Brad R. Torgersen

Addressing The Problem™


We’re well into our second decade of Science Fiction & Fantasy publishing tying itself up in knots over The Problem™. You’re no doubt aware of The Problem™ yourself. How could you not be? A monolithic wall of text (stretching into the stratosphere) has been erected, concerning The Problem™ and if you’re so dense as to be unaware of The Problem™ then clearly you are part of The Problem™.

Still, for the sake of review, let’s go over it again.

The Problem™ — according to those who’ve made it their business to fight The Problem™:

SF/F publishing is dominated by demographic W. Demographics X, Y, and Z are underrepresented. This is obviously because demographic W is prejudiced, and therefore excluding X, Y, and Z. Therefore demographic W is on the hot seat for making SF/F into a W-only club. So, what can obligatorily concerned, properly progressive members of W do to be more inclusive and celebratory of X, Y, Z, and also A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, I, J, K, L, M, N, O, P, and the ever-fabulous Q?

The chief problem with typical analysis of The Problem™ is that it fails to ask a very important question: wence the readership? Editors and authors are not birthed whole-cloth from the dust of the earth. They always begin as readers first. I repeat: editors and authors always begin as readers first. There is no author, nor editor, in the business of Science Fiction & Fantasy literature, who did not start out as a reader. Usually, in childhood and/or adolescence. 99.999% of all professionals began life (in the field) as avid fans of some sort, whether they were laser-focused on a specific author, or a specific sub-genre, or omnivorous cosmopolitans who imbibed everything the field had to offer. Thus, to understand a dearth (or surfeit?) of any demographic, within SF/F publishing, you have to go all the way back to the beginning.

Which kids are reading, and what, and why?

Thus, how many kids from underrepresented demographics, grew up in households where fiction reading was a common and encouraged form of entertainment? And out of that number, how many gravitated to SF/F explicitly?

Because it is entertainment we’re talking about, and where entertainment is concerned, De Gustibus can be an iron law.

The progressive conceit is that kids from underrepresented demographics don’t read SF/F because these children never “see” themselves enough — not in the characters, nor the stories, nor the ranks of authors and professionals. This argument always strikes me as particularly strange — for Science Fiction & Fantasy — since a great heap of SF/F (past, and present) has concerned itself with crawling around inside the heads of people and creatures who are decidedly different from the creators, as well as the audience. No sector of entertainment literature has devoted more time to examining Difference (note the caps) than SF/F. And even if you take the postmodernist deconstructionist approach (“All fiction is simply allegory for the sake of present-tense social and political commentary!”) you still find that SF/F has gone out of its way to explore the lives and thoughts of the marginalized, the alien, and the outcast.

In other words, this is a field that bends over backwards to put Difference front-and-center.

So, what else might be going on? Besides a subtle or unconscious plot on the part of demographic W, to exclude or marginalize the other letters of the alphabet? Especially when publishing is an enterprise that does not require any prospective professional participant to wear his (or her, or their) demographics on his (or her, or their) sleeve?

1) Kids are busy doing other things. This has been especially true since the invention of the television. The number of explicitly youth-focused, youth-oriented passtimes has exploded over the past 70 years. If it’s not music, it’s video games. If it’s not video games, it’s sports. If it’s not sports, it’s texting and chatting. If it’s not texting and chatting, it’s movies and series. And so on, and so forth. In any representative population sample of pre-teens and teens, you’re liable to lose 65% (or more) of that collective attention span, to entertainment that does not involve reading prose on a page.

2) Kids get their SF/F in other forms. This is a huge blind spot for that sector of SF/F literature that considers itself “true fandom” and which regards all other forms of SF/F — outside of literature — to be subsidiary or subervient. Since the late 1970s, the amount of televised and silver screen SF/F has increased dramatically, thanks to the birth of the Star Wars franchise; as proof-of-concept that spec-fictional content was a massive money-maker. Since then, studios cannot not churn out enough SF/F. Look at the big list of Top 25 all-time silver screen earners, and at least 22 of them are explicitly SF/F in some form. Throw in Japanese animation, and modern story-driven video games, and you’re staring at the greatest part of your average english-language teen’s spec-fictional diet. Movies, TV, anime, and games. That’s it. (S)he may not feel the need to seek out books or other forms of spec-fictional prose, simply because there is a universe of (often spectacular and enjoyable) spec-fictional content readily available — long before (s)he has to crack open a book.

