Wiscon-Related Thoughts pt 7
It's no use saying that an editor just wants good stories. Every editor wants good stories. Every editor has constraints on the kinds of good stories she wants--a stated mission or target for her zine, the tastes of an established audience, demands of advertisers or publishers, and so on. Every editor wants something much more specific than just "good stories."
And what is a "good story" anyway? What is "science fiction"? What is "good science fiction"?
What is music?
The answers to those questions are highly contextual. We all know that tastes vary, that the proverbial meat may also be proverbial poison, that the Romans didn't advise arguing about what pleases you. But we forget that even that variation happens within boundaries that are set by our culture, our education, our exposure (or not)* to art that doesn't fit the categories that have been so carefully taught to us. And it happens around an assumption of what's default that is obscured by the way we talk about music/stories/any sort of art.
Why does music sound better to an orchestra hiring committee if it's a guy playing, even if he's not as good as the woman who plays after him? Why would anyone think orchestra hiring committees are vulnerable to that sort of bias but none of us are?
Seems like every time someone brings up the question of gender ratios, any time anyone advocates working towards a more even spread, the subject of quotas comes up. Asking editors to buy more stories by women means buying according to a quota, when an editor should really only be buying "the best" stories.
But the request isn't to meet a quota, the request is to consider bias and take steps toreduce it. The next step is only obviously, inescapably quotas if you assume that, yes indeed, women or PoC just aren't as good and that's the only way the numbers might change. So basically, objecting on the basis of "but quotas!" kind of gives the lie to one's insistence that one is, in fact, not biased but merely realistic. It reveals assumptions that perhaps don't put one in the best light.
Never forget those orchestra hiring committees.
Speaking of which. Have the big 5 symphony orchestras declined in quality since they started using blind auditions? Do they sound girly now?
Would it kill me to ask myself, "Am I biased?" and would it kill me even deader to answer, "Oh, shit, maybe?"
And if that is my answer, what should I do?
Well. Consider science fiction. Well, I mean, yeah, most of us here do, because that's what we do, but I mean, think about this. Most of us have been reading SFF for a long, long time. We've read a lot. We've absorbed tropes and images and words and plots and so when we read a new story, it's in this very rich, very deep context. Writers can (and do) use that context to give resonance to their work. When (to point to only the most recent, obvious example I've run across lately) Mieville writes a novel about language, about translators who are the only point of communication between humans and aliens, set on a planet where a ship arriving is a big event, and reading it I come across a character named Bren, that has an effect. Not just a pleasant insider joke effect, I've read Foreigner and if you get this so have you!, though of course that's there. Just the name, for me, is enough to bring up a whole set of associations (no joke intended!), to set bits of the book humming in a sympathetic vibration that is completely inaccessible to someone who doesn't know what other associations that name might have.**
That's not even really the best example. Many times the effect is less obviously triggered--I was already getting echoes just off the setup, for instance. The name just outright plucked a string that was already humming softly. But someone who doesn't have experience reading SFF isn't going to hear those extra reverberations and echoes, that lend dimensionality and space and color to what we read.
Worse, someone who's quite well read in a genre that uses an entirely different set of conventions, foregrounds different things, uses different shorthands, they'll not only not hear the echoes, they'll experience SFF as awkward and clumsily built, unbalanced and flat.
Not because the work is actually flat. Though, yeah, some is. Sturgeon's law, you know? But we don't experience it as flat because we know how to read it, we're part of the conversation, we get the allusions, we experience the resonances, we're used to certain structures and conventions and can appreciate how different writers use them or play with them. In short, we've educated ourselves to appreciate it.
In college I ended up listening to a whole truckload of different kinds of music, stuff I'd never even imagined existed. I discovered that the more I listened to something new, the better I understood it, the more likely I was to like it, or other things like it. Am I an expert in the whole of music now? Know everything? A connoisseur of every genre and style? I am not. Not by a long shot. Did I end up loving every piece or genre I was given to study? I did not. Not at all.
But I have a much wider definition of music than when I started, and I know that if I want to understand why anyone at all likes, say, free improv, the best thing to do is to listen to a bunch of it, and maybe talk to people who like it to see what they say, and then ponder a bit. Instead of just throwing up my hands and saying, "That stinks."
So when there's a whole category or subcategory of fiction that seems thin and insignificant to you, you've got a choice. You can just say, "Well, that's objectively bad" and dismiss it. Or you can read a lot of it, maybe talk to people who do like it, and ponder it a bit.
Now, I don't think a casual reader ought necessarily feel obliged to do that sort of thing. But that question is its own whole huge thorny discussion, and not what I'm talking about here.
But editors? Whether editors know it or not, whether editors acknowledge it or not, editors form taste even when they only aim to cater to it. You can't learn to understand what you're not exposed to. What you choose to expose your audience to adds to their store of potential strings to resonate at some later date, reading some other story.
I'm not saying editors should only (or often, or ever) buy stories with an eye towards didacticism, no. I'm just saying, editors are not as much at the mercy of their readers' tastes as it might seem. You are not, yourself, at the mercy of your own taste.
Sometimes I get subs at GigaNotoSaurus that are from overseas, or by writers who, for various reasons, I happen to know aren't white or heterosexual or cisgendered or... And sometimes those stories hit me as "almost, but thin" or "almost, but too surfacy and obvious" or "almost, but..."
I have not bought an "almost" story. But those, they make me stop and think. They make me wonder, is it because this writer isn't quite there yet, this story not quite what it could be? Or do its frequencies fail to echo because I don't have those strings?
I don't know the answer. For now, I can only buy what I truly like. But I know that I'm more likely to recognize truly good work if I've taken the time to educate myself about the genre or subgenre in question. Each day I can only make the choices that seem right at that moment. But I can plan for the future.
And when someone offers me some passionfruit I'm likely to just look kind of foolish if I throw up my hands and say, "Ugh, I only like fruit."
*And of course, this is where it becomes a self-reinforcing cycle. Because if you're not exposed to something, you're not likely to think about it much or get used to it. Which means people selling you stuff won't pick it up to sell you, which means you're not exposed to it.....
**It's entirely possible Mieville didn't intend for this particular association to be there, and I myself have produced it out of my own reading and preoccupations, but still, it's there when I read.
YES! This is the end, the entirety of my multi-part post. One of the reasons I don't write as much on topics like this as I spend time thinking about them is that generally subjects like this are closely interconnected to so many other related ones and making a straight path through without being diverted--but still saying what I want to say--is extremely difficult for me. I guess what I mean is, sorry for going on so long!
Part 2 Slush
Part 3 Ann Likes Red
Part 4 Bias Is Inherent in the System
Part 5 Women Write Different Stories From Men?
Part 6 Fight for Your Right to Party
Part 7 Ending on Felicitous Seven