Sleeps With Monsters

Conversations Founded On False Assumptions

“I don’t see gender.” Or colour. Or difference.

When you hear that, you know it’s the claim and the rallying-cry of someone who’s never had to see difference; never had difference unavoidably brought home to them. Never stood outside the charmed circle of the assumed default.

It’s a claim that came up again last week, when two authors gave separate versions of their favourite or recommended science fiction novels that were entirely white and entirely male. (Natalie Luhrs at Pretty Terrible has a response that’s well worth reading.)

Contrast these examples with the recent Strange Horizons column by Renay, and the spate of articles—like Tansy Rayner Roberts’ GOH speech from Continuum 11, republished at SF Signal—talking about how:

“this odd sort of conversation… keeps circling the internet, and it usually starts with a question. Where are all the women, in epic fantasy? Where are the female authors? Why is it all so dominated by men?”

This conversation is founded on false assumptions. Women are here. Women have been here for a long damn time.

But it’s really easy to see how we keep getting led to ask that same damn question, where are all the women? Because there’s this process by which women are written out of the literary canon, slowly and subliminally. My anecdotal evidence suggests that women will recommend both men and women, while men are far more likely to recommend a preponderance of other men. Over time, it seems, there’s no way to avoid this imbalance building up. Over time, women are written out: their significance downplayed, their influence on their peers and successors overlooked. The odds than any single list will comprise white male writers alone, as mathematician and writer S.L. Huang points out, is actually quite slim: and yet again and again we come across lists with no women, or only a token woman; with hardly even a nod towards wider forms of diversity.

I don’t judge these authors for their preferences—well, perhaps I judge them a little: they might only be the latest examples of an ongoing problem, but I find their lack of imagination disturbing. But they haven’t examined their preferences and looked at their public statements, and related them to an ongoing inequity. They’ve never had to, because they live within a discriminatory system that upholds their preferences—even their selves—as normative, unexceptional, default.

But by failing to examine their preferences, they’re contributing to that system. They’re reinforcing the structures that cast non-white or non-cisgendered-men as non-normative. By refusing to see difference—and by that refusal, just happening to produce lists populated entirely by white, largely straight, cisgendered men—they are, in fact, actively contributing to a narrative wherein certain identities are just not important. Not important enough to see, not important enough to acknowledge, and certainly not important enough to be held up as any kind of exemplar.

Examining what we like, what we admire, and why we like it, is the work of a lifetime. But if we don’t, we end up reinforcing structural inequities as though they were the natural way of the world—and there’s nothing natural about rendering invisible people who’ve been here all along.

(I don’t know what SF I’d recommend adolescents read, except it’d probably include Alaya Dawn Johnson and Karen Healey, Lois McMaster Bujold and Scott Westerfeld, Tanya Huff and Walter Jon Williams, Malinda Lo and Karen Lord, David Drake—though not Drake’s early stuff.)

(And any list of favourite SF novels is liable to change from day to day.)

But I think people who’re asked for a list of favourites, or a list of recommendations? I think they have a responsibility to think about their answers. And what that answer says about what, about who, they think is important.

I think they have a responsibility to do better.

Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

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