The Irrelevance of Race – Christopher Nuttall
[Author’s note – I’ve said some of this before, but it really needs to be said again.]
Back when I was 12, or thereabouts, my teacher read us a story. (I have forgotten the title.) A group of schoolgirls were visiting an old folks home, where they met a bunch of old ladies and chatted to them. One girl sat down next to a sweet (and blind) old lady. Unfortunately for her, the old lady – after exchanging some mindless conversation – went off on a racist rant about black people ruining Britain. She praised the girl, told her she’d do well for herself and warned her to stay away from blacks. And then she patted the girl’s hair …
… And discovered that it was springy.
I cannot say the story made a great impression on me at the time. The boarding school I was unlucky enough to attend was pretty much a foretaste of hell. Being, as I was, at the bottom of the totem pole, I was more concerned with avoiding discrimination against me than discrimination against others. I could, and did, sympathise with people who faced discrimination. But, at the same time, I was always wary about assuming that they were genuinely facing discrimination. No one seemed interested in doing anything about my problems.
For what it’s worth, I consider the story to be quite believable. I knew two girls in Manchester, both of whom were of Indian ancestry (but born and raised in the UK). One of them had an accent that was perfectly Lancastrian, the other had a very pronounced Indian lilt to her voice. And yet, the former was more wedded to her culture than the latter, who was practically culturally British.
I effectively forgot the story until the Fireside Report sprang into my awareness and its claim, that black writers were staggeringly underrepresented in published writing, sent hundreds of publishers and editors into a flurry of virtue-signalling.
I was not impressed. And the reason I was not impressed was simple.
I have been writing for over twelve years. I’ve honestly lost count of the number of submissions, mostly rejected, that I’ve made. But I can say, with great certainty, that none of the publishers (or agents) I applied to asked for my race. They asked for my name, address, email … and very little else. There was nothing in what I sent them to suggest I was anything other than a WASP …
… And yet, I got a string of rejections.
Most of them were useless, from the point of view of an aspiring writer. “Dear Sir. Thank you for your submission. However, we are unable to publish your work. Good luck.” Short, pithy, and completely useless when it comes to explaining WHY the book was rejected. A handful were more detailed, but even they weren’t much use. It wasn’t until I had been writing and submitting for several years that I got feedback worthy of my time.
And it wasn’t until I did slush reading myself that I started to grasp why this might be so.
The (few) publishers with open submission polices are deluged in pieces of writing that are utterly unreadable. I started with the intention of giving every last piece of work a serious look and ended by feeling as though it was a complete waste of time. I saw manuscripts that were unedited, manuscripts that were composed of nothing but MS edits, manuscripts that didn’t suit the publisher at all (or didn’t meet submission guidelines), manuscripts that were openly fan fiction (a big no-no) … I honestly don’t know what some of those writers were thinking. I never know who the authors were – I never had the time. All I could really do was write a short note saying why the items were rejected and pass them back to senior staff.
To prove that there actually had been discrimination against non-white authors, all other factors would need to be eliminated. But the Fireside Report writers were completely incapable of doing anything of the sort.
For example, writers are not created equal. Writing is a learning process. A writer at the start of his career is going to make mistakes, many mistakes, while a more experienced writer will avoid them. Were all the writers who submitted to a given magazine at the same level of experience? I would be very surprised if the answer was yes. It would be rather more likely that some of them were newcomers, while others were mid-range authors. (The truly advanced authors don’t need to send in blind submissions.)
And, even if there was a policy of rejecting non-white authors, how could they be sure they were rejecting non-white authors? Blind chance? It seems a little unlikely.
Furthermore, it is terrifyingly easy to get discouraged. You write a story, it gets rejected … do you give up? Do you see the rejection as a chance to grow, to study what you did wrong, or do you try to find a way to blame it on someone else? Writers are egoists, plain and simple; writers need to learn to balance their egos with a realistic assessment of their strengths and weaknesses. Blaming a publisher for rejecting you because of your race – when said publisher has no way of knowing your race – is utterly unhelpful.
The blunt truth – which anyone outside Human Resources Departments and Social Justice Bully mobs will tell you – is that merit is far more important than appearance. Publishing is a business. A wise publisher will not choose his or her authors on race, gender or politics, but on their ability to write. I have been told (I have no idea if this is actually true) that young black men are disproportionally represented in American basketball, because they are taller and have better hand-eye coordination. Is there actually anything wrong with this? Only a complete nincompoop would insist on a racially-balanced team when there are games to be won.
When writing is concerned, merit is a relative concept. There is a military-SF writer I practically worship, but I don’t care for his fantasy, even though I love fantasy books. Some writers are simply more comfortable in some genres than others. And there’s a fantasy writer hundreds of people praise, but I don’t like him. And someone must have bought all those copies of Fifty Shades of Grey and all the other romance novels published over the last few years, even though I wouldn’t dream of wasting my hard-earned cash on them. One man’s favourite writer is another man’s despair. (“They publish this crap, yet I can’t get a publishing contract?”) No writer has 100% market penetration and no writer ever will.
A writer’s race is utterly irrelevant. Why? Because hardly anyone sees the author.
I have been reading science-fiction since I was five. In all of that time, I have only ever looked up an author’s appearance once. (I was going to meet him at a convention and I wanted to make sure I spoke to the right guy.) I couldn’t help seeing a few photographs of various authors, of course, but I never deliberately sought them out. Why should I? And if someone asked how many black authors I read, I honestly couldn’t answer … because, at base, I don’t know what most of my authors look like.
No one judges a book based on the author’s photograph on the dust jacket, assuming there is a photograph. They judge the book by its blurb, by its cover, by the words … by everything that actually matters.
