Minority SFF

Tor.com has an article on queer SFF.

There seemed to be a common theme in the discussion of people’s first queer SFF: it wasn’t found intentionally. It was found by accident, by word of mouth, by luck. That got me thinking about the ways in which I search for new books to read. In turn, that made me think about how hard queer SFF can be to find sometimes, especially when you’re just browsing by shelves in a store. Why is that? Flap copy tends to be one problem—I can’t claim to be the most thorough researcher in the world, but once I had the thought, I read over the backs/inside flaps of all the queer SFF books I own and that are in the bookstore I work for. You would be surprised (or perhaps not) at exactly how few of them bother to mention the sexualities or gender differences within the text, even when they are the driving force of the plot. Examples follow below the cut

It’s a very interesting read, though, on a minor point, I don’t agree with is the assumptions on publishers and labelling. If publishers didn’t want to publish fiction with LGBT characters in it, they wouldn’t; so to suggest they’re hiding things seems to miss the point a touch.

Also, my book does indeed get a mention lower down.

I’m looking forward to reading Nights of Villjamur after reading a review for it there that focused—but didn’t overfocus—on the sexuality of the lead.

I’d always tried to keep that gay character closeted until the reader makes the discovery for themselves, and I treated the whole thing totally matter-of-factly. He isn’t camp, he isn’t some handbag fag-hag accessory, he isn’t a bad dude. He’s just himself. City of Ruin sees me make more of a deal of the issue. Book three, I’m trying to explore a transgender character – which is an altogether more difficult a subject. But I’m trying.

I like that Villjamur is – and with other novels – is being noticed for at least trying to do something here. A cultural hangover, perhaps, but the amount of gay/gender stereotyping (or even completely ignoring – and going against statistics – the presence of such people) in novels still amazes me. For straight folk (isn’t our party line, like, we have friends who are gay?) to throw in our contribution, well – I guess every little helps, right? I’m not perfect at this by any means, and I’m always going to try improving my fiction in this way.

I guess this is wondering out loud rather than a constructed argument, but why don’t more majority writers (for example, straight and white) try to write about minority characters? Not merely sexuality, but even race? (Because you can even divide it down the species line in SFF.)

Is it a simple case of comfort zones and familiarity? Because I really don’t buy ignorance as a reasonable excuse. There are still vast swathes of society who don’t see eye-to-eye with our equality laws, so do writers have a responsibility to help move things along, or is this too wild a claim? To be honest, I’d say the more popular a writer becomes, the more of an ethical sin it is to ignore these issues.

With great power, n’all that.

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About Mark Newton

Born in 1981, live in the UK. I write about strange things.


  1. I finished re-reading Frank Herbert’s Dune yesterday. Something that struck me was how he depicted the main villain as being both a homosexual and a pedophile, as if the two were interchangeable. It was a bit surprising, to say the least. Good to see people are more self-aware, authors and readers alike, about the importance of self-identity and sexuality being reflected in more positive ways in media and in fiction.

  2. The Adamantine Palace / King of the Crags series has one gay character and at least two bisexual ones. So far, I’m not sure anyone has even noticed, and I’m wondering if that might be because the society I’ve written for them simply doesn’t care. Do we even notice minority characters in stories if the story itself doesn’t make an issue of it? Just a thought.

  3. Would it be a bit odd though to consciously insert a minority character – sort of ‘positive discrimination’? Although I’d say, an author who actively looks at the character/story they are writing and questions whether their subconscious is just being lazy and sticking to what it knows best – and if they find it is – challenges themselves to try harder, is probably going to end up with a more interesting book. One of my characters is gay, not because I thought I needed to ‘represent’ – but just because that’s the way he naturally popped into my mind.

  4. I am used to homophobia and not suprised that people would be offended by depictions of gay sex but I’m boggled that people would try and return books because they didn’t like the contents: “Excuse me, this book is defective, I would like my money back.”

