Unconscious Discrimination and a Regressive Culture

Over at The Writer and the Critic, Kirstyn McDermett and Ian Mond discuss to ongoing issue of women’s representation in fiction. The discussion related to a number of things, including this piece on Jezebel, where Catherine Nicholls describes sending her novel out under a male name, and the way the responses immediately became more positive. She writes:

Within 24 hours George [her nom-de-plume] had five responses—three manuscript requests and two warm rejections praising his exciting project. For contrast, under my own name, the same letter and pages sent 50 times had netted me a total of two manuscript requests. The responses gave me a little frisson of delight at being called “Mr.” and then I got mad. Three manuscript requests on a Saturday, not even during business hours! The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me—Catherine….Even George’s rejections were polite and warm on a level that would have meant everything to me, except that they weren’t to the real me. George’s work was “clever,” it’s “well-constructed” and “exciting.” No one mentioned his sentences being lyrical or whether his main characters were feisty.

She also makes the point that a certain conditioning process goes along with this:

The interim period is also important, where writers are neither beginners fresh for the journey nor secure professionals with a known name. In between, where a writer is alone for a long time with her work, a “clever” might be enough to steer her toward a bolder plan, and a “not very likable” guides her back to conventions. A small series of constraints can stop the writer before she’s ever worth writing about. Women in particular seem vulnerable in that middle stretch to having our work pruned back until it’s compact enough to fit inside a pink cover.

There should be no surprises here. There’s ample evidence for unconsciously held attitudes which leave all of us prey to dominant cultural attitudes, attitudes which marginalise various groups. In an article on this, I wrote about the need to be conscious of this process:

The point isn’t to be self-flagellating – who among us lives outside of our society? – but to be sensitive. The writer needs to understand society as a whole or risk reaffirming the ideologies of oppression. I’ve sat in writing workshops where a writer has sat blank-faced and uncomprehending as socially conscious participants have attempted to explain this to him (and most commonly, though not always, it’s very much a male).

Writing, then, involves a conscious rearrangement of what your unconscious has provided. That’s the only solution until the culture itself changes. Indeed, in some small ways we can hope that the writing itself helps to change that culture and to provide our minds with more enriching fuel, rather than the paltry stuff to which we are now accustomed.

Where I differ from Kirstyn and Ian is that I don’t think it’s quite good enough to say, “It’s okay to read what you like”. It’s not a matter of people feeling guilty, but rather that all of us – readers included – need to examine our assumptions and reject those which are, to put it crudely, sexist, racist, homophobic, and so on. There’s a narrative dimension to this too. Certain types of narrative are encouraged (linear, goal-driven, in which a character overcomes obstacles and becomes a hero). Characters must be “likeable” (what are they, our friends?!), and usually special. The way this plays out in genre can become pretty regressive. There is an implicit sexism, say, to most feudal fantasy. As I wrote about Game of Thrones in another context here (and also about fantasy and violence here), most fantasy in conservative:

Fantasy has traditionally been dominated by the conservative view: all those neo-feudal world desperate for a farm-boy to rise to his rightful place as benevolent dictator – uh, I mean King. Order will be restored, everyone will find their rightful place in some parody of the divine right of kings. Don’t get me wrong, I love Tolkien, but we should be clear about his lineages.

Our problem, though, is that this kind of critique runs directly counter to the trends in society and publishing. We live in an era when, as a friend of mine commented recently, “My most successful books have been the ones closest to genre formulae.” That is, that the industry itself has a tendency towards repetition, towards standardisation, towards formula – to put it crudely, most people don’t want to read stories that bring them back to the world, but take them away from it. Fantasy sells more than science fiction, because it fits that pattern most obviously. People want to read barely disguised wish-fulfilment – hence the dominance of the superhero narrative in film. The conditioning that Nicholls mentions in her Jezebel piece isn’t just gendered: it goes along with all writers who aren’t commercially very successful. I’ve had a number of people – in and out of the publishing industry – steer me towards the more formulaic (“write epic fantasy!”). They were being helpful. They were trying to look after my career.

This gets back to something I wrote a couple of days ago, but never quite finished: the publishing industry is all numbers and algorithms now. Market mechanisms have been introduced at every level. There is a systemic logic to this. When an agent looks at a woman writer’s proposal, they’re not just being unconsciously prejudiced, they’re also being honest about the ‘market’. They’re making a judgement, “Will this sell?” Fantasy sells more than science fiction. Men sell more than women. It’s an eviscerating logic.

Our only chance is to challenge this kind of culture as a whole, then. So even if, as Ian said in the podcast, people don’t want you to bring up unpleasant truths – they don’t want to feel guilty – it’s not good enough. We have to challenge them, as part of a more general cultural campaign, a long, extended, war of position for a better industry and culture. This doesn’t mean giving up or not reading writers who are objectionable (among my favourite writers are Lovecraft and Ellroy), but it’s about what we value. It’s about seeing that often the breaking apart of formula and traditional form is what needs to happen if we’re to express new content. It’s about valuing the work of small presses, who publish more innovative or experimental work. It’s about challenging our own narrative preconceptions. For example, on the same podcast, they reviewed Ben Peek’s excellent book, The Godless , which – whatever its flaws – does some new and original things in fantasy. That is wasn’t, say, on the Aurealis Award shortlist this year I found astounding – given, as Ian and Kirstyn mention, it’s a multicultural fantasy featuring gender equality of sorts. That it wasn’t recognised is a symptom, I’d say, of the problem we have — that commercially successful (or popular) and good are not homologous. Nor is popular taste and quality. That’s something we have to try to rectify if we want to challenge sexism, racism, homophobia and the kind of eviscerated culture that too-often sees good books sink and terrible books make millions.

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  1. Part Three | Ben Peek - 21 August, 2015

    […] of Unwrapped Sky, and critic and journalist, followed their discussion with an article, called the Unconscious Discrimination and a Regressive Culture. So naturally I called mine Part Three, because it is the third part of the […]

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