Why we celebrate that so many women and writers of colour won Hugos this year

As extensively discussed in a series of four posts to date, the winners of the 2016 Hugo Awards have been announced, the rabid puppies have been resoundingly defeated and all four fiction categories went to women writers, three of them women of colour. This is a reason to celebrate.

In the puppy camp, the most common reaction after “The Hugos are dead. Long live the Dragon Awards” seems to be “But the winners are just political affirmative action choices. It’s not as if those books and stories could be any good.”

Early on Sunday morning German time, shortly after the Hugo ceremony had concluded, I made a fairly innocuous tweet pointing out that the Hugo winners in the four fiction categories were all women, three of them women of colour. In the heat of the moment, I even got the number of winners of colour wrong – I initially said “two”, not “three” – as Patrick Nielsen-Hayden, the leader of the non-existent Hugo cabal himself*, pointed out to me on Twitter.

The tweet got a lot of retweets and a few nice responses. I also got some not so nice responses by butthurt puppies who accused me of voting only for social justice reasons, whereas they only want good books and don’t care about the gender and the race of the author at all. At the time – it was five a.m. on a Sunday morning, after all – I had neither the inclination nor the energy to debate angry puppies.

So here is my belated response to all angry puppies who claim that I only celebrated the fact that four women won Hugos in the four fiction categories for reasons of social justice:

First of all, only one of the four winners in the four fiction categories was actually my first choice, though my top picks were all women and I ranked the eventual winners fairly high in every category. But even though not all of my top picks won, I’m still very happy with the outcome of the 2016 Hugos, particularly in the fiction categories. Because the fact that – for the first time in Hugo history – we have four women winners in the fiction categories, three of them women of colour, is a reason to celebrate.

Now speculative fiction in general and the Hugo Awards in particular have been heavily dominated by white men for a long time. The Hugos had already been in existence for fifteen years by the time that the first woman won a Hugo Award in a fiction category – Anne McCaffrey for “Weyr Search”, the novella that eventually became half of the first book in the Pern series, in 1968. Two years later, in 1970, the Hugos finally had their first winner of colour, Samuel R. Delany for the short story “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones”. Coincidentally, in the same year, the first woman also won a Hugo in the best novel category, Ursula K. Le Guin for The Left Hand of Darkness. By the late 1970s/early 1980s finally, we had several women nominees and even winners every year due to the rise of feminist SF, though writers of colour were still thin on the ground, much less writers of colour not named Delany.

However, the number of women nominated for the Hugos dropped off again in the 1980s, as feminist SF gave way to Cyberpunk and leading Cyberpunks did their best to – knowingly or not – characterise the previous decade’s SFF, much of it written by women, as “boring and not worth remembering”, as Jeanne Gomoll points out in her Open Letter to Joanna Russ. The number of women nominees continued to rise and fall in the following three decades, while the numbers of writers of colour nominated for the Hugo remained tiny until very recently. And let’s not forget that as late as 2007, the Hugo shortlist in the four fiction categories was almost entirely male, except for a single female nominee, Naomi Novik, and – at least as far as I can tell – entirely white. Meanwhile, a quick check of my personal collection reveals more than two dozen SFF novels by women that came out in 2007 alone, including works by Catherine Asaro, Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews (okay, it’s a husband/wife team, but still), Diana Gabaldon, J.D. Robb, Rachel Caine, Kim Harrison, Linnea Sinclair, Richelle Mead, Charlaine Harris, Shanna Swendson and many others.

Looking beyond awards, male SFF writers still get more promotion and reviews. Display tables at bookstores and promo mails and newsletters still overwhelmingly push books by male authors, almost all of whom are white. All-male and all-white table of contents and recommendation lists still happen all the time, though both seem to be getting less common than a couple of years ago (or maybe women and writers of colour just got tired of pointing out the issue every single time). Women writers are still told by publishers not to bother submitting, because science fiction by women doesn’t sell. Earlier this month, the Fireside Fiction report revealed that black writers were heavily underrepresented in speculative short fiction markets. Every single tactic Joanna Russ outlined in How to Suppress Women’s Writing is still being used against women, writers of colour, LGBT writers, etc… and both sets of puppies are some of the worst offenders.

So in the light of this history alone, four women, three of them women of colour, one of them an international writer in translation, winning the Hugo Award in the four fiction categories is worth celebrating. Because it’s still so very rare that women and people of colour writing SFF are recognised by the big genre awards. Indeed, as N.K. Jemisin points out in this interview with Alexandra Alter in the New York Times, she is the first black writer and the first woman of colour to win the Hugo Award for best novel, since since previous black Hugo winners Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler only won in the short fiction categories.

The most common argument that comes up whenever someone dares to point out that a table of contents, a recommendation list or an awards shortlist is very white and very male or whenever someone – gasp – starts a challenge to read only works by women or writers of colour for a certain period is, “I only read good books. I don’t pay attention to the gender and skin colour of the author and if you do so, you’re the real racist/sexist.”

Amazingly, when you ask these readers of “good books only” to list the last few books they read or take a look at their bookshelves, you’ll usually find white man after white man after white man. Because for some reason, what these people consider “good books” are inevitably written by white men. No matter how statistically unlikely that is.

