Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Race & Gender in Fiction

I read a post today at author David Anthony Durham's website about "Being a Color Blind Reader" and I thought it was a great, thought provoking post. I don't know about the rest of you, but when I read a book I don't often think about the author's race and how it might influence their work. I have noticed how gender can make a tremendous difference in how something is written, especially with the proliferation of "chick lit" that has hit the shelves recently. But Durham makes the point that people will often claim to be "color blind" when, in fact, they are not. I can see how people might think they can back up the claim that they are "color blind," especially when you take into consideration that very often we read books without knowing the race of the author unless there is a picture on the back cover. But if you have any perceptions at all I would think you could pick up on things in different cultural contexts as you read the story. But does it matter? I suppose that's the question isn't it? The only way for me to answer that question is to go at it from another perspective. As a woman and an aspiring writer I would like to think that my gender wouldn't have a bearing on how well my book sold. After all, it should sell on the merits of the writing shouldn't it? But I know that may very well not be the case. If I were looking for a career in the "chick lit" market my gender would be an advantage. But since I don't want to pigeonholed in that particular genre, especially since I don't believe it will be long-lived, I need to be aware of the fact that my picture and my name on the cover of a book may affect how it sells. I know it will because I have chosen to buy-- or not buy-- books in the past if it seems as if the story may have an overly feminine or romantic slant; Just as I know other women will buy books specifically for the romance angle. Am I making any sense? I guess what I am saying is that I know my name can be a marketing tool or a handicap depending on the audience I am going for. And I suppose we could look at race the same way. I know there is a section in the bookstore that is labeled "African American Literature" (as Durham also mentions in his post) and I can't help but wonder if that is a good or bad thing. I almost don't feel qualified to comment on that because I am not African American-- but being qualified to comment on something has never stopped me before-- so here goes. First, I think the additional promotion/recognition that comes from being featured in the African American section can be a good thing if it is in addition to be featured in whatever genre section it belongs to. If, however, it is somehow segregated (pun intended) into that section and not given the wider promotion it deserves then it does the book and the author an injustice. And not being a published author myself I can't help but wonder if an author is given the option to be promoted in this way or if it's a judgment call made only by the publisher. If I were singled out by being a female author without due credit to the book's other merits I don't think I would like it much, but I may be alone in feeling that way. So where am going with this? I'm not really sure. It's just that Durham's post made me think, which is a good thing. I made me wonder how cognizant I am about the gender/race of an author I might be reading or if it factors into my buying decisions. And should it? And it also makes me think about the wider implications as I try to forge ahead into a writing career. Do I write through the narrow lens of a white woman or do I try encompass more? Obviously what I write will reflect my life experience but I can't only write about women like myself, that would get incredibly boring. But how do I make sure that what I write takes into consideration that there are other people in the world who would like to be represented in a way that isn't totally cliche? Again, I'm not sure. I can't write in a way that's unnatural to me or be fettered by the expectations of others. Yet at the same time the characters in my stories need to be as varied as the world we live in and hopefully as realistic. And if I'm being honest I can't be a gender blind or race blind reader. I think it's impossible to be so because any book comes with a voice. A voice that speaks of race, gender, sexuality, religion and any number of things that are important to the speaker. I feel it is my job as the reader to listen to the voice and make sure it is heard and appreciated-- even if I don't always share the same opinion. For an additional post on this topic check out Remy's post at The Fantasy Review

19 comments:

Remy said...

I would hope that you don't encounter any roadblocks in your writing career because you are female. It is always difficult to break a generalization once you have been labeled. I see this all the time with actors and athletes where they get stereotyped and it is hard to break that stereotype.

I thought your post makes complete sense. It can be very difficult to write about a topic like this. I know I spend hours writing my post and I re-read it and changed it at least six times. I wanted to make sure I got my point across the way I wanted it to.

Anyway, great post and I would love to read your work when you have something to read!

Remy
www.thefantasyreview.com

SQT said...

Oops Remy! I forgot to mention your post when I wrote this one up. I added the link to the end of the post.

I don't worry too much about being a woman writer. Like you mention on your blog, plenty of women have no problem getting published. I just don't want to be characterized as a woman writer if the writing doesn't make a point of being feminist.

Stewart Sternberg said...

Interestingly enough, High Seas Cthulhu is a male dominated collection. We spoke about this. Of course, when writing about the high seas in the 1800's, it's easy to get caught up in a stereotype. However, I know the editor was aware of the lack of female contributors and the presence of females in the stories.

If you turned your attention to horror, your gender might be a positive due to the lack of a female presence. Now I know that has changed dramatically in the realm of urban fantasy, but hardcore horror? I think that is still a male dominated field crying for female intervention. I know there are a few strong female horror writers out there, but I think it's a good nut to crack for you, SQT.

Fab said...

