I’ve been trying to put together my 2017 Recommended Reading List since early to mid-February when I finished reading for it. I’d originally intended to use it to help people find fiction to look at for the Nebulas and the Hugos, as I do. Then just the Hugos. I will not be making that latter deadline either.
The blog post sits, unfinished, in my Drafts folder. I open it occasionally, when I have time, and sit down to finish discussing the magazines I looked at (57 this time round, with 40 I’m talking about in brief, because I wanted to cover only free online mags and projects from 2017 — it’s an experiment, go with it), and talk about the state of the online field of speculative fiction publishing.
Every single time I sit down to work on that state of the field section I am incensed. This because I had to read through a lot of racist, queerphobic, ableist shit written by white people, and published by other white people, in the course of reading through that 2017 content. Some of it macroaggressions, some of it microaggressions. All of it vile. And to those of you about to say, with the usual (totally inaccurate) assumptions accompanying this conversation, “Oh, but surely you must mean only those token markets with their less prestigious and careful editing?”:
No. No, I do not.
Some of the worst offenses were published in the pro venues. And I’ll be honest, I don’t feel like going into what and where, because those are fights I don’t particularly feel like having right this moment. Because we have the same fucking fight every year and nothing changes.
So because I’m pissed, weary of this vicious cycle, and really only have time tonight for a quick response, we’re going to do this instead:
In December 2015, I had an essay published in Queers Destroy Horror! That essay was never widely available because it was not part of the free online content. Said essay ranges broadly through approaches and problems in speculative publishing’s approach to inclusive fiction — mostly through the lens of queer inclusivity. Not one fucking thing it talks about has changed.
Not one. Fucking. Thing.
Yes, it’s only been two and a half years since it was published and Publishing moves at a snail’s pace. But the gaming of the diversity/inclusivity approach to publishing by straight white writers — and thus denial of space to creators who are POC, Indigenous, Aboriginal, queer (in broader spectrum) and various intersections thereof — has actually gotten worse since this essay was published.
Thus, my raging every time I try and write the summary of the field in the 2017 Recs List. And why that damn thing is a month late and travelling.
I will eventually post the recs list online. Because there are some amazing mags in the field, some absolutely fucking exquisitely talented writers working in it, and I love posting recommendations. I’m a bibliophile. And part of loving the amazing works of others has to be sharing it so others can experience it. This also being part of why I co-founded and co-edit Anathema.
So in the spirit of moving forward and hoping for a bettering of the field by talking through our failings as well as our successes, let’s momentarily cast our gaze back to the end of 2015, to a ~3,000 word (amended in this post) rant from yours truly:
“Effecting Change and Subversion Through Slush Pile Politics”
(Originally published in Queers Destroy Horror!)
All stories, all narratives really, are conversation. What those conversations are saying depends on several things: who’s doing the telling, what they’re talking about, and why the conversation is happening. All true whether or not the stories contain Queer content. But when you look at slush piles in the abstract, they’re very seldom reflective of the conversations, Queer-related or not, being had in published fiction.
The conversations occurring in both published and unpublished short fiction are the result of similar factors: the socio-economic and socio-political realities that shape what gets written, what gets published, and the social media interaction around what is published. But the material that’s published is overwhelmingly an active conversation, focused on larger questions of identity, representation, and a quest for both internal and external understanding—any body of published work is a communal investigation into questions we want answered, whether that community’s local, international, or global.
By contrast, the material in slush piles that remains permanently unpublished is having a defunct conversation. The stories that are unpublishable are asking questions that are already answered, or trying to have a conversation in terms that are outmoded and obsolete.
Consequently, there are two similar but divergent conversations occurring. Both conversations react to a wealth of published material, but only one set actively communicates with the body of published work it’s addressing. There are a number of factors that produce the difference between these conversations:
The first and foremost is that you inform the work you create; your experiences, as well as your economic, political, and cultural realities, form the basis of the work you create. It’s extremely difficult to write entirely outside of your own experience. Whatever your aims or intent, what ends up on the page reflects your lived experience in some way.