As mentioned above, books by white men are promoted more, reviewed more, pushed more by bookstores. As a result, an SFF reader is far more likely to run across a book by a white men than a book by a woman or a writer of colour. A lot of people also have unconscious biases against books by women or writers of colour. This is how bookshelves and recommendation lists full of white men happen, even with otherwise well intentioned people. This is also why popular vote awards like the David Gemmell Legend Award regularly end up with all white, all male shortlists.

Of course, you also get those who claim they would love to read more books by women and writers of colour, they simply have problems finding good ones, because women just write YA and paranormal romance and urban fantasy, because writers of colour write about racism all the time, because LGBT writers write about LGBT characters and so on. For an example, check out this post from February 2016 at an SFF review blog, where the blogger laments that he would love to read more books by women, but publishers keep sending him paranormal romance and YA (which he doesn’t read, but knows is crap). And anyway, feminists and social justice warriors are out to get him, blah, blah.

To be fair, the blogger actually did try to do better, since browsing recent reviews revealed several books by women and at least one by a writer of colour. Nor do I want to single out this one reviewer, since he is but one example of a larger problem. And yes, everybody has the right to read what they like. But if you run a review blog or edit an anthology or write a recommendation list and it’s all white men, then you need to do better.

Another really common argument (so common that it shows up several times in the comments to the above linked post) that always comes up whenever anybody dares to point out that women and writers of colour are underrepresented in magazines, publisher’s catalogues and tables of content, that they are less promoted and less reviewed is “Well, women and people of colour just aren’t into SFF. They don’t write it, they don’t submit it, they don’t care about SFF. Publishers can’t publish what isn’t being submitted.”

This argument is – saying it politely – bullshit. Women have always read and written SFF. People of colour have always read and written SFF. LGBT people have always read and written SFF. People from beyond the US/UK have always read and written SFF. Women, people of colour, LGBT people, international people have always been part of the genre. However, they are less likely to be published in the first place, less likely to be reprinted, less likely to show up in histories of the genre and lists of influential writers, more likely to be forgotten and erased, as Kari Sperring points out in this article on Katherine Kurtz. The women SFF writers of the Golden Age have been dismissed as “silly little housewives writing silly little stories set in galactic suburbia”, the feminist SF writers of the 1970s were redefined as boring and relegated to a memory hole by the cyberpunks.

This does not mean that there is no submission gap. If women, writers of colour and LGBT writers are constantly given the message that the stories they tell aren’t welcome or that their stories are not SFF at all, they will eventually stop submitting. Maybe they’ll go to a more welcoming genre (romance, YA, urban fiction, comics and graphic novels). Maybe they’ll say “Screw all that” and go indie. Maybe they’ll become discouraged and stop altogether. P. Djeli Clark, N.K. Jemisin and L.E.H. Light all go into this with regard to the Fireside Fiction report on the underrepresentation of black writers, but you could apply many of the same points to women, LGBT writers or international writers. And the puppy wars of the past few years have contributed to this hostile atmosphere, since several of the leading puppies are on record that they want anything that does not match their narrow idea of what SFF should be cast out of the genre.

Occasionally, you even get something like this column, which argues that the 18th and 19th century novel was created as a leisure time pursuit for middle class women. But science fiction is different, because science fiction was not intended to be escapist literature for bored housewives, but literature that engages with science and technology and the real world and is therefore aimed at men. And now women are invading the genre, so the men have to keep them out via rituals of exclusion such as filling SFF with misogyny and rape scenes. To be fair, I don’t think the author actually agrees with this, he merely points out the mechanism.

So considering how much the deck is still stacked against women and writers of colour, four women, three of them women of colour and one of them an international writer, winning the Hugo in the four fiction categories is a damned good reason to celebrate. As is the fact that women writers, two of them women of colour, won in all Nebula categories except best dramatic presentation this year.

And no, the fact that women, including several women of colour, have won many of the major SFF awards this year does not mean that straight white men have been banished from the genre. For starters, there is the fifth winner in a fiction category at the 2016 Hugo Awards, namely the Campbell Award for the best new writer. Which in 2016 was won by Andy Weir, a white man who wrote a very traditional hard SF novel about another white man stuck on Mars. And another white man, Adrian Tchaikovsky, just won the Arthur C. Clarke Award. So yes, white men can still win awards. But they’re no longer the only ones.

Besides, we can no more banish straight white men from the genre (nor would I want to, since I enjoy quite a few books by straight white men) than reactionaries can banish women, writers of colour, LGBt writers and international writers. Because science fiction and fantasy belong to everybody and genre awards are finally beginning to reflect this fact.

ETA: Someone at File 770 linked to this lovely WorldCon recap by Monica Valentinelli, who points out that the sad and rabid puppies and other genre jerks (cause the puppies don’t have a monopoly on that) try to hurt people and keep them from making the art they want to make. However, the 2016 Hugo Awards have been a massive rejection of these attempts.

Let’s close with a quote:

Everyone deserves to see themselves as the hero, to play as the hero, to be the hero. And this, my friends and dear readers, is why the Hugos were so significant this year. It’s not just because love won, it’s because the garbage fires do not stop us from making the art we want to make, nor does it stop those who are making great art be recognized for their efforts.

*No puppies, this is not a confirmation. There is no Hugo cabal and has never been one.

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2 Responses to Why we celebrate that so many women and writers of colour won Hugos this year

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