Home » Writing Advice » Your Default Narrative Settings are Not Apolitical

Your Default Narrative Settings are Not Apolitical

20 January 2013

Fox Meadows at What Happens Next: A Gallimaufry

“History is not a long series of centuries in which men did all the interesting/important things and women stayed home and twiddled their thumbs in between pushing out babies, making soup and dying in childbirth.

History is actually a long series of centuries of men writing down what they thought was important and interesting, and FORGETTING TO WRITE ABOUT WOMEN…..

. . . .

But the forgetting part is vitally important. Most historians and other writers of what we now consider “primary sources” simply didn’t think about women and their contribution to society. They took it for granted, except when that contribution or its lack directly affected men.

This does not in any way mean that the female contribution to society was in fact less interesting or important, or complicated, simply that history—the process of writing down and preserving of the facts, not the facts/events themselves—was looking the other way.”

. . . .

But what happens when our perception of historical accuracy is entirely at odds with real historical accuracy? What happens when we mistake our own limited understanding of culture – or even our personal biases – for universal truths? What happens, in other words, when we’re jerked out of a story, not because the fantastic elements don’t make sense, but because the social/political elements strike us as being implausible on the grounds of unfamiliarity?

. . . .

Because as Roberts rightly points out, there’s a significant difference between history as written and history as happened, with a further dissonance between both those states and history as it’s popularly perceived.

. . . .

And then there’s the twin, misguided beliefs that Europe was both wholly white and just as racially prejudiced as modern society from antiquity through to the Middle Ages – practically right up until the present day. Never mind that no less than three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table – Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides – are canonically stated to be Middle Eastern, or the fact that people of African descent have been present in Europe since classical times; and not just as slaves or soldiers, but as aristocrats.

. . . .

If it can reasonably argued that a character’s gender, race and sexual orientation have political implications, then why should that verdict only apply to characters who differ from both yourself and your expectations? Isn’t the assertion that straight white men are narratively neutral itself a political statement, one which seeks to marginalise as exceptional or abnormal the experiences of every other possible type of person on the planetdespite the fact that straight white men are themselves a global minority?

. . . .

Point being, I’m sick to death of historical accuracy being trotted out as the excuse du jour whenever someone freaks out about the inclusion of a particular type of character in SFF, because the ultimate insincerity behind the claim is so palpable it’s practically a food group.

Link to the entire long and quite informative article at What Happens Next.

Writing Advice

73 Comments to “Your Default Narrative Settings are Not Apolitical”

  1. Forgot to mention: Thanks to Laura Resnick for the tip!

  2. The notekeepers throughout history may not always have been accurate or inclusive; however, that is no reason to argue that something must have happened based on the assumption that the notekeepers were prejudiced because they were men (or white, or any other color).

    • LJ,

      It is still happening now. There’s a programme on BBC R4 called Last Word. Which is a bit of an obit show about those who have recently died.

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qpmv

      Recent research by listeners and a review programme, “Feedback,” reports and absurd lack of reference to females. Quite obviously, according to Last Word, women never die.

      http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006slnx

      Sexism, after what seems like exhausting years of articulating and fighting for it, is every damn where. Even Beyonce’s moan about being photographed only in her knickers had relevance.

      I would like more strong, believable women characters in decent roles. I’m sick to the back teeth of Superman.

      I’m sick of idiot Vampires/Zombies and WITCHES too. For my eyes sakes you lot, write some other thing, willya?

      brendan

      • Oh, I do so agree, Brendan. And yes, I heard that radio programme too. The stats were extraordinary. Especially the obituary programme. Women clearly never die. I don’t think Americans are aware of how male centred our media are. How female news anchors are routinely ‘retired’ at a certain age, while elderly male presenters go on and on and are celebrated for their ‘gravitas’. There was also a piece of research last year about traditional book reviews in the UK. The huge imbalance in favour of male writers is horrifying. What clinched it for me were the comments on a recent fairly mild piece of journalism about the – highly unusual – all female Costa prize shortlist. I was genuinely shocked, and I thought I was reasonably shock proof. I believed – mistakenly, it seems – that such revoltingly hate filled attitudes were long gone in the UK. Obviously not. We have had our own small ‘stooshie’ here in Scotland very recently: a routinely all male panel of judges for the ‘Creative Scotland’ awards. When challenged about it, CS declared that they ‘hadn’t been able to find any women.’ This is invariably the excuse given. Astonishing how often they don’t seem able to ‘find any women.’ Are we invisible? I didn’t know a single woman working in the arts in Scotland who had been asked.

        • I don’t think that’s a mystery. News channels rotate their women when they find a younger more attractive one to replace them. It’s the same in Hollywood. Actresses over a certain age have a much harder time finding parts.

