The Problem with SFF’s Diversity Discussion

There is and has been for a long time a heated discussion on diversity in science fiction and fantasy, or rather the lack of diversity in the community.

Historically the readership/fan base for this kind of material has been straight white male, with authors of the same sort. There seems to be two camps here. The first is a noble goal of including more types of authors and characters to draw in people who aren’t now reading the genres. The second and more dubious goal seems to be to coerce or force people to write things they don’t want to write, and to mold established authors into something they are not.

I am fully in support of the first option, and I have participated by including diverse characters in my fiction. That’s not because I feel coerced or pressure to conform. It’s because I come from an ethnically diverse extended family and I lived in a mixed population metropolitan area, and diversity just feels normal to me. In my first five novels, I have had prominent characters who were Japanese, Neanderthal, Filipino, lesbian, wheelchair-bound, Hispanic, and African-American.

I say that to emphasize before I get to the discussion of the problems that I am not the opposition.

There are three major problems I see with the approach being taken right now.

1. Most of the Discussion is on Social Media – Part 1
The problem with Social Media is that people are speaking to their followers. People who follow somebody want to hear what that person has to say, but those followers are very likely already in the same camp. This is, as they say, preaching to the choir. It might make the person posting feel better, but I think it has minimal effect in changing a paradigm.

2. Most of the Discussion is on Social Media – Part 2
There is a second problem with Social Media as a platform for unrelenting discussion. That is, the people who need to hear the discussion don’t have to listen. They just stop following, or they block. When you remove the people who need to hear the discussion, the person posting is talking to a brick wall.

3. Saturation
The discussion on diversity has been going on for an extended period of time. It has a great deal of momentum, and that’s good because it shows people are passionate and it keeps the subject in our thoughts. The issue I see here is that some people seem to talk about nothing else, and that leads to saturation. Once a person reaches saturation, they start tuning out. Some people subscribe to the strategy of “stay in your face until I get what I want.” I can’t think of an instance where that alone solved any problems. Instead, it leads to animosity and people simply turning their backs. We can talk about diversity in SFF through social media, but we have to talk about other things, too.

See, I don’t think the solution is so simple as constantly making noise. Letters like this one are more to the point. If the publishers see a demand for diversity, they will accomodate. For every person who writes, there are a lot of like-minded people who don’t.

The other way to make real progress has to be grassroots. There is a large segment of readers who want the status quo, and that’s okay. They aren’t in the diversity audience anyway. In other words, they aren’t the target market–they are a market segment already being served regardless of any personal opinions on the market segment itself.

The grassroots comes from introducing people we know to material they wouldn’t have read otherwise. Word of mouth is the most powerful form of marketing, and in the long run, I think that’s the approach that has the best chance of success.

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