Literary Extremism?

As almost anyone who’s read my work must know, I’m less than a fan of extremes of any sort, but there’s a segment of the population, and I suspect there always has been, that wants to take things to extremes. Except that they don’t see what they believe as extremes, but as the way things should be. The traditionalists tend to romanticize the past or the good old times, and those looking to the future tend to embrace change almost unconditionally as for the best.

The futurists – both social and technological – seem unable to accept the fact that change isn’t always for the best and that there are aspects of the past that are better than their corresponding current aspect. The traditionalists tend to ignore or whitewash [sometimes literally] the uglinesses of the past and exaggerate its purported virtues.

In the past, this conflict has tended to be more apparent in politics, economics, and law. But it’s always been simmering in literature, except for F&SF, where the first overt signs of this appeared in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the “new wave” movement, which was an effort to move away from the hard Sf basis of the field into more literary writing styles and a greater emphasis on “soft science.” Then came the boom in fantasy, which soon eclipsed the sales of science fiction.

More recently, over the past two decades, however, there’s been an increasing emphasis, particularly in speculative fiction, on what I will call “cultural and social awareness.” In one sense, this was long overdue, because F&SF was for too long dominated almost exclusively by western white male stereotypes, and the entry into the field by large numbers of talented writers who were other than white and male has made for a much richer and more diverse universe of writers and themes.

Because of the richness of that diversity, I get very tired of “traditionalist” F&SF writers who claim that the major publishers won’t publish them because they won’t write “woke fiction.” There are still major publishers who print and distribute western-male-centric novels – they just have to be good novels.

At the same time, however, I’m now getting the feeling that the emphasis on cultural diversity in F&SF has gone askew. I’m for well-written cultural diversity with good plots and characters, no matter who wrote it. The emphasis should always be on the work and its degree of excellence. But… there’s been too much talk and, I suspect, editorial emphasis about who writes what, rather than how good the writing is and how accurate the cultural elements are. One struggling writer I know had a novel rejected because, despite the writer’s knowledge of a culture and having lived in it, that writer was not of that ethnicity.

Some twenty years ago I wrote two novels based on my experiences in other cultures – The Parafaith War and The Ethos Effect. There would certainly be questions about my writing The Ethos Effect today, because the protagonist is a black male naval officer who is the son of two fathers, and I’m neither black nor gay, nor the son of gay parents.

Writers should always expect to be questioned on how accurately they portray cultures in their work, but the business of judging a novel on the ethnicity of who wrote it, as opposed to how well it was done, is carrying “cultural diversity” too far.

It’s also why there’s a growing backlash against the “woke” culture.

3 thoughts on “Literary Extremism?”

  1. Postagoras says:

    I agree with the principle that well-written stories shouldn’t be unpublished because of the race and ethnicity of the author. But that has been happening to minority writers for a long time.
    White writers are not being told that they can’t write. But if they use a point of view of a minority character, society is now pushing back, because a writer of that race or ethnicity wouldn’t have gotten the chance to tell that story.
    It’s a messy process that we’re going through, and we’re really at the beginning of it. It’s going to be hard, and there will be unfair judgements along the way. But over all, I see a fairer publishing industry developing.

    1. R. Hamilton says:

      If people of any ethnicity/orientation/whatever write a story that would be good without knowing that about the author, isn’t that at least as desirable as reserving minority or alternative viewpoint stories for authors of that minority or alternative viewpoint? Certainly as long as minority/alternative authors are not being excluded from writing either minority/alternative focused stories or for that matter more “traditional” ones.

      Think of how many female F&SF authors used pseudonyms or abbreviations of their names that did not reveal their gender, to be able to write in a male-dominated genre. Andre Norton (born Alice Mary Norton) is just one example; others are as recent as J.K. Rowling (targeting an audience of children and young adults of both genders), and also writing as Robert Galbraith for her gritty detective novels (presumably to escape being typecast as a fantasy author, and to find out if she could sell without her name and in a different genre).

      Yet don’t underestimate even the classics by male authors: “Doc” Smith’s females, although somewhat stereotypically constrained, were NOT weak, and their views changed over time; Dottie (Seaton’s wife) learned from Sitar (warlike green alien Dunark’s wife) the attitude of female or male alike going into a fight that had to be fought, and should best be won.

  2. Grey says:

    It’s interesting to watch a new cultural movement take place. There are some interesting parallels to religion as we see excommunication, penance, atonement as well as some fevered ‘executions’ that needed a bit more forethought.

    As Postagorus said, We are just at the beginning, and this pendulum is going to swing back-and-forth. I can see publishers being very hesitant in these things, not out of their own ideology, but just over the concern of pouring money into something that is struck by the swing of the pendulum.

    With the Parafaith books, you are possibly in a unique position of being canceled by both the right and the left – are you the Original SJW, or an oppressor whole stole the voice of the downtrodden? Don’t hesitate to reach out to Tor about some unique marketing opportunities here. Either way I bet you sell more copies!

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