Diversity is not enough.
We’re right to push for diversity, we have to, but it is only step one of a long journey. Lack of racial diversity is a symptom. The underlying illness is institutional racism. It walks hand in hand with sexism, cissexism, homophobia, and classism. To go beyond this same conversation we keep having, again and again, beyond tokens and quick fixes, requires us to look the illness in the face and destroy it. This is work for white people and people of color to do, sometimes together, sometimes apart. It’s work for writers, agents, editors, artists, fans, executives, interns, directors, and publicists. It’s work for reviewers, educators, administrators. It means taking courageous, real-world steps, not just changing mission statements or submissions guidelines.
Maybe the word hasn’t been invented yet – that thing beyond diversity. We often define movements by what they’re against, but the final goal is greater than the powers it dismantles, deeper than any statistic. It’s something like equity – a commitment to harvesting a narrative language so broad it has no face, no name.
We can love a thing and still critique it. In fact, that’s the only way to really love a thing. Let’s be critical lovers and loving critics and open ourselves to the truth about where we are and where we’ve been. Instead of holding tight to the same old, failed patriarchies, let’s walk a new road, speak new languages. Today, let’s imagine a literature, a literary world, that carries this struggle for equity in its very essence, so that tomorrow it can cease to be necessary, and disappear.
US government plans to use drones to fire vaccine-laced M&Ms near endangered ferrets.
“I am left a widow with the necessity upon me of getting my own living, and an abundance of vitality and energy wherewith to accomplish it. There is a something telling me it is for my good to be doing something… But to do something which earns a living will mark me masculine and vulgar. I can live with my relatives, and retain my standing in society…. I am told that it is not genteel and fashionable for young ladies to work….
“I decide on going to work because it suits my pleasure so to do. What shall I undertake? Shall I go on a salary, or engage in some business of my own? Why should I go on a salary when I am as capable of managing a business, and obtaining all the profits of it as the one who might employ me. But what business can a woman establish herself in? Men monopolize everything…..
“I begin to see some point to the woman’s rights question. Why is there a masculine monopoly of business? Why shouldn’t woman compete with men in the race for earning money and getting a living? There are certainly no legal objections to her doing it; no moral ones that I can see. The chief difficulty appears to lie in her own capacity, or rather lack of capacity, physical and mental, and in the social atmosphere with which she is surrounded….
“To be sure woman in her present status is not fitted to undertake all kinds of business. Her manner of dress, and other habits, would make it rather inconvenient for her to go to the mast-head in a gale, or handle goods in a wholesale grocery establishment. She has as much as she can attend to out-of-doors to hold up her trailing garments, adjust her sun-shade, and make a graceful appearance in the eyes of the other sex…..
“I can’t change the social condition of woman. My wisdom is to make the best of it. There must be some kinds of business that a woman can undertake. On thinking it over nothing presents itself but a fancy-goods store, dress-making, millinery, or a candy shop. There are but few kinds to choose from, but business will be independence. There will be no one to say me aye or nay, and that will be a glorious state of existence
And a lot of us on the crew are not straight and are not white, and these topics don’t seem like adult topics to us, because they were part of our experience growing up. The more I work on this show, the more incredible it seems to me that these topics are not usually discussed in media for kids. Kids not only get it, many of them are experiencing it themselves, sometimes with no context to tell them their experience makes sense, and almost always without a fun sci-fi fantasy take on that experience featuring wacky cartoon aliens. I’d really like to rectify that.
I’m reading some fat fantasy book set in Yet Another Faux Medieval Europe. Nothing in this story jibes with my understanding of actual medieval Europe. There’s no fantasy version of the Silk Road bringing spices and agricultural techniques and ideas from China and India and Persia. There’s been no Moorish conquest. There aren’t even Jewish merchants or bankers, stereotypical as that would be.
Everyone in this “Europe” looks the same but for minor variations of hair or eye color. They speak the same language, worship the same gods — and everyone, even the very poor people, seems inordinately concerned with the affairs of the nobility, as if there’s nothing else going on that matters. There are dragons and magic in the story, but it’s the human fantasy that I’m having trouble swallowing.
