Why giving up the fight isn’t an option.
Did you hear about the 2020 Hugo Awards? At the virtual ceremony for science fiction and fantasy’s loftiest prize, host George R.R. Martin found himself in a bit of trouble for praising problematic writers and mispronouncing the names of award winners, particularly writers of color.
Martin sort of apologized — in the huffy way of people who feel forced to apologize — but anger in the community seethed afterward, and continues to burn.
This is, more often than not, the backdrop that publishing finds itself against. A member of the old guard unwittingly (and that’s charitable) insults new writers, writers who are often women, LGBTQ, or people of color. And there often seems to be a sense among the perpetrators that these complaints are sparked by a victimhood fetish, or a weakness of character, or an overreaction.
But take a moment to imagine living your life in the light of racism, a life constantly demeaned because of your skin color or name. But you fight past that and persevere and publish a book. The book is good; it earns a celebrated place in the upper echelons of your field.
And then one of publishing’s giants — arguably, the biggest name in writing today — shares that moment with you, this once-in-a-lifetime moment, and you’re again diminished. Reduced. Thrown back into the margins because of a name he can’t be bothered to learn or, certainly, respect.
And you realize that no matter how far you go, or what you accomplish, you’re fighting the same battles.
But there’s more to it.
Beyond the insult, there’s the added humiliation of having to explain why the insult is offensive: “Your racist joke offended me, and here's why..."
The act of explaining why an action is racist, and then having the offending individual agree not to make those kinds of jokes anymore, is compromise. And, as the minority in that situation, you're being consoled. You're being given a gift. The wrongdoer will try and behave a little better because of your feelings.
It's damnably demeaning to be in that position. Nobody wants wounds.
It's the marginalized who make the compromise. The other side gives us their word, and we give them our vulnerability. We open. And it's a painful act of exposure, much more painful for us than it is for them.
I recently served on the nomination committee for the International Thriller Writers, a small committee whose purpose was to choose a new board for the organization. Everyone on the committee, somewhat obviously, had definite ideas about that direction.
I resigned the day after our first meeting.
The things I wanted, and the chief reasons I thought it was important for me to be there, were worth fighting for: diversity and attention to marginalized voices. And I don't think anyone on the committee was necessarily against those things.
But I felt like I'd have to fight to explain why those should be the primary factors in choosing candidates and, really, the only qualifications worth considering...and I suddenly felt a very real, very close, and, at the time, inexplicable sense of exhaustion and despair. I needed to free myself. And so I left.
I should have stayed. I think I’ll always regret that.
Thankfully, I wasn’t alone in my beliefs on that committee. And I do have hope and reason to believe that the new board, while maybe not as full-throated as I would have liked, will be in support of these issues and progressive in its social stances. I hope that the end result is an organization, and even an entire genre, where marginalized voices will be welcomed. And accorded the respect of their peers.
So I walked away from the committee, but I’m not walking away from the fight. My race doesn’t allow me that luxury.
But, fortunately, when I couldn’t, there were others willing to fight. And those writers (like Vanessa Lillie, among many others) constantly inspire me, and I will join them and stand with them and write for and about them, as I always do. It’s true that no matter how far we go, no matter what we accomplish, we’ll fight these same battles.
And, yes, we’ll rest, but we’ll return. Whether or not these are battles we want to fight, or marches we’re too tired to walk, or protests we’re too scared to join…we will. We have too much to lose. And none of us should feel that we have the luxury of passivity any longer.
I still believe, as I wrote in my last column, that there’s a unique chance right now for crime fiction to reform.
We can stand apart in the world of publishing and we can present a united, resilient, tested front against bigotry. It won’t be easy. It will require patience and change and persistent belief. And we need to find people to break through those dark clouds that occasionally threaten us, to help us stand back up when we’re weary. We’ll need to be lucky and, always, good.
We’ll need to capture some of those lofty heroic principles that, for so many writers working today, have only been found in their fiction.