The best parts of what make it into the slush pile are some form of lived experience, even when the worldbuilding and other elements are fantastical or otherwise non-realist. Work that doesn’t feel invested in some way—that doesn’t feel lived in—doesn’t make it through the slush pile. That uninvested work doesn’t help further or shape the conversation. Instead, you end up with people writing fiction, as evidenced by the slush piles I’ve been party to, writing uninvested work that emulates what they expect the cultural conversation to be.
Most slush isn’t bad or unutterably terrible, despite the common misconception. Most slush pile fiction is either boring or mediocre; it’s unengaging in terms of themes, ideologies, or understandings of identity. It doesn’t say anything or touch off discussions that take us into new and interesting territory. It rehashes older material, or draws upon material from earlier eras (often pulp-era fiction, or the Golden Age of SF) without understanding that the conversation has since widened.
That last issue is a function of new writers coming to classic or much-lauded work and attempting to re-ignite the conversations they find there. Conversations whose time has passed.
Slush piles are full of stories in which women are there merely as victims. Or stories with women in them who couldn’t pass Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Sexy Lamp Test (Does a woman in this story do anything or say anything relevant to the story, excluding acting as a motivating factor or quest trophy?). Stories with racist, bigoted, or queerphobic content in period storytelling—because everybody was doing it then, right, and that’s totally historically accurate? (The counterargument to this is a story like Kai Ashante Wilson’s “The Devil in America.”) And stories that exist merely to degrade a character or group.
See, unexceptional fiction is content to skim the surface of an idea. Whereas exceptional fiction is dizzying and heady in its aims. It embraces the sense of awe that informs great fiction. You feel the crush of it beating against your ribcage. Sometimes so quietly it’s all but a whisper, but you know it when you find it.
Exceptional fiction does two things:
First, it fires on all cylinders. Fiction is an act of juggling component pieces, and even the best stories can only pull off so many tricks at once, and inevitably something suffers. Sometimes the prose is too loose or too dry, the plot poorly paced, or the subtext misfires and you end up saying things you didn’t intend to say. So a piece that’s pitch perfect is an extraordinary accomplishment. A merely competent piece will be one an editor enjoys and knows needs to be shared; an exceptional piece is one that sets the editor digging into it, trying to figure out how the hell it was machined so perfectly.
Second, exceptional fiction changes the course of the conversation by either advancing the conversation, or rewriting it entirely. If we’re very lucky, it does so permanently. I would argue that exceptional Queer fiction reshapes the conversation by naturalizing Queer identity and representation.
You produce more diverse content in fiction by naturalizing diversity. Doing so is how you get people to sit up and pay attention. When you present the reader with diverse characters and identities in fiction—which is, after all, a more accurate representation of the state of affairs outside of fiction—and do it repeatedly, diversity becomes the normalized state.
This is because the majority of conversation about Queer content suggests that being Queer is in and of itself something exceptional, and the thing the story should focus on. Except, when the exceptionalism of queerness is the focus of a story, the story Others queerness instead of naturalizing it.
You make diversity a normal thing in fiction by not making the work about a character’s queerness, their race, their neuroatypicality, or any other form of diversity as the foregrounding feature. Instead, you make that story about how the character moves through the narrative trajectory of the piece. Woman warrior defeats ancient evil, is lauded as heroine, marries princess. Deep-space astronaut survives destruction of orbital space station, now must figure out how to survive to get home to see his husband again. And so on. If a character in a story is Queer in some respect, but that queerness never plays a central role, or is even just mentioned in passing? That’s still a Queer narrative. It’s representational politics at work. You want to see diverse content in published work? Build it into the background and the foreground of the story and it saturates the work you’re creating.
The only reason straight white male characterizations in North American and European fictions are so dominant is because they’ve been viewed so long as the default states for storytelling. If you work from the basis that white, male, and straight is your tabula rasa, then the act of writing about race, femaleness, and queerness becomes falsely perceived as a needless complication. But the assumption of default state is false bias: there is no default state for characterization in storytelling, let alone in Queer storytelling.
Here’s the thing:
I’ve done a lot of editing one way or another in the last decade and a half. And that idea that Queer stories are principally about being Queer comes up all the time. But it never came up quite so dramatically as when I was trying to put together two (aborted, long story) anthologies, Start a Revolution and This Patchwork Flesh. These books had the stated intention of featuring protagonists who fell somewhere along the larger QUILTBAG (and beyond) spectrum, but whose queerness was not the central narrative and focus.