          On the one hand, it looks extremely sexist. On the other, it’s tied to the nature of every man on the planet (including the gay ones.) We have a built-in response to sexy women/men that is different from women’s. It’s not a choice, and it may lead to unfairness, but it’s reality. Media companies are taking advantage of the fact. Ironically, considering how liberal they tend to be.

          • Not true. Women too have a built in response to sexy men. We’ve just had to put up with the wrinkled tortoises for much too long. Why we’ve put up with them – that’s the mystery.

          • I, for one, am tired of plenty of older white men on television, and in movies, not because they’re older or white or men, but because they are the ONLY ONES WHO ALWAYS HAVE JOBS to the detriment of EVERYONE ELSE.

          • I for one would love to have more hot young men reading the news, since I don’t actually find wrinkled old men attractive either. But somehow I always get served old men.

          • Firstly I didn’t know there were any liberal media companies in america, aren’t they all owned by Fox/Rupert Murdoch? :)
            Secondly people are always willing to justify their prejudices by saying “that’s just the way it is”.
            For instance mainstream media knew it was a “Fact” that while men get turned on my lesbian porn/erotica, women don’t get turned on by gay porn/erotica. But I think the number of MMF and MM titles published by erotic romance publishers, and aimed at women readers, seems to tell another story.

          • @ Jim Self –

            Actually, men are trained from a young age to find certain types of women attractive.

            There are cultures where the overweight are considered more attractive, like Jamaica (sp?). In fact, European culture strongly favored round and voluptuous women for many centuries.

            There are also cultures that find older women attractive. I believe the Italians (I could be wrong) think that a woman becomes more attractive when she is married. Sexual expertise is considered more attractive in that culture than innocence – the opposite here.

            Regardless, choosing a new anchor based on attractiveness is sexist, because – for men – the emphasis has always been on the quality of gravitas they bring to the news. The fact that for women it is not, it is how they look – is sexist – both in the culture and the media.

      • Brendan, you should read romance. Not the sort with witches and whatnot, but straight up contemporary romance. Or historical romance as it’s written by women today (not the stuff from 20 years ago). Or some fabulous historical fiction. How about The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas? Romance today will not tolerate mewling, weepy, hand-wringing heroines. The quiet credo among romance writers today comes from the movie “Pretty Woman”. At the end, the hero asks “What happens after the handsome prince rescues the fair maiden?” And the heroine responds “She rescues him right back.” It’s a statement that in modern romance, the characters are partners, self-actualized, and comfortable in their own skins, and equals.

        • “you should read romance.”

          Kat,

          Well, I might. I get turned off by the titles, which always seem to have, “Billionaire,” in them.

          “The Second Duchess by Elizabeth Loupas?”

          Okay, off to Amz.

          “Pretty Woman”.

          There’s the billionaire again, and some very dodgy moral concepts. It was Cinderella all over again, weren’t it? ‘Cept with ladies of the night…..phew….

          And GERE? Jeez, he can ride a horse pretty good, but he acts worse than Kevin Costner plays a lump of wood, bettered only by Jeremy Irons.

          “partners”

          Thass my kinda romance:)

          brendan

          • If you just randomly dip into any genre, including romance, there’s a high likelihood that you’re going to end up with an example of the 90 percent of everything (as per Sturgeon’s law) that is crap.

            Check romance sites like Dear Author or Smart Bitches, Trashy Books or All About Romance to see which authors and books the genre mavens recommend and you have a far higher chance of ending up with something that is actually good.

          • If the only romances novels you can fine have ‘Billionaire’ in the title, then you need to look beyond Harlequin. They have only a segment of the market. It’s a BIG market.

            Anything by Nora Roberts beats a billionaire hands down. (Though Roberts is quite wealthy herself.) :)

            Angels’ Fall is my favorite.

            • Or if you’re into historical romance, where people get the history right, try Madeleine Robins’ Sarah Tolerance mysteries, or Lily Aaron’s Heart of the Nile. Then there’s Maggie Anton’s series on medieval Jewish women, Rashi’s Daughter. There are any number of writers who manage to write about women in ancient cultures in a believable way, without making them exclusively baby incubators, sirens or drudges.

  3. “Never mind that no less than three Arthurian Knights of the Round Table – Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides – are canonically stated to be Middle Eastern”

    Canonically stated? Way to confuse history with fiction. Sir Palamedes, Sir Safir and Sir Segwarides were fictional characters, appearing first in the Tristan poems then reinvented by Mallory; both works of fiction. There is no evidence for their historical existence, nor for that matter is it likely Arthur existed. Robin Hood too for that matter.

    This whole article is nonsense. European history is full of powerful female figures, Joan of Arc, Boudica, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, in fact you can go all the way back to Helen of Troy and Cleopatra to find powerful female figures. The same is true of non-white historical figures: The Moors, Moguls, Mongols, history books are full of them.

    • That’s really the writer’s point, though.

    • History books might be full of women and minorities, but the article is referring to writer’s perception of history.

      History is always been hinged the wrong way, even today.

