I’ve been doing some thinking and discussion lately about short fiction and what sorts of forces elevate some stories to be discussed, included in best of anthologies, and nominated for awards. Looking at examples from last year and the early ones for this year, in my judgment they often aren’t very good and certainly aren’t the best. And as a group, they tend to exhibit certain patterns.
Additionally, since I started a short fiction column and thus widely increased my zine reading — I’m going to have to get more mercenary about my reading soon because mental health is important — I’ve read some utter dross, emblematic of the same pattern.
I’ll use examples from my own axis. I’ve read three stories with disabled protagonists this year. Two were dreck. A lady has to overcome society’s ableism to achieve her space-related dreams! A girl must confront the ableism of her family and make a choice that she’s okay as she is! Ugh, I cannot with this. I suppose maybe to an audience who doesn’t live this, these stories may have significance, though I find this significance suspect. In any case, these stories’ plots revolve around the Drama Around Being Disabled, rather than characters with disabilities doing cool shit in spaceships.
In contrast, in the third story (and the best story I’ve read so far this year, out of a lot — a different author pointed out I tend to run awareness programs of the stories I enjoy the most, so here I shall wax poetic further), “The Half-Dark Promise” by Malon Edwards in this month’s Shimmer, the disability of the main character is integrated into her history, her relationships with other characters, the genre elements, and the plot without being the point of the plot. She’s bullied at school, her chronic medical condition sucks — but it’s also her literal armor. The story is about fear and loss and fighting fucking monsters, not the Drama Around Being Disabled. And her being Haitian-American is similarly integrated into the story’s elements. It’s not just that the story couldn’t have happened to any other character, it’s that the story originated organically from a whole character, rather than otherness.
And I think it’s important to note a few things. First, it’s not a binary. It isn’t a choice between a story based on the Drama Around and including none of the Drama Around — marginalization affects lives, but doesn’t define them. And second, stories about the Drama Around aren’t inherently bad, though I tend to think that the ones authored by members from those groups tend to be substantially better, and the ones authored by those who aren’t have an extremely high suck ratio and tendency to become trite message stories. And third is a however — I think even good stories about the Drama Around authored by members of these groups don’t tend to be their best work.
And yet, stories about the Drama Around seem to receive much more attention than stories about marginalized people doing cool shit in spaceships. I think this is very, very bad, for several reasons.
- It’s suggestive that large swathes of left SFF can only justify the inclusion of marginalized people for the sake of empathizing with our plight of the sadz.
- The best stories with marginalized characters end up receiving little attention, while mediocre-to-pretty-good ones receive much more, which doesn’t do anything good for the case for diverse characters’ inclusion.
- It feeds into the false perception that stories with characters that are marginalized are “message stories” and to be avoided by (ignorant, but I think unmalicious) people who don’t want messages in their spaceships.
- Which is bad for marginalized authors, who risk alienating one potential audience or the other, and who may not be known for their best work.
- I have a grave concern that authors from marginalized groups are faced with a greater unspoken expectation to write about the Drama Around, while authors that aren’t marginalized are freer to write characters from those groups as people first. In other words, that some authors only get significant attention for Marginalization Theater. This is sort of related to the idea of women authors being invited to panels only on Being A Woman In Genre, that diverse authors are only invited to panels on diversity on genre, etc. etc. — rather than being invited to panels on world building or something.
- And it also feeds into the very damaging perception that marginalized characters need A Reason to be included.
- It’s bad for audience members that are looking for fiction with marginalized characters; lots of noise, not enough signal.
- It’s bad for the short fiction market as a whole.
- It means that the Melancholy Canines, who arrived at similar conclusions for abhorrent reasons, have a stance that is WAY TOO CLOSE TO MINE Y’ALL. This cannot be borne.
Left SFF should know better than this by now. But judging by last year’s short fiction award slots, what’s going into best of compilations and award recommendations right now, and current zine publications, it clearly doesn’t. Question is, what’s to be done?