3) Kids who are reading, may only be reading what is popular, or familiar. This is one of the great resentments among almost all spec-fictional scribblers: it’s not fair that movie or TV tie-in books, or the latest J.K. Rowling novel, soak up a vast (disproportionately vast?) number of reader dollars — which may or may not trickle down to the rest of us toiling in the salt mines. Scratch an author or editor taking aim at The Problem™ and you will almost always discover someone who is equally unhappy with the fact that Harry Potter or some other magical Fantasy doorstop series are co-occupying the Amazon bestseller rankings, versus this month’s latest “confrontational” pan-African indigenous perspectives gender-queer anthology — from AngryWymyn Press. (Click to donate to their patreon!)

4) Speaking of which, can we please (finally!) admit that what interests and fascinates your typical Intersectional Oppression Studies undergrad — at Oregon Coast University — is not necessarily what interests a majority of reading teens and pre-teens? No, not even the teens and pre-teens from marginalized demographics. Because not every X nor Y nor Z (nor even every Q) teen or pre-teen spends his/her/their time gazing endlessly at his/her/their navel. Thus, if the number of spec-fictional authors coming into the field from an Intersectional Oppression Studies background is large, the number of readers this pool might be directly speaking to, is pretty damned small. And no, scolding isn’t a great way to gin up audience enthusiasm. You can whip a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. Especially the young, who will smell a moral sermon a mile away, and immediately run in the opposite direction.

Of course, that’s just the first layer of the cake.

Assuming a sufficiently large number of marginalized youth can be attracted to reading SF/F how many of them are going to be interested enough to want to publish? To edit? To log the long, hard hours of practice necessary to reach entry-level proficiency? There are 101 easier, more direct routes to money, as well as fame. Devoting that much time and energy to getting good at SF/F takes a special kind of maniacal obtuseness — that only those of us with a fatal fascination for spec-fic are cursed to have.

Then, assuming a sufficiently large number of marginalized entry-level SF/F pros can be slapped together, how do we know which markets this body is submitting to? What kind of books or stories? Unless we’re dealing with a university or subsidy press (click to donate to the patreon!!) said publisher has to be in the business to do business. This means keeping at least one eye on the marketplace. And the marketplace is notoriously immune to being guilt-tripped into coughing up its dollars for an entertainment product being proffered like a kelp shake from a Whole Foods organic health bar. “Because it’s good for you!” may not necessarily be a winning sales pitch. In fact, it’s usually a horrible sales pitch. Calling the audience names, when they won’t follow the carrot or the stick, is also a horrible sales pitch. The audience wants to have a good time. Period. Non-subsidy prose publishing has to be accountable to this fact. Thus the endless tug-o-war between art and commerce. Between what is deemed “worthy” by the cognoscenti, and what is actually worthwhile to the consumer public.

Okay, so, we’ve tunneled through reader and author origins, the matter of ideology versus economy, and at last come to the ugly worm at the bottom of the Tequila bottle: are SF/F’s editors actually racist? Sexist? Homophobic? Transphobic? Yadda yadda?

Consider the fact that the total number of spec-fictional editors and publishers are self-styled progressives and liberals — by a gargantuan, wide margin — and it’s a head-scratcher. These are the people who go out of their way to broadcast to the universe that they are on The Right Side of History. They will spare no expense supporting the monthly flavor of Disenfranchised Artist. They are extremely proud to be left-wing, and they will haughtily declare their allegiance to progressive economic and political ideas.

And this is the body of people who are scheming — intentionally, or unintentionally — to keep the Other (note the caps) out of SF/F?

