On The Need For Diverse Books

If you have been following me on Twitter or even just peeking in here and there the last few days, you have probably seen me discussing this year’s Hugo Award nominations at one point or another. I’ve been pretty glued to the saga, watching it all unfold with equal parts sadness, fascination, and outright grossed-outness. Mostly I have been retweeting the very eloquent things that others have said (John Scalzi has a pretty good writeup here, and if you have a good chunk of time and a real need to get at the meat of the problem, Philip Sandifer has you covered, that one was a super great read), but I have occasionally been interjecting my own opinion, and I eventually concluded that maybe I would like to explore my thoughts on diversity in writing in more than 140 characters.

So here we are.

Now, the quick upshot of the Hugo Awards kerfuffle is this: they’re a prestigious science fiction and fantasy award. In the last few years some old-guard (read: mostly but not entirely disgruntled male readers, sometimes white, generally right-wing) SF&F fans have gotten disgruntled at the slow creep of queer, female, transgender, and/or persons of color into SF&F literature. Worse, these QFTa/oPOC writers were winning awards, being rewarded for their work that was nothing like the chest-thumping male heroic epics of the past, how dare they. And so a few of the more prominent grumpsters started organizing “slates” of works they thought were more deserving, slates that covered authors who in large part hewed to the “old-school” way of doing things. Because good lord forbid we allow more concepts in the playground of the future than just conservative, male-dominated ones. Good heavens, letting outdated notions share space with actual futuristic concepts, what a terrible idea.

This year, two of these slates managed to basically overrun the nominations, one of which had been put forth by a racist, misogynistic right-winger whose general nastiness actually got him kicked out of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. The fact of the gamed nominations has lit everything the hell on fire.

OK. That’s as far as I am going with backstory – if you want more information, I certainly advise checking out the links I provided, as I am just setting out a very basic, loose outline of the whole thing.

“But Lissa,” one might ask, “why do you care? Why should we? You’re a romance writer.”

True. But I am also a SF&F reader, and would literally not be where I was today without diversity in the SF&F world.

Admittedly, my taste has always skewed much further to the fantasy part of that equation – I think the only science fiction I have actually read besides a vintage collection of Fantasy & Science Fiction Magazine was Harrison Bergeron by Kurt Vonnegut and Piers Anthony’s rather WTF effort, Anthonology. So I am a little magic and dragons leaning, I admit. But the point remains: diversity is what pulled me in.

I began reading fantasy at a very young age, starting with Robert Asprin’s Myth series. A series that whose protagonist is an inept, nerdy white teenage magician. A series that is littered with women and demons who essentially keep him in trouble but also not dead.

Tananda, a beautiful green-skinned, green-haired deadly assassin. Bunny, a humanoid with the wardrobe of a gun moll and the skills and mind of a top-rate accountant. Massha, a very large and obese lady magician who dresses however the hell she wants, is whipsmart and pragmatic and gets herself married to a hot-shit army general who loves her beyond measure. And all this is just the ladies, it says nothing about the living gargoyles and dangerous salamanders and scaly green demons with monstrous tempers and soft hearts.

They’re not without problems, these books. Bunny is often reduced to a will-they-won’t-they love interest for Skeeve. Massha’s weight is often played for laughs (although the members of the Myth team will literally wreak mayhem on people who are cruel to her). But they’re still interesting women in their own rights, and a lot of their time is spent being awesome next to a male protagonist who is not terribly bright or smooth. You spend a lot of time laughing at the ineptitude of the protagonist and marveling at the women and demons who save his bacon. In the 80’s, a nine year old girl could have done a lot worse for her first stumbles into fantasy literature.

(like Anthony’s Xanth series, which I used to love for the puns but now that I am older I side-eye like holy cow…although his collaboration with Mercedes Lackey,  If I Pay Thee Not In Gold, a book about a magical society dominated by women, is a big step up from that)

As a teenager, I discovered the above mentioned Mercedes Lackey. And holy shit – queer people in fantasy. I had not encountered that before, and it blew my mind as a tiny teenage babyqueer in the closet. From my perspective now, I can go, okay, Lackey has a lot of Tragic Queer shit going on, and I’m no longer super comfortable with the amount of Native American cultural appropriation in the books. But women like Tarma and Kethryveris and Kerowyn and Talia and Selenay and Solaris – strong women, warriors and mages and psychics, to have women with such powerful personalities and lives, speaking their minds…these women dazzled my imagination and made me want to also be strong and powerful. To be a Take-No-Fucks Woman, yeah, I wanted that.

I was reading things for school that didn’t have women like this in them. They were all books and plays by dead white guys who seemed to have a real fetish for victimizing women. Having books to read for fun that had women in major roles and refusing to be victimized even when the narrative tried to make them victims, that was amazing to me.

And I want more people – queer or not, whatever race they are, cisgender and transgender alike – to be able to have a waking up experience like I did, to see themselves in some way represented or as something to aspire to being. They deserve that, to have media and literature that actually speaks to them as the real existing human beings that they are or want to become.

And they deserve that in whatever genre they enjoy reading. Fantasy, romance, contemporary literature, science fiction, all of it. All of it. Diversity shouldn’t be an evolution, it should just be how things are. And it should mean that everyone gets to play in their chosen sandbox. Everyone.

Men are not the only gender. White is not the only race. Christianity is not the only religion. Right-wing is not the only point of view. The world we live in is a diverse world and the fictional worlds we create should absolutely reflect that. The futures we imagine should be groundbreaking and diverse, expanding on the world as it is now, not narrowing it down to some bland status quo.

We don’t want to erase the literary history that’s there, we just want our own place in it too, and frankly that should not at all be an enormous deal, it should just be.

If you are not prepared to allow women, queer persons, people of color, transgender individuals, and anyone else who doesn’t fit your narrow world view to play in your sandbox, then please feel free to take your ball and go home – and don’t you dare even try to burn down the playground behind you.

Though if you do, we’ll just build it bigger and better and brighter and more expansive than anything your myopic, stunted imagination could ever hope to conceive.

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2 Responses to On The Need For Diverse Books

  1. Melissa says:

    Rock on! In the last few years my feminist flag has begun waving. And when you start looking at the core of feminism, it’s really about oh-god-please can we have some f’ing diversity, some semblance of equality. I exist, I am a voice, I have opinions and thoughts and everything (and by the way, I contribute to the economy and pay taxes and vote and LIVE in this world). To believe in feminism is to also believe in any minority voice’s rights. While you’re talking about literature here, there are parallels obviously (as with any medium) with what’s happening on the silver and big screens. Anyway, all this to say, I here ya and hope others start to get this sense.

  2. Lissa says:

    Me too, me too. I want a Black Widow movie! I want more books led by anything other than straight white cisgender males! I have been making a conscious effort to be more diverse in my media consumption, and I regret nothing. Nothing wrong with the old way of doing things, it’s just that we can’t forget that it’s not the only way…I am glad to help lead my tiny part of the charge.

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