It doesn’t matter which book I’m reading. I could name you a dozen others just like it. This isn’t magical medieval Europe; it’s some white supremacist, neo-feudalist fantasy of same, and I’m so fucking sick of it that I put the book down and open my laptop and start writing. Later people read what I’ve written and remark on how angry the story is.
Gosh, I wonder why.
N. K. Jemisin, “How Long ’til Black Future Month?”
(September 30th, 2013)
This essay definitely stands the test of three years, and I highly recommend reading the whole thing. It’s spectacular.
Fantastic essay full of so many good things, not the least of which is MAKING ME DISCOVER THE AMAZINGNESS THAT IS JANELLE MONAE?!!1one
Go read the article, watch the embedded video for “Tightrope”, and feel the weight lift off your shoulders. Posthaste!
Argentina’s new president choked on a fake moustache he was wearing as part of a Freddie Mercury costume at his most recent wedding.
On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer
Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,
And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;
Round many western islands have I been
Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.
Oft of one wide expanse had I been told
That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken;
Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes
He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men
Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—
Silent, upon a peak in Darien.
My love for this poem is perhaps only equaled by my love for a particular flavour of frozen yogurt (Blackjack Cherry!) by a company that happens to be called Chapman’s, which I discovered when I was catsitting at my friend Moti’s house one day. I ended up eating all of it that was in his freezer. I wrote him this as an apology.
ON FIRST LOOKING INTO CHAPMAN’S YOGURT
Much have I travell’d in the realms of sweets,
And many goodly snacks and dishes seen;
Round many supermarkets have I been
Which hordes of foodies brave to get their eats.
Oft of one sweet delight that nothing beats,
That deep-bowl’d ice cream, I’d heard praises sung;
Yet did it never much impress my tongue
Till I ate Chapman’s frozen yogurt treats:
Then I felt like some watcher of the pies
When a new flavour rushes his palate;
Or like stout Cortez, when with all his guys
He took a bite of cacao – and the fate
Of snacks he pondered with a wild surmise –
Silent, with a mouthful of chocolate.
It is said that, during the fantasy book in the late eighties, publishers would maybe get a box containing two or three runic alphabets, four maps of the major areas covered by the sweep of the narrative, a pronunciation guide to the names of the main characters and, at the bottom of the box, the manuscript. Please… there is no need to go that far.
There is a term that readers have been known to apply to fantasy that is sometimes an unquestioning echo of better work gone before, with a static society, conveniently ugly ‘bad’ races, magic that works like electricity and horses that work like cars. It’s EFP, or Extruded Fantasy Product. It can be recognized by the fact that you can’t tell it apart form all the other EFP.
Do not write it, and try not to read it. Read widely outside the genre. Read about the Old West (a fantasy in itself) or Georgian London or how Nelson’s navy was victualled or the history of alchemy or clock-making or the mail coach system. Read with the mindset of a carpenter looking at trees.
Apply logic in places where it wasn’t intended to exist. If assured that the Queen of the Fairies has a necklace made of broken promises, ask yourself what it looks like. If there is magic, where does it come from? Why isn’t everyone using it? What rules will you have to give it to allow some tension in your story? How does society operate? Where does the food come from? You need to know how your world works.
I can’t stress that last point enough. Fantasy works best when you take it seriously (it can also become a lot funnier, but that’s another story). Taking it seriously means that there must be rules. If anything can happen, then there is no real suspense. You are allowed to make pigs fly, but you must take into account the depredations on the local bird life and the need for people in heavily over-flown areas to carry stout umbrellas at all times. Joking aside, that sort of thinking is the motor that has kept the Discworld series moving for twenty-two years.
Here’s my life. My husband and I get up each morning at 7 o’clock and he showers while I make coffee. By the time he’s dressed I’m already sitting at my desk writing. He kisses me goodbye then leaves for the job where he makes good money, draws excellent benefits and gets many perks, such as travel, catered lunches and full reimbursement for the gym where I attend yoga midday. His career has allowed me to work only sporadically, as a consultant, in a field I enjoy.
