From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

Aryan Elves and Damsels Distressed: a Librarian-Writer’s View of Bias in American SF

This week is International Blog Against Racism Week, an annual event where bloggers talk about their experience with racism, eliminating racism, and promote education and activism. We began the discussion of this piece on August 8th’s Blog for a Beer. Click here to read those comments. Further discussion happens below.

Most budding librarians believe that censorship is wrong, and this idea is enshrined in the American Library Association’s Library Bill of Rights. As a profession, we celebrate Banned Books Week, promote radical works, and generally defend the unpopular. At some point in our training, however, we learn about collection development, the process by which a library’s holdings are expanded. What we learn, and grapple with if we are conscientious, is that what some might call censorship occurs automatically when we select new materials.

A major practical consideration in expanding a library’s holdings is item cost, and rare is the library that need not limit its acquisitions. We typically spread our budget over the year, both so that we can buy new works as they become available and to ensure that we don’t end up with thousands of dollars to spend two days before the purchasing deadline. Buying books is fun, but trying to purchase responsibly and quickly is hair-raising. One worries about overlooking important books, or about not spending the entire budget and facing a cut the next fiscal year. For these reasons, we rely on various guidelines in deciding what to buy.

One of the most important principles that librarians follow in expanding collections is that of propriety. I’m not talking bustles or corsets, but about whether a given work is appropriate for the library’s community. We use many tools to measure this, from patron request forms, to historical circulation patterns, to the mission statement of the library (e.g., is it to “educate” or “serve” patrons?). In essence, we must divine whether our patrons want it, need it, and are going to use it. And here we approach the general question of bias in American SF, particularly as expressed by author Ashok K. Banker on his blog, Confessions of an Epic Indian.

Mr. Banker accuses the American SF community of racism, sexism, bigotry, cultural insensitivity, and all manner of biases, both in its practices and its literature. That his general argument is true is, at least in part, beyond question. The pages of SF are replete with sexist, white, male, imperialists who go forth and conquer, whether nations, worlds, or galaxies.

To cite one obvious example, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings has been scoured for signs of bias by numberless critics, and it cannot rationally be denied that they are present. From the pseudo-Aryan elves to the largely invisible women, this SF classic is a textbook case of that which Mr. Banker decries. That Tolkien was English is immaterial here, given his incalculable impact on contemporary American SF, particularly fantasy.

The rub, however, is that many SF readers crave Tolkien’s offspring, along with those of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein, H. P. Lovecraft, and other authors guilty of the evils Mr. Banker names. For all their flaws, and however many biases may be encoded in their works, these authors have resonated deeply with American readers since the Golden Age of pulp SF. While it would be untrue to say that all SF readers want is the next Dune or Harry Potter, and while readers shouldn’t be denied the chance to expand their repertoire, typically they step from leaf to leaf or twig to twig, not jump from tree to tree.

One of librarianship’s terms of art is “reader’s advisory,” which amounts to making suggestions to readers about what they might like to read based on their general reading preferences. Shelves upon shelves of books have been written on this subject, providing synopses and codifying genres for librarians who don’t have time to read the 10,000 books that they would have to in order to make informed recommendations. Efforts have been made to automate the process, but choosing what to read next still is not easy. When a patron comes to the reference desk and asks for “something like David Farland,” it’s usually unhelpful to direct her to Samuel Delany, though sometimes Ursula K. Le Guin might be the answer, or perhaps these days David Anthony Durham.

As librarians must be sensitive to patrons’ desires when buying, selecting one thing even as they skip another, so also publishers and editors must be sensitive to the desires of potential customers. While I am no oracle, I think that if the big SF publishers dedicated their lists for a year to the kind of fiction Mr. Banker seems to crave, American literary SF would implode. Consumer dollars would instead flow even further to non-literary realms, from tabletop gaming, to movie tickets, to DVD sets of television shows.

SF readers want the particular stories that they want, not genre regardless of story. There is room in the genre for nuanced explorations of race, class, gender, and so on, but the field as it stands is reflective of the bulk of readers’ desires. While publishers can take measured risks on new voices and non-mainstream authors, and should do so for the vitality of SF, they are money-making entities providing product to a market, not democratically elected groups with an obligation to a constituency.

