Broadening the Mind II – Short Fiction Edition

As I mentioned before, about 5 years ago, I started paying attention to writer demographics when choosing my fiction. I realized that, although I consider myself a feminist, vitally interested in matters of equality, I discovered that each time I was asked to list my favorite stories, I named mostly male authors. After this epiphany, and a lot of thinking, I could see that this experience was by no means unique. Many of my friends had a similarly male-centric list of favorites. I hypothesize that when we do not pay at least rudimentary attention to diversity when picking our reading material, particularly in much of genre fiction, we will end up reading works from a rather homogenous list of writers that defaults largely to White, Male, and probably also Heterosexual. This does not mean that the quality of their writing is suspect, simply because they identify as “straight, white, male,” instead my assertion is that what I feed my mind, even as fiction, has a profound impact on, not only my worldview, but my conception of my place in the world. Perhaps this is true for you, also.

Imagine a world where the only source you have to gather information on politics, equality, the environment, local events, etc, is FOX News. You do not have newspapers, the internet, alternate news channels, you are constrained to speaking about these matters only with other people who have FOX as their sole source of information. Do you believe your single source would be adequate for a complete picture of your world? You cannot assume that everything they say is correct, but neither do you have data to conclude that anything is wrong.

Now, imagine that the majority of fiction you read and love is written by white, heterosexual men, and features white, heterosexual men, tells story from their perspective, and centers their concerns. Is it possible that you are depriving yourself of a broader context for the spaces you inhabit, and the way you interact with your world?

Consider this: If an author wants a character to default to white, heterosexual male, he does not need to write that into the description, even when his main character has a gender-neutral name. Very few readers will ever request clarification. However, it is necessary to confirm that THIS character is indeed Female, and THIS character has skin the color of “quality chocolate” (which is a post for another day.) If sexual preference is relevant to the storyline, we must be led specifically to a preference other than heterosexual, by way of gendered names and/or physical descriptions, or the sexual relationship is assumed to be male/female.

This does not mean that there is anything inherently wrong with those stories. They can be entertaining, introduce high concepts, be artful, soaring, gritty, attack important philosophical ideals, inspire, emote, and shift our point of view profoundly. However, when the author list lacks diversity, we can find ourselves in a place where everything we imbibe serves to reinforce a fairly narrow spectrum of existence.

In some respects the default becomes: Human is equivalent to Male (white, heterosexual) Human, and nearly everything else requires a qualifier.
And so:
Female
Gay/Lesbian/Queer/Bisexual/Transgender
Black Male
Black Female
Asian Female
Latina Lesbian Female
Chinese American Queer Male

…and so on. We require qualifiers because they give us context. We require context because there is a strong tendency to fall back on a default.

Last week, I suggested that readers challenge themselves to try picking their fiction by first considering the author. Every time I do this, I get a surprising amount of pushback, which astonishes me. “I just read what’s good!” “I don’t worry about the author!” “I won’t pick my entertainment based on the author’s background, I pick based on content!” Ideally, these statements should result in a nice variety of ideas and perspectives. Ideally, “what’s good,” should result in a NYT bestseller list that represents a wide range of diverse writer voices. End caps and staff recommendation tables in bookstores should be populated by male AND female writers, writers of color, diverse backgrounds and orientations. “Queer” fiction would not be a shelf in its own section in the back, and speculative fiction written by women would not end up shelved in the “Chick Lit” section because the author’s name is Helen.

The reality is that the writer of words is not an irrelevant part of the content of their writing. A writer represents a viewpoint. Sometimes the viewpoint is their own, and sometimes that viewpoint is a concept they wish to explore through story. It is true, though, that a writer will always bring a viewpoint to the story that is shaped in some way, by their own experiences and observations about the world in which they exist. The reality is, it’s far easier to find a “good book” written by a white man, not because women and people of color, and L/G/B/T/Q people are not writing stories, but because of exposure. I aim to do what I can, meager though my efforts may be, to change that.

This is getting much too long, and I’m starting to think in circles, so I present a list. If you have looked over your reading list, and discovered a surprising (or not surprising) tendency to have only read novels by White Men, an easy way to work some diversity into your reading list is through short fiction.

Below, you will find a short list of fiction, most of it recent, written by white women, black women and men, asian men, and people whose sexual preference is other than heterosexual. Most of this information can be readily found by viewing a brief author bio, or even simply glancing at an author photo. Some of it (such as sexual orientation or gender identity,) is conditional on the author deciding that is relevant information to potential readers. In other words, I don’t go digging to find out who is gay, or transgender, etc, but do try to be aware of fiction lists that are concerned with boosting the volume of these voices.

Some of the stories are specifically concerned with matters of race, sexuality, and gender, some are not. They are all loosely categorized as speculative fiction. All stories can be read for free, by clicking on the titles. Stories will open in a new window.

Breaking Frame – Kat Howard. I’m starting this list here because although this story is very short, it captures what I mean when I talk about stepping out of the echo chamber. When we look at things through eyes that are not just like our own, sometimes the entire story changes.

The Water that Falls On You from Nowhere – John Chu
The Lady Astronaut of Mars – Mary Robinette Kowal
African Sunrise – Nnedi Okorafor
The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas – Ursula K. Le Guin
The Lottery – Shirley Jackson
If You Were a Dinosaur, My Love – Rachel Swirsky
Paper Menagerie – Ken Liu
Burning Girls – Veronica Schanoes
Non-Zero Probabilities – N.K. Jemisin
The Devil in America – Kai Ashante Wilson. A story about love, hate, racial violence, and old world magic. TW for extreme racial violence.
Clockwork Fairies – Cat Rambo
The Urushima Effect – E. Lily Yu
When It Changed – Joanna Russ

If you wonder why we need a “Diversity” list of short stories in genre, take a look at the nominees and winners of just one award, the Hugo Award, which has been around since the 1950s. Just glance through and let yourself do a quick count of only Male:Female nominees and winners, and reflect on the idea that women ARE writing in these fields, prodigiously and proficiently, but still have a great disadvantage when it comes to visibility and recognition.
Wikipedia – Hugo Awards
Here’s another example:
Wikipedia – Nebula Awards

If a reader wants to keep track of an award that includes women’s voices, the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction (named, of course, for a woman,) is not a bad place to start:
Wikipedia – Flannery O’Connor Award

The O. Henry Award is a juried prize for short fiction, and has become increasingly diverse:
Wikipedia – O. Henry Award

The Theodore Sturgeon Award is a genre award worth watching, as it has demonstrated a commitment to diversity since the very first year:
Wikipedia – Theodore Sturgeon Award

It’s possible that there are one or two people who have hung in there with this post, still insisting that we can get diverse stories from straight, white men. I do not disagree. My next list will be some stories by men, who I think get it right. Just for grins, I may include a few stories that get it very, very wrong.