I am a novelist. I also have a Master’s degree from MIT. So numbers appeal to me, especially numbers that provide clear data on thorny issues, like, oh, sexism and racism in literature.
This year, the Hugo Awards—probably the most famous and visible awards in speculative literature—were hijacked by a coordinated campaign of conservative writers who felt they’d been shut out of the community. I was bummed, because for the first time, I had a dog in the fight—my debut The Girl in the Road came out last year and got rave reviews, and I did harbor a small hope that I’d follow in the footsteps of my heroes Ursula K. Le Guin and Kim Stanley Robinson, both multiple Hugo nominees.
’Twas not to be. Since the Hugos are determined by popular vote—basically, anyone who buys a $40 membership to the convention that hosts the Hugos, which means a pool of only a few thousand—the system is vulnerable. And this year, it was taken over by “Sad Puppies,” an online “protest group” led by three conservative writers and editors: Vox Day, Larry Correia, and Brad Torgersen, men for whom I honestly can’t rouse myself to feel much more than pity. Clowns are sad.
Meanwhile, the actual leaders in the field—including Nora K. Jemisin, Kameron Hurley, and George R. R. Martin, raining down righteous hellfire from his blog—have mobilized en masse to explain to them and to the public exactly why they’re cartoonish fools who not only don’t represent the field, but in their vehemence, serve as proof that the field as a whole is diversifying brilliantly.
And while the state of speculative literature is far from perfect, that’s why I’m actually not worried about it. At all.
But that’s only half of my story. Just a few days after the Hugo nominations were announced, the sixth annual VIDA Count was released. Tracking trends in another genre, literary fiction, the study tallies bylines by women and coverage of books by women—and, for the first time this year, a separate data set for women of color—in the most influential literary journals in the English-speaking world.
The results are pretty awful. Though the overall numbers are inching closer to parity than when VIDA first started tracking them, most have made little to no change. There’s no accountability on the part of the journals—and usually no comment at all. Either they simply don’t care, or they believe they’re not constitutionally capable of unconscious bias.
Whereas the numbers clearly demonstrate that they are. Statistics are helpful like that.
I’ve never been comfortable identifying fully with the literary genre or the speculative genre. My novel is both. I admire work in both. I’m influenced by work in both. But as a writer who also happens to be a woman, I’ve been watching both fields carefully over the last year. And here is a difference that ends up mattering quite a lot: the speculative community hashes out its sexism and racism issues right on the surface, whereas the literary community has convinced itself it doesn’t have any. As such, the leaders in the latter are far more dangerous to diversity in literature as a whole than Day, Correia, or Torgersen could ever be.
Or editor of The New Republic , Chris Hughes.
The statistics not only show systemic bias, but a conscious refusal to change. It’s easy to shun Day, Correia, and Torgerson as embarrassing dinosaurs. Why should it be any harder to point to Silvers, Stothard, and Hughes as the same?
At last year’s National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin spoke of art as a tool of change. A writer with serious cachet in both speculative and literary genres nevertheless claims proud membership in the former, among those who are “writers of the imagination” and “realists of a larger reality.” And true to that charge, over the past ten years, speculative literature has been measurably diversifying.
How many VIDA Counts will it take for the literary establisment to do the same? Hungry young writers of all colors, all races, all genders, all faiths, all philosophies, and all orientations are moving up through the ranks, not waiting for permission to be heard. The future belongs to us. We’re already writing it. Now, where will we do so?
Where we feel welcome.
That may still be the Hugos. That may still be The New Yorker. It’s a matter of institutional will, as always. To quote Le Guin again, “Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings.”
But of the literary and speculative genres, I see only one truly doing so.