Monday, April 2, 2018

Diverse Voices

The issue of diverse literary voices—especially in anthologies of short fiction—has in recent times rightly become a critical subject for editors and publishers, and in certain quarters of the social media set, a matter of no quiet contention. It would be hard to argue that, historically, the dark/speculative fiction field has been dominated by anyone but heterosexual male authors, of which I am one—not that I can claim to dominate anything above and beyond a household of cats (and most might argue I'm fooling myself on that count). I may not the world's most accomplished or prolific editor, but I have had my share of experience in the field: ten years of editing Deathrealm magazine; anthologies for publishers such as Delirium Books, Chaosium, and Arkham House; and a handful of guest-editing stints at other professional publications.

If you have ever read any of  the work I have produced, whether as writer or editor, you have almost certainly picked up on the fact that a large percentage of it is related, directly or tangentially, to the good ol' Cthulhu Mythos; or, at the very least, that it is rooted in the supernatural, the occult, the outré in its countless permutations. In fiction, above all things, the Weird Tale has been my chosen oeuvre. Now, the greater share of both aficionados and writers of the Weird Tale has typically been the human male, and while things have changed in that regard, even since I started getting paid for my writing in the mid 1980s, as near as I can tell with these aging eyes, it still holds true. I will confess to you that, at least in those early days of my editing career, diversity—most notably in regard to female writers—was not a huge consideration in my mind, simply because I never felt the works I produced were aimed at an audience beyond what might be called the stereotypical. In my editorial experience, I tended to select the works I felt best represented the theme or tone of the book or periodical as a whole, without regard to the identity of the writer. End of story.

Well, actually, not. The current "discussions"—a term I toss out with no little irony—have served to crystallize certain personal ideas and observations that evolved over many years in this business. First of all, I'll toss out a few stats, just as background (and bear in mind that these are not hard numbers but estimations derived from long hands-on experience). During my days of editing Deathrealm (1987–1997), it's safe to say that 70 to 75 percent of submissions came from male writers, at least early on. Later, that ratio changed to something like 60 to 65 percent. Subscribers were even more male-dominated, with a majority around 75%. That changed only slightly over the years, the biggest shift happening during the last two. Given these stats, would I submit that there was even a hint of intentional discrimination involved in the editorial process? None whatsoever. Would I concede there was a male-centered mindset that blithely sailed past considerations of more diverse tables of contents? Highly likely.

The biggest factor at play here was... is... basic sensibilities. Males and females simply do not share all similar interests, nor should they. I'm certain the readerships of Popular Mechanics and Sports Illustrated differ wildly from those of Cosmopolitan or Vogue (that's my best guess, anyway, though maybe I'm wrong and fully half the first example's readership is women; I'm gonna bet not). I can tell you from years and years of experience, the male audience for Godzilla movies outweighs the female audience by uncountable metric tons. The simple fact is that, historically, Cthulhu and the rest of the Great Old Ones, kith and kin, appeal more to the Godzilla-type demographic.

You need not remind me that dark fiction encompasses a much vaster range of subjects, themes, and styles than the relatively limited scope of Lovecraftiana. Of course that's true, but somewhere in the typically male-dominated hierarchy of authors, editors, and publishers, I suspect that this concept still holds an inordinate amount of weight. To be honest, twenty-five years ago, it struck as me something of a novelty that as many women as did wrote, edited, and published dark fiction. Not only good, but great dark fiction. What an eye-opening experience it became for the likes of me. I made the acquaintances, virtually and in-person, of such women as Ellen Datlow, Jessica Amanda Salmonson, Elizabeth Massie, Kathleen Jurgens, Peggy Nadramia, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Melanie Tem, Kathe Koja, Poppy Z. Brite, Nancy Collins, Lucy Snyder, Cynthia Ward, Caitlin Kiernan, Nancy Kilpatrick, Anne K. Schwader... the list goes on and on.

How could a literate being not take note of the numbers, the voices, the power in the perspectives shared by these and so many creative women who have emerged in the days since? What vistas one can behold when the blinders aren't fastened so tightly.

Taking notice leads to cognizance, and cognizance leads to action. If by some mad quirk of nature Deathrealm were to make a resurgence during my lifetime, would there be a whole new set of sensibilities at play in its production? A resounding yes. Naturally, I'm very proud of the number of female authors that Deathrealm showcased during its years. If my youthful sensibilities had evolved more deeply and rapidly, no doubt there would have been more. Now, granted, in this space I have primarily focused on women as examples of diversity; I have hardly addressed other marginalized groups whose voices are just as worthy and just as impressive, but for now, this is a start, and deadlines and other duties call.

I simply say to any and all creative persons who labor in the field who may yet wear a set of blinders: take notice. Things can—must—progress from there.

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