Yesterday, after tangentially mentioning Baen Publishing in a Twitter conversation about queer representation in SFF, several Baen aficionados took this as an invitation to harangue both myself and the person to whom I was was speaking about the evils of left-wing politics, both in genre and more generally. Mostly, this involved yelling about how socialism is evil and feminism is cancer, which was equal parts hilarious and horrifying, with a bonus discussion of Christianity in the context of various political systems. My personal highlight: the unironic claim, made by a Christian participant, that Christ was apolitical, which. Um. Yeah. About that:

You Keep Using That Word

Anyway.

While the thread eventually devolved in much the way you’d expect, the actual opening salvo by Patrick Richardson – made in response to the observation that Lois McMaster Bujold’s work, politically speaking, is somewhat at variance with the bulk of Baen’s catalogue – was as follows: “It seems to be only the lefties that care about politics before story.” Which view was quickly seconded by the same woman who later claimed that Christ was apolitical: “Of course! If the story is crap but the author is a nifty socialist, that’s totes awesome!”

Twitter, as anyone who routinely uses it can tell you, is good for many things, but nuanced, lengthy dialogue is seldom one of them. And so, in addition to yesterday’s back and forth, I’m commenting here  – because for all their brevity, these two statements perfectly encapsulate the fundamental misunderstanding at the heart of most anti-diversity arguments.

I’ll deal with the second claim first, as it’s always struck me as being the most wilfully obtuse permutation of the stance. The idea that pro-diversity voices are wasting time, money and effort promoting books we don’t actually like is almost cartoonishly absurd; as though diversity is a naked emperor and we the masters of his empty wardrobe. Listen: I have a toddler, a husband, an active social life, a packed writing schedule, multiple online streaming accounts and a TBR pile that stretches into infinity. If you really think I’m going to waste valuable energy advocating for stories that don’t give me pleasure, then either you’re projecting – which, given the willingness of certain Puppies to thusly waste their own time, is a disturbingly real possibility – or you’re grossly overestimating your knowledge of human nature.

Having already discussed, at length, the dissonance between how recommendations made on the basis of diversity can appear to others and what they actually mean, I won’t revisit the details here. The salient point, however, is this: once you acknowledge that a book recommended on whatever basis is, by virtue of being recommended, a book enjoyed, then it’s virtually impossible to claim that diversity advocates are wilfully dismissive of quality. Nor is the intention to treat “diverse books” as a distinct subgenre, one elevated above its fellows without any regard for category or content otherwise. This is, in fact, exactly the kind of ghettoisation the pro-diversity camp is actively trying to avoid – all the diverse books on one niche shelf at the back, instead of being a normal, integrated part of genre. This accusation likewise ignores the fact that, actually, it’s quite common to group and recommend narratives on the basis of their tropes (friends to lovers, the Chosen One) or thematic elements (classic quest, mythological underpinnings), particularly when we’re speaking to personal preference.

The problem is that, when talking to someone who doesn’t value diversity in narrative – often because they’ve simply never considered it to be a noteworthy factor in their enjoyment of a book, and not because they inherently object to its presence – it can be difficult to explain why it matters at all. Taste is always a murky thing to navigate in such arguments, but it’s an inescapable factor: popularity and obscurity are both unreliable yardsticks where quality is concerned, and given the breadth of the human experience, there’s always going to be entrenched disagreement about what a good story is or should be; whether reading should challenge our comfort zones or confirm them; whether it’s better to read a book that shows us our own experience or a different one. Nobody wants to be told what to like or how to like it, just as we all reserve the right to entertain ourselves on our own terms, and yet, to borrow a phrase, no man is an island. Taken collectively, our individual preferences can and do have an impact at the macro/cultural level that transcends their micro/personal origins, even though the one is invariably a product of the other.

This is why the promotion of diversity is often discussed in moral/representational terms, particularly in connection with children: stories are our first and greatest window into the possible, and if those early adventures consistently exclude a large portion of their audience, or if certain groups are portrayed more complexly than others, then not everyone is learning the same lesson. Even so, the idea is never that diversity should take precedence over quality, as some seem to fear, but rather, that we should aim to create stories – stories in the plural, not the singular, though still bearing in mind the interrelationship between the individual and the collective – which are both diverse and good.

