Monday, May 4, 2015

Diversity vs. Exclusion

There's been a lot of talk about diversity lately, and when doing market research I see the call everywhere. The vast majority of markets (speaking specifically of short fiction markets, but not excluding novel-length, as many are one and the same) have it written somewhere on their web page, most somewhere on the submission guidelines page. Diversity, in these cases, is broadly defined as gender, race, age, nationality, level of ability, income level, and LGBTQ+.

Of course, this is a good thing (I think at least most of us can agree on that?). Though I wondered aloud to my critique group what one is supposed to say in their email to let the editors/agents know they're a diverse author. Ask and ye shall receive. One of the members of my critique group asked an agent at the Pikes Peak Writers Conference whether you're supposed to list the ways in which you'd be considered diverse, which feels a bit awkward ("Dear editor, I am a female Cherokee/Patawomeck author [. . .]"). The agent said that you should just mention in your cover letter or query that you are a diverse author. I still feel weird about that, and have no intention of adding that into my contacts to publications. If my story gets accepted, I hope it's just because my story is liked, not because it got bumped up on the list because I happen to be female and possess some Cherokee and Patawomeck blood (as well as Irish, German, Dutch, Scottish, and English--I'm a mutt).

I also don't think any less of those who do include that information. All it means is that we feel differently about it, and I have no right to judge that. For many, their gender and race might be obvious by their name, which makes it unnecessary to put in the bio. My name is fairly genderless. If you do a search on "Shannon Lawrence" you're going to have both males and females pop up in the search window. Does that work for or against me? I have no idea. Which bias does it appeal to? Because a bias for each exists in various places right now, or so it appears. From what I've read, males tend to have an edge in speculative fiction (while females have a significant edge in romance), though I haven't seen actual numbers on submissions versus acceptance.

Screen shot from first results when searching Shannon Lawrence. Look, there's me in the 4th row!

On the other hand, my name's as Irish as it could be. My maiden name was German. So while it can't be inferred from my name that I'm female, it can probably be inferred that I'm Caucasian (or, at the very least, stand a good chance of being so, as it should be noted there's some diversity in the Google search I linked to above)(Fun fact: It appears the name Shannon is popular in porn, judging by some of the search results). Here again, one has to wonder if that works for or against me (the race thing, not the porn thing). Will a publication leaning toward diversity skip me because my name screams Caucasian? Or will it work to my benefit? I have no idea. Are these publications looking that deeply at the issue, or are they judging the stories on their merit alone? I know it's been shown in the regular job sector that names make a difference on resumes, but is that true in the writing world, as well?

I kind of got sidetracked from my original topic. Shifting gears.

In response to the bias in publishing, some organizations have been created throughout the years. I actually belong to an all-female national writing group called the National League of American Pen Women (NLAPW). This organization was created in Washington, D.C. in response to women not being allowed in press clubs and not being privy to rights granted men in the arts. It should be noted that this organization was formed in 1897.

Here it is, 2015, and organizations like these still exist. There are also publications that only take work from women. Taking that further, there are groups/publications that restrict all manner of things, down to only accepting work/membership from LGBTQ+ individuals and specific nationalities. For instance, while doing market research today, I came across one publication that would only take submissions from Canada (there are several with this restriction), one that would only take submissions from the Pacific northwest, one that would only take publications from Australia/New Zealand, and a couple others with similar restrictions. While these all had to do with location/nationality, I've seen restrictions that didn't.

My question to you is: Is this still necessary?

I had the opportunity to meet the national president of the NLAPW recently, and she said membership was falling at the national level. She has been encouraging dialogue on why. It was a surprise to me that membership was falling, so I had no answers for her. After I left, I kept thinking about it. It's an interesting thing to ponder. Some of the possibilities I came up with were:

1. The restriction to being female only
2. The cost of joining
3. The requirement to have a certain amount of accepted publishing credits to be a full member (and further to this, not having access to all the benefits of being a member unless you're a fully qualified member)

Is membership failing because most writing organizations welcome both men and women? Is there a need for an all-female writing organization when there aren't groups in place that say men only, when those previous restrictions no longer exist? In fact, could it possibly be damaging in that groups that are restrictive to members, whether that be race, gender, whatever, expose members to only half (or less) of the networking they'd be able to do in a group that accepts all? For instance, the other writing group I belong to is Pikes Peak Writers, which is open to anyone who wants to join for free. Without any exclusions, the membership is much larger than more restrictive local writing groups.

