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Individual Pieces vs. the Larger Puzzle

kaiweilau posted photos of the Sedlec Ossuary in Prague.  From Wikipedia, “The ossuary contains approximately 40,000-70,000 human skeletons which have been artistically arranged to form decorations and furnishings for the chapel.”  This blows my mind on multiple levels.  Just … wow.


Yesterday’s discussion about the Mind-Blowing SF Manthology was interesting.  Some of the comments reminded me of things that were said about the Realms mermaid cover.  With Realms, a number of people said it was unfair to attack the magazine’s new staff on the basis of a single cover; wait and give them a year to see how things go.

With the anthology, the point was made that you can’t condemn the editor and his anthology without even reading the stories.  You can’t expect every anthology to have a perfectly PC balance of race and gender, and if these stories were chosen on merit, why bash them?

What struck me is that these are valid points.  In both cases, if you take the example in isolation, it’s not that big of a deal.  The Realms cover was much less annoying to me than others I’ve seen. A number of people really liked the artist’s style. By itself, I don’t think it’s a horrible cover.

Likewise, with the anthology, I imagine these are all good stories.  I’ve no doubt the editor believed every one of those stories were good, powerful, mind-blowing SF.  As such, why shouldn’t he be allowed to compile a collection of his favorites?  If those favorites happen to all be written by white* men, that might be unfortunate, but it’s still his choice as the editor, right?  He’s not evil, and he’s not trying to be sexist or oppress women and minorities or anything like that.  He’s just picking stories he likes.

Most of the frustration I’ve seen expressed over this sort of thing, my own included, comes from a very different place.  My sentiment about the anthology wasn’t so much “This editor is a horribly sexist oppressive Nazi” as much as it was “Here we go again.”  If you see this as an isolated incident, it might not feel like a big deal.  If you see it as yet another white-male-dominated project in a long history of such, then it becomes more frustrating.  As an isolated anthology it’s annoying; as a symptom of a larger and ongoing problem within the genre, it’s both discouraging and highly troubling.

Likewise with Realms.  If Fantasy Magazine had used that same cover, I’m betting it would have passed with much less notice.  But Realms of Fantasy has a history of cheesecake fantasy covers, and seeing the mermaid as the first cover of the “newly reincarnated” magazine meant it was seen in the context and history of those earlier covers.  Fair?  Maybe not.  But that history is there, and a lot of the people who have been troubled by it were waiting to see whether the new editor would steer the magazine in another direction.

It makes me think of road trips with my little brother when we were younger.  The first time I poked him in the arm or bumped his foot or jostled his book, it was no big deal.  Add them up, and you end up with a full-blown brawl in the back seat.  None of my individual actions were really worth fussing about.  Taken all together, I was a jerk in need of an ass-whooping.  (Sorry, Brian!)

As a straight white male, it’s easy for me to ignore a lot of these issues.  When I was younger, I did exactly that.  Not because I was an evil, horrible person, but because I just didn’t see it.  I’ve tried to change that.  I still have my blind spots.  But I’ve found that the more I become aware of this sort of thing, the more I see these individual incidents in a larger context.  It’s the difference between the first poke and the hundredth.

Are the new staff of Realms of Fantasy or the editor of the Mind Blowing Manthology responsible for all SF/F sexism that came before them?  Of course not.  But if we divorce them from the larger context, if we only look at these issues as isolated, individual events, we miss the larger pattern.  I believe these are patterns we really need to change … and we can’t change them if we don’t see them.

I hope this all makes sense.  I wrote it mostly to sort out my own thoughts, but as always, I’d love to hear what the rest of you think.

*As I said yesterday, I don’t know that the ToC is all white.  This is a guess based on the names I recognize, but I’m willing eager to be proven wrong.

Mirrored from Jim C. Hines.


( 63 comments — Leave a comment )
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Aug. 4th, 2009 01:54 pm (UTC)
I think you've put it very well. It's the symtomology that's the problem. As I commented on another friend's LJ, 20-some years ago, my father offered to send me an antho with a similar bent (IOW, "Here are the however-many stories that are the bestest science fiction stories ever and always will be.") I asked him to read me the TOC, which he did, and then said, "Notice anything."