So what, then, of stories that are good, but not diverse? Where do they fit in? Because, on the basis of everything I’ve said here, there’s an argument to be made – and some, indeed, have made it – that you cannot have quality without diversity at all.

While this is a useful shorthand claim to make when looking at the collective end of things as they currently stand – which is to say, when acknowledging the historical lack of diversity and the ongoing need to remedy the imbalance – as a dictum removed from context, it not only ignores the rights of the individual, both as audience and creator, but opens up the question of whether a diverse story is diverse enough. It’s a difficult problem to navigate, and one that gives me a frequent headache. On the one hand, it’s undeniable that white liberal feminism (for instance) has a long and ugly history of ignoring the various racial and homophobic aspects of misogyny as experienced by women of colour and the queer community – that there is, as Kimberle Crenshaw said, an intersectional component to oppression.  As such, praising a novel for its diversity doesn’t mean those aspects of the story are automatically exempt from criticism; far from it, in fact, which is one more reason why I find the accusation that pro-diversity equals anti-quality so laughable. The advocates of diversity are simultaneously its sharpest critics, and always have been, because we’re the ones who care about getting it, by whatever definition, right.

But on the other hand, it’s an inescapable fact that stories are finite: no matter how much detail a given setting might contain, the author can’t focus on everything, or they’ll have no focus at all. By the same token, nothing and no one is perfect, least of all because ‘perfect’ means something different to everyone: the fact that an author drops the ball in one area doesn’t preclude them succeeding in another, and while the function of criticism is to discuss such contrasts – and while every individual reader is perfectly entitled to decide for themselves how such lines are drawn; to make their own decisions about content and execution – declaring imperfection the antithesis of success does all creative efforts a disservice.

Which brings me back to that mercurial element, taste, and the fear, as expressed by Richardson, that even acknowledging diversity as a factor means putting “politics before story”. It’s a telling phrase: by its very construction, it implies that politics are external to stories, instead of being a material component and/or a relevant lens through which to view them. Which, I would contend, they are. It’s not just that the personal is political: it’s that the political is seldom anything else. The only impersonal politics are those which affect other people; which is to say, they’re only ever impersonal to some, not objectively so. The conflation of political questions with abstract concerns can only occur when the decision-makers don’t meaningfully overlap with those their decisions impact. Political apathy is the sole province of the ignorant and the unaffected: everyone else, of necessity, is invested.

Speaking personally, then, and setting aside any other salient, stylistic factors, the point at which my preference for diversity will likely see me jolted from an otherwise good book, such that I may well question its claim to goodness, is the point at which the narrative becomes complicit in dehumanisation, particularly my own. What this means is always going to shift according to context, but broadly speaking, if an author leans on  offensive, simple stereotyping in lieu of characterisation, or if groups that might be realistically present or active within a given context are mysteriously absent, then I’m going to count that a negative. Note that a story which is, in some active sense, about dehumanisation – a misogynist culture; a slave-owning family – is not automatically the same as being complicit in that dehumanisation. This is an important distinction to make: whereas a story about dehumanisation will, by virtue of the attempt, acknowledge what’s going on, even if the characters never question the setting – say, by portraying complex female characters within a restrictive patriarchal system – a complicit story will render these elements as wallpaper: a meaningless background detail, like the number of moons or the price of fish, without ever acknowledging the implications.

It’s not just that, overwhelmingly, complicit stories tend to be dismissive of people like me, though that certainly doesn’t help; it’s that, at the level of worldbuilding and construction, I find them boring. One of my favourite things about genre novels is learning the rules of a new time and place – the customs, language, history and traditions that make up the setting – and as such, I don’t enjoy seeing them treated as irrelevant. For instance: if I’m told that the army of Fictional Country A has always accepted female soldiers, but that women are the legal subjects of their husbands, with no effort made to reconcile the apparent contradiction, then I’m going to consider that a faulty piece of worldbuilding and be jerked out of the story. Doubly so if this is just one of a number of similar elisions, all of which centre on women in a narrative whose complexities are otherwise lovingly considered; triply so if there are no central female characters, or if the ones that do appear are stereotyped in turn. (And yes, I can think of multiple books offhand to which this particular criticism applies.)