As said in the post, I usually by books without knowing who the author is or looks like (I read the back cover and decide). Of course a picture helps. I just began reading Zadie Smith's 'On Beauty' and had until a day ago no idea of her race. But I get hooked on the story, not so much the race of the writer. If you can sell me the story, I'll read it.

I do not know any female horror writers, though. They might be out there, but I just haven't noticed. I haven't read, I think, any books by female writers that use a darker humour. But I can't say I really set out to look for that. It's possible that there is a difference between a male and female writer, I just haven't thought about it.

Good food for thought, Sqt.

SQT said...

Stu, that is an interesting thought. There are so many women doing the werewolf/vampire stuff right now it would have to be totally different.

Who do you think of when you say "hardcore horror?" Stephen King kind of dominates the field but I never thought of him as being necessarily hardcore. And Dean Koontz is often put into the horror section but I usually think of him as someone who mixes fantasy and horror.

Truth is, other than those two, I don't read that much horror.

jali said...

Are you just dying to see Stardust? I'm a Gaiman fan, and I think he's a pretty colorblind writer.

David Anthony Durham said...

sqt,

Thanks for linking, and for taking some time to discuss this from your perspective.

As I said in my post, readers may be (or may think they are) completely free of thinking about race or gender or an author's looks. Even if they are, though, the industry isn't. They have departments of people that crunch numbers on various data as they work out whether to publish a book, how much to pay for it, how to promote it and how much to promote it. Race, gender, and other issues of an authors marketability are all considered in that. Publishers aren't doing it because they're bad people; there doing it because publishing is a hard business to make money at. So they look for all the information they can get to help them make decisions based on data - instead of gut feeling or quality.

I think this is likely to become more of a factor in the future, not less. Many other businesses - think Walmart, for example - gather much more detailed information on what there customers buy, when and why and how they buy it. They use the information to increase profitability. In comparison publishing isn't that good at this, but they're trying.

I do think that race and gender can be hindrance depending on just what you're writing. It can also be a plus. Or you can do the best you can to neutralize it.

Oh, as for whether the author has a say in where they're shelved in a store... Forget about it. Perish the thought. Authors are the least powerful of players in such decisions. (Unless they're Rowling or King or Brown - but if you're selling millions the bookstores will be treating you very nicely indeed.) Really, as an author I have absolutely know say in decisions B&N or Borders makes. My publisher can categorize a book, but if the chain doesn't like the categorization they reassign it. They've got the lion's share of the power, and they can do what they want.

There's a lot behind closed doors of publishing and book selling that would surprise casual readers.

Jali, I'm a big Gaiman fan, too. I wouldn't say he's "color blind" though - not as I was discussing in my post. Instead, I think he's got his eyes fully open. He recognizes the complicate creature that America is and - as in AMERICAN GOD'S - includes immigrant stories from all around the world. He didn't have to do that. I've heard and read the book described in "imagine if European Gods moved to America and still lived among us" terms.

That's not an accurate description of the book, though. It wasn't just European gods. It features African gods, Egyptians, Mesopotamians, Native Americans and more. I love Gaiman for being that realistically inclusive in his some of his fantasies. But he's not color blind; he's taking in all the colors, noting them, and making brilliant use of them in his work.

SQT said...

Jali-- I can't wait to see Stardust, I just don't know if I can drag my husband to it. Thanks for stopping by.

David
Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. And wow! I had no idea that publishers are now looking to package the author with the book when it comes to marketing. That just seems surreal to me.

And I'm not the least bit surprised that authors have no say when it comes to where they will be placed on the shelves. I've had other authors tell me that they have no control over cover art, recommendations on the book-- or pretty much anything else.

I do get a few aspiring writers here so your input is much appreciated.

Tia Nevitt said...

Ok, I've thrown my observations into the mix. What an interesting, blog-spanning conversation! It takes a significant portion of my time getting caught up every night. In fact, I don't think I can catch up anymore.

BTW, thanks for the link!

texasboyblue said...

I'm sorry, but I don't think that being female, or black, or Asian, makes a bit of difference in writing - or reading - a good book. Maybe I am naive, but I don't stereotype author by culture, except to the extent that that culture flavors their writing. For instance, I expect that Laurell Hamilton is going to write supernatural stories with lots of sex. Not because she's a woman, but because that's what she has written. I can't speak to how much being a woman had to do with what she wrote.

Shoot...now you've done it. I'm goona have to post a response on my blog...

SQT said...

TBB

See, I can't fully agree. I think being a woman gives me a different perspective. In fact, there's no way it can't because I can't for a second really know what it's like to be a man. I can imagine it, but I'll never know for sure.

I've read lots of books where the cultural differences show up in little ways. L.A. Banks writes supernatural fiction with a strong emphasis on her African American culture. It's unmistakable. I'm hoping to get review copies of Tobias Buckell's books and he says he uses his Caribbean background as an influence in his stories.