This is a field given over almost entirely to the progressive “side” of the ideological landscape. Thus when progressives attack the field for margnializing or excluding X, Y, or Z demographics, it’s a bit like watching a man pick up a hammer and smash his own thumb — because the thumb had it coming. In calling out the field (over and over and over) for failing to be sufficiently supportive and inclusive, progressives are essentially indicting themselves in a self-conspiracy — of the left hand working against the other left hand.

So, the latest rumbles about The Problem™ are another example of the ouroboros eating its own tail. And with each successive bite, the entire thing shrinks just that much more. Until the whole point of SF/F — to have fun! — seems to be overshadowed by a nasty process of the field collectively and eternally attacking itself, for this or that failure; according to whichever flavor of Oppression Theory is popular this year.

And we’ve not even touched the fact that short fiction — the subsector of spec-fictional prose specifically cited in The Verge’s link — is a micro-economy, compared to novels. I should know. I do much of my work in short SF/F prose. It is the nichest of niche markets. A somewhat zombiefied relic of the Pulp Era, when almost all spec-fictional prose was being done in serial format, for the pre-television magazines of the time.

I mean, seriously, put your politics aside for a minute, and check it out:

● Of the total number of children in the english-language world, how many of them read prose for entertainment?

● Of the total number of pre-teen and teen readers in the english-language world, how many of them will fall in love with SF/F as a preferred genre?

● Of the total number of children who read SF/F, how many of them grow up to decide to try their hand at writing, editing, or publishing?

● Of the total number of people who try their hand at SF/F writing, editing, or publishing, how many of them will actually put in the years to be any good at it?

● Of the total number of people who are any good at SF/F writing, editing, or publishing, how many of them will focus on a microscopic slice of the marketing landscape, in the form of short fiction?

● And of the total number of people who are proficient pros in SF/F short fiction, how many of those are from what might be deemed marginalized or disenfranchised demographics?

● And of the total number of people who are not marginalized, but who are proficient pros in SF/F short fiction, how many of them are actually engaged in discrimination against their fellows? Either consciously, or unconsciously?

Especially when (as noted at the start) nobody is required to wear his/her/their demographics on his/her/their sleeve. This is not like a screen test, nor a panel audition. The editor is not casting based on appearance. The editor is (usually) working from a standpoint of taste, combined with knowing what the audience (for his/her/their magazine or venue) wants, along with perhaps a bit of angling at the critics and the awards mavens.

And angling at the critics and awards mavens favors marginalized demographics! Does anyone seriously suspect the people behind Lightspeed or Asimov’s or Clarkesworld or TOR.COM have a problem with the disenfranchised? Of any type or description? What universe did you warp in from?

The SF/F short-fic editors in this universe — with their fingers on the pulse of the awards — know that featuring authors/stories from disenfranchised groups, is a huge plus. Among the cognoscenti. They all drink from the same ideological trough. It’s “sexy” for a publication to hang a sign on the demographically challenged. In fact, markets like TOR.COM will pay top dollar for stories from non-W authors, spread across the whole of the alphabet. And TOR.COM will loudly beam this news to the publishing world at large, “We’re TOR.COM, and we’re progressive; just look at our menagerie of other-than-W authors we publish!”

So, I have a tough time believing that the supposed dearth of other-than-W authors publishing in the short fic markets, is a matter of prejudice.

But I’m just an evil conservative. I keep banging my pot about fun and merit. I don’t have a patreon. I think stories should earn the consumer’s time and money. I don’t believe the purpose of storytelling in SF/F is to “confront” the audience, nor make the reader squirm. That’s a nouveau-lit academic sentiment that’s migrated over to the field since the advent of the New Wave — when Sense-O-Wonder began to collapse inside a Schwarzschild Radius of social critique and victim narratives, all competing against themselves.

Is it any wonder that Science Fiction — in prose form — continues to fight a rear-guard action against marketplace irrelevancy?

Fixating endlessly on The Problem™ is, to my mind, very much like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. It doesn’t matter what tune you make the orchestra play, the ship’s still going down. Having struck the iceberg of Social Justice zealotry, people seem to want to rip the hole open even wider. Then they have the nerve to act shocked when there aren’t enough life boats.