All that disclosure is crass, I know. I’m sorry. Because in this world where women will sit around discussing the various topiary shapes of their bikini waxes, the conversation about money (or privilege) is the one we never have. Why? I think it’s the Marie Antoinette syndrome: Those with privilege and luck don’t want the riffraff knowing the details. After all, if “those people” understood the differences in our lives, they might revolt. Or, God forbid, not see us as somehow more special, talented and/or deserving than them.
There’s a special version of this masquerade that we writers put on. Two examples:
I attended a packed reading (I’m talking 300+ people) about a year and a half ago. The author was very well-known, a magnificent nonfictionist who has, deservedly, won several big awards. He also happens to be the heir to a mammoth fortune. Mega-millions. In other words he’s a man who has never had to work one job, much less two. He has several children; I know, because they were at the reading with him, all lined up. I heard someone say they were all traveling with him, plus two nannies, on his worldwide tour.
None of this takes away from his brilliance. Yet, when an audience member — young, wide-eyed, clearly not clued in — rose to ask him how he’d managed to spend 10 years writing his current masterpiece — What had he done to sustain himself and his family during that time? — he told her in a serious tone that it had been tough but he’d written a number of magazine articles to get by. I heard a titter pass through the half of the audience that knew the truth. But the author, impassive, moved on and left this woman thinking he’d supported his Manhattan life for a decade with a handful of pieces in the Nation and Salon.
Example two. A reading in a different city, featuring a 30-ish woman whose debut novel had just appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. I didn’t love the book (a coming-of-age story set among wealthy teenagers) but many people I respect thought it was great, so I defer. The author had herself attended one of the big, East Coast prep schools, while her parents were busy growing their careers on the New York literary scene. These were people — her parents — who traded Christmas cards with William Maxwell and had the Styrons over for dinner. She, the author, was their only beloved child.
After prep school, she’d earned two creative writing degrees (Iowa plus an Ivy). Her first book was being heralded by editors and reviewers all over the country, many of whom had watched her grow up. It was a phenomenon even before it hit bookshelves. She was an immediate star.
When (again) an audience member, clearly an undergrad, rose to ask this glamorous writer to what she attributed her success, the woman paused, then said that she had worked very, very hard and she’d had some good training, but she thought in looking back it was her decision never to have children that had allowed her to become a true artist. If you have kids, she explained to the group of desperate nubile writers, you have to choose between them and your writing. Keep it pure. Don’t let yourself be distracted by a baby’s cry.
I was dumbfounded. I wanted to leap to my feet and shout. “Hello? Alice Munro! Doris Lessing! Joan Didion!” Of course, there are thousands of other extraordinary writers who managed to produce art despite motherhood. But the essential point was that, the quality of her book notwithstanding, this author’s chief advantage had nothing to do with her reproductive decisions. It was about connections. Straight up. She’d had them since birth.
In my opinion, we do an enormous “let them eat cake” disservice to our community when we obfuscate the circumstances that help us write, publish and in some way succeed. I can’t claim the wealth of the first author (not even close); nor do I have the connections of the second. I don’t have their fame either. But I do have a huge advantage over the writer who is living paycheck to paycheck, or lonely and isolated, or dealing with a medical condition, or working a full-time job.
How can I be so sure? Because I used to be poor, overworked and overwhelmed. And I produced zero books during that time. Throughout my 20s, I was married to an addict who tried valiantly (but failed, over and over) to stay straight. We had three children, one with autism, and lived in poverty for a long, wretched time. In my 30s I divorced the man because it was the only way out of constant crisis. For the next 10 years, I worked two jobs and raised my three kids alone, without child support or the involvement of their dad.
I published my first novel at 39, but only after a teaching stint where I met some influential writers and three months living with my parents while I completed the first draft. After turning in that manuscript, I landed a pretty cushy magazine editor’s job. A year later, I met my second husband. For the first time I had a true partner, someone I could rely on who was there in every way for me and our kids. Life got easier. I produced a nonfiction book, a second novel and about 30 essays within a relatively short time.
