The Diversity Problem in SFF We Don’t Talk About
Spoilers: it’s US cultural dominance.
We all know that there is a long history in literature in general, and speculative literature in particular, of amplifying dominant voices to the exclusion of other stories. But we are getting better.
Campaigns like We Need Diverse Books, the #ownvoices conversation, and leading magazines devoting special issues to writing by women, members of the queer communities, people of colour and more are shining spotlights on works by authors and/or featuring characters who better represent the world in which we really live.
Indeed, this year’s Nebula Awards have been lauded as a showcase for diversity. As Andrew Liptak said about the nominees, writing for io9, “What jumps out right away is that this is a strong, diverse list of works and authors.” And when the voting was done, and the winners of the prose awards were all women, two of whom are women of colour, Liptak wrote:
“The science fiction world has had its share of drama with the Hugo Awards as various slates have worked aggressively to push against the growing numbers of women and people of color appearing on award ballots. The Nebula Awards have demonstrated, for two years in a row, that science fiction and fantasy literature remains a strong, inclusive body of literature.”
But, inclusive of what, exactly? What about geographical diversity? I took a look at some numbers, and saw an unsurprising but troublesome situation.
In this year’s Nebula Awards shortlist, at least 79% of the works were written by authors living in the United States. Only 7 out of 34 works were by authors who are resident outside the US, or whose country of residence I couldn’t find in publicly available material1. See below2 for notes on methodology.
It’s not just the Nebulas either. I didn’t look at this year’s Hugo shortlist, but last year Lynn E. O’Connacht posted a comprehensive breakdown of Hugo nominees by nationality. The whole post is worth a read, but here are the numbers3:
US: 82.2% (106 authors)
UK: 12.4% (16 authors)
Canada: 3.1% (4 authors)
China: 0.8% (1 author)
France: 0.8% (1 author)
Jamaica: 0.8% (1 author)
The short fiction categories:
US: 74.5% (205 authors)
UK: 10.2% (28 authors)
Canada: 3.3% (9 authors)
Australia: 1.1% (3 authors)
France: 0.4% (1 author)
Netherlands: 0.4% (1 author)
Unknown: 10.2% (28 authors)
I also looked at a few other awards for comparison and I was shocked to discover that a significant percentage of the 2016 Arthur C. Clarke Award (for SFF published in Britain) and British Fantasy Awards shortlists were for works by US-based authors.
Out of six works on the Clarke award shortlist, two are by US-based authors and over 20% of the British Fantasy Award shortlist are US-based authors, including at least one US-based author’s work in each category.4
So what can be done about it? I’m not the only one talking about this; Australian author T.R. Napper wrote on this topic recently with respect to the Hugos, with his own proposal. Instead, I think following the model of other diversity initiatives is the way to go.
- Address the elephant (or, in this case, eagle) in the room instead of ignoring it.
- If you hold a special call for submission to amplify the voices of people from outside certain geographic areas, maybe think about restricting that call to authors from outside those regions.
- Recognize that even if you don’t attend conventions or in-person workshops, which are substantially easier for US-based authors to do, if you are an author who lives in North America you benefit from the privilege of sharing time zones with industry professionals. It sounds small, but community is often built from small things like fun twitter conversations and online chat.
I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I hope that we can open a conversation5 about how to become more inclusive of voices all over the planet. After all, we are the literature of other worlds — surely we can accommodate more of the world we already inhabit.
Eagle photo credit: Jordan Confino
Notes [ + ]
|1.||￪||I used the authors’ public bios, wikipedia, and in some cases interviews to determine country of residence. When residence information was not publicly obtainable, I’ve marked those authors as Unknown, even when their nationalities were listed. Therefore, some authors’ bios may list them as American authors, but if I could not determine their residence, they are listed here as Unknown.|
|2.||￪||I have no interest in identity policing here, so chose to use current residence as the benchmark. I recognize that living in a country does not necessarily mean a person has an identification with that nationality. However, I’d argue that simply residing in the US confers a privilege with respect to SFF publishing, so that’s the metric I chose.|
|3.||￪||Lynn chose a different methodology than I did, but the trend is pretty clear.|
|4.||￪||A complete breakdown of the shortlists and references I used is in this pdf, including a breakdown of the shortlist for the new Eugie Award where 3/5 nominees are US-based.|
|5.||￪||If anyone has corrections to make, please feel free to comment here or email me privately at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Please note that I will continue to list authors’ residences as Unknown if that information is not part of a public bio. I have no interest in asking anyone to reveal information about their residence, and believe strongly in every individual’s right to privacy.