Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Formalism, Diversity, and Lion Pride

I have a confession to make.

I never intentionally sought out diversity in my publishing house. Not in the authors, anyway. I certainly looked for diverse stories, for unique characters and different spins on old ideas. But as far as the faces behind the stories go, I didn’t go to any great lengths to ensure that our publishing house represented various races, cultures, religions, or sexual orientations. I never once put out a call for stories from or for a specific group of people. I have never signed, or rejected, an author based on the color of their skin or what they believe. It wasn’t that diversity wasn’t, or isn’t, important to me, because it is. Understanding, respecting, and allowing yourself to be influenced by those whose experience is not the same as yours is necessary,  not only to be a viable part of an industry known for pushing boundaries and challenging conventional thought, but even more importantly, to be a compassionate, intelligent, and all around decent human being. However, I believed, perhaps idealistically, that if I were open to whatever may lie out there, conducted my business in a forward-thinking and honest manner, and accepted the good stories that came my way, diversity would happen on its own. I’m not saying that this happens in every situation. I am ecstatic that, in this case, that is exactly what happened.

We now represent authors from six different countries. Six! Our authors are African-American, Asian-American, Caucasian, Indian, Italian, and Hungarian, among others. We work with authors who are Wiccan, Christian, Atheistic, Hindu, Agnostic, and Muslim. This, to me, is incredible on so many levels. We are a small press. We don’t represent a gigantic number of authors, so while I understand that we still have a long way to go, I am proud of what we have done. While I struggle with technology, and mourn the fact that so many people use the instant, worldwide access that we have to bully and harangue others, I have to admit that living in a time in which I can communicate in real time with authors halfway around the world, who I would have never had a chance to meet otherwise, is amazing. More than that, so much more, is the fact that we are able to not only reach out to a larger number of people, but to show them the world in a way that they may not have seen before. Because we meet everyone, often quite literally, where they stand, we are able to give people the chance to achieve their dreams, who may not have had such. I am so proud that this is what we Lions stand for.

But, this saddens me as well. This saddens me because this dynamic seems fairly rare in the world as a whole. The recent #oscarssowhite controversy, as well as all of the rhetoric and platforms being spewed by various parties in this election cycle shows me that we have so, so much farther to go as a people. I was curious, and decided to do some research to figure out what the variable was in this situation.

My first thought was that perhaps it was the genres we favor. While we are purveyors of outsider fiction, fiction that doesn’t fit nicely into any one genre, we tend towards speculative fiction. I know firsthand that, infighting and squabbling aside, geeks do tend to be a rather inclusive group. So, I thought perhaps that was how we’d encountered this phenomenon. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the case. In a blog post written in 2014, Jason T Low reviewed the top 100 grossing science fiction movies to discover ridiculous amounts of underrepresentation regarding gender, sexual orientation, race, and physical differences. Layne Haymont of FantasyBook Review discussed a similar trend in Fantasy books. So, it appeared that my first hypothesis was incorrect.

My second thought was that it is possible that the world, suffering as we do from “Not in My Backyard” Syndrome, allows for minorities to have voices, but perhaps not faces. In other words, perhaps the masses are more comfortable in those not in the majority are heard but not seen. Understand, please, that I am condemning, not condoning this mindset, I have known the race, culture, and religion of most authors before I signed them and was encouraged and excited to add new voices to the group, but I understand that, as incredulous as I am at this concept, this is not an approach universally held. However, a brief look at The Hollywood Writers Report and The HollywoodDiversity Report show that while small gains in both pay and representation have been made in some areas, ground has been lost in others. So, it appears that wasn’t the case, either.

I finally gained a little bit of insight in this article originally published in “The Guardian.’ In it the author, Kavita Das, speaks of “formalism.” Formalism is the process in which authors, particularly minority authors, are expected to follow a particular formula in their writing, and to avoid themes or styles that are specific to their identity, experience, or situation. This can be problematic, as many publishers will either not be able to understand or identify with the story being told, or will feel that the work will not appeal to a large enough audience.

And that’s damned shame. It was one of the most poignant examples of majority privilege that I’ve seen. I’m not sure how people can accept worlds of elves and orcs and robots but not black elves and orcs and robots. And while Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and most recently the screen adaptation of the Gunslinger have gone a ways to introduce characters of various races and sexual orientations , even then the authors were Caucasian and so the story has the majority perspective built in. What is literature for if not to expose us to ideas and situations that we have never experienced?

I understand that we have a long way to go. Not just we as a house, but we as a society. In this moment, though, I’m  proud to be a Lion.

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