He did, though one of those things was not like the others, being Andre Norton. The rest? Yep. White men. Can't speak to the "straight" part. And you're right. It happens again and again. It's a symptom of a bigger problem. One editor with one anthology is annoying. One magazine cover is annoying. Women no longer have to use men's names to get published, but many still use initials. I'm not sure why our fiction isn't "mind blowing."
Aug. 4th, 2009 02:53 pm (UTC)
And of course, Andre Norton was writing under a male pseudonym.

I do think it's getting better, but it's got a way to go yet.
(no subject) - jjschwabach - Aug. 4th, 2009 05:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 4th, 2009 01:56 pm (UTC)
I find the Mammoth Manthology a bit more disturbing than the Realms cover. As you said, it really is a bit unfair to judge that cover by the standards of the old magazine, and also it really wasn't an offensive cover (as everyone agrees). But given that there are so many stories in the Manthology, it boggles my mind that the editor really couldn't find one story by a woman that he could like. (It's harder to judge on including minorities since we don't know anything about the authors or the stories.) The all-male lineup feels a bit intimidating to me, especially since these type of anthologies are always invite-only. Again, if it had been an open submission situation, I'd be willing to give the benefit of the doubt. I don't think it's deliberate. But I do know if I were editing, I would have been aware of this and would have looked harder for female-authored stories. It's always a subjective process.

Anyway, maybe we need a Mammoth Mammarology to balance things, eh.
Aug. 4th, 2009 02:00 pm (UTC)
Quick data point -- this was a 75% reprint anthology. But that just means the editor deliberately chose these stories instead of deliberately inviting the authors, so I don't think that really makes a difference. Just nitpicking.

I agree it's probably not deliberate. But in some ways, I think those are the things it's more important to point out and talk about, if that makes sense?
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Aug. 4th, 2009 02:07 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Aug. 4th, 2009 02:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Aug. 4th, 2009 02:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
Well, and... - shweta_narayan - Aug. 4th, 2009 08:40 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Well, and... - margaret_y - Aug. 4th, 2009 09:09 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Well, and... - shweta_narayan - Aug. 5th, 2009 02:48 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Well, and... - rachel_swirsky - Aug. 5th, 2009 12:29 am (UTC) - Expand
Re: Well, and... - rachel_swirsky - Aug. 5th, 2009 12:48 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - warrenlapine - Aug. 8th, 2009 12:50 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathshaffer - Aug. 8th, 2009 01:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 4th, 2009 01:59 pm (UTC)
as much as it was “Here we go again.”

This exactly.
Aug. 4th, 2009 02:05 pm (UTC)
What you said, Jim.

This reminds me of something I noticed more than a decade ago in my own town's only daily newspaper. Coming up on Christmas, they'd snurtch a column from the NYT or somesuch, wherein a reviewer would review some ten mystery novels from the previous year, the better for shoppers to find something their mystery-lovers would like to find under the tree Dec. 25th. I noticed one year that every single book in the review was by a man.

I remembered (don't ask me how) the following year to check that out, and sure enough, same reviewer, same 100% lack of female writers on his list. And the next year. And the next year. And the next year. According to this clod, apparently there were no women writing mysteries in the mid-1990's in the USA. Or anywhere. I did write a letter to the editors, but the annual column continued for quite awhile in the same way. Eventually it disappeared but I am sure that was not due to my letter.

It's the pattern.
Aug. 4th, 2009 02:55 pm (UTC)
Sigh. Well, everyone knows women can only write romance novels, right?

I wonder how many other people noticed and pointed this out to the paper. One letter by itself might not get noticed, but once you get enough voices speaking together...
(no subject) - alanajoli - Aug. 5th, 2009 02:51 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cissa - Aug. 5th, 2009 09:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 4th, 2009 02:11 pm (UTC)
You know, I feel compelled to point out that the first three comments are women pointing out the lack of female authors in the TOC. Then Charlie Stross makes the same observation. The fifth comment? "Charlie Stross got it right." Since Cat Valente was first, shouldn't it have been "Cat Valente got it right?"

