Fireside’s research confirms something that Black writers in speculative fiction have known for awhile. Race matters at every step of the publishing process. Including who gets out of the slush pile and onto the page. The myth that Black people don’t read science fiction or fantasy has been thoroughly debunked. And despite any claims to the contrary, Black writers of speculative fiction have been producing amazing work since the genre’s inception. The real problem isn’t one of a lack of stories or a lack of talented writers, the problem is a lack of outlets willing to publish stories that don’t center white characters.
During her Emmy speech, Viola Davis pointed out that the only real barrier for Black actors in Hollywood is the lack of opportunity. With no parts to play, they can’t showcase their talents. The same is true in speculative fiction. Speculative fiction struggles to imagine a future with Black leads, with Black heroes, but it has no problem imagining Black villains. Usually as written by a white author who feels no need to write a Black community around that character.
This is not a call for white writers to include more characters of color. That’s been done to death, and often the result is not a positive one. Just as erasure is not equality, neither are poorly disguised stereotypes masquerading as characters. No, the real question is why are so few outlets willing to include Black speculative fiction writers. It’s not a question of quality. Nor is it a problem of finding Black writers with stories to tell. So what’s happening?
Well, I have a few working theories. One is that many Black writers are telling stories that are unfamiliar to white editors. The context clues of Black culture may slip right past an editor who has no connection to the community the writer hails from, or to the cultures that the writer chooses to include. Most American editors are used to a steady diet of the monolithic cultural myth of Black America. So, they gravitate to stories that fit their preconceived ideas. Meanwhile Black American cultures (note the plural) have each developed their own traditions, before, during, and after the Great Migration.
Even in the proverbial West, the idea that there is a single correct narrative structure, that quality can be judged by how closely a story adheres to expectations created and sustained by white writers, is incredibly shortsighted. There is no One True Narrative, no One True Black Writing Style. Calls for diversity often focus on characters, less often on writers or editors, but the reality is that the audience for speculative fiction is broader than the white faces that may show up at conventions. By curtailing access for Black creators—or outright excluding them—publishers are actively harming their own prospects by locking out potential audiences.
Black media properties like Empire, Scandal, and Tyler Perry’s movies and TV shows are incredibly popular. In erotica Zane’s work carved out a huge path for Black writers. The same is true with the urban fiction industry. Black comic creators are seeing success as well. And as Black writers in speculative fiction achieve more success, it can only benefit publishers to jump on that band wagon in the same way that ABC has embraced Shonda Rhimes.
Modern fiction publishing can’t afford to replicate the patterns of Jim Crow. Black writers face a substantial disadvantage because they can’t find many outlets to publish their short fiction, thus creating an extra barrier to them getting attention for longer works. Meanwhile short fiction outlets are struggling—many are going under every year. And the blithe “Well short fiction doesn’t sell as well” glides right past the fact that major sections of the fiction-reading public struggle to find outlets that incorporate authors from their communities.
For a genre that prides itself on being inclusive, on looking toward the future and the possibilities inherent therein, speculative fiction publishing has to do better. Has to think about the reality that if the audiences aren’t all white, and if the writers aren’t all white, then the stories that are given a platform need to be representative of the community. As online options expand, it is becoming easier for Black writers who are adept at social media to build a fan-base, to generate their own platforms, but that model isn’t enough. Traditional publishing has to catch up, has to evolve, or it will not survive.
About the author
Mikki Kendall aspires to be an over-educated loudmouth with deep pockets. Failing that she manages to be a periodic cyborg who masquerades as a person with a spouse, kids, and all the trappings of quasi-respectability. Once gainfully employed by an unnamed agency, she now invests her time in writing, wrangling jackasses on the internet, and telling people to go straight to hell. Raised by a family of cutthroat sarcastic assassins with magic powers, her obsession with history has led to her publishing weird stories and articles about every serious issue under the sun. Her nonfiction work has appeared in the Washington Post, Time, and a host of other outlets. Her fiction work includes comics, and short stories available via Revelator Magazine, Torquere Press, and online.
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