That isn't to say I can't write about an African American or Caribbean character in a book and make it realistic. But I can't draw from life experience when it comes to writing it and I imagine my descriptions will not have the ring of authenticity that they would have if I had lived that life.

texasboyblue said...

ok, I admit that woman see the world differently from men and that it will flavor their writings. So? If I only read a book because it was writen by a woman, am I not being sexist? Your being a woman writer in no way limits your ability to write well, including extremely male characters. Women authors do it all the time (Aral and Miles Vorkosigan leap to mind).

I'm not denying the cultural differences, just that they have no racial relevance to telling a story. Can I understand being black? Nope. Can I understand a story told from a black perspective? Yes, if its told well and crosses enough cultural lines to allows for my limited experiences. Nobody has experienced exactly the same things in their lives, but we share enough as human beings that we can cross those experiential boundaries by defining them in terms of what we have in common.

Diversity is wonderful! Its exciting and sometimes scary. But we all share a basic humanity. That shared humanity is what allows us to cross over un-shared experiential references and find awe in a well told story, or a beautiful, emotion-evoking piece of art, or a glorious work of music. Just because a black person wrote the song doesn't mena that I am inherently unable to enjoy it.

I don't resent or even care that an author is black, white, female or gay. What I care about is the story. Is it well told? Does it evoke a feeling that is profound and lasting? Can I share it with others and will they have a similiar experience with the story?

One of the things I agree with in Mr. Durham's post is that there shold not be an African American section at the book store. Good books have no race or gender, per ce. They have humanity, pathos and characters. Does race flavor those characters? I'm sure it does. Do I care? Nope. Can I read and enjoy a story based in a culture other than my own? To be honest, I've never read a book about someone from my very specific cultural experience and don't expect to. I'm afraid my life story would be pretty darn boring. But the characters in a story of the human experience, no matter what cultural division it originates in, is fascinating.

texasboyblue said...

Sorry, I'll get off the soapbox. But your being female definitely gives you a different perspective. Your not being me gives you a different perspective than me. For you to write a story that I will enjoy, it must come from your perspective and cross into mine. I have no odea how authors do that, but when they do- it can be magic.

Scott
www.ofsciencefiction.com

SQT said...

TBB

Perhaps we view the subject differently. The point I was trying to make is that who we are influences what we write-- no doubt about it. It's not that readers can't appreciate it or even seek it out. It's more to the point that some people have found that being female, or of another race, hinders their ability to get published in a certain genre. J.K. Rowling said that she wrote under her initials because the publisher told her that young boys wouldn't buy her books if they knew they were written by a woman. That's kind of the angle I was aiming for.

I think that most sci-fi/fantasy readers are by nature more open-minded-- as are the authors. I've noticed more story lines that explore religious and sexual differences in a positive light in fantasy than I have in other genres. Maybe that's just a personal bias but I'd be surprised if other readers haven't noticed the same thing.

I think Durham was simply making the point that there is no such thing as being "color blind" because diversity isn't just about color; it's about all the different things that make up a certain culture. Any time you read a book by someone who has a unique background you're bound to notice the influences if you're attuned to it. I don't think he means it's a bad thing to not be color blind because if we're not too busy trying to deny the differences we're able to appreciate them.

SQT said...

Oh, one more thing. I don't want you to think I'm all boo hoo, I'm a woman, I'll never get published... That would be ridiculous. Obviously tons of women are successful writers.

Anyone can get published if they have talent, but I think you're more likely to be published if you're wise to the marketing machine. I have to find a way to make my gender work for me just as someone who is of a different culture will have to find a way to make their race work for them.

I don't think there's anything wrong with Durham taking advantage of the African American section of the bookstore if it works to his advantage. Every writer who wants to make a living as a writer has to deal with the business side of the industry and sometimes you just have to be a bit cynical about it.

Chris, The Book Swede said...

Wow, what a great post, and the interaction between all the people commenting is great :)

I don't know how I didn't find your blog earlier! (I noticed you on Brian Ruckley's site, where you mentioned me in passing.)

Cheers,

BTW The second part of my interview with Brian is now up, and I'm in the process of posting about the "colour blind"/race and gender in fiction issue.

SQT said...

Chris

Thanks for stopping by. I just discovered your site a short time ago too and I'm glad I found it.

Matt said...

I think you already saw where my thoughts took me, but this is one of the more interesting discussions I've seen lately. Thanks for bringing it up!

Job said...

7 tribes at a racial level
-------------------------------
oriental 61 out of 100 will die
deshi 81 out of 100 will die
african 73 out of 100 will die
european 91 out of 100 will die
arabic 97 out of 100 will die
adiwahsi 93 out of 100 will die
other 77 out of 100 will die