The Balkanization of Fiction

by Mike Duran · 6 comments

peoplechasmOn their Facebook page, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America recently posted about a Kickstarter project for “Blacktastic: A Podcast of Black Scifi and Fantasy Stories.” From the Kickstarter:

“People from all background are starting to realize there is a need for diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy and demands for a change are being made.

“With all these demands to see more main characters – particularly heroes and sheroes – who are less of the old white male default, you would think that authors everywhere would stand up, join hands, sing a little “kum ba yah” and then sit down to write some great stories with some non-default heroes. The question is whether White, Asian, Native American and even Black people can see a Black person as their hero.

“That will only happen if seeing a black hero/protagonist happens so much in stories, novels, and films that it becomes normalized. That it becomes common. But that has to begin with Black writers, since most writers will write what they know.”

The push within the literary community — sci-fi in particular — towards more multicultural and gender diversity has been the cause du jour for many creatives and artistic elites over the last decade. It was behind the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign as well as the grueling Sad Puppies/Rabid Puppies v. Hugos ordeal. So the idea for a podcast featuring black sci-fi authors and black sci-fi and fantasy stories is not a huge surprise.

Of course, I am “the old white male default” that the aforementioned movements are reacting against. Do with that what you will. Nevertheless, I can’t help but see projects like Blacktastic as only fracturing the market, its writers and readers, and undermining the cause of minorities and their inclusion into a largely “old white male” enterprise.

I am all for a more diverse playing field. I believe we need multicultural and gender diversity in our books, publishing culture, and readership. I recently received a review of my latest novel, The Ghost Box, in which the author gave me “kudos on the portrayal of women.” I really appreciate this. However, I do not aim to meet the requirements of the Bechdel Test. In fact, I see such checklists as overcompensation, creating a rather Pharisaical approach to art and entertainment in which critics inevitably “strain out gnats and swallow camels.”

For example, while many are praising the latest Star Wars incarnation for its multicultural tone, others are busy insinuating racist undertones. Like MSNBC’s Melissa Harris Perry who suggested that Star Wars is Racist Because Darth Vader is a Black Guy.

“I know why I have feelings — good, bad and otherwise — about Star Wars,” Perry explained. “…I spent the whole day talking about the Darth Vader situation.”

“The part where he was totally a black guy, whose name was basically James Earl Jones,” she said. “While he was black he was terrible and bad, awful and used to cut off white men’s hand, and didn’t actually claim his son. But as soon as he claims his son, goes over to the good, takes off his mask and he is white — yes, I have many feelings about that.”

So rather than celebrate the diversity she seeks, Perry is busy straining out gnats and swallowing camels. Likewise, Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee recently announced that they will be boycotting the Oscars because “all 20 contenders under the acting category are white.” (Which leads me to ask, What percentage of black nominees is “satisfactory” and, of those nominees, what percentage of them must win their category?)

In my opinion, this is one of the downsides of a Blacktastic approach to film and literature — we become bean-counters. We sift our stories with our own personalized Bechdel Test, check-listing for the “appropriate” quota of genders, ethnicities, and sexual orientations, the lead merit (or detriment) being the author’s race.  If you ask me, it’s a rather stifling way to approach entertainment.

But legalistic over-compensation is not the only danger in such an approach to art.

In a recent Huffington Post interview, Kenta Barris, creator of the popular sit-com Black-ish, cautioned about “forced diversity” in Hollywood:

“I don’t necessarily want to see forced diversity, because I’ve been a beneficiary and a victim of that in some aspects,” Barris said. “If you put something in place where a person is put into a situation and they’re put into that situation under the guise that this is the ‘diversity hire,’ that person — 95% of the time — will not be given the respect in order to make the career to open the doors for other people behind them.”

In the Atlantic’s The Painful Truth About Affirmative Action, authors Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. make a similar point that affirmative action practices tend to “boomerang and harm their intended beneficiaries.”

Likewise, highlighting fiction based primarily on the protagonist’s skin color or sexual proclivities or the writer’s gender, race, religion, or ethnicity, potentially reduces a piece or person to a virtual “diversity hire.” Their level of craft becomes secondary to some pre-defined quota. So the black — or Native American, female, transgendered, gay, Jewish, etc., etc. — author’s defining merit is their contribution to leveling the “old white male” playing field.

