October 30th, 2006

Jin Shei Cover from sgreer

Pride and the other kinds of prejudice

In the discussion concerned with the feminist cabal presently in control of the publishing industry, referred to earlier in this blog, green_knight wonders why THAT blog and not THIS one was the lightning rod that dres so much blogosphere commentary.

And it's a good question.

One of the reasons, I suspect, is that the Feminism Cabal Conspiracy is so palpably ludicrous that it absolutely begged to be shredded, and was - by a bunch of people, both by professionals in the publishing industry (who know the truth of the matter) and by other aspiring writers (who are astute enough to suspect that truth). The other - well, it's less easy to point a water pistol at and laugh while it stands dripping.

The truth is, publishing is a helluva fragmented place, and it is like that because no two readers will EVER read quite the same book. Genres are probably a marketing tool that a desperate industry evolved to deal with at least a modicum of pigeonholing, allowing them to market fiction at target audiences marginally smaller than "everybody" - and as far as that goes, they can be useful indeed. But like any tool, classification can be a good servant and a bad master, and in the case of the second blog it's very much being the latter, assuming that books by black writers are only of interest to black readers. Please note that there is no underlying assumption that books by white writers - whatever their subject - would be of interest to a "white" readership, because there is no such thing as a "white" readership. They're treated as that fractured demographic that rules the publishing world, and the "White" readership contains men reading Louis L'Amour or Tom Clancy, women reading Danielle Steel or Margaret Atwood, and the Enlightened Ones who read Ursula Le Guin, China Mieville, and the like (okay, I had to get my OWN prejudices in here, just a little, didn't I? *grin*). And thank GOd for that, because if white writers are only to write white vanilla fiction, "The Secrets of Jin Shei" would never have been allowed to exist at all, would it? But the problem is when such genres start to consist of Literary, Western, Mystery, Science Fiction... and Black.

There are people out there who are utterly content to read books about Martians or about aliens from planet Tau Centauri X993d9S, aliens who have pink tentacles and parrot beaks and communicate in a language which only a Namibian Bushman might understand. These readers will happily read about such aliens, and part of the reason, I suspect, is that they are so utterly "not-us" that it is easy to completely distance oneself from them and if they do something we consider "nice" we are proud that we can "understand" them and if they do not we are able to shrug our shoulders and simply say, "oh well, they're alien, what do you expect?" The real problem lies when we are expected to read about - and empathise with, and understand - books about characters who are only marginally "not-us" - characters who have the same number of legs and lungs and eyes and fingers, but who speak a language we don't understand, who wear clothes we disapprove of, who worship Gods we don't believe in and who grew up in circumstances so radically different from our own that it might as well have BEEN that Tau planet place. What have I got in common with a ghetto kid from the Bronx or that sad half-orphaned Malawian baby who was completely invisible in his poverty and his poverty-stricken orphanage until Madonna sprinkled fairy dust on him and made him a superstar? What have I got in common with Madonna, for that matter? What have I got in common with some toothless pilgrim in Tibet, or a soldier on any front on any war ever fought? What have I got in common with people who are humann-like-me but who have known real hunger (which I never have) or real despair (which I've never had cause for) or real loss? What do I have in common with anyone at all who doesn't live in a house with indoor plubming and flushing toilets and clean water at the turn of a spigot?

And yet there are novels written about many such people, and they are novels that I would read - novels which, if they are written competently and well, I would love. I do not assume or insist that the author of a novel about a missionary family in the COngo has experienced living in a hut in the jungle, or that the author of a novel about World War Three has actually lived it, or that the author of a novel about a ghost is dead. WHy then would I expect or assume or insist that an author of a novel about black people must of necessity be black? WHy would anyone assume that?

I don't have the answer - or at least not an easy one. I know that there are other people like me, people who will read a piece of writing and judge it on the writing and not on the identity of the writer who produced it. And it smarts, as a writer, to think that my peers out there are denied an audience because they happen to have hair that curls tighter than mine does or because their skin produces more melanin. I would not expect to find a bookstore "ghetto" devoted only to Asian writers - and yet there IS a shelf in my local big chain bookstore which is devoted to African American literature. Sure, I'd read that stuff if it was well written and interesting - but it's sequsetered, way out there, and not even I - who reads voraciously and widely - can run around an ENTIRE bookstore that covers a whole city block and cherry pick titles which catch my eye. And because they are so sequestered, I would assume that there are titles which will NEVER catch my eye. I don't have an answer, other than to say, I WILL cat my net wider in bookstores in the future - but I am one person, and this is not enough, not enough by a long shot.

I speak from some experience, genre-wise, having produced a book that has been described as "mainstream fantasy" by at least one reviewer and which rather defeats - or, as my lovely agent once put it, "transcends" - genre. This means that shelving in bookstores tends to be in the "literature" section of the shop rather than in the "fantasy" section, which meant that the fantasy fans who heard about it by word of mouth had to go hunt the thing rather than wander into their local book emporium and readily find it to hand. But in one sense that worked FOR me because the book was perforce cast into a wider pool - there's a readership valve in a given bookstore which seems to function in a one-way direction - fantasy readers WILL cross from the fantasy section and look for other reading material in the mainstream shelves whereas very few, if any, readers will do the reverse. In my case, it was a question of "which part of the store will this fit best?" This does mean that one of the cavils of the second blog - that books are shelved cheek-by-jowl without regard for teh KIND of book that they are simply because of the identity of the author - can actually be beneficial in one sense, because potential readers DO have that wider selection available - I mean, I am constantly shelved next to Isabel ALlende, Sherman Alexie and Louisa May Alcott, none of whom (well, maybe Allende in some guises) are THAT similar to my own work and whose closeness to me on the shelf helps no reader unfamiliar with any of these writers' work or my own to make an informed decision.

Perhaps Amazon has it right after all. Just go in and plug in what you're interested in, and it spreads what it has before you in a glittering array. No confusing shelves to go messing through to find what you're looking for.

I don't know the answer. I haven't seen the future. I know that it is one thing to be proud of who and what you are, and quite another to find that pride turned inside out and trotted out as some form of prejudice or another which means that you can only assert that pride in a given set of constricted circumstances or a pre-chosen audience. But speaking for myself - I'm proud of being a WRITER, not a white writer or a writer of a particular genre, or anything else that defines me too closely. I write, that's what I do, and I'm proud of that, as an accomplishment, as a gift, as a way of life. I hope that it is THAT, and that alone, that defines who I am in the eyes of my readers - and that those people who have said that they have enjoyed my work might have said the same thing if I were sitting here typing this blog entry with pink tentacles oozing ichor.

The writing's the thing. Identity matters, of course - but let it not be the means by which writers are classified, enjoyed or read. The writing is the thing.