    • I think you misunderstood what canon means. It doesn’t mean historical. It means the final word within the context of what kind of body of work it is. Marvel has a canon. Legends have a canon. History has canon. The Bible has canon.

    • Elodie Under Glass

      Sir, as the author of the original Arthurian research article that Foz cited, I’ve replied to your concerns here; I assure you that among other things I do well, I’ve used the word “canon” correctly, but thank you for sharing your perspective.

      With all due respect,
      Elodie Glass

      http://elodieunderglass.wordpress.com/2013/01/20/testostify-how-to-spot-a-gentlemansplainer-and-possibly-engage-him-in-debate/

      • “With all due respect”

        Elodie,

        Hah….I know whut that means.

        Yore about to get out the billy club and lay about with extreme word-violence.

        Iron John got melted.

        Oddly enough, I wonder if it’s because males feel so threatened now, that they’re having such a last hurrah in the meejah and movies. Superman in spandex is laughably all over the shop.

        Personally, I would find it hard to find men as effective as these on screen and ear.

        Brigitte Kendall, Stephanie Flanders, Ritulah Shah, Lyse Doucet, Clare Bolderson and if I had to pick one, Zeinab Bhadawi. All sharp as tacks.

        brendan

  4. When I studied Anglo-Saxon literature in college I was fascinated to discover that the Victorian-era scholars who had done a lot of translation work into Modern English from Old English had altered the translations in order to make Anglo-Saxon cultural practices more consistent with their own. As a result, a lot of gender-neutral language became gendered, and all of a sudden only sons inherited, etc. So modern people relying on these Victorian-era translations will bemoan how sexist the Anglo-Saxons were!

    It was so interesting because you basically always are getting your impressions of the past through some kind of filter. It may be a better filter or a worse filter, but it’s going to be there. And of course if that filter is Hollywood, then it’s REALLY bad filter! The “girls don’t fight” thing is just laughable, but since your average Hollywood starlet weighs 90 pounds soaking wet, what can you expect?

  5. I would respectfully argue that the lack of “alternative” characters has more to do with market and the problem of polemics. I’ve read many women’s history books that could tell fascinating stories, but instead pounded me over the head with rhetoric until I stopped caring about the historical situation or individual. The same applies to fiction, I’m sorry to say. Maybe I’ve just had a run of really bad luck and selections, but I now steer clear of almost all feminist fantasy/ alternative fantasy and sci-fi because of the poor writing and over-emphasis on message. YMMV.

    • Agreed! Nothing turns me off of a story more than a character getting up on the writer’s soapbox, especially when it’s not appropriate to the setting.

      If you want people to change their views, just give them a good story where the view in question is explored. Don’t preach.

    • While I was reading, I was thinking “Are there writers who try to be apolitical, because I sure can’t think of any?”

      And you’re right, we’re often slammed over and over with messages, and authors (from books to TV to movies) often do that to the determent of their stories.

      There are a few writers who have done a fairly good job of putting a strong viewpoint in a character, then having another character that acts as a counterpoint, and you can’t really tell where the author falls, but that happens rarely in my reading. I do notice it when it happens, though.

      • The reason you can’t think of any is that people who try to *seriously* neuter their stories on a sociopolitical basis produce stories which nobody want to read. :)

  6. Very few comments on the actual article. I don’t read or not read a novel because of the gender, color, or any other trivia about the characters. I read for story. Frankly, I’m getting very weary of people screeching that I MUST care about these extraneous things. It’s all irrelevant, and I’m enough of a maverick to resist having anyone else’s socio-political agenda stuffed up my nose.

  7. I find it fascinating to read that all other people have rich culture and tradition and unique points of view, while white males only have bias and prejudice. No doubt they’re also the only ones who have accents.

    And where on earth does this quoted chick hang out that she never runs into people arguing about the historical accuracy of longbows or medical technology? What, is there some non-nitpicking branch of fandom out on the third moon of Pluto that runs an sf con?

    • The problem is not that straight white men don’t have a POV and unique perspective, but that the majority of novels, films, TV shows, news items, historical studies, etc… are already narrated from the POV of straight white men.

      And Foz Meadows, this “chick” as you call her, is a respected and pretty well known fan writer and commentator on gender issues in the SFF community.

      • A) As a female, I have the freedom (sadly denied men) to call a chick a chick. Bawk bawk b’caw.

        B) Been in sf fandom for over thirty years. Never heard of her. Must be one of those racefail chicks on Livejournal, eh?

        • 1. Being a woman doesn’t preclude someone from being disrepectful (like you just were).

          2. Since Racefail was the biggest topic on LJ around 4 years ago this month, I’m sure she discussed it somewhere, but she runs a non-LJ blog now. Funny, even after leaving fandom, I still run into her intelligent, reasoned discussions of literature! Imagine that!