One of the benefits of these female-only groups is that they often have their own publications and awards. This gives women belonging to the groups a better chance of being published and receiving awards, which looks good in bios, on cover letters, and in query letters. Does it get them any closer to winning the bigger, more well known awards? Does it increase the chances of publication elsewhere? I can't comment, because I'm not sure how well known the NLAPW magazine is outside of Pen Women. In fact, I'm not even certain you can get the magazine unless you're a member. Hm.

On publications, if they restrict who can be in the magazines, do they, in turn, restrict their readership? Will someone pick up a magazine that is made up of one specific group? I think the Women Destroy issues that came out last year did pretty well, right? But was that because of the amount of free marketing they received? They were widely discussed and crowd funded, so they may have been different. They were also a one-off situation, rather than being a regular thing. Again, I have no idea. Was the exposure those female authors got more or less than they would have in a mixed gender magazine?

Basically, I'm rambling. These are things I've been thinking about and questioning lately. I don't have any real answers, because I have no real data. I don't know if Pen Women are failing because of one of those three things listed above, a combination of them, or something completely different. And I have no data on other exclusive groups and publications, how they sell, or whether they're more beneficial or harmful. I'd be curious to know, though. I frequently feel conflicted about belonging to an all-female writing group, but I like the ladies in the group, so I stay.

What are your thoughts on exclusive writing groups? Are they beneficial? Are you part of one? Do you feel they might be damaging in certain ways? Are magazines really leaning toward diversity, or is it something they say because that's what people want to see? Is there still a place for exclusive groups, or has the time passed? Or has it only passed for certain groups, while other groups are more in need of it than ever? What do you see as the benefits and drawbacks to exclusive groups?

May you find your Muse.


shelly said...

This all sounds a little red-taping to me.

A Beer for the Shower said...

What you call rambling I call a great post. First off, neither of us have once thought of listing ourselves as diverse. It almost sounds backhanded. "Hi, I'm Mexican-American Latino author Bryan Pedas..." Like you said, I want people to see my writing, not that I'm some kind of quota to be met. "Ooh, let's look at his writing, he's Mexican!"

On that same note, we don't care to join exclusive groups of any kind. We have no interest in joining the men's writing club, or the Latino writing club, or whatever else might apply to us. If everyone can't take part, then we aren't interested.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I think writing diverse characters requires you to be knowledgeable about those groups. Just because my son's best friend is black and my daughter's best friend is the daughter of Mexican immigrants doesn't mean I can write from their perspective. We need more writers from diverse backgrounds rather than old, Caucasian women like me trying to write something I know little about.
On the other hand, certain genres like science fiction has been very slow accepting women writers. So maybe there is a need for that group you belong to.

Andrew Leon said...

I think the more important question should revolve around whether the writing reflects any diversity. It doesn't matter what ethnicity or sex you are if you are still writing about straight, white males. That's still the default for just about everyone.

LuAnn @ BackPorchervations said...

I would like to think the writing and publishing world gives equal opportunity for everyone, but I rather doubt that is true. I would like to think that works of words are judged on merit and not by the 'groups' to which one belongs (gender, race, sexual preference, life experience) - but sometimes they are. If someone will not read a book, or publish a book because the writer is a woman, or a person of color, or gay, or a victim of domestic abuse ... IMO, that is their loss.

dolorah said...

Sometimes I feel like the more we tout out diversity, the less we actually practice it. I take advantage of certain demographics for writers, but I don't really see a need for them. I was looking at some imprints at Harlequin because I know they have started publishing women's fiction also, and I was surprised that they only accept that genre from Jamaican (I think) authors. Otherwise, its category romance/erotica with Happily Ever After requirements. Strange.

Seems everything we want to do has to have a qualifier.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Yes, and the thing is that I have no idea how the publishing industry is actually looking at it.

Shannon Lawrence said...