  5. I was amazed the criticism Richard Morgan got for The Steel Remains that was veiled homophobia – just read some of his 1 star Amazon reviews.

    Do you think though, playing devil’s advocate a little, that writing Gay or Bisexual characters are a relatively safe way of writing the other?

  6. As a gay man and an aspiring writer of SF I find this very interesting. For me the idea of writing LGBT characters is perfectly normal and natural. I would not be writing them to be edgy or different, or to score some’ politically correct – gods I hate that term’ brownie points. I would write them because they’re a reflection of what I know. Not just because I’m gay, but because I grew up in an environment were gay people are visible. As a reader of course I also want to see myself reflected in the characters I read about. Not always and not exclusively, but at least occasionally.

    The same is surely true for non-minorities, and I do not think that every white straight male who finds it difficult to read about gay or other minority characters is necessarily homophobic or at fault. Reading has to be a pleasure first and foremost, and people should feel free to read whatever brings them pleasure and avoid those things they think they’ll dislike. There is nothing wrong in straight guys (or gals) wanting primarily to read about other straight guys. The last thing anybody wants is to be preached at in fiction. Therefore I think we have to be very careful about expecting writers to be some kind of moral custodian or more to the point to be architects of moral values. Writing challenging books is great, not everyone reads to be challenged though.

    I was working on a lead character for a novel who was a bi-sexual former rent boy. I really like this character and I will return to that work at some point. I was concerned whilst writing this, that the SF market would not take to such a character, particularly from a debut, and that therefore it probably wasn’t the wisest choice of first novel. I wasn’t prepared to alter the character, so I started on a different idea entirely. That is not the only reason I’ve decided to swap the priority in which I’m working on some ideas, but it’s a factor. It perhaps represents a degree of cowardice on my part, and this is what I want to say more than anything: the writers who are pushing the boundary of SF fiction with LGBT characters are doing a great service to gay writers, and potentially to the wider acceptance of LGBT people. I applaud this, but the reasons such characters are written needs to be about character and not about agenda. If writers start peopling their worlds with LGBT characters just to provoke or to be edgy, contemporary – whatever. Not only will this likely be visible in the writing, but I think it will simply stir up a backlash against such characters in fiction.

    I am immensely pleased to see so many gifted writers pushing the envelope on encouraging a broad diversity of characters in their worlds, but not everybody inhabits such cosmopolitan worlds in real life, physically or mentally. If we are to change that and encourage acceptance, we need to be prepared to listen with understanding to the views of those who may not be comfortable with such things. We also need to remember that in many parts of even the liberal democracies, the environment is not that diverse.

    One final point I do not think that only minorities can write with conviction on minorities. If that were the case then surely the opposite would be true, and minority writers would be stuck writing worlds that lacked straight white males or whatever.

  7. There are still vast swathes of society who don’t see eye-to-eye with our equality laws, so do writers have a responsibility to help move things along, or is this too wild a claim?

    I don’t see it as a specific moral imperative, but I do sorta reckon that everyone has a duty to exercise their ethical faculties to the best of their abilities. And in this case, practically speaking, I reckon we’re dealing with an issue as important as segregation in the 60s, clear-cut enough that while I don’t judge anyone for not stepping up and facing the consequences, I do think… well, it’s a self-evident “right thing to do.”

    I mean, calling it segregation is not hyperbole, I reckon. Seriously. It *is* essentially segregation to exclude queer (or any other form of abjected social group) characters from centrality, to allow them into the narrative, if at all, only in supporting roles — worse if those roles are simply Gay Best Friends or Magic Negros. That’s being sent to the back of the bus, a second class citizen in the nation of Art.

    And that segregation on the character level plays out as segregation in the audience — tangible, palpable segregation that affects real people — where members of the abjected group have to turn to their own separate ghetto (think gay cinema or a Black fiction section of a bookshop) to find works which quench their thirst for lead characters they can identify with. We thirst for representation, and that makes every narrative a water-fountain. And if the abject is excluded from lead character status in the mainstream (of whatever genre in whatever medium,) such that they have to go back to their ghettos to quench that thirst… that’s essentially separate water-fountains, dig?