Today, I am essentially “sponsored” by this very loving man who shows up at the end of the day, asks me how the writing went, pours me a glass of wine, then takes me out to eat. He accompanies me when I travel 500 miles to do a 75-minute reading, manages my finances, and never complains that my dark, heady little books have resulted in low advances and rather modest sales.
I completed my third novel in eight months flat. I started the book while on a lovely vacation. Then I wrote happily and relatively quickly because I had the time and the funding, as well as help from my husband, my agent and a very talented editor friend. Without all those advantages, I might be on page 52. OK, there’s mine. Now show me yours.
Ann Bauer, ““Sponsored” by my husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from”, http://www.salon.com/2015/01/25/sponsored_by_my_husband_why_its_a_problem_that_writers_never_talk_about_where_their_money_comes_from/ (via angrygirlcomics)
This is so important, especially for people like me, who are always hearing the radio station that plays “but you’re 26 and you are ~*~gifted~*~ and you can write, WHERE IS YOUR NOVEL” on constant loop.
It’s so important because I see younger people who can write going “oh yes, I can write, therefore I will be an English major, and write my book and live on that yes?? then I don’t have to do other jobs yes??” and you’re like “oh, no, honey, at least try to add another string to your bow, please believe that it will not happen quite like that”
It’s so important not to be overly impressed by Walden because Thoreau’s mother continued to cook him food and wash his laundry while he was doing his self-sufficient wilderness-experiment “sit in a cabin and write” thing.
It’s so important because when you’re impressed by Lord of the Rings, remember that Tolkien had servants, a wife, university scouts and various underlings to do his admin, cook his meals, chase after him, and generally set up his life so that the only thing he had to do was wander around being vague and clever. In fact, the man could barely stand to show up at his own day job.
It’s important when you look at published fiction to remember that it is a non-random sample, and that it’s usually produced by the leisure class, so that most of what you study and consume is essentially wolves in captivity – not wolves in the wild – and does not reflect the experiences of all wolves.
Yeah. Important. Like that.
This is fantastic, not only because of the reasons listed above – like that it’s important to acknowledge and understand the privilege of the (according to this) majority of authors who do get published, and how their experience doesn’t represent the experience of all authors – but also because it can help authors like me, who aren’t famous and successful and able to devote their daily lives to their writing (yet), feel less guilty about things like, you know, having a job.
It’s hard to find the time and energy to write when you have other big things in your life. A full-time job, kids, a medical condition, aging parents or relatives who need support – it’s normal to be struggling to get your writing done when your time and energy and devotion have another focus. But what this post, aligning as it does with my own recent personal experiences with NerdCon and NaNoWriMo, has helped me realize is this:
1. Your story matters. Even if you’re having a hard time getting it onto the page, it’s part of you and the world deserves a chance to see it. If you want to put it out there, you need to persevere and keep chipping away at it, in whatever way works for you; don’t give up on it because you don’t think that your story could be worthwhile enough, or you don’t think it’ll ever get published. It certainly won’t ever happen by itself. It comes from you, and only you can make it happen. Make it happen. That said…
2. Your life matters more. It’s okay to focus on feeding yourself and your kids and helping the people around you. It’s okay to work on building life circumstances that will allow you the time and leisure to eventually work on your book. There’s this weird balance that all of us who aren’t multimillionaire heirs and heiresses have to strike between our creative passions and our ability to pay the rent. And that struggle is not great, but it’s not the death knell to your book either, not unless you let it be. Your day job can be the thing that allows you to finally write that magnum opus that’s been brewing inside you. Use what it gives you (like, you know, money) to your advantage. Although it might not be where you feel best right now, it can be the thing that gets you where you want to be.