Start a Revolution, an anthology themed around revolutions literal and more personal, was especially bad for submissions of stories that were about how being Queer was itself revolutionary. There are a number of reasons for this narrative showing up so frequently, but I’m going to lay at least some of the blame for it on how the majority of LGBTQ+ presses shape the conversation around Queer identity. By pushing the idea that a story must be centrally about being Queer in order to be representational of Queer storytelling, the conversation has moved to being Queer as an act of exceptionalism and away from normalization of Queer identity.
Which brings us back to what I was talking about earlier in terms of exceptional fiction.
See, the best things I’ve seen in the slush pile, and ultimately the things I recommended to senior editors or took for anthologies, were stories that decentralized being somewhere on the QUILTBAG spectrum. The stories I gravitated to were stories in which the queerness of the characters was a function of the story, not the main feature.
Work that features diversity without being exoticizing or appropriative does so by having diverse characters move through stories that don’t have the nature of their diversity as the focal point. Failing to do so leaves you with storytelling like the curebie narrative. Ultimately destructive narratives supposing that autistic or otherwise neuroatypical characters just need “fixing,” curbie narratives are stories in which neurotypical characters, through science or magic, “fix” neuroatypical characters by rendering them neurotypical as well; they suggest that, clearly, not being “normal” is a terrible thing, and these poor, malformed characters must wish they weren’t so monstrous. The “curbie” narrative is a deeply fucking terrifying narrative structure, because it’s a short hop, skip, and a jump from suggesting that fixing people so you’re less terrified of them is a normal course of action, to sterilization and eugenics narratives. And there’s a precedent for that leap: neuroatypicality and autism have historically been “treated” through the application of invasive medical treatments, heavy pharmacology, and eugenics primarily through sterilization–the same set of methods historically used to “fix” Queer people. On the whole that’s something I suspect most people who write curebie narratives don’t actually consider hard enough, or editors would see far fewer of those style of stories showing up in slush piles.
Now, the majority of the stories with Queer content that I’ve seen in slush piles fail at being good representation because they exoticize Queer identity. And that happens because most people produce what they think the conversation about queer identity is.
Sometimes that’s a function of very white, usually straight, writers trying to produce what they think, or have internalized, is the experience of the Other. The conversation about diversity, in all its forms, invites writers to create wider representation, so you’re going to get people writing experiences of lives other than their own. And you always hope that people writing about other cultures and trying to envision what it’s like to be the Other creates space for diverse writers to be able to submit their work and shift the conversation to a wider range of voices–or at least that attempts by writers of one culture to capture the voices of another come off in respectful and careful storytelling. It certainly can, and frequently does. But sometimes you also get something less desirable:
Given how prevalent the calls for diversity and representation are, an unscrupulous writer can use diversity as a gimmick to the point where it becomes a shortcut to publication.
Nowhere has the argument that diversity is just a set of brownie points we’re all trying to score been more prevalent than in the interminable screeds coming out of the Sad/Rabid Puppies and Gamergate camps. Which is total bullshit. People of colour, Queer writers, and neuroatypical writers aren’t writing from their experience just to get published. The primary reason to write stories with diverse characters is that diversity is a lived, internal experience. Writing diversity from an internal perspective is including yourself in the conversation. Appropriating diversity, however, is a function of entitlement.
That appropriation, that entitlement, shows up in the way we talk about diversity itself. “Diversity,” as descriptor, can function as a colonialist and dismissive act exactly because it positions anything non-white, non-male, and non-heteronormative as non-primary or Other. It’s not self-descriptive language, it’s ascriptive language–and thereby exoticizing. And that exoticism, relating to all kinds of diversity, Queer content included, shows up all too frequently in slush piles. Especially in horror venues, where the history of the genre has really not been good on diverse representation.
In my time as a submissions editor with Apex, I saw some of the worst exoticism, entitlement, and appropriation of diversity I’ve come across anywhere doing editorial work. You combine a publication that focuses on horror fiction and dark fantasy with a lot of white North American writers idolizing horror fiction’s historical body of work, with its hugely problematic issues around representation, and you tend to get stories that either pay lip service to diversity, or that fly in the face of it entirely. This often occurred in combination with the three principal story types that made up the bulk of Apex’s slush pile: the serial killer story (a disturbing number of these written by Texans–your guess as to why is as good as mine; I have no working theory there), the cannibalism story, and the rape/revenge-fantasy story.