Call it the Sex/Hexchequer Test: if an elaborate, invented system of magic or governance is portrayed with greater internal consistency than the gender roles, then the story is probably sexist. Which doesn’t, I hasten to add, mean that it has nothing else to offer and should be shunned at all costs – imperfection, as stated above, is not the antithesis of success. But if someone wants to avoid the book on those grounds, then that’s entirely their business, and at the very least, I’ll likely be cranky about it.

And thus my preference for good diverse stories, which tend not to have this problem. It’s not a question of putting politics ahead of the story: it’s about acknowledging that all stories, regardless of authorial intention, contain politics, because people are political, and people wrote them. In real life, politics only ever seem impersonal if they impact someone else; in fiction, however, that’s what makes them visible. Stories aren’t apolitical just because we happen to agree with them or find them unobjectionable: it just means we’re confusing our own moral, cultural and political preferences with a neutral default. Which doesn’t mean we’re obliged to seek out stories that take us out of our comfort zone this way, or like them if we do: it just means that we can’t gauge their quality on the sole basis that this has, in fact, happened.

And yet, far too often, this is exactly what diversity advocates are criticised for doing: as though acknowledging the political dimensions of narrative and exploring them, in whatever way, deliberately, is somehow intrinsically bad; as though nobody sympathetic to certain dominant groups or ideologies has ever done likewise. Well, they have: you just didn’t think it mattered overmuch, because you agreed.

It’s not about quality, Mr Richardson; it never was. It’s about visibility – who lives, who dies, who tells your story – and whether or not you noticed.

Comments
  1. hierath says:

    Reblogged this on Joanne Hall and commented:
    “Stories are our first and greatest window into the possible, and if those early adventures consistently exclude a large portion of their audience, or if certain groups are portrayed more complexly than others, then not everyone is learning the same lesson…” Excellent post on diversity in genre by Foz Meadows today – go and read it.

  2. Nicola says:

    Great post! Totally agree with what you’ve said about world building.

    I would actually argue that expecting representation IS a way of putting story before politics. If I’m reading something whose representation of women is problematic, I can’t switch off the part of my brain that’s objecting, no matter how good the rest of the story is. On the other hand, if the representation is good, I don’t have to think about it so I can enjoy the story without politics being in the forefront. Obviously, as you’ve pointed out, politics are integral to people and, therefore, stories, but when I’m not offended by representation (or lack thereof) it allows me to enjoy the story as a whole.

  3. dabeorn says:

    This is the whole problem with her thinking….
    “The problem is that, when talking to someone who doesn’t value diversity in narrative – often because they’ve simply never considered it to be a noteworthy factor in their enjoyment of a book, and not because they inherently object to its presence – it can be difficult to explain why it matters at all.”
    I can value diversity in the narrative. The Gay Hindu in ” is Bend it Like Beckham” is important to the narrative. However, inserting a gay character that is not relevant to the plot, just to promote diversity, is not what I value. It appears that this is valued by the author. I prefer a tale that tells a story that does not have inserted propaganda, be it “sexual diversity” or religious propaganda.

    • fozmeadows says:

      Explain to me how:

      A) heterosexuality is always relevant to the narrative in ways that homosexuality isn’t; and

      B) it’s propaganda/tokenism to include queer characters, but not straight ones.

      • dabeorn says:

        Sexuality is irrelevant to most stories. IF we put a gay man and cisgender male is a story where they are escaping a skyscaper that is collapsing, how does their sexuality matter to the story? If you throw in a “motivation scene” where the gay man says he is motivated to get home so he can hug his husband, that is reasonable. When you have the gay man doing remembrance of what it was like “growing up gay” and then comparing his cisgender co-character to the tormentors of the past, that is probably irrelevant to the story line. But it could be relevant if you are showing through the story line how the gay man was bigoted to cisgender males throughout the story. In many stories LBGTQ+ sexuality is not relevantly inserted into the story.

        Point in case – Albus Dumbledore was written by JK Rowling as a homosexual – but it had no relevance to the story so it never was relevant of the Harry Potter plot line.

        • fozmeadows says:

          Firstly, cisgender doesn’t mean the same thing as heterosexual. Gay men can be cisgender. Straight men can be cisgender. Men of all sexualities can be cisgender! So in context, I’m going to assume you actually meant heterosexual.