    • There is a really spectacular scene in The Hot Gate where one of the main characters, a successful white male from America, starts talking about the fact that he is expected to respect everyone else’s culture in the multinational military/space organization he is involved with (it’s complicated) but that no one seems to be required to respect his. While this is pretty obviously political pontificating, he makes some damn good points and I could not help but cheer. :)

  8. As an old, straight, accented, white [white haired even] male, I feel downtrodden – or even put down – by some of the contents in this array of comments.

    We have feelings, too.

    :-)

    Oh, and I write SF… My current WIP has rats as the main set of characters, with cats as the antagonists. Does that count? [It should upset cat lovers, at the very least].

    • Cats always get the bad rap in fiction! I am sick of not finding anything aside from mystery that gives cats their due credit!

      • Shhhhhh! It’s part of a feline false-flag operation to lull humans and dogs into thinking that the cats have not yet taken over the world.

      • Cats In Space is a niche, too. Check for Skitty and sequels, I believe. Or go classic and find a used copy of Star Ka’ats.

        You may also want to look at the middle-grade/YA Warriors series, by [a stable of authors writing as] Erin Hunter. They are not very cat-like, I personally think, but if I think of them as cattish aliens, I can cope. They are pretty popular in the lower middle-grades, at a minimum. For more catly cats, try Tailchaser’s Song, or Ratha’s Creature and sequels. The latter now has a kickstarter to make a graphic novel version!!

        Honestly, right now there is a feline renaissance; when I was a kid, there was very little in the way of Cat Books — it was all Black Stallion series and Dog Books. Bunnicula had a cat character, but that’s about all I can think of off the top of my head.

        (If you weren’t being serious about this… Tough.)

  9. Just a response to some of the people who are having trouble with this article. I don’t know if it will be helpful, but I have a comment to you.

    I want to acknowledge that it’s true that everyone has problems, and white males can be oppressed.

    Gender and color are only two of the things that people can face oppression over. Religious, age, disablity, class, education, lack of attractiveness, etc. Lack of height is a way that white males can face a very specific type of oppression.

    I also think that articles like these can pull on people’s guilt – and they fight against that. After all, everyone was just born into this culture – they didn’t create it.

    But, leaving unneccessary guilt aside, denying sexism and rascism perpetuates the same oppression that you may experience in other aspects of life. Just as you want someone to understand the unfairness of being socially ostracized for being short (for example. And this is not a joke, it’s very real and very painful), women and those of color want to be understood too. They have been left out of history as, for the most part, irrelevant and unneccessary. That is terrible unfair and deeply painful, since it goes to the heart of people’s sense of value.

    I also want to say that although it is true that everyone is oppressed, most people can also benefit from various forms of privilege. For example, there is privilege accorded to taller men.

    And there is also privilege accorded to men in general, and white people in general.

    It does not behoove anyone, especially if it benefits you personally, to maintain and defend a system that gives benefits to people just because of their gender or their race.

    Also, don’t withhold your understanding of other people’s oppression. If you acknowlege theirs, they will be much more likely to acknowledge yours.

    Today is Martin Luther King Jr. day in the U.S. And in his words:

    “Let freedom ring from every mountainside!”

    Freedom for us all.

    • Hear, hear!

    • The problem is, how do you tell a system that gives privileges and benefits to somebody just because of their race (or their gender, et cetera) from one that gives privileges and benefits to somebody incidentally to their race (ditto?)

      I agree that it is not very noble to argue for a system that extends irrational privilege – especially if you are a recipient of that privilege. But it seems to be the view of many that all privileges are inherently irrational, and that is a bridge too far. Argue against disparate treatment, and you have in me the firmest ally. But argue from disparate impact, and you’ve lost me.

      I don’t know if you care – there’s no particular reason you should. But you have.

      • Marc – I don’t really know exactly what you are saying. Maybe you could clarify…

        To clarify for me – google has this definition, and I think it’s a pretty clear one:

        Privilege: A special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to one person or group of people.

        In other words, if you are white, you get a privilege that is denied to people of another color. For example, if you are promoted, but a person of color would not be, based on race, you have benefited from privilege.

        If you’d like to read more, probably the most well known on article on privilege (written by Peggy MacIntosh) is this one (it’s about white privilege)

        http://www.amptoons.com/blog/files/mcintosh.html

        I rarely link my blog, but I wrote a post about privilege (without guilt), if you’re interested. (I have mixed feelings about this particular post, actually, I’m not sure if it gives it enough weight). But if you’re interested:

        http://mirascorner.blogspot.com/2012/10/thinking-post-discussion-of-privilege.html

        If I didn’t address what you said, let me know. I like to talk about this stuff.

        • If life were a game of GURPS, I’d be willing to concede that all white males have an advantage, and all non-white non-males have a disadvantage.

          But I live in the real world, not GURPS, and I deal with real people, not caricatures. Every day at my job, I deal with the rich and the dirt poor and everyone inbetween, and with people of every American ethnicity and religion, which is every ethnicity and religion in the world.