We have been told that the shortage of non-white authors is a problem. And we have been told that publishers are going to make a greater attempt, in future, to publish works by non-white authors. And I can honestly say that this, far from being helpful, is going to be actively harmful.
The problem with ‘Affirmative Action’ is that it is corrosive. It assumes, largely incorrectly (and, in the case of publishing, almost certainly incorrectly), that businesses do not hire non-whites because they’re racists. People who believe in AA rarely realise that there might be other factors involved in the decision. Bob might not have gotten the job because he has an arrest record longer than my arm; Jim might not have gotten that promotion because he was beaten by a better candidate. Instead of working to tackle the root cause of the problem, they attempt to use the law to redress what they see as social injustice.
Their good intentions have completely predicable unintended consequences. Those who appear to gain from AA are resented by those who don’t gain from AA. If they happen to be poor at the job, their co-workers start whispering that the only reason they got the job was because of AA. Those who are promoted above their (current) level of competence don’t get the experience they need to do the job properly (and, if they believe they honestly earned the post, they get a nasty shock when they discover they’re not ready for it). And, worst of all, a poor AA hire drags down the reputation of everyone else who might have benefited from AA.
Humans are inherently tribal creatures. As I have blogged before, people have a tendency to divide the world into ‘us’ versus ‘them.’ ‘Us’ is a group of individuals; ‘them’ is a vast hive mind. This is obvious nonsense, but it’s the way people think. People who appear to have benefited from AA fit neatly into the ‘AA Tribe’ and whatever negative feelings a person has towards one of them will spill over onto the others. Why not? If one member of the tribe is bad, why not the others?
The thing that makes this so dangerous is that it is both an emotional and intellectual reaction and thus extremely difficult to disprove. Classic racism can be discredited because, at base, it is a purely emotional reaction. But dislike based on the sense (perhaps correctly) that your boss was promoted because he/she/whatever is a member of a protected class is much harder to dismiss, because when the emotional reaction fades the intellectual reaction is still there, proving that you are actually right. Your boss is incompetent. You know you should have got the job. And why didn’t you? He’s a member of the ‘AA Tribe.’
And the fact you KNOW this makes it impossible for someone to talk you out of it.
To introduce AA – in any form – to publishing will be utterly disastrous. If an author is marketed as a ‘non-white author’ (however described) it will convince readers that the only reason they were published was because they ticked a diversity checkbox. Particularly, of course, if they don’t like the book. You can market an author, perfectly legitimately, as a SF author, a fantasy author, a romance author, a detective author … you can’t market an author by something that has no bearing on writing skill. And if you do, a single bad author – in the estimation of the readers – will damage the rest. This is not logical, but it is often true.
And in an industry that is practically tailor-made to remove race from the equation!
The people who asserted that ‘people of colour swept the 2016 Hugo Awards’ were essentially missing the point. The Hugo Awards are not (were not?) diversity awards – they’re awarded for excellence in SF/Fantasy. Or at least they should be. Skin colour and gender has nothing to do with writing skill – the gloating over the awards going to non-whites strongly suggested that the Sad Puppies had a point all along, that awards were being handed out for factors other than merit, factors beyond the writer’s control. And this threatens to poison the careers of writers who deserve their awards.
It’s a radical suggestion, I’m sure, but maybe – as fans – we should concentrate on what unites us, rather than divides us. I am a Babylon 5 and Doctor Who fan. I have something in common with every other Babylon 5 and Doctor Who fan. Does it matter, does it really matter, if the fan next to me at the con is black or female or wearing a cosplay outfit that conceals everything? Of course not! But talking about diversity only reminds us of the differences between us. (Just as managers have discovered that mandatory diversity training in large organisations sends racism, suspicion and general discontent skyrocketing.)
I don’t care if a writer is white or black, male or female, young or old or anything else that can be used to draw lines between people. All I care about is being entertained. And frankly, I think that’s true for everyone.
Now, if you want to be a serious writer, how should you proceed?
First, write a manuscript. Set yourself a goal – 100’000 words, perhaps – and write out a story. The first time is never easy, but keep going. Try to make sure the book is completely self-contained, even if you do plan a long series.
Second, when the book is complete, submit it. Find a publisher who takes slush submissions and submit your book. Follow their instructions to the letter, even if they want you to write everything in an obscure font. You do NOT want to give the first readers any excuse to reject your book (and thousands of books get rejected because the author didn’t follow instructions) or to dislike you personally. I was told, once, about a writer who noted that he would sue the publisher if his book wasn’t published. There is no way such a lawsuit would actually get into court, let alone end in anything other than total humiliation.
Third, write another book. And another. And another. If you’re anything like me, you’ll get your first rejection letter midway through the third book. Keep going anyway. The average writer needs to write at least a million words before producing anything publishable. That’s ten 100’000-word manuscripts.
Fourth, when you reach the fifth or sixth manuscript, hire a consulting editor (there are some links on my site) to do a conceptual edit. This person will be savage – and that is precisely what you want. The edit will tell you what you’re doing wrong and how to fix it. Learn from this. Then continue writing manuscripts.
Fifth, when you reach the tenth manuscript, you may be getting somewhere with the publishers. You can also try looking for an agent at this time. If not, start putting your later books up on Amazon Kindle. (NOT the first manuscripts.) Try to use this to build up a reputation as an indie writer. Prepare yourself for critical remarks because you will get them; keep a lid on your temper and DO NOT reply. There are no shortage of stories about indie authors behaving badly. Don’t be one of them.
Sixth … keep going.
It’s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to fall in the trap of believing you’ll never make it, or that ‘they’ are keeping you down, but keep going. It’s worth it.
And no one will care about your race, your gender or your creed … only about your ability to write.