*head desk*
Aug. 4th, 2009 07:36 pm (UTC)
The first three comments were written using invisible pixels, and thus didn't appear until some testosterone was applied, obviously.
(no subject) - cissa - Aug. 5th, 2009 09:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cereta - Aug. 7th, 2009 02:04 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 4th, 2009 02:15 pm (UTC)
I think this post gives me a much clearer idea on why so much frustration resulted - the "kid brother" analogy is spot on.

The genre does need to lose some of its baggage in this sense - way back when, in the Golden Age, the writers (and the fans) were predominantly white males, and there has been some inertia which results in things like the mentioned ToC (if you grew up reading Asimov, Clarke and Heinlein, you're likely to prefer a certain kind of story).

However, I do see a shift. Most of the anthos I've seen over the last year or two have a significant female presence, and many have an equal split. I have no idea what race any of the writers are.

Hopefully, the shift will be complete soon, and the published work in the genre will represent all races and genders who are subbing. That way, we can all concentrate on what's truly important: the stories!
Aug. 4th, 2009 02:19 pm (UTC)
Thanks -- I'm glad this made more sense.

I don't think we're there yet, but I do think there has been progress overall, and I'm delighted by that.
(no subject) - cofax7 - Aug. 5th, 2009 04:04 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - jimhines - Aug. 5th, 2009 11:23 am (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 4th, 2009 02:36 pm (UTC)
Yeah, it's not that the editor is evil or that this was malicious or that there's not some outstanding writers in the TOC. It's just another case of here we go again. I was trying to explain to a male friend once that the constant tiny messages we get from the time we can read, the unthinking assumptions and the overt declarations, have their effect like water dripping on the stone.
Aug. 4th, 2009 02:56 pm (UTC)
It all adds up.

The big, blatant acts of racism/sexism/etc are easy. Pretty much everyone will agree that cross-burning is a bad thing these days, for example. But the "smaller" stuff is so much more prevalent, and so easy for those not directly affected to ignore.
(no subject) - samhenderson - Aug. 4th, 2009 03:44 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 4th, 2009 03:05 pm (UTC)
I liked this post, Jim. Good stuff.

I know the problem I had with the Manthology was yeah no woman wrote a mind-blowingly neat enough story for the editor? Really? I've read a few of these in Dozois' YBSF and they didn't blow my mind all that much. For example, Terry Bisson's "Hole in the Hole." It's the sort of story had anyone else written, would have gotten a "not at all plausible, better luck next time" rejection. Except it had Terry Bisson on the byline. So now it's mind-blowing. Come on, a rip in time and space allows people to go to the moon via a junkyard. They make spacesuits out of duct tape and trashbags in order to get parts off the moon buggy. Dumb.

What about the odds? Not a single female writer? I'm not telling editors to set up quotas here, not in the least. But by the odds alone, there should have been a few folks not in the tripod club. Just sayin'.

In the editor's defense, everyone makes anthologies these days. Maybe the truly mind-blowing stuff by women was too expensive for the editor to buy and run in the antho? I wouldn't be surprised, considering how a lot of these stories aren't really that mind-blowing. Or he could just have no palate for fictions by women and they have no place in his anthology. And nobody is forcing anyone to buy it, so maybe he'll figure it out when his royalties never earn out. Same old stories. Not blowing my mind so far.
Aug. 4th, 2009 03:08 pm (UTC)
I calculated the odds at about 1 in two million, but I was rushing the math, so I could be off by a factor or so.
Aug. 4th, 2009 03:23 pm (UTC)
Gender notwithstanding, the "best" lists are inevitably put together by one editor's viewpoint, and probably from what that particular editor has read, for the stories that stand out in that editor's mind. It does not reflect the genre as a whole.

In a way, it is a challenge to women authors of science fiction. Why do you think these stories were chosen? What elements in these stories do you think may have appealed to the editor? Are there corresponding stories by women authors who share these same elements?

Ha! I have to play the Devil's Advocate, sometimes: it's good for the soul. And before anyone calls me a "male chauvinist pig" they should know that I'm female. I believe I mentioned that on my LiveJournal profile page.

