Today, for the first time since the whole Strunk and White madness erupted (chronicled here for anybody who hasn’t read it yet), my top search string for the day is something other than some combination of Strunk, White and fanfiction.
Instead, the top search string for today is “woman tired of being pigeon holed”
Short answer (I usually tend to interpret search terms as questions): Yeah, hell right, we are.
Longer answer: I’m not sure I have one. Nonetheless, this is as good an excuse as any for another women and speculative fiction post. Yeah, I know, because you’re all not tired of that subject already.
Anyway, let’s take a look at a few links I gathered in a draft post and then never got around to posting due to the whole Strunk and White thing and launching Pegasus Pulp:
The women in SF discussion is still going strong (when is it ever not?) with contributions by Tricia Sullivan, Liz Williams, Cheryl Morgan who also offers some actual data here, Aliette de Bodard and Jeff Vandermeer. Meanwhile, Gustavo Bondoni thinks the whole discussion isn’t worth having. Which isn’t anything new, because he has been thinking that at least since last year.
However, the post that struck me as the most interesting in this discussion is this post from the World SF blog by Singaporean writer Joyce Chng who points out that if women writers from the US and UK have problems, try being a female (or indeed any, cause it’s not necessarily easier for men) SFF writer from a country that is not the US/UK/Canada/Australia.
There is also a follow-up roundtable discussion of international women in SF at the World SF blog with women writers from Barbados, France, Hungary, Russia, Singapore and the US.
When I read those two post, my initial reaction was a hearty: “Yes, this.” Because my own experiences as an English language writer not based in the US/UK mirror the experiences of the writers in the article.
There are the subtle and not so subtle assumptions that your grasp of the English language will be flawed, because you are not a native speaker (Read what Juliette Wade has to say about that here). This must be even more painful if English actually is your first language, because you come from one of the many countries around the world where English is an official language due to the legacy of British imperialism. The assumption that you are a bad writer because you don’t adhere to random (American) taboos regarding the use of adverbs, the passive voice, complicated syntax or anything else that is considered “bad writing” by the edict of Messrs Strunk and White. The assumption that your characters and setting will be either too exotic for Anglo-American audiences or conversely not exotic enough. The assumption that you are only supposed to write a certain kind of story, because that’s the sort of story expected from someone of your ethnic and national background (I would probably have no problems selling an urban fantasy about evil Nazi werewolves in Berlin – provided I would actually want to write one). The feeling that all the discussions about diversity within the SFF genre, while valuable and important, are still largely US-centric and don’t address your situation at all.
When I first started submitting, I was always very open about my nationality. In those days of postal submissions, I figured editors could tell where I was from anyway just by looking at the colourful stamps on the envelope. And besides, I naively thought “As long as the story is good, what does it matter where the writer is from?” In those days, a few of my stories were set in Germany (I never wrote very many German set stories, because Germany isn’t all that interesting to me). Others were set in Belgium or the Netherlands (I wrote urban fantasy set in Antwerp before I even knew the term “urban fantasy”). I wrote SF featuring Germans, Poles, Dutchmen, Finns, Danes, Greeks, Turks, etc… in space. And none of them sold.
Of course, it’s likely that those stories didn’t sell because they simply weren’t very good. In fact, it’s very likely. However, over time I also began to suspect that my nationality and the unconventional settings were an additional strike against me. Because why would anybody want to buy an urban fantasy set in the secret underground world of Antwerp or a fantasy about river spirits in the Ardennes, when some ninety percent of the readership wouldn’t even be able to locate those places on a map. Of course, as an international reader I was always expected to be interested in urban fantasies set in Milwaukee or Cleveland – cities I can locate on a map but don’t know anything about otherwise. But the reverse obviously wasn’t true.
The fact is that the English language publishing industry – both SFF and in general – is mainly concentrated in and focused on the US with the UK in a distant second place and Canada and Australia in a far off third. Anybody else, regardless where we’re from and whether English is our first language or not, is “other” in the eyes of the English language publishing industry. And even Australians report feeling discriminated against by the US publishing industry. Even British writers have spellings and words changed to suit the American market.
Of course, things have gotten better in recent years. The snail mail submission with all its attendant problems and high postage costs is increasingly a thing of the past with more and more markets accepting e-mail submissions (and a market would have to be exceptionally good for me to bother with snail mail submissions these days). More and more writers who are not from the US/UK/Canada/Australia are breaking into the Anglo-American market. In the SFF genre, we have Lauren Beukes, Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Nalini Singh, Karen Lord, Ann Aguirre, Lavie Tidhar, Gustavo Bondoni, K.S. Augustin, Joyce Chng, all of whom hail from outside the US/UK. If we include writers who live in the US/UK, but are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, we can also add Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, Tobias Buckell, Ekaterina Sedia, Ilona Andrews, Vera Nazarian, Alma Alexander, Cornelia Funke, Helen Oyeyemi, Gennita Low, Shweta Narayan, Amal El-Mohtar and probably a whole bunch of others I have forgotten right now. Apologies if I accidentally put someone in the wrong category. Not to mention that there also seem to be more translations available in the US/UK in recent years, though the translation quota is still extremely low compared to say Germany.
Not that other genres are necessarily better off, as evidenced in the post by crime writer Tess Gerritsen on the Murderati blog: Tess Gerritsen is Asian American and describes how she was told point blank as a beginning writer that non-white heroes don’t sell and are the kiss of death in the marketplace. But now as the author of multiple bestsellers, some of which inspired a network TV show, she is finally free to write about Asian characters.
This is another, little discussed advantage of indie publishing, namely that it allows all of those non-mainstream voices, whether members of a marginalized group in the US/UK or international writers, to be heard and that it allows books to get published which probably wouldn’t have had a chance in traditional publishing.
Of course, indie publishing isn’t always friendly to the international writer either. Barnes and Noble still isn’t open to international indie-publishers. Amazon is but there are still disadvantages, e.g. I can’t get the royalties for my US sales transferred electronically, even though I have a US-dollar account with a German bank (Since I’m a translator, I sometimes have customers paying in US-dollars), which means that I have to accumulate 100 US-dollar of royalties before I get a cheque and then have to pay processing fees to my bank. I’m lucky that I still have a UK bank account from my student days or I would have the same problem there as well.
So yes, things are definitely getting better for international writers, but there’s still a long way to go.