That Facebook conversation I had the other day continues to resonate. The male writer with whom I was discussing diversity in awards said, “Equality … is about judging on merits relevant to the task.” I could only think of a rather snarky comeback (my default mode), saying, “That all sounds very egalitarian, but also very convenient for us white men.”
Fortunately, science fiction writer Foz Meadows is much more articulate than I am, and has a post showing why celebrating diversity in fiction, especially in awards, is not mere tokenism that ignores the quality of the works under consideration. To understand her post, titled “Hugos and Puppies: Peeling the Onion,” you probably need to know who the “Puppies” are: a group of conservative SF writers (they probably say they’re “not political”) who launched a successful campaign to nominate slates of other conservative (straight, white, though I’m not sure all were male) authors for this year’s Hugo Awards. I don’t know all the details of the huge controversy that ensued, but Meadows’ points seem to apply equally to Nicola Griffith’s study of gender bias in awards. If we say awards should reward novels of women’s experience equally with those of men*, aren’t we automatically saying that the quality of those works is less important? No, says Meadows:
Inasmuch as any of the Puppies can be said to have a reasonable concern at the bottom of all their rhetoric, which often comes off as little more than “we think books about people who aren’t straight white dudes are boring”, it’s the worry that certain stories are being rewarded because they contain X character or are written by Y author rather than because they’re actually good. And given the way such books are often discussed and lauded by those who love them, where these aspects are openly stated as pros, you can see where the concern comes from. After all, the difference between saying “this book is great because it had a queer protagonist” and “this book is great because it had a well-written protagonist” seems, on the surface, pretty obvious: one is concerned with a single aspect of characterisation regardless of its execution, and the other is concerned with execution alone. So clearly, if you’re vaunting queerness (for instance) as though it’s a synonym for quality, you’re at risk of recommending mediocre stories on a tokenistic, uninformed basis.
Meadows goes on to show that quality and increased diversity are totally compatible, but then shows that you have to go through a series of steps to see why that’s true. Going through all those steps, especially when debating someone whose views you don’t know well, and especially on the internet or Twitter, is difficult. As Meadows puts it, “But in order to explain why this is so, there’s six onion layers we need to unravel: context, experience, awareness, representation, language and taste.”
For me, laying out how those layers interact revealed something I have long felt, but could only express as, “But it’s not fair!” Here’s the full post. It’s long, but well worth the read.
One aspect Meadows doesn’t much consider is whether objective criteria exist at all: “The Venn diagram of why we love something is seldom a perfect circle with its objective strengths, inasmuch as such strengths can be reasonably said to exist.”
In fact, the criteria for judging a work are only ever developed from within a community of readers, and those criteria develop simply through people pointing to what they like. It’s not hard to see that a homogeneous group is likely to value the same things. Take the case of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. I might say, “PB&J sandwiches are great because of the blend of savory and sweet.” I’ve now asserted “a blend of savory and sweet” as a measure by which to judge sandwiches. Gauging by the popularity of PB&J in the U.S., I might conclude that this is an objective criterion because “everyone” agrees with me. But make a PB&J sandwich in an English youth hostel and you’ll find a bloke telling you, “Ugh, you can’t mix the savory and the sweet like that!”
Is it any different when evaluating literature? In the 18th and 19th centuries, the community of readers that formed the first criteria for judging the novel in English was quite narrow: middle and upper class whites, with the critical establishment dominated by men. Even then, the reading community was fracturing along lines of gender and race and genre, but with the “high-brow” and novels by white men receiving most of the attention, and with the hallmarks of those works being deemed universal and objective. Thus, in the ’60s and ’70s, when African-American writers began calling for greater attention not only for themselves but for their literary forebears who had been forgotten, they were criticized for being “too political,” “too particular,” “not universal like white, male authors.”
Today, the fracturing of “the reading community” has gone even further, and the visibility and power of those reading communities formerly excluded from “literary culture” has grown with the Internet (causing some critics like this one to bemoan the death of that culture). So it’s ludicrous to talk about one objective set of criteria by which to judge literary works. We can’t even agree whether the criteria should be “beautifully wrought prose,” “a thrilling plot,” “deep psychological insight,” “relatability of the protagonist,” “universal themes,” “an exploration of the woes of the human condition,” “fast-paced page turner,” “a realistic depiction of the world around us,” “an inventive creation of a far-off world,” or “a close eye for detail.” Adding “represents a diverse point of view” as a marker of quality seems no more or less specious than any of those others.
In the end, I think we should all read what we like to read, write what we like to write, and vote for what we want to see rewarded. Oh, and pay attention to voices different from our own group, and especially those that have previously been excluded — but I guess that’s just my criterion.
*This probably distorts what Griffith is saying with the data she and the Literary Prize Data group are gathering, which is more like, “The fact that far more prizes go to work focusing on men’s experience is an indication of bias in the judging.” (And if you don’t believe the skewed award numbers indicate a bias, then by logical extension you must believe that novels of women’s experience are somehow less worthy.)