Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Choices made: sexism, racism, and self-publishers

Arguments about sexism and racism in science fiction (and, by extension, fantasy) have been smoldering along and occasionally breaking out into wildfires for the last couple years. It's not a discussion I've felt like I had much to contribute to, aside from planting my flag firmly on the all-inclusive side of the line.

And these are not issues I've wanted to write about in any sort of activist sense -- but at the same time, when I was writing Disciple it crossed my mind that someday somebody may loudly object to the gender- and race-related choices I made therein. It's not likely, since I'm a self-publisher, but you never know. The advice I got at Viable Paradise -- do nothing accidentally -- is well taken, though, and I'm willing to explain and defend my choices should I ever need to.

These sexism and racism arguments apply to book covers, also. I've followed (with amusement) Jim Hines' attempts to mimic women's poses on various book covers, and the re-drawing of comic book heroines with male characters to point out how ridiculous the poses are. Recently, it was brought up that the publishers of Throne of the Crescent Moon made an explicit commitment to not whitewashing the cover... which is all well and good, but it's frustrating that this needed to be explicitly stated.

Added later -- this is the cover!
More about
Disciple, Part III here.
That note about Throne, and all of the racism/sexism posts of late, combined with the weekly discussions of "to self-publish or not to self-publish?" over at Absolute Write, combined with my own discussions with my cover artist about the cover of Disciple, Part III, led me to ponder: 

I'm putting an "Arabic" man on my book cover, and I can do that because I'm self-publishing. 

Arabic is in quotes because there is no Arabia in Disciple's universe. He's ethnically equivalent, though, and yes it was intentional -- I put a brown guy in a position of tremendous power to steer these blonde, white-bread kids through the perils of war. Why? Because he's the one with the intellect, motivation, and experience to do it. And he kicks some ass along the way, which was fun...

(There's a post in here about designing your own cover art. I'll talk about it in the next Indie Life installment)

Would Saint Qadeem have been on a cover, if Disciple's six parts were published by one of the big houses? Would the marketing department have objected to his role in the story? The editor? Would they have also objected to the fact that my main character, Kate, is a 16-year-old girl who is not only deflowered in full view of the reader, but also does it:
  • without being married
  • without angsting about it
  • without being raped
  • in fact, let me spoil this for you: Kate isn't raped in any of the six parts of Disciple
Would they have put Kate on the cover in a lovely banquet gown, twisted into some pose that can show off her butt and boobs? (eyeroll.) Maybe she can be clinging to Kiefan's arm while he heroically keeps shadowy monsters at bay. (shirtless, of course he'd go into battle shirtless, isn't that as logical as her silly dress...?)

I was the only person pressuring myself, when it came to Disciple's content and packaging. Admittedly, I'm quite capable of pressuring myself -- but I'm also free to avoid sexism and racism both on the book cover and in the story itself.  To the best of my ability, at least.

I decided what the consequences of Kate's sexual experiences were, and nobody pressured me to make them more draconian so as to avoid scandalizing the more prudish side of the audience. I decided the skin color of everyone in the book, and some of the "good guys" are brown, some of the "bad guys" are pasty-white -- and they all have their reasons for being what they are.

In a roundabout way, I'm trying to say this is one advantage of self-publishing: not having to fit into a publisher's preconceived notions about salability or what the audience wants. Yes, it cuts both ways and maybe I will lose readers by putting Saint Qadeem on my book cover, or by not slut-shaming Kate.

It's a risk I'm willing to take. Is there some controversial aspect of your story that you might have to defend, in the future?  


Crystal Collier said...

My stance on this is that sometimes you show extremes to make a point. I don't think there's anything wrong with it, as long as the psychology of the characters fits their response.

L. Blankenship said...

Hmm, that makes me think about the function of "making a point" within a story. The question of which points are made because of the story, and which are made because the author wanted them made.

Elizabeth Twist said...

I do worry about this. I have a strong sense of social justice, so conflict in my stories tends to gravitate toward issues of gender, class, and race. I worry that because I am in a position of relative privilege with regard to at least two of those issues, I am missing nuances of which I should be aware if I am going to tell such stories.

Then again, I figure at some point I have to trust myself to tell stories as responsibly as I can.

Daniel said...

"Is there some controversial aspect of your story that you might have to defend, in the future?"

Possibly. The lead female character of my series is not the bronzed amazon normally associated with swords & sorcery. She's 5'2" and wears a full set of clothing and armor (not "bikini armor"). She has to rely on her speed, cunning, magic skills, and training more than her strength. She gets her butt kicked occasionally, but what she lacks in physical prowess, she makes up for in persistence.

My biggest concern regarding controversy is with the third book of the trilogy. The "spirits" of my story world play a big role in it, and the behavior of the holy men (druids) may invite comparisons to modern religious themes. I'm not setting out to make a point regarding religion, but no matter what I have the characters do, certain readers will probably infer a position.

Liz said...

What people always end up commenting on are things that I never expect. Which is why I try not to worry. Because whatever I think the controversy is going to be, won't.

I've put down books where the main character is raped. Won't finish them. If I know it's going to happen going in, I won't start them.

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