The lack of diversity in multiple respects in the Apex slush pile was discouraging, not least of all in terms of the general lack of Queer content coming across the transom. And it wasn’t just Apex having those issues. Many venues are welcoming to Queer/LGBTQ+/QUILTBAG fiction, but don’t receive it in the slush pile. Yes, many are intentionally or unintentionally unwelcoming, and the submissions calls and guidelines put out often lead to white, straight writers appropriating diversity instead of people of colour, Queer writers, and neuroatypical writers getting their own work published. But there are venues that manage to actually run diverse and diverse-authored content, and do it consistently. Flawed as those diversity statements and calls sometimes are, they’re part of the necessary work of soliciting work from diverse writers in order to have the material to run.
It takes that consistent publication of more than token amounts of diverse and diverse-authored content to prove that a venue is actually interested in diversity. Otherwise, rightly or wrongly, a venue is going to be seen as just trying to make hay out of diversity itself. Especially since the magazines that curate diverse content on a regular basis do (or did for those that have since closed) it noticeably well: FIYAH, Arsenika, Koru, Ruru Reads, Glittership, Crossed Genres, Strange Horizons, Shimmer, Clarkesworld, Tor.com, Lightspeed/Nightmare, GigaNotoSaurus, Unlikely Story, and Lackington’s, among others.
Anthologies, too, have to get diversity right, and a publisher has to do it repeatedly across multiple projects in order for the publisher to be considered welcoming to diverse and diverse-authored content. The editors of those anthologies also have to prove that they can consistently curate diverse-authored content across multiple projects. Seeing publications getting it right or trying to do so was one of the things that made reading slush for the Glitter & Mayhem anthology way back when such a pleasure. Not everything that came in for that anthology was perfect. But the bulk of what I saw in my portion of that slush pile were pieces that were going hammer and tongs at diversity, representation, and general oddity in the best possible sense.
It’s funny, too, because you find that effective diverse content crops up in places you wouldn’t expect. All kinds of diverse content showed up in the slush pile for the Fearful Symmetries anthology, often in completely normalized, rather than exoticized, contexts. I say that with such shock because the bulk of horror fiction is just appallingly bad at doing diversity and representation well. This is primarily because horror fiction less frequently focuses on the uncanny side of horror, the numinous or otherwise transformative, and is instead transgressive and victim-oriented. Transgression itself is not my problem here, but rather who that transgression is perpetrated against and how. Because the different ways in which violence is directed in horror fiction perpetuates, by example, the idea of a stratification of victimhood: Who should you care more about as a victim? What skin colour, race, and other orientations do you most readily identify with?
Those stratifications of victimhood, and many of the functions of horror as transgressive wish-fulfillment fantasy, play into a fascinating, if disturbing, affirmation of heteronormative gender roles: Men prey on women. Men rescue women. These two functions are established as natural, and reinforced by their repetition. When women prey on men there’s subversion at work (with the qualification that this, too, can be a misogynistic trope). And when women rescue men there’s an upheaval of social roles that is totally intolerable to a wide subset of people. But you have to enact, and keep enacting, upheaval if you want to create space for diverse content. The sheer weight of fiction that elides diverse content is staggering, and requires a tectonic shift to redress. In earlier eras of fiction the elision of diversity was both an act of suppression and an appalling obliviousness to the racist, queerphobic, and otherwise dismissive agenda underlying the worldview of so many published writers. In modern fiction, that same elision is simply unforgiveable.
We all need to be creating upheaval in fiction. The representation of underrepresented groups and cultures in Western literature pushes against the bulwark of colonialist, hegemonic, heteronormative, white-centric narratives. They are reshaping the field. They are actively changing the conversation.
That’s the kind of thing you always want to see in a slush pile, whether the stories are Queer-centric or otherwise. Because as an editor, you always want to see the things that push the conversation further. And as a writer, you always hope you’re writing the piece that makes that happen.