draw the reader’s attention to things, people, or events that seem to signify certain dramatic possibilities, that something needs to come of it. That isn’t to say that I must write stories that meet the reader’s expectations, just to make certain that I don’t mislead the reader midway through the story. Yeah, misdirection is okay as long as you play fair (that’s a topic for an entire blog post on its own), and you don’t want to telegraph the ending to the reader, but don’t play bait-and-switch.

Don’t blame the messenger. Maybe the person giving you the weird sounding feedback is absolutely the only being in the universe who will misread your story this way, but don’t forget that where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire.

I’ve gotten feedback that left me feeling confused and conflicted about whether my story is worth telling. That might be a good time to follow the advice I read in a magazine article decades ago (and have long forgotten who wrote): sit down and write out an explanation of what is wrong with each part of the critique to don’t like. Do not ever send this to the person, repeat any of it to the person, or post it. Instead, set your reply and this story aside and go work on something else. Later, when you can look at this story objectively, pull out your explanation and go through your story. Is everything you say in the explanation in the story? Is it clear in the story? Chances are that some things you have assumed the reader will infer aren’t as obvious as you though. Sometimes you’ll discover that you never actually mentioned one very important fact for your plot. You thought you did, but it isn’t actually there. Now destroy that explanation/argument you wrote, and rewrite your story.

Argue with yourself, not the reader. Figure out what is missing, and add it in.

Many times I’ve written scenes that never wind up in the story. Sometimes I write them because I’m not certain what to do next, then later I realize that scene isn’t necessary. Sometimes I write them because I’m trying to figure out something that I plan to have happened in the past or off screen, but I need to be able to have characters who lived through the events react accordingly later. And sometimes I write a scene because I received suggestions or critiques that I either wasn’t certain I agreed with, or was quite certain I disagreed with but it kept coming up from multiple people. So I tried writing the scene that followed the suggestion. Usually what happened is not that the new scene went into my story and replaced a bunch of other stuff, but rather, in the course of writing the scene, I figured out something else about the story. Just trying to write it the way other people wanted it to go clarified where the story actually needed to go.

Give it a try. Every writer writes stuff that eventually we decide not to use or to change significantly. Don’t be afraid to spend some time giving alternatives a go.

Trust the story. Recognize that you will stumble and sometimes fall. It doesn’t matter how many times you do that, if you keep getting back up and get moving. So stop thinking about the story, and go write it!

What if someone says my book is racist/ sexist/ homophobic/ et cetera?

“Listening to hear not listening to speak.”

“Listening to hear not listening to speak.”

Yesterday I posted about responding to reviews and how generally you shouldn’t ever respond to a negative review with more than “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it.” I also had some advice about responding to positive reviews and questions about your book or story. But that was about responding to reviews of your work from a quality and plot context. But what do you do when someone says, for instance, they feel a particular character perpetuates negative stereotypes about a particular ethnic group (or a sexual minority, or a specific culture, or a specific gender, or a specific sexual minority, and so on)? First and foremost, do not, I repeat, do not argue with the person.

It’s the most natural thing to do, because you know you don’t have a bigoted bone in your body, so of course you aren’t racist/sexist/homophobic/anti-semetic or whatever the person has just said. So of course you feel the need to defend yourself. But you’re wrong. That’s because what you think they mean is that you are a horrible bigot, but that isn’t what’s going on here. What the person is actually trying to communicate is this: “I felt devalued or erased by some of the content of your story.” Nothing you say can change the feelings they had when they read your book. So the first sense in which it is wrong to argue is that you see this as an attack on you, whereas they are explaining how attacks on them that society has been subjecting them to their entire lives are being unintentionally aided and abetted by your story.

The other sense in which you are wrong is the belief that you don’t have any bigotry at all. Because all of us do. It is impossible to grow up in human society without absorbing a lot of prejudice. Including prejudice aimed at ourselves. Queer people have to overcome a lot of internalized homophobia just to come out of the closet. Women learn and internalize misogyny and sexism. Ethnic minorities learn and internal racial prejudice, and so forth. So it doesn’t matter how much you feel you aren’t bigoted, there is going to be some unconscious prejudices boiling around inside. And problematic content isn’t usually about overt bigotry, but is often more subtle.

So, when someone confronts you about any unintentional bigotry in your work, you need to do three things:

  • Stop
  • Listen
  • Learn

It is tempting, even if you stop yourself from getting defensive, to respond to this sort of criticism as just another kind of negative review and say, “I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy it” then try to change the subject. But this is a different category of discourse entirely. And quite often the people who bring this criticism to you did enjoy most of your story. That’s why they’re taking the time to tell you about this problem. So a better response would be, “I’m sorry the book disappointed you in this way.” If you can say that sincerely, you might also say that you didn’t intend to do that, but don’t let it become an attempt to prove they’re wrong. Better to say, “I’ll try to do better.”

If the person wants to explain to you what it was in your work that made them feel this way, listen. Don’t argue, listen. If the person doesn’t want to talk in more detail about it, that’s all right. It doesn’t mean that they’re wrong or that you’ve someone won the argument. As uncomfortable as it is for you to hear that something you wrote made someone feel de-valued, it is just as uncomfortable (and riskier) for them to bring it up. Dealing with every day discrimination and microagressions means that members of marginalized communities have already had to defend themselves and explain how they are hurt by discrimination thousands of times. And they don’t have the energy to try to educate you in depth on the issue.