Speaking of the market, libraries have financial limits, and so do SF fans. The arrival of Internet bookstores and the kind of buying accounted for in economic theories like The Long Tail have led many to conclude that SF publishing (and publishing generally) is not a zero sum game, and that there is a market for everything and everyone who wishes to publish. Even if this may be right in the long term, I suspect that it’s wrong in the short term, and that’s what has the greatest impact on what gets published, as well as on authors personally.

If I paid too much for gas this month and can’t afford Elizabeth Hand’s latest, I’ll be able to buy it online two, five, or maybe twenty years from now, and that makes me a happy reader. Among authors, however, it’s widely regarded that sales of a new book in the first day of release, first week, and first six weeks (depending on format) each have a major impact on long-term viability, for the book and sometimes for the author’s career. If a book doesn’t sell well early on, for whatever reason, it can have disastrous repercussions, and so readers’ choices and the number of options available to them become important.

Readers make choices about what to buy based on available funds and that which they think will give them the most pleasure. They generally don’t buy to be told, implicitly or explicitly, that their worldview is fundamentally wrong. They look for appealing cover art, titles that sound familiar or intriguing, and very often they want to read what they have read before, knowing it will offer escape and solace. Historically this has made things difficult for SF readers who aren’t white, male, straight, etc., who have found fewer protagonists who look like themselves or stories relevant to their own. The problem is especially pronounced for readers of color, faced with endless Dark Lords and their alternately swarthy or inscrutable minions.

As Mr. Banker did not state positively what he wants from American SF (which, in all fairness, he says that he loves), only pointed out its deficiencies, I will assume that he would like to see a non-racist, non-sexist, non-bigoted, non-culturally insensitive SF ascendant. In this world, an egalitarian, humane Pacifism would quietly, non-violently beat the tar out of Manifest Destiny and Western militarism at the cash register six days a week and twice on Sundays. That this in no way describes contemporary American SF is not accidental.

American SF looks the way it does because it’s what the majority of readers want. America is changing rapidly right now, not fast enough for some, too quickly for others, but at root the market reflects the desires of readers as manifested via their wallets. I am not implying that my fellow SF readers and writers are a pack of racist, sexist, bigoted cultural insensitives, but we are embedded in our culture and cannot help reflecting our personal experiences of it. As Terry Brooks did not write Patternmaster, so Octavia Butler did not write The Sword of Shannara.

Suggesting that the American SF community ought collectively to elevate itself is about as productive as a condemnation by the stereotypical tight-assed, bun-wearing, senescent librarian of all that “trash fiction,” when really we ought to be reading Dickens or Proust. Moreover, as Guy Gavriel Kay said in his moving remembrance of Robert Jordan, the successes of major SF authors do much to make the minor(ity) possible, by the profits they bring publishers, the visibility they bring to the genre, and their personal patronage. Mr. Kay spoke of fantasy, but the point goes for all of SF.

Due to my limited experience and non-minority status, I cannot personally address the question of bias in the workings of the industry. What I will say is that I am grateful for the Internet. Without it, we would not have access to the blogs, forums, sites, and online journals where some of the debates Mr. Banker references have played out. Even if not all is well in American SF, more of the dirty laundry is aired than in years past, and we have a greater chance than ever to address problems if only we have the courage to speak up.

The question I have for those who would prefer a different SF is this: what do you want, and how are you going to get it? My frustration with Mr. Banker’s post was exceeded only by my curiosity. What sustainable alternative exists, now or in future, and how will it come about? Can it be created without alienating most of SF, and if not, does that matter? Even as the writer in me is most concerned with writing well and getting published, the reader in me wants both literary challenges and comfort food. The librarian in me believes that we must make room for everyone, whoever they are and whatever they believe, else we abandon the promise of speculative fiction.

Click here to read the initial discussion, then comment below.

J. T. Glover is a white, male, 30-something reader and writer of SF. His fiction has appeared in City Slab and Beneath the Surface, and more is forthcoming in Doorways and The Willows. He is the Reference Librarian for the Humanities at Virginia Commonwealth University. His mother read him The Hobbit at age three, and he never recovered. These days he enjoys literary and popular SF, and everything in between.

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