          And they all have smartphones, and I don’t.

          Sooooooo, no. Not a GURPS world.

          • Suburbanbanshee –

            I’m sorry you don’t have a smartphone, and it’s likely that many people who are not white males do own smartphones or have more money than you do.

            The thing is that oppression of a class isn’t about one person. It’s about the larger political and economic sphere. Although some women may have more money than some me, as a class women do not have the economic power that men have.

            I think this is about looking at a bigger picture of social injustice, not a more personal picture.

            • The personal is political.

              It’s well and good to point out that racism still exists. When a person who has never done anything particularly racist loses a position to someone less qualified because of a racial preference, it would be a very unusual person who would simply smile and say, “My loss is society’s gain.” Maybe we should all be that noble, but I suggest that this is a somewhat unrealistic standard to require.

              • @ Marc – of course people will have feelings and need to process them. But that doesn’t mean that will shape their opinions about the larger issue of social justice.

                The bottom line is men benefit from sexism. Whites benefit from racism. The rich benefit from class oppression.

                Whenever you ask someone of the privileged class to examine the current system, you are asking them to look beyond their own self interest.

                Fortunately, human beings are capable of amazing things – empathy, a sense of social justice and the development of a moral character, as well as a worldview that emcompasses more than self-interest.

                But – I just realized that suburbanbanshee identified herself as female in a post above, so I don’t think my response related to her. I don’t know why she thinks she doesn’t have a smart phone.

        • I’m not sure how I could make it any clearer without starting to look like I’m man-splaining. You are familiar with the terms “disparate treatment” and “disparate impact,” yes?

          • Marc, even if I have an idea of those terms, they might not be the same idea that you have. Why don’t you start by defining the terms as you see them. Or – don’t use terms, just let me know what you’re thinking.

            • Okay.

              Here is an example: men have a broader intelligence distribution than women do. That means that while there are female idiots, and female geniuses, there will be fewer female idiots and fewer female geniuses. On average, women are not stupider (or smarter) than men are. But there are more women in the center and fewer women on either edge compared to men.

              The significance of this in this context is, of course, on the upper end. (Although it also comes up on the lower end, in contexts like special education.) If you have a field in which some positions require a particularly high relative intelligence, you will get, ceteris paribus, more men than women because there are more men, relatively speaking, with a relatively high intelligence.

              If you prefer men as men when hiring for these positions, you are using a system of disparate treatment. Men are treated differently than women. But if you have a gender-neutral selection process, you will still get more men than women. Your system will have disparate impact despite equal treatment.

              The problem is that our system, by and large, treats both of these outcomes as evidence of impermissible bias. Or, at least, disparate impact is treated as presumptive evidence of impermissible bias and puts a burden of proof on the accused possessor of such bias to show that it does not exist. This ranges from “difficult” to “impossible” on the scale of burdens.

              This is quite aside from the question of whether a particular requirement is actually a bona fide occupational requirement. The argument over that is why we have the situation we do in the first place. Assuming arguendo that there are BFOR which will have disparate impacts, the problem is that you will still get disparate impacts and that is basically an invitation to enter protracted and expensive litigation which is a no-win situation for most entities who might be so accused. I hope you can begin to see why some people of honest good faith, who do admit that there is still a lot of irrational prejudice in the world, have such a negative reaction to the whole concept.

              • Marc –

                Could you provide links to your source for this:

                “men have a broader intelligence distribution than women do. That means that while there are female idiots, and female geniuses, there will be fewer female idiots and fewer female geniuses”

                I’d like to look at that data, as well as possible causality. Is the data suggesting this is genetic or created by the culture?

                As for the rest, I appreciate that you defined your terms, but I can resist saying that I don’t think your argument is supportable here.

                There are alot of assumptions, such as the idea that people hire or promote candidates based on their intelligence. I see nothing in the world that supports that conclusion. I also think it’s not born out by stats – on a different thread, I linked to a recent article that reported 38% of management positions in the U.S. are filled by women. If you’re arging that means that 62% of men are smarter than women, that does not fit with your statistical representation above.

                Now, all that aside, if you’re simply pointing out that sometimes a man is selected for promotion because he is the better candidate- of couse.

                However, all gender decisions are made in a culture that is sexist. It created a system where men have better access to education and the workplace in general, and may be groomed to be the better candidate.

                As for discomfort with the information – sure, asking men to be aware of their privilege is asking them to be uncomfortable. But it is a reasonable request. It’s asking them to see reality for what it is.

                Honestly, I don’t really think the goal here is to reduce the discomfort of the privileged group, although, as a member of some privileged groups (I’m educated, white, able-bodied), I sympathize. It doesn’t feel great for me to know that I have privilege and access that a person of color may not have.