Which is where we get to the learning. Once it has been brought to your attention that some readers feel this way (which you never intended) while reading your work, it’s your job to decide how to do better. I love quoting the advice “Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right.” That’s part of a Neil Gaiman quote. One of the truths Gaiman is getting at is that if one reader feels a particular way about your work, many other readers will, too. The rest of Neil’s quote talks about fixing problems, and fixing it is the writer’s responsibility, not the reader’s. They’ve told you how it made them feel. If you don’t want some of your audience feeling that way, you have to decide how you’re going to fix that going forward.

I want to emphasize that I know this process isn’t easy. The first time someone told me a story I wrote had sexist bits in it I became extremely defensive and reacted like a complete jerk. I was wrong to do that. Fortunately, I also spent some time, after I acted like a jerk, re-reading the story and trying to see it from the reader’s point of view.

And she was right. There were several little things I had done just because that’s what women characters do in that situation in millions of books and television episodes and movies that we’ve all watched. And it was a simple matter to make some very minor changes to get rid of them. I didn’t become suddenly a sexism-free writer after that. I found myself a couple years later being asked by someone why after six chapters into a book I was writing, not one single female character had appeared or had a line of dialog—in a story that was set in a ordinary public school in a small modern American city. There were a number of women and girls in my imaginary world, some of whom were going to figure in the plot later, but for whatever reason, I had omitted them in the opening chapters. This, by the way, was the incident I’ve mentioned before that prompted me to re-read a whole bunch of my work applying the Bechdel–Wallace test1, and finding myself very embarrassed at how many of my stories failed it.

And even though since then, I have tried to educate myself on it, and made several changes to the way I tell some stories, I still find problems. I was editing a scene in one of my currently still-in-progress novels not that long ago when I happened upon a line of dialog that I barely remembered writing, and it was a very clichéd and sexist line. I changed it. Now not only is it not sexist, I think it’s funnier.

Again, not every such criticism is going to be spot-on. A few years ago I got a long angry letter about how a story I wrote perpetrated hate against religious people. The rant included accusations that I had been “brainwashed by the femi-nazis” so I wasn’t inclined to take it completely to heart. I asked some religious acquaintances to read the story (without mentioning the negative review) to give me feedback on the portrayal of religion and the various religious people in the story. Not that if they disagreed that proved the reviewer wrong, it was just two more perspectives from people who I trusted.

I ultimately had to make the decision about whether the story perpetuated anti-religious bigotry.

That’s all we can do: try to learn, try to see things from other perspectives, and find people we trust to check our conclusions from time to time. Members of particular marginalized groups can disagree. A few years back I and another gay male sci fi fan and writer got into a really long discussion about whether something I had written perpetuated negative stereotypes about gay men3. We never came to a complete meeting of minds on the topic.

There’s an excellent post over at Patheo by Libby Anne which makes really good reading on this topic: What to Do If Someone Calls You Sexist: A Short Primer. And it doesn’t just apply to sexism.


Footnotes:

1. Based on a 1985 comic strip from the series Dykes to Watch For by Allison Bechdel, in which one woman asks another if she wants to go to the movie, and the second woman explains that she has a rule, she will only go to a movie if “…one, it has at least two women in it who, two, talk to each other about something other than a man.” Then she confesses that the last movie she’d been able to go to was Alien, because there is one scene where the two women on the spaceship crew talk about the monster. But only the one. Bechdel herself expressed some discomfort with people naming the test after her, since she said she got the idea for the rule from a friend, Liz Wallace, and to the writings of Virginia Woolf.2

2. If a movie or book passes the test, that doesn’t prove that said work isn’t sexist. All the Bechdel-Wallace test is assess whether women appear in the work to specific degree. That fact that so many works fail to achieve even this level of inclusion is just sad.

3. Remember, it is not a valid defense against an observation of bigotry to be a member of the marginalized group in question, any more than claiming to have a friend in the group absolves you of all culpability. Internalized homophobia can manifest in even the most woke queer person.

No one else can tell the stories I have to tell

“Don’t forget, no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.” — Charles de Lint

“Don’t forget, no one else sees the world the way you do, so no one else can tell the stories that you have to tell.” — Charles de Lint

There are lots of stories boiling over in the real world that I have strong urges to comment on. Some of them are about Facebook’s advertising platform violating the Fair Housing Act, some are about the FBI director violating the Hatch Act, some are about inappropriate use of force against protestors who happen to be racial minorites while white armed criminals are acquitted, and so on. All of those stories are important, all of them involve real people and real harm, and all of them are worthy of some consideration.

But part of the reason I filled out my ballot as soon as it arrived (and let me just say again that I am so happy my state went all mail-in some years ago) was in hopes that I would stop obsessing quite so much at all the outrageous things going on in the world. I have a couple of important writing goals to finish before NaNoWriMo starts. I have hefty writing goals for NaNoWriMo itself. This is the third year in a row that one of my goals for the year is to spend less time and energy being outraged and more time writing and enjoying life.

This horrible year just keeps getting me wound up so much that some days I can’t seem to get anything done. And I’m not the only one (don’t just read Scalzi’s post, take a few moments to read the moderated comments to that post).

It’s not just about deadlines. I have stories to tell, stories I think need to be told… Read More…

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