Bear with me for a moment, and take a look at these few excerpts from a book review I read this morning, posted on a fantasy review blog (which you can find here, though I’m loathe to give them a link after perusing the site since it’s a little messed up). I’d been poking around the place since they are a participating member of the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off, a contest between 300 different self-published fantasy books, and Unusual Events is one of those titles. This site is the one that will be handling Unusual Events review.
I’m not sure how I feel about that now. In fact, I may request to have it passed to another site, since I’m pretty sure I can already see how its going to go. Because I’ve been reading their other reviews, and I’ve noticed a disturbing trend. Let’s look at some quotes:
Otherbound is that last sort of book.
I’m fairly certain I discovered it on Tumblr, recommended by one of those blogs which include lists of books that are commendable for their diversity.
Okay, that’s … interesting. A little background on the title. I guess that’s important? Let’s see what happens if we go further.
… fantasy novels are written by and about (and quite possibly for) white men who like running around with swords saving the world.
Uh-oh. Okay. Sensing a theme here, but—
As I said, it’s an incredible story, and honestly, I’d probably have loved the book even if both of the leads were white and straight.
So they’re saying that it’s also likely that they wouldn’t have liked the book had the main characters been, to use their own words “white and straight”? The book would be inferior simply because of the color of the main character’s skin or their sexual orientation? Let me check a definition really quick.
- the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.
Hmm … so, for example, saying that book would automatically be better or worse based on the color of the main character’s skin—regardless of whatever color that is—would be … racism.
Well, there’s still one last check. Let’s see if it passes the flip test.
As I said, it’s an incredible story, and honestly, I’d probably have loved the book even if both of the leads were [black] and [homosexual].
Yup, nope. If I or anyone else posted that in any prominent place, it’d be a firestorm. So the review is definitely crossing some lines. The weird part is … it never needed to (though the author clearly intended to, judging from another recent post on the site that discusses how a number of prominent fantasy authors over the last twenty years need—yes, emphasis—to go back and rewrite all their books so that all the primary characters are homosexual rather than straight). They could have just written a review. But instead … they didn’t.
There’s been a trend swelling in the last few years among book reviews, fueled by the “outrage cliches” of the interweb. This idea that a book, a story, should be judged largely based on several things which matter more than anything else: The color of the main character’s skin, their sex, and their sexuality. Then the same for the author.
How bad is it? Last week the Nebula awards were swept by female authors. Which would be totally fine … except for how the news presented it, which was best summed up in the i09 article I read that didn’t discuss the books that won at all, but only that the winning authors were women. It was so bad, in fact, that I had this to say about it in a discussion elsewhere:
… reading the article, and many of the reactions, this is the conclusion I reach: that what you write, no matter how good it is, is never as important as what’s between your legs.
A good book is a good book. Reading the article, however, I wouldn’t gather that. In fact, they don’t talk about the books at all. The only thing they discuss is the sex of the author, and the color of their skin.
And we’re supposed to be celebrating this? I’m happy for the winners, sure, but the way this article was written, if I was one of them I’d feel insulted. Sort of like Galaxy Quest, where Sigourney Weaver’s character mentions her TV Guide interview was “… six paragraphs about my BOOBS and how they fit into my suit.” with the follow up of “No one bothered to ask me what I do on the show.”
We laugh at that, but this article is displaying the exact same sort of sexism Weaver’s character was complaining about. It’s “Congratulations! You won! All because of what’s between your legs and the color of your skin. That’s diversity!”
It’s a mockery of the idea, is what it is.
Let’s be perfectly clear. There is nothing wrong with someone of any sex, ethnic heritage, cultural heritage, whatever winning an award for a well-written book. This is something I hold pretty paramount. Skin color is just that: A color. It’s just as much biology as me having a squat jaw while my brother has a thin jaw.
Actually, let’s roll with that one for a minute. What we’re seeing lately is this growing trend of reviews where the sex and skin color of both the characters in the book and the author matter more than the rest of the content in the book. Let’s swap that out for jaw size and see how ridiculous that makes that earlier quote. Jaw size and … instead of sexuality, let’s go with … hard or soft candies.
As I said, it’s an incredible story, and honestly, I’d probably have loved the book even if both of the leads were [thin-jawed] and [liked hard candy].
There, see how ridiculous that is? Unless that’s a core part of the book’s plot, I don’t see it mattering much.
Look, I understand. We’ve all got an ethnic and cultural heritage, and a sex. Fine. Me too! But none of that has any bearing on whether or not we can write a good story, and nothing said otherwise will change that. If you try to pursue that argument, we’re literally going down the dark hole of eugenics, which I thought as a species we’d moved mostly past supporting … but now it looks like it’s swinging back.
A good story will be a good story regardless of the color of the main character’s skin. Or the sex of the author. And yet … more and more that seems to be what many people are fixated on. Whether it’s an online campaign to “… stop reading white, straight, cisgender male authors …” or a Nebula Award article that only focuses on the sex of the winners and completely failed to discuss what they’d won for, this is getting to be an alarmingly common criteria.
Now, to get back to something I said earlier, I’m considering contacting the SPFBO 2016 ringleaders and asking to have my book moved to another reviewer. And no, it’s not because my book is “… written by and about (and quite possibly for) white men who like running around with swords saving the world.” because it isn’t. But more because now I know that there’s a very high chance that that fact is what the reviewer is going to fixate on regardless. My sex, and my ethnic heritage, as well as that of the characters I wrote, is going to matter to her more than the rest of what’s inside the book’s pages. More than the stories those characters experience, the trials that they undergo.
And quite honestly, that’s not a fair shake at all, because it’s not the criteria we should be focusing on. Again, good stories are good stories. Samantha from SUPERMODEL having heritage from Jamaica should not be some major, important part of the judging process. The story should still stand strong if she was from Mexico, Liberia, Ukraine, China, or any other country in the world. Nor should her story be revered over that of the same story from a character who was male.
Am I biting off more than I can chew here? Maybe. I realize that there are a lot of people who will call me a bigot or a racist for suggesting that judging works based on the color of the author or character’s skin is wrong, and I know that because that’s already happened, sad as that is.
But Cap said it best—
Doesn’t matter what the press says. Doesn’t matter what the politicians or the mobs say. Doesn’t matter if the whole country decides that something wrong is something right. This nation was founded on one principle above all else: The requirement that we stand up for what we believe, no matter the odds or the consequences. When the mob and the press and the whole world tell you to move, your job is to plant yourself like a tree beside the river of truth, and tell the whole world — “No, you move.”
—and I’m going to plant myself on this one: Judging a book or a story based on race and sex (author or character) is wrong, no matter who you are or what you’re passing judgement on. Judge a book by whether it’s a good book. Is it misrepresenting something, from science to culture. Sure, call it out, but no book should get a free pass because of sex or skin color. I’ve held that since day one, and I’m going to keep holding that. Books are for anyone, about anyone, written by anyone, about whatever they want to write about. They are about people. The human race, not some skin color we’ve declared a separate “inferior or superior” race.
It’s a lonely stand, but I’m going to take it.
Now back to writing Shadow of an Empire.
LATER EDIT: Unusual Events is now no longer a part of the SPFBO competition. For further reading, see this post.