The idea that one fantasy fiction can be deemed more realistic—essentially, more non-fictional—than the other, deserves contemplation. With science fiction, at least, we have the categories of hard and soft, depending on the sort of technology at the heart of the story. Consider, for example, elements in Martin’s Game of Thrones which Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings lacks. A Game of Thrones begins with a slaughter, followed by a beheading scene. The Lord of the Rings begins with plans for a birthday party, followed by the birthday party itself. Beheading, in fact, constitutes the single most gruesome detail of Tolkien’s many scenes of war, when the forces of Sauron use a catapult to throw the heads of Gondorian soldiers over the walls of Minas Tirith. In A Game of Thrones, atrocity is unflinching; even dead children are shown in all their red ruin. […]
There can be no doubt that Martin and Tolkien provide different experiences. The more modern publication delves much deeper into the personal psychology of its characters, while the other provides much more historical depth. To claim, however, that one imaginary world is more realistic than the other is to beg a standard that simply cannot assert itself. As Northrop Frye considered in his Anatomy of Criticism, as inhabitants of the real world, everything we imagine ourselves to understand—whether fiction or nonfiction—must have some basis in our own experience. Something entirely apart from that experience would be incomprehensible to us—untranslatable, as it were.
In deciding matters of realism, then, we must ask ourselves how deeply our experience goes with the criteria we invoke, and from there decide whether our decision is valid. Some may realize, for example, that they have attended more birthday parties than beheadings in their lifetime.
With Game of Thrones, as with a great many current television programs and films whose realism is measured by their grittiness, the spotlights are constantly on the shadows. It should come as no surprise that cockroaches scatter. To claim, however, that their matters of murder, deceit, rape, and worse somehow impart greater credibility to a fantasy world than do their existing moral counterparts—this makes Game of Thrones not just theater, but a thermometer.
I get really, really tired of the claims that GoT is “more realistic” or “more like the real Middle Ages.” GoT is only more realistic to us, as people in 2014, because its lens and worldview is our own. It shows us a medieval-esque world that is as brutal and nasty as we feel our own is. Tolkien was showing a brutal and desperate world, too — but through the lens of surviving WWI and dealing with WWII and trying to find some meaning in the rise of mechanised, dreadful warfare. But his lens is a century removed from ours, quite nearly. GRRM is a contemporary. So his medieval fantasy feels like something we understand because it reflects a vision of the medieval that we resonate with. And that is what makes it so troubling — not that it’s grim and brutal and incredibly, over the top violent, but that this is what we feel is necessary to make anything set in the past, even a past through a mirror darkly, real. That’s what it has to be to make it resonate. And that’s what it has to be to make modern American audiences feel things were worse then than they are now. Compared with Tolkien’s world, on the heels of the Shoah and the two deadliest wars in modern history, that says a terrifying lot about how we perceive our real world.
——- This is a line of thought I’ve never even considered before. You definitely do hear that George R.R. Martin’s writing is so much more “realistic” than Tolkien’s – heck, even I’ve had those thoughts myself from time to time (even though I don’t fully agree, but that’s another story). But the fact is, it’s probably true that what we decide “realism” is, what lens we see fiction through, is contextual to our time, our society, our experience.
But I actually think there’s more to it than that. I don’t think it’s just the content of stories that matter in determining their realism: it’s their execution, too. JRR and GRR have very different writing styles (even if their names are distractingly similar). Tolkien’s is much more narrative, spacious and plentiful and unhurried. I definitely know people who have never been able to get into Lord of the Rings because his style was too florid and longwinded for them. There’s something old-fashioned to it that you don’t really see in Martin’s writing, with its clipped descriptions, action-driven continuity, and characterization conveyed largely through dialogue. The pace of A Song of Ice and Fire is often as jagged and brutal as its people. Tolkien’s writing is operatic; George R.R. Martin’s is metal.
I feel like this probably contributes to the feeling of modernity and realism in the work. The writing is very much of our time; I feel it resonates with us as much because of its syntax as its brutality. It’s not so much what the characters do as how it’s depicted, that gives us that sense of “realness”. Just think of the LotR movies – there’s definitely parts of those that feel Game-of-Thrones-y, right? All grit and death and lies? In a way, it’s like all Peter Jackson had to do to update the tone of those scenes was to spotlight the action, tease it out from the saga-esque presentation of the original. A lot was added, but I think it can be argued that most of it was already implied. Middle-Earth and Westeros are maybe not as dissimilar as you think. I mean, I certainly wouldn’t want to live in either of them.
What do you think? Is “realism” in fantasy fiction as much a product of writing style as it is of actual story content?