The challenge, I think, exists on both sides. After a certain age, you tend to follow works by authors whose works you've already read and enjoyed. For all that there has been a general movement away from the magazine in general, and the short story in particular, it has served as a vehicle in the past for authors to gain a readership, even if it builds from there by word of mouth, rasher than people buying the magazine.

There's also, perhaps, a little perception on the parts of some editors that an anthology with stories by women authors will not sell. I think that's a load of hooey (I think the CO used to say that on M.A.S.H. the series, haven't seen it in years and can't think of the character's name, but I think others will know by that characterization), but that's the individual perception of the person or persons involved in putting together such an anthology.

I'm guilty of paying more attention to stories I've enjoyed rather than to the gender of a particular author. *grin*
Aug. 4th, 2009 07:39 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately, while you've got a great point that those "best" anthologies are indeed selected by individuals, out of their lives and what stood out to them, it usually takes a more mature, more cynical, more experienced, and/or an older reader to catch that point.

So many grow into their reading of spec fic genres end up using the building blocks of those "best" anthologies....


On the other hand, I'd agree that it is a challenge, not only to those who are putting out what are, IMO, rather self-limiting anthologies, but also to women writers (like me) who should get more stories out there that share story elements that could appeal to those, and other, editors. Yeah, I know, more guidelines to write by, lol.
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Aug. 4th, 2009 07:49 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - silk_noir - Aug. 4th, 2009 09:33 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Aug. 4th, 2009 10:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - rachel_swirsky - Aug. 5th, 2009 12:32 am (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - snapes_angel - Aug. 5th, 2009 12:57 am (UTC) - Expand
(Deleted comment)
Aug. 5th, 2009 02:52 am (UTC)
While I'm certainly not buying this anthology, I don't know that I can say it's on principle. I'm just so unimpressed with the editorial choices all round that I cannot claim that I would have liked to own this book, were it not for the big gaping holes.
Aug. 4th, 2009 07:15 pm (UTC)
Normally, I'm pretty "may the best writer win", and not, "may the best writer who happens to fall into a particular ethnic or cultural group win" kind of person, but I can't believe, that in such a large number of story slots, a single female writer couldn't be found.

Off the top of my head, I think "Trinity" by Nancy Kress was pretty mind-blowing (and Gardner Dozois did too, it's included in his Best of the Best anthology).

If it was a shorter TOC I might suspect a fluke, but seriously, there's a lot of slots there.
Aug. 4th, 2009 07:20 pm (UTC)
Yes, well said. It was exactly this sort of rationale I was attempting to use to explain a different subject this last (convention) weekend.

Sadly, those on the other side of this have some problems seeing issues in broader context(s).

On another note, I talked up your stuff to several folks at that convention, and hopefully they'll get some of your novels to find out for themselves. :-)
Aug. 4th, 2009 08:49 pm (UTC)
A quick non-comprehensive search turned up pictures of almost all of the authors. Of those I could find, they all appear to be white males. I couldn't find a webpage or wiki entry for Larry McCombs and a couple other lacked pictures or the pictures I found weren't definitely of the author. However, there is the question of defining 'white'. Do those of Mediterranean decent count? (Di Filippo is clearly of Italian decent) Do those of Jewish decent count? I didn't do enough research to even begin to answer that question for all the authors.

I also didn't do a complete count, might get to it this evening, but there's a very heavy slant toward authors from the UK.
Aug. 4th, 2009 09:00 pm (UTC)
The editor is also from the UK, as I understand it, which could explain that last piece.
(no subject) - maelithil - Aug. 8th, 2009 02:06 pm (UTC) - Expand
Aug. 4th, 2009 08:54 pm (UTC)
Jim, thank you to the link to the ossuary pix. Such things are of great interest to me. What humans do always amazes me!

Kristen B.
Aug. 4th, 2009 09:01 pm (UTC)
I can't believe I had never come across it before. The pics make me want to dump the current project and dive into all sorts of new research and reading!
Aug. 4th, 2009 09:30 pm (UTC)
My sentiment about the anthology wasn’t so much “This editor is a horribly sexist oppressive Nazi” as much as it was “Here we go again.”

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Jim C. Hines


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