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Five Questions On Accusations Of Racism In SFF Publishing

Following on from my previous post. I’m not going to give answers to this, since I think the best line of approach is to ask questions. So, some things to think about:

1) If a publisher asks for changes to a manuscript in order it to be more commercial (remembering that publishing is a business) for a particular regional market, given that it might lessen the exoticness of foreign influences that were there originally, is that racism?

2) If those changes were to anglicise certain names (for example) to make it easier to read for fans in that particular market, is that racism?

3) If 1% of manuscripts submitted to a UK or US publisher are from foreign writers, and even fewer are good enough to accept, does that make an imprint racist, or is it merely a case of statistics?

4) If a publisher knows that a manuscript from a foreign writer does not fit in with a certain market, and chooses not to invest money in something that he or she knows they will struggle to sell in that market, is that racism?

5) If a publisher consciously favours a foreign writer over a domestic writer in order to make a publishing list more ethnically balanced in the US or UK market, is that racism, or do these things have to start somewhere?

By Mark Newton

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

9 replies on “Five Questions On Accusations Of Racism In SFF Publishing”

You’ve lost me. It’s coming across like these things are mutually exclusive.

Why can’t authors be encouraged to diversify their characters – they don’t have to all be white middle class – or variations of them – and they don’t all have to be lead characters? Minor characters could be more representational.

And anyway it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy – if there is no market it’s because no one has catered for that market with something that’s more than a token effort and no one is writing good culturally diverse SFF because there is no market for it – in terms of books on shelves.

But then you shouldn’t have to label something as ‘this is for all the people that don’t like male, middle, class leads’. It should evolve from the story and the characters.

Do marketing departments really go we can’t sell this book if it has a green, small, shy, alien from zog as there is no market for it?

It’s not so much about the authors’ characters, it’s the authors themselves. This is the stuff that goes on behind the scenes.

I’m asking the questions in a way to counter the claims of racism, whilst suggesting the difficult position of the editors who are faced with a) a diverse cultural landscape and b) market forces.

Isn’t part of the problem precisely that any individual case can be entirely justified for one or more of these reasons, or other reasons, but operating continuously and together they maintain the status quo? (This is racism as a system rather than acts of malice, I suppose.)

HI Niall,

Yeah, I was definitely coming to that conclusion, but some things still don’t sit happily with me – mainly that of people in the industry making assumptions over what the audience likes (though this indeed half the job). It’s not an easy position, and I’m not accusing anyone at all; merely asking the question.

I suspect it would only take one breakthrough novel for us to see a glut/sub-genre appear in any particular ethnic variation. It happened in mainstream fiction with British-Asian authors (but then again that was perhaps as a result of wider social change).

Its not racist to want to maximize profit….but it can put one in the uncomfortable position of maximizing profit at the expense of helping to perpetuate racist attitudes.

My rather pragmatic thinking is that one can, given one’s place and time, only do so much.

A publisher catering to a conservative Christian audience, for example, can’t easily publish a book that openly depicts opposition to gay marriage as immoral without threatening his business. But he can publish things which may raise some questions in the readers mind without actually openly endorsing it and making them refuse to read it in the first place.

In which case, I think the pragmatic approach may do more to change attitudes than an all-or-nothing approach.

Those are some excellent points for debate Mark. Especially 1&2 it, those alteration might smirk more of Racism than the other three. This reminds me on an incident recounted in one of interviews of David Gemmell at the Wolfshead page These were DG’s words “I originally wrote Pagan as a character after a young fan of Legend said to me: ‘I love your books, mate. You know where its at.’ I asked him what he meant. He looked at me and smiled and said: ‘No spades in Legend.’ That was a watershed for me. Not until then did I realise what a responsibility an author has. As well as entertaining readers we need to raise awareness and battle the idiocies and evils of prejudice in all its forms.

So yes I would Racism does exist but as fantasy writers explore & develop cultural diaspora in their writings I believe we can take significant steps in eradicating it.

Hi David – thanks for the link. I remember reading about that incident. Yes, I quite agree – it really can be awkward for publishers, and you have to wonder how realistic such changes can be in a more commercialised industry…

Hi Mihir – thanks. I hadn’t heard that quote from DG, but I think it is indeed up to the authors to have a realistic approach to race in their novels.

I remember China Miéville stating that race-lines in his Bas-Lag novels was divided by species rather than colour; so few people notice that the lead protagonist in “Perdido Street Station” were black. It was very well done.

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