              • This is the Greater Male Variability hypothesis, and it’s based on sketchy science. It comes from a study that’s nearly a century old, in fact. It was an IQ study of 80,000 Scottish children born in 1921. The study found that the boys and girls had the same IQs on average, but the boys’ IQs exhibited more variability (so there were more higher-IQ boys and more lower-IQ boys).

                However, as Ian Deary and his colleagues (the authors of the study) pointed out, “the existence of sex differences either in means or variances in ability says nothing about the source or inevitability of such differences or their potential basis in immutable biology.” That is, they found a difference. But they have no idea if that difference was innate or caused by cultural or environmental influences.

                So how do you sort out whether variability in IQ is cultural or innate? You check to see if your finding is the same over different cultures. So that’s what researchers have worked on in the nearly 100 years since then.

                Turns out the finding IS NOT CONSISTENT when you study other cultures. You do find higher IQ variability in the United States. But not in Indonesia, the UK, Iceland, or Thailand, where the IQ variability is either equal or even reversed (with girls more variable than boys).

                Looking specifically at math ability, which is easier to compare cross-culturally than abilities involving language, we can look at the International Math Olympiad, in which each country sends a 6-person team to compete against other countries in mathematics. Japan sends an all-male team every year, but South Korea sends mixed-gender teams. A girl gifted in math is 5 times more likely to be included on her country’s team if she lives in Slovakia than in the neighboring Czech Republic. South Korean outperforms Japan and Slovakia outperforms the Czech Republic in this competition, so it’s not the case that girls are dragging the teams down. (Very likely the opposite is true.) Cultural factors are at work here.

                In America, cultural factors are huge. White girls born in America are underrepresented on our IMO teams–there are twenty times fewer girls than you’d expect based on their numbers in the population. But interestingly, white girls who immigrate to the U.S. from countries like Romania, Russia, and the Ukraine are NOT underrepresented, and are also a hundred times more likely to make it into the math faculty of top universities. The researchers conclude, “Taken together, these data indicate that the scarcity of USA and Canadian girl IMO participants is probably due, in significant part, to socio-cultural and other environmental factors, not race or gender per se. These factors likely inhibit native-born white and historically underrepresented minority girls with exceptional mathematical talent from being identified and nurtured to excel in mathematics.”

                • @ Amy – thanks for all the information about the study! I completely agree with your analysis – in the U.S., cultural factors are enormous.

                  Although I wonder if – in the 2013 – the results of that study would be the same. The early 1920s? Women had just gained the right to vote. They were still not allowed in most institutions of higher education. Of course the statistics were skewed.

    • Last September I sat on a panel at WorldCon devoted to ethnicity in science fiction/fantasy. The members had not met one another prior to the meeting. The chairwoman was visibly shocked to find that there were non-white, straight people on “her” panel. She was very gracious about it, but then launched into a twenty minute talk about gay/black women in SF. One of the other panel members, a straight Jewish male, had to gently remind her that there were other forms of discrimination in SF. It’s not that she was shutting the rest of us out, but that like every other human being on the planet, she had certain blinders on. She saw and struggled with the prejudice aimed at her, as a black woman and a lesbian; she overlooked the effects of prejudice aimed at Jews, Latinas, and other ethnicities.

      Worse, I am a straight white woman! What was I doing there? I was there to talk about why I have made a special effort to include people of color as the protagonists of my novels. Like Ursula K. LeGuin (who is a straight white female), I do not believe the future belongs to white men from Illinois, and I want to show that the future belongs to everyone. But it’s actually harder for me to write about that future than, say, Samuel R. Delaney, because I run the risk of being called out for cultural appropriation, etc. when what I’m trying to do is write about a level playing field.

      As a writer, I refuse to be fenced in. What is politically correct today will be considered laughably quaint in the future I am writing about. What I am hoping is that, in that future, I will not be lumped in with Edgar Rice Burroughs and other writers whose blinders led them to believe that only straight white males count. That may have been true historically (Alexander the Great excepted), but it will not be true going forward.

      And that’s the direction I face: forward.

      • If Andre Norton were writing today, she’d be pilloried by certain quarters of fandom for all her horrible horrible appropriation by using minority characters and real-life bad situations of contemporary life. Shock! Horror! How dare a middle-aged whitebread librarian from Cleveland do such things!

        Everybody else would just continue to love her stories and characters, because they are darned good stories and characters.

        Everybody would forget the names of those in the certain quarters of fandom, which is what usually happens to people with sour grapes attitudes.

        (And of course, nobody seems to care that writers callously appropriate the vampire minority experience, the alien experience, the historical character experience, the….)

  10. I think some people are missing the point. I hate attempting to restate the point of an article, because I run the risk of getting it wrong, but I’m pretty sure what it’s saying is that assuming you’re writing about humans, it is not possible to write a book that is race and gender neutral. Some authors believe that by populating all the important roles in their book with only straight white men that they are avoiding writing about race and gender (issues that, presumably, they would prefer not to write or even think about). Nope, their book has just made a huge statement about race and gender. Their statement is that only straight white men are important.

