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#WhateverWednesday: Another Unpopular Opinion RE: Diversity

Sam av

Apparently I am still in a disagreeable mood.

But disagreeing is fine. Having an opinion is part of being human. We don’t have to agree with the masses in order to be allowed to exist. In fact, I have a pretty major disagreement I was considering rolling out next Tuesday. In all honesty, this blog post could be another Tuesday, but my Tuesdays are full of American Politics through the election, and this one’s just a personal beef.

This one is about diversity.

And the reason I’m writing this is that there has been a major shift in literature in recent years, thanks to the progressive mood of our current society. Before this conversation derails, let me be clear: this is a positive step for humanity. We’re trying our best to push forward into a period of history where we become more tolerant, and the rest of the world will eventually be forced to come with us kicking and screaming. No reasonable person thinks that sharing ideas and learning about people different than we are is a bad thing. 

But the 2015 Hugo awards have reignited an ongoing controversy in writing. The Hugo Awards are considered amongst the highest honors in science fiction and fantasy writing.

In 2015, two groups of science fiction writers, the “Sad Puppies” led by Brad R. Torgersen and Larry Correia, and the “Rabid Puppies” led by Vox Day, each put forward a similar slate of suggested nominations which came to dominate the ballot. The Sad Puppies campaign had run for two years prior on a smaller scale, with limited success. The leaders of the campaigns characterized them as a reaction to “niche, academic, overtly [leftist]” nominees and winners in opposition to “an affirmative action award” that preferred female and non-white authors and characters. In response, five nominees declined their nomination before and, for the first time, two after the ballot was published. Multiple-Hugo-winner Connie Willis declined to present the awards. The slates were characterized by some journalists as a “right wing”, “orchestrated backlash” by a “group of white guys”and were linked with the Gamergate controversy. Multiple Hugo winner Samuel R. Delany characterized the campaigns as a response to “socio-economic” changes such as minority authors gaining prominence and thus “economic heft”.  In all but the Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form category, “no award” placed above all nominees that were on either slate, and it won all five categories that only contained slate nominees.


To make it clear, there appears to be a rift.

There’s the section of the community that is fighting the good fight of the downtrodden and actively pursuing books that feature diverse characters. In fact, there’s a Twitter crusade for precisely that. This is a wonderful movement that should be celebrated. There are people who, until now, have been deprived of good literature featuring people like them. As we all know, our favorite books can shape our lives. Being able to relate to heroes and heroines can give us the courage to be heroic ourselves.

There’s another section of the community, however, that thinks we’re trying too hard. And yeah, there are quite a few people in this community that are just ANTI. Anti-gay, anti-women, anti-empowerment.

But I think the truth lies somewhere in between there.

The other day on Facebook, this comment by a Reddit user was floating around:

I read somewhere that the average SF reader is getting older and older, because they have trouble attracting new readers. As a kid I read authors like Asimov and Herbert, but I have to wonder if books about Captain Homo’s gay adventures on planet Diversity, is something that attracts all that many new readers.

And I have to admit, I laughed aloud, too. Partly because I know there’s quite a large amount of people I know personally that would love to read that book. Someone out there is probably writing “Captain Homo’s Gay Adventures on Planet Diversity” right now in direct response to the vitriolic comments that have come about from this.

(Actually, there’s some pretty hot stuff in the same-sex romance category, particularly when it comes to fan art…heh heh)

But it reminded me that I’ve been mostly keeping this opinion to myself for a long time because I know that it’s unpopular. Good people don’t like to oppose the momentum of a positive movement, but I think we’ve gotten a little overzealous. It is possible for us to get so caught up in our convictions as to become ignorant ourselves. It is even easier to believe we are right in doing so if we’ve been a member of the downtrodden before.

I’m a female writer. Historically speaking, my gender has been suppressed in science fiction and fantasy. I fall into this category. Actually, I’ve written about this before on my Wiselike, and how I plan to deal with being female in a male-dominated industry. That’s the social current, though. I don’t lose sleep over it. I adapt and trudge forward.

Despite that, I’ve been witness to the shift. I was seeking an agent at a time when most are seeking diverse books. My books fall into this category, too. Most of my protagonists are female. A lot of my antagonists are also female. Several of my characters are queer. I have cultures in some of my stories that are discriminated against for irrational reasons, just the way it is in the real world. I write in ways I hope will highlight social injustices without making a lot of noise on the matter. It’s just that I don’t make a big deal about it. I don’t market my book as containing these elements because that’s not why I want to be published. I don’t want my books to be picked up because Heike likes to sleep with guys and with girls. I want my books to be picked up because they are good. And if they aren’t good, then I don’t deserve to be picked up…but that’s never going to stop me from writing, or publishing them myself.

(I do think I’m good. Top 25% good. Definitely not top 5% good).

But although I write these into my stories because I find them important doesn’t mean we should select against the traditional norms that currently pervade literature – straight white dudes in one-note, male-dominated cultures. There do exist more traditional readers who still want to read about sword-swinging burly heroes who always get the girl. They don’t choose them based on them excluding minorities or objectifying women. They choose them because they like the story. The story is familiar, tried and true, just the way one might feel about a trope-heavy epic fantasy:

The reluctant hero fighting for the forces of light against the darkness with his friends and newly discovered magical powers, learning to be a master of the sword and ultimately getting the sassy, pretty princess.

And who are we to tell them what story they must like?

If that means they want books that don’t fit our current vision of social justice, we shouldn’t shame them for it. Yeah, they’ve had their turn. There were hundreds of thousands of books published that fit their ideal, and very few that were diverse or published by diverse authors. But denying them an entire generation’s worth of literature in the name of diversity because we’ve finally found our moment makes us no better than the intolerant society we’re trying to transform. That’s like saying, “You had your turn…now shut up and let us have ours. Yeah, I don’t care if you feel slighted. We were slighted before.”

This tit-for-tat attitude is also part of the problem. Retaliation based on a history of injustice only perpetuates the issue.

If we truly want diverse books, we need to keep the old books, too, and keep publishing those. I mean, sometimes I want to read about Captain Homo, but I like variety on my plate. Sometimes I also want to read Lord of the Rings, and Arwen isn’t important at all until the appendix. I still love the Wheel of Time, where women are almost portrayed like bossy biddies and the major protagonist has three girlfriends, while his best friends are a henpecked husband and a womanizer who grudgingly settles down.

We like what we like.

I love the spike in interest in diverse books. I’m thrilled that we’re getting more LGBTQ books and movies and that women are doing much better than we were.

But I’m also having a hard time finding anything that I enjoy lately. And I’m not even an old straight white dude who hates the gays.

And I’m also concerned that we don’t allow good people to have opinions like these because it’s somehow a detriment to the movement towards tolerance. It’s not. If anything, we’ve leapt from one extreme to the other when what we were trying for all along was balance.

By all means…let us write the books we need. Let’s write what’s in our hearts and pen a new generation of heroes for our kids to find some meaning in the universe. But let’s not shame our old books and past authors who wrote the books we grew up with by denying them a place in the present.

S.K. Balk lives in the frozen wasteland of Northern Michigan. She is the author of the dystopian medical sci-fi THE BLOOD OF NERYS (also available in print).