    That’s where I think phrases like “positive discrimination” and even “equal representation” get it wrong, even when used in advocacy of change — where they invite conservative qualms to kick in with arguments about “political correctness” and “quotas.” It’s not about saying that, hey, there’s X% of this or that minority in the population at large, so shouldn’t we ensure that X% of those seats at the front of the bus are set aside for minorities? It’s not about crowbarring in a minority character because reflecting diversity in terms of raw numbers is just plain nicer. It’s about dismantling the system of segregation, achieving integration. And direct action is the only way to do that, as I see it.

    The fantasy genre’s actually pretty good in this respect, with writers like yourself and Richard — and a good few others — stepping up. Way I see it, you’re helping to tear down the signs on the water-fountains that say “straights only,” actively building water-fountains in the heart of town that us queers can slake our thirst at as much as anyone else. You’re sitting characters of an abjected social group in a seat right at the front of the bus, and doing so in disregard of a potential backlash such as Richard got.

    I seem to be banging on about this a lot recently, in various places, but there are still those who trot out arguments about PC tokenism, or lines like “I don’t mind a character being X as long as it’s integral to the plot.” And those challenges aren’t being met because even the advocates of change maybe don’t quite grasp the profound significance of even the smallest contribution.

    That’s only natural. It *doesn’t* seem like such a big deal, really, if you look at it simply as respecting minorities by reflecting diversity. It seems, you know, nice, but hardly world-changing. Cause being able to grab a wee drink of water when you’re wandering down the high street — that’s a pretty trivial thing, right? Seeing your identity reflected in a character in a book — that’s just a cool wee thing that makes yer day a bit more pleasant, yeah?

    But I honestly think that the word segregation applies here, and that it should be the first word we turn to when reactionaries gripe about quotas and liberals fret about writing the other. I’d like to see a lot of the back-and-forth jabber swept away and the problem nailed to the post, the situation named for what it is. Cause I figure recognising it as such turns it into something of an ethical no-brainer.

  8. @Hal: I agree with most of your points Hal about segregation and the centrality of LGBT characters. The problem I struggle with is, that I feel I must accept there are many self-evident “right things to do”, depending on an individuals moral compass. You and I obviously believe gay equality is part of that, but I think we must remind ourselves that what we consider direct-action may to another may be fanaticism.

    To be true to my own moral compass I must always speak out in defence of gay and minority rights. I’m certainly not timid in that regard and I have no intention of being closeted or silent. My concern about direct-action has two principal components, however, 1) is it actually the most the effective way of persuading people? And 2) from a purely literary stand-point (since were talking about SF fiction)does it produce better fiction?

    I’m extremely wary myself of any writing, that I think has been written to an agenda. I have problems with writings by some authors who have a conservative moral agenda that alienates me – Orson Scott Card as an example. Therefore I am also extremely wary of just doing the same from an alternative moral viewpoint.

  9. I’m desperately in need of an edit function! Apologies for various missing apostrophes and duplications :O

  10. I enjoyed both the Tor post and this one (and the comments!).

    I’m not published, but I guess I can be put in the “trying” category. 🙂 One of the MCs in the novel I’m hoping is nearly done is bi. Not for any particular reason of plot or personal agenda, that’s just how he turned out. (I was probably reading a lot of Lackey and Huff at the time I conceived the story, though–why yes it *has* been a long process… the covers for the Last Herald-Mage books don’t hint at sexuality as I recall.) I have been trying to go the matter-of-fact route with the subject.

    For what it’s worth, I’ve also tried to make sure that there’s a range of skin tones in the world population. Of course, the context in which the characters operate is so different that it’s not as if there’s any sort of meaningful parallel with our world’s races. That’s just a wannabe author trying for a varied and realistic setting.

