Friday, February 21, 2014

Voting for Diversity with my Dollars: Buying Books and Putting Diversity in SF&F into Practice

In January, I had the opportunity to get a bunch of books. Now, it’s not a big secret that I buy books, kind of a lot. But I don’t usually buy a bunch at once, for obvious financial reasons. But I had a gift card, obtained via Christmas, and I was keen to use it.

I also had a mission.

It’s been increasingly clear to me that I need to do more to support diversity in science fiction and fantasy (I’m just going to abbreviate that SF&F from here on in). That includes opposing sexism, racism, homophobia, ableism and other forms of bigotry where and when I can. And working at being actively welcoming and inclusive of other people in the SF&F fan and creative communities I participate in.

In January, I decided that it also meant making an active, conscious choice to prioritize buying books by women and/or people of colour.

I made that choice for a really simple reason: Women and people of colour are still under-represented in huge swathes of genre (as they are in publishing overall). A really good way to help that change for the better is to let publishers and booksellers know there's a demand for books from a wide and diverse range of writers, bringing a broader and deeper range of experiences and viewpoints to their work.

This is not a perfect approach; there are less visible forms of diversity (like gender identity, neurodiversity, being differently-abled and sometimes sexual orientation) that are less visible and that it’s therefore more difficult to take into account.

But it's a place to start.

I felt uncomfortable with the idea of blogging about this, initially. After all, the publishers have the data on my purchases; they can take it into account when they decide what sells. Would going public about my choice just be crowing? Was I fishing for validation for being a good progressive? And did I really want to risk getting caught up in the ongoing, sometimes very acrimonious debate about these issues in the SF&F communities?

Then I read blog posts by Foz Meadows and Emma Newman. I was reminded of Jessica Strider of Sci-Fi Fan Letter putting diversity into practice and creating a wonderful Special Needs In Strange Worlds  display of SF&F books dealing with issues of ability and disability at Toronto’s own World’s Biggest Bookstore.

And it became clearer to me that being a passive voice for diversity wasn't going to cut it. 

I forget, sometimes, how lucky I am to live in Toronto, where we have great bookstores like Bakka-Phoenix and World’s Biggest. In Toronto, diversity is part of the fabric of our lives (our mayor notwithstanding), and I forget that not everyone is a privileged as me.

And so I forgot that what reactionaries and haters might think of me is less important than the support I can offer by adding my voice and speaking out.

Because the writers, booksellers and publishers out there who are working for diversity or are themselves diverse need to know that they’re appreciated and supported. If I want to truly affect the conversation, I need to participate it, not just hope that the data resulting from my purchases is correctly interpreted by a huge and complex system full of variables.

I support diversity in SF&F. I do so actively and consciously. I do it by being welcoming and inclusive, opposing bigotry, speaking out – and I also do it by voting with my dollars.

I did that by buying four books:

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie, published by Orbit. A smart space opera that explores some interesting ideas about colonialism and about gender and language.
Between Two Thorns, by Emma Newman, published by Angry Robot. An urban fantasy about class conflict between powerful Faerie rulers and their human servants.
The Incrementalists, by Steven Brust and Skyler White, published by Tom Doherty Associates. A secret society of sort-of immortals who make the world a little bit better, very slowly. 
The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu, published by Angry Robot. High-energy science fiction about martial artist superspies and a secret war between factions of aliens.

(You may have noticed Angry Robot did well by me. They deserved to.)

The result? Four books, with a total of five authors (since The Incrementalists was co-written). One of the writers was a white dude. Not bad; I give myself a 3.5 out of 4. I did pretty well from a gender standpoint, but I could do more with regard to other kinds of diversity. That’s something I’ll keep in mind for next time.

I was reticent about naming the books I chose at first. It felt awkward and I was afraid that it might seem patronizing. It’s not my intention to impose my own labels or definitions on anyone or to try to put them in a little identity box.

But the point of practicing diversity is that, as Emma Newman points out, we don’t have a level playing field. Society puts people into those little identity boxes whether we like it or not, and we need to do more to reach into boxes that differ from our own.

One final thought: Another reason to practice diversity in book-buying is that it gives us another way to seek and find great things. Three of the four books were by authors I’d never read before (I’m a long-time fan of Steven Brust). All of them were books that, based on my reading about new books in SF&F, sounded really interesting. And all of them were well worth it.

In other words, I never had to resort to second-tier choices. In fact, if I'd had the resources, I could have bought a dozen more books by women and/or people of colour and still not have been going with second-tier choices.

You don’t have to give anything up to practice diversity. It doesn’t subtract. It adds.

Of course, there are books by white dudes that I really want too. And I'm going to continue to support those authors as well (I'm not going without getting caught up on the Gentlemen Bastards series for much longer, that's for sure). This isn’t a boycott and it’s not either/or; it’s a reminder to myself to expand my definition of being inclusive, and putting it into practice via the books I buy.

(And really, as an aspiring SF&F author and life-long white guy myself, I’m pretty sure we don’t need to worry. The white dudes are going to be okay.)

This was an experiment, and from where I’m sitting, a successful one. Worth repeating. Diversity will continue to be one of the lenses I view my book buying through.

Working to be inclusive. Speaking out. Opposing bigotry. And voting with my dollars.

It’s a place to start. 

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