It could also be argued that the push toward multiculturalism actually hinders organic assimilation. An interesting study on civic diversity by Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam reached some rather uncomfortable conclusions. In the downside of diversity Putnam was forced to conclude that multiculturalism actually balkanizes, rather than unites, communities. So instead of coming together as a melting pot, diverse communities often tend to fragment along racial lines with each group becoming more insulated against and even suspicious of the other.

Likewise, forcing multiculturalism into film and fiction has the potential of balkanizing rather than legitimately diversifying the culture.  So rather than shopping the Sci-Fi section of Barnes and Noble — wherein hopefully you will discover some black protagonists and female writers — you could be faced with numerous sub-categories — Black Sci-Fi, Native American Sci-Fi. Lesbian Sci-Fi, Sheroes Sci-Fi,  and my personal favorite, “Sword and Soul.” But the potential problem is that instead of a “melting pot” of art and literature, we fragment into further and further bean-counting, Bechdel-Testing, quota wielding consumers.

I’ve argued here before that evangelical publishing potentially has a race problem. But as I concluded in that article,

You can’t force diversity. It must happen at the grassroots, as a result of genuine brotherly love, acceptance, shared interests and values, etc.

…I realize that this answer won’t satisfy everyone. Some will see it as toothless, as skirting the issue or, even worse, an extension of the “genteel racism” already at work in Evangelical publishing. My dilemma is that “quota” solutions — which are typically the most commonly offered solutions — seldom address the real issue. If racism is really at the root of the [Christian Booksellers Association]’s diversity problem, then the problem isn’t solved by introducing more people of color into our stories or contracting more black authors. It’s addressed through repentance and reconciliation.

So while I am sympathetic towards the push for diversity in fiction, balkanizing into groups based on the basis of skin color or gender has the opposite effect and, in fact, begins a cycle of endless bean-counting wherein no one group will ever be satisfied.

Kessie January 19, 2016 at 7:49 AM

Ain’t that the truth. Jesus is the only solution for our fragmented, bickering culture–bean-counting and keeping score has never worked.

I read books that delight me. It doesn’t matter what color the author’s outside is–I’m interested in their imagination and the fantastic places they can take me.

Patrick Todoroff January 20, 2016 at 5:48 AM

I’m with Kassie. Whatever happened to reading the book for itself? What’s next? Will writers and artists have to submit their work to Soviet-style “Party Compliance Committees” for approval?

There’s the old sermon illustration about the guy who gets limburger cheese on his moustache who then goes around thinking the whole world stinks. So current authors bring their prejudices and agendas and unconscious entitlement to their stories, but ethnic writers don’t? Or their issues are rendered more pure and worthy by victim-hood? Sort of an ‘automatic moral high-ground’?

I’m not denying genuine struggles or problems, but these Neu-Readers insist they’re culturally sensitive and stunningly insightful when it might simply be they’re viewing everything through a fragile, reactionary lens. Inserting their personal preferences and complications. as it were. Life is tough for everyone – a thick hide is mandatory.

“A great many people think they are thinking when they are really rearranging their prejudices.”
– William James

Teddi Deppner January 20, 2016 at 1:08 PM

I don’t look up the ethnicity or photograph of an author before I read a book. I just read the book.

I don’t put down a book because it has a person of some particular color or belief system, nor do I pick it up for that reason.

If we have a lack of minority authors in traditional publishing, is it because fewer minorities are writing stories or because the gatekeepers are biased? I don’t know. But I do know this: In the new publishing world, there is more opportunity than ever for good stories to rise to the top.

If there’s a market for it, and if the authorpreneur does the work and does it well, then they have as much chance to succeed as any of us — regardless of race.

Stephen B. Bagley January 20, 2016 at 10:50 PM

Well said. Not sure if I agree with all your conclusions, but they’re well stated and clear. Much of what is going in the entertainment world is foggy. More concise and understandable stances are what we need. Even a disagreement about values is better than no values at all.

I have a rule to never find out anything about an author I like. I had bad experiences with two authors over the long years that turned me completely off their fiction. If I don’t know them and their morals and values, I don’t have to disagree with them. I can just happily read their books without feeling like I’m supporting anything other than their writing.

D.M. Dutcher January 25, 2016 at 9:46 AM

I wouldn’t worry. This kind of push has led written science fiction to self-marginalization, while people gravitate to non-diverse forms of storytelling. The more they push that ideology the narrower their audience gets. The market self-corrects.

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