  11. I think the interesting part of this is the idea of including a queer or a person of color (or both) because you want to Do the Right Thing. That just–never comes up for me in writing, somehow. Because I live in a world where I am surrounded by other queers, by people of color, and it would be… I don’t know. I don’t think I could write a book that didn’t reflect that. It just wouldn’t occur to me not to have a diverse cast because life IS diverse. It’s not a quota-filler, it’s not even an agenda. It’s just the way the world around me looks, and so that’s the world I tend to adapt fiction around, especially writing modern fantasy set in “America.”

    As for flap copy, I’m still not so sure about my own argument there. Most cases I don’t think it’s intentional, but there were some that just made me wince. It’s not so much that I think publisher don’t want to publish queer SFF, it’s that perhaps there are some shady dealings going on in the marketing room.

    (Thanks for the link, man!)

  12. @Jason: Absolutely, there can be a whole host of “right things to do.” That’s a large part of why I don’t look at it as some moral imperative, but a matter of ethical judgement. Like, I’m not going to judge another writer just cause I haven’t seen them go up and, figuratively speaking, tear down one of those signs over one of those water-fountains — i.e. by writing a gay protagonist — since they may well be putting more time and energy than most, myself included, into some other equally “right thing to do.” And that’s 100% their call to make on the basis of their personal skillset and situation, what they think matters the most, what they think they can tackle most effectively. When I say I reckon “everyone has a duty to exercise their ethical faculties to the best of their abilities,” I’m tempted to say that’s the *only* valid duty we have actually, and me butting in with a moralistic “you should be doing X” can only undermine that. Basically I’m pretty existentialist when it comes to moral imperatives: not a fan of them at all.

    In terms of direct action? Yeah, thematics isn’t polemics, and when a writer’s agenda is so wired into the narrative that it comes across as didactic… in my book that’s bad craft. But crowbarring your thematics to crudely expound a particular agenda is a whole step on from simply acting upon that agenda by setting a character from an abjected social group in a protagonist position.

    I mean, if your story’s actually about the experience of abjection, yeah, didacticism is a risk. Still, making your villain sympathetic rather than a Straw Enemy — a cipher of Evil Wickedness there to show how Terribly Wrong the opposing agenda is — is one simple trick (among many) that helps counteract the tendency to write a sermon rather than a story. Representing someone you disagree with entirely as someone with valid reasons for believing what they believe… that’s Good Writing 101, to my mind. As soon as you do that you undermine your own polemic, add an alternative angle.

    And if mechanisms of abjection are not the narrative triggers, maybe that’s not what the story’s about. Different narrative triggers, different thematics. Sure, representing that character realistically may entail representing the shit they have to deal with as a member of the abjected social group, but all that shit could be tangential and/or liminal. And actually, that’s kind of a step on, in some respects, more what I’m talking about, cause it’s letting that character sit in the seat at the front of the bus that entails fighting the Dark Lord, saving the Realm, etc., being a hero in the exact sort of story they’re generally excluded from.

    Do that and make it a good story well-told, and that’s action against segregation in and of itself. Whether or not it addresses abjection thematically, whether or not it changes a reader’s way of thinking… that doesn’t matter so much if the aim is not an end to prejudice but an end to segregation. What really matters is that the queer character is sat at the front of the bus. What really matters is that the good story well-told now stands as a water-fountain that a reader in the abjected social group can quench their thirst at. Rather than working to persuade people directly through the text, it’s a strategy of changing the culture itself in real, practical terms, I reckon, and the end-result ideally would be that the next generation grows up in a culture where segregation in the media just seems this horrifying absurdity of the past. Like, Hollywood was once reluctant to cast black actors in lead roles in blockbusters. No one thinks twice about Will Smith in I Am Legend now. So imagine the world where no one thinks twice about Neil Patrick Harris playing a queer action hero. That would be pretty cool, I’d say.