    And if they try to justify what they’ve done by saying it’s historically accurate, because all the important things in history were done by straight white men, then they’re just plain wrong, and the article explains why.

    • Great.

      If we only write about ourselves, we’re saying the rest of you don’t matter.

      If we write about you, we’re misappropriating man-splainers who are telling you how you *should* think and act.

      I’d offer to pull all my books and withdraw, but I need the money. So please consider me as having apologized in advance every time I publish one. It will violate one or both of these strictures, guaranteed.

      • Marc,

        I read most of the convos on this blog. (My name is Lurker, hi!) Your erotica seems interesting and fun. You seem like an intelligent, reasonable person outside of this post. I realize that will probably come across as condescending, but in my experience, there are plenty of trolls who respond to posts about diversity or social justice just to antagonize people. I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt that you really want to find a solution to the problem you say you have with writing people of color and other marginalized groups and are not just dissing the article because the ideas in it make you feel defensive.

        The point is not to throw your hands up and give up. The point is that people appreciate reading stories that are realistic about people like them. Let me give you an example of my own privilege and how I would approach writing outside of that privilege:

        I come from a middle class, mostly white (it’s complicated) background in a relatively safe suburb. I am extremely poor but do not live in poverty (again, complicated). Because I think it’s boring to write about the same exact kind of people over and over again for the next 60 years, at some point I may write a romance about a blue collar white coal-miner who falls in love with a black person from inner-city Cleveland. Like I would research professions, locations, eras, environments, etc., I also have to research *people,* because I have little in common with their world views and experiences. What I do have in common — universal themes of hope and redemption stories — those build the backbone of my romance, and the research fills in the gaps. It’s harder, but it’s worth it, both as a writer and as a human being, IMHO.

        I can’t promise you won’t receive criticism, because that’s not realistic, although as an erotica writer, I think you may have an easier time than some. Ignore it or thank them, but keep learning and trying. Isn’t that how we grow as writers?

        • I appreciate your considerate and tactful answer. I am grateful for the extension of the benefit of the doubt.

          However, I was not responding to the article, I was responding to the comment and its implication. And that really is the message I take away from it.

          I do write other things than erotica, under other names, and I pride myself on writing believable characters. But I’m not interested in writing realistic stories about people of color, etc. I like reading them: I like reading anything that’s written well. But I don’t want to write them, I have plenty of material from my own culture and its speculative extensions, which doesn’t require me to take the presumptuous, patronizing-until-proven-innocent step of incorporating other cultures into them.

          But the message I get from comments like the above is that basing my stories in my culture is somehow a hostile, dismissive act. Hence my frustration. What is it I am allowed to do? I don’t really see any viable choices under these conditions. So, yes, it’s purely an act of defensiveness to make the comments that I make, which exacerbates the problem since the other side sees the person operating under “the easiest setting” complaining that they are being treated unfairly which provokes *them,* and understandably so. The only winning move for me is not to play. But I’m not good at keeping my yap shut (outside a professional situation.) Hence the appearance of trollishness.

          • Marc – I think the request, when talking to people about changing cultural entrenchment, is for more cultural sensitivity and awareness.

            It’s true that it takes more work to include that in your writing, but it can also mean a couple of things:

            a. Your work will potentially speak to and reach more readers.

            b. Your work will have a positive social impact, rather than reinforcing sterotypes.

            It’s a choice. Everyone has to make that choice for themselves.

            But the request – for people to be more culturally sensitive – is a very reasonable one. After all, I would imagine that you want people to hear you when you believe you have been treated unfairly. It can behoove you, then, to listen to and treat responsibly any requests from others.

            • Absolutely it does so behoove me. No argument

              However, the message I am getting is that, for instance, my character Punita (who is an Indian Hindu woman educated in the West) is somehow a misappropriation because, when I needed a female Hindu character, I decided to make her Western-educated so she could speak good English and understand Western social strictures, which was necessary because I didn’t want the story to be an East/West culture clash/shock story. I avoided the problem by Westernizing her. Is that lazy? Yes, if I’m writing a Herman Wouk-ish grand narrative. But I’m not: I’m writing an adventure novella (with extra dirty parts.)

              I was pretty darn sensitive, IMO, to her culture: she’s right, the other main character is wrong, and she’s right because she understands her culture (more specifically her religion) better than he does even though he’s got a Ph.D in it. And I think she’s believable. She’s rational, consistent, and acts, for the most part, in logical ways relative to her goals. But I didn’t make any particular effort to really make her “authentic.” I don’t care that she’s not authentic. Any Hindu sociologists who read the book may wet themselves laughing at how far I got it wrong. But since Hindu sociologists are not the primary consumers of my books and are unlikely to become so if I make them more authentic, to be blunt I could not care less.