The problem is, I feel the same way about wanting it to be something everyone can take part in. Now, the meetings are open to anyone, but they can't be members. I kept waiting thinking someone would challenge it. After all, if an all-male group were created, wouldn't people be up in arms? Or am I mistaken there? How did those all-male groups change? Women fought to be able to be part of them. But no one has challenged it, likely because there are plenty of other writing groups. I respect the reasons it started, but just don't think that kind of exclusivity is necessary anymore. But, like I said, I really like the women in the group, so I'm conflicted.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Science fiction is pretty notorious for being hard for women to break into. As far as who can write diverse characters, that's a whole different blog post! I've seen opinions on both sides. Personally, I don't think I would ever try to write something from the viewpoint of someone on a reservation, because that's not a life I've lived. I think it's wonderful when someone who has been there writes something about it and provides that window into what is an unfamiliar life for most people. But because I'm not comfortable doing something like that, does that mean someone else shouldn't? Tony Hillerman appears to have done a great job. Margaret Coel, as well. Both treated the subject with respect, did significant research, and appear to have been accepted by the tribes they wrote/write about. Margaret Coel goes up to the reservation she writes about and is welcomed. I don't know about Hillerman.

Long story short, I don't know the right answer. But I don't think it's offensive for someone to come in and attempt to write about a subject outside their life (isn't that what all writers do?) as long as they treat it with respect and do the research. And by research, I'd say there needs to be "quality control" in the form of folks who have lived that life.

Shannon Lawrence said...

True, but that begs the question Susan asked above: is it okay for, say, straight white males to write an Asian female character in order to provide that difference? It maybe falls on the "write what you know" rule, but I think most of us write beyond what we know. Is it alright for that to encompass ethnicity and sex?

Shannon Lawrence said...

It is definitely their loss, as well as the loss of the readers and the writer involved. I think the art world tends to be more "liberal" about such things, but I don't know to what extent. Recent issues around the Hugos have shown a bias still exists for some, and that there's backlash against this fight for diversity.

Shannon Lawrence said...

I actually agree with you on that. It seems like the more vocal people are about an issue, the less they're doing about it in reality. Maybe that's not true, but I'm thinking of "armchair activism." If we're not judging things based on merit, what are we losing?

Unknown said...

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Tyrean Martinson said...

I think you've touched on many of my questions and concerns in this post. I'm never sure if I want to join a regional writing group, and then some of the ones in my area have some exorbitant fees. I also have a name that I think throws people off - not just because it's different and hard to pronounce, but because it is also genderless. I'm never sure that it's a good thing, and then coupled with my married name, it really throws people. Tyrean is Irish, but it's also prominent among African-Americans. It can be pronounced three different ways. And, then to make things a little more complicated, my parents "made it up" and didn't even know that "Tyrean" had any back history. They just took "Tyre" and added the "an" and then wanted it pronounced like Irene with a T. Yep. I scared substitute teachers as a kid. And, I think it still scares away some readers.

Rebecca M. Douglass said...

LOL--we had a similar experience with our eldest son's name. We took Kyle and added an "-an" to make Kylan, thinking it was unique. It's not common, but it's an Irish name, all right. And also give people trouble saying it.

As for joining groups...I've been most reluctant to join groups because of cost, not demographics. Of course, I'm a middle-aged white female, so I am not going to be doing anything about making diversity claims. But I hadn't even thought about groups that had restrictions other than genre!

Writing diversity is another whole discussion I need to engage in. I personally am a bit terrified of doing so, as I am sure I'll get it wrong and offend someone.

John Wiswell said...

In Science Fiction and Fantasy, I respect publications that specifically target a non-majority demographic. There were long periods where editors specifically refused to publish work by women and minorities, so modern publishing has to do work to make it clear inclusivity is important. Currently Lightspeed is doing its Queers Destroy Fantasy run, because historically queer authors have been barred or given a very tough time getting into print. They want to increase representation and are taking a brief "Adult Swim" approach, while also promising to be more aware of diverse rosters of writers going forward. It means that I can't get into Lightspeed for the moment, but it means giving some other people a shot when they've had their tough roads. Since there are ample other places I can go to, it'd be villainous of me to begrudge it.

It does seem weird when a magazine only wants Canadian authors, or Australian authors, but I figure they're looking for a specific demographic I don't understand. I don't pay them much thought and just let them do their thing.