          Secondly, all stories contain plenty of details that are irrelevant to their plot mechanics, but which nonetheless help the reader to picture the scenes and characters more clearly. It’s kind of how description works. So unless you’re also going to criticise every author who tells us about the protagonist’s hair colour or the beauty of a sunset, it’s both hypocritical and derailing to insist that mentioning a character’s sexuality unless it’s expressly plot-relevant is somehow a sign of bad writing.

          Thirdly, even though you start by saying that “sexuality is irrelevant to most stories”, your examples exclusively refer to LGBTQ+ sexuality, as though its has to be “relevant” in a way that straightness doesn’t – and yet, if a character’s sexuality is never mentioned, the default assumption is always that they’re straight. To take your own example of Dumbledore, even though Rowling considered him queer, because that information wasn’t explicitly stated in the novels, those who argued for him as a queer character prior to her confirmation were frequently criticised for doing so, told that they were imposing an agenda on a series of children’s books. This being so, when you insist that it’s bad writing to state a character’s sexuality unless it’s explicitly plot-relevant, you’re advocating for a system wherein queerness is made invisible.

          Regardless of the plot, mentioning a character’s sexuality is always relevant, in that it tells the audience, “this type of story can be about this type of person”. It’s relevant to the reader. And even if it wasn’t, restricting the details of characterisation and background description to purely plot-relevant information tends to make for bad literature. Hell, you can’t write a good mystery or a whodunnit without extraneous details – otherwise, you’re telegraphing everything to the reader upfront, and there’d be no clues to try and unravel, no red herrings to try and throw the reader off. Every new fantasy and SF setting would be denuded of worldbuilding gracenotes, the information restricted purely to what we need to see, instead of building us fully-fleshed worlds to explore.

          So, no. If learning that a character is queer continually jerks you out of whatever story you’re reading, regardless of its other qualities – if you’re endlessly scrutinising the plot-relevance and validity of queer narratives in order to judge if they “belong” in the book, but not doing likewise with other, similar details, like the fact that the protagonist was born in Baltimore and enjoys fried shrimp – then the problem isn’t the author, but your own bigotry.

          • Lindsey says:

            This hits the nail on the head. White, straight, male characters are never required to submit documentation for why they should exist, so why does everyone else?

  4. Thank you so, so much for giving me the right, succinct language for that moment when the narrative shuts you out—when it becomes complicit in its dehumanization. Great work, as always.

  5. […] Foz Meadows slays on “The Politics of Presence”: […]

  6. […] •Foz Meadows looks at diversity’s relationship to good stories. […]

  7. David Gillon says:

    Abso-bloody-lutely! As a writer, Baen would probably be my spiritual home, but for the fact I’m both politically left wing and physically and mentally diverse. I was discussing your ‘on tragic queerness’ storify with some other writers this afternoon and one brought up ‘but aren’t we just falling into the token gay trope’. I’ve always rejected it as an argument, but decided to put some numbers behind it as a response.

    Given an incidence of queers in the population of 6% (from various surveys, I suspect it’s actually higher given society’s ambivalence), then if you have half a dozen major characters in a book (and that’s probably low for developed characters), the likelihood of one or more of them being queer is 31%*. With around 15 developed characters in the novel I just took through Pitchwars, the likeliehood of one or more queer characters is over 60%. It would be _unrealistic_ for me to not have one or more queer characters. (And I did have one, she ended up demanding to be much more prominent than I anticipated, and her orientation came up precisely once, to make a major developmental point about one of the protagonists. Having a queer character allowed me to illuminate what was going on with my straight characters and made the story stronger, not weaker,).

    And doing a similar exercise for my own diversity of disability, with the UK.GOV figure being around 20% of the population qualifying as disabled under the Equality Act – the usual reaction to this is ‘No way!’, but once you include epilepsy, diabetes, cancer, mental illness and so on, all the invisible disabilities people conveniently forget. – then the likelihood that half a dozen developed characters will include someone with a disability is about 74%. And my novel does, with two disabled protagonists out of three.

    Putting diverse characters into our fiction isn’t unrealistic, it’s fixing a persistent oversight in worldbuilding. An oversight whose origin is too uncomfortable for a lot of people to consider, so they respond by lashing out at those of us who won’t shut up about it because we’re the ones being excluded.

    * I’m using the Birthday Paradox to generate the figures, probability of none being queer is 100-6%^(number of characters), 1-that figure is the probability one or more are queer.

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