              Also, re positive social impacts: Even when I’m not writing erotica, that’s not my department. (When I am writing erotica, it’s really not my department since almost all of my books involve people who do unspeakable things and usually get away with it.) I have little or no interest in being a positive role model, providing positive examples, or improving the world through my writing. I tell stories. I specifically reject any obligation, implication of obligation, or other assertion that I have any responsibility to do so whatsoever. If reinforcing a stereotype will make the story better, I will do it. If you believe that using stereotypes inherently makes stories worse, my only response is that you are entitled to your opinion and there are many, many great writers who agree with you.

          • I think you may be exaggerating. For one, I don’t believe that you write only straight white men in your stories. I’m pretty sure I heard you mention once that you write female POV, which suggests that you write women in significant roles. Also, you say you want to stick to writing the culture you know. But I’ll bet your culture is not limited to straight white men. Surely there are women in it, at the very least. My neighborhood is mostly white, but we have Asian families, Indian families, a few black and Hispanic families, and there’s a lesbian couple up the street.

            • Your neighborhood is your neighborhood.

              My neighborhood is my neighborhood.

              Your neighborhood is nothing like my neighborhood.

              You prefer your neighborhood to mine. I prefer mine to yours.

              This goes for my preferred story environment vis-a-vis your preferred story environment, squared and cubed.

              I don’t fault you for writing/reading/preferring stories set in your neighborhood/preferred story environment. All I ask is the same courtesy.

              • My neighborhood may not be like your neighborhood. But I don’t believe for a minute that yours is populated 100% by straight white guys. Just saying.

                • Nope. There are lots of white women in my neighborhood. As to their sexual preferences, I couldn’t say.

                  With regard to my preferred story environments, there aren’t a lot of homosexuals. Not because I object to homosexuals: I don’t. Because I am not interested in writing about them.

                  Or, perhaps a better way to say it is that when the sexual orientation of my characters is relevant, they are usually heterosexual*. For all I care you can assume every other character in the story is homosexual. If asked about homosexuals in my stories, I would answer that in my universe approximately 5-15% of the population is homosexual, but the homosexual ones are too nice to get involved with the sort of things I write about. (Which would promptly be attacked as a patronizing and stereotypical thing to say.)

                  In any event, when there is homosexual interaction in my stories it is not consensual and it is at the instigation of people who are not homosexual. So not only do I not care if it is consistent with “real” homosexual behaviors and attitudes, I sort of actively hope that it isn’t. (Which again is probably somehow patronizing and belittling.)

                  *The book I am writing now is an exception: there are a pair of DJ’s (they are not Daftpunk, but same idea) one of whom is gay and the other is not. They constantly make fun of each other (in an I-can-call-my-friend-a-fag-but-if-you-do-I’ll-punch-you sort of way) for their disgusting sexual preferences. It’s a lot of fun to write.

                  Would a gay guy and a straight guy interact in this way? As a straight guy, I don’t see why not. And if every single gay man on the planet tells me I’m wrong, I don’t care. They can write their own books.

                  • @ Marc –

                    You know, social justice issues aside, I think it can be smart for an author do to his research.

                    Otherwise, he will lose readers who care about accuracy, and possibly gain a reputation for being inaccurate, sloppy and even lazy.

                    And, of course, disrespectful, if he portrays minority populations inaccurately, which could cause problems in reviews or even the media.

                    But it’s up to the author if they care about that.

                    • If you are writing for critics and the media, that might be an issue.

                      But I think that it’s been pretty conclusively established that these are not issues that the average reader cares much about in incidental usage.

                      Writing a book about The Black Experience? Yeah, probably better know something about it.

                      Writing a book with a secondary character who happens to be black? Probably okay with everybody but Ta-Nehsi Coates if he talks like a middle class white guy. Or a middle class white guy’s idea of how a secondary character who happens to be black talks.

  11. “100% by straight white guys.”

    Amy,

    Heh, that statement just caused me to ponder the terms, 100%, and then straight white guys.

    I’d lay short odds that a goodly percent of ‘em were on the down low, marginally kinked, and the rest slumped over the bannister.

    Gosh, we’re all so frakkin tribal, even now. I’m not joinin':)

    brendan

  12. The whining is a turn off, and counter-productive.

    Actually, it’s only been the last two centuries or so that there has been writing, or literacy, at all.

    And thinking back to the big names of American 20th century lit, there seems to be as many woman as mens’ names surfacing.

    People tend to perceive, observe and remember things closest to their own kind, whether that kindness be sexual, ethnic, or race, or sexual preference.

    I’m not very likely to want to read a book, let along write one, about Siberian, Mormon, Lesbian, Vegetarian Amazons.

    I’ve read and sympathize with Freidan and Steinem, and others that don’t come directly to mind. But this article’s opening leaves me ill-set from the start.

  13. TED talk about how to have productive conversations about race in America:

    http://youtu.be/MbdxeFcQtaU

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