Sunday 17 August 2014

Obstacles to diversity in SF/Fantasy

More on Loncon 3... Did I mention that 'diversity in speculative fiction' was a specific theme of this convention? Hence all these posts which need a home and probably shouldn't really be here. Anyway, I have a couple of observations on obstacles to diversity which came up across a range of talks...


 It's pretty much part of the definition of genre fiction that it will conform to a set of expectations in terms of content, but also form. When authors start to push against either of those boundaries, their work tends to get categorised outside the genre, perhaps as magical realism, or just literary fiction. Many western authors find themselves in this situation, but it becomes particularly likely for authors from other traditions - not surprising since the content and forms of SF/Fantasy genre are a tradition of western origin. It isn't necessarily a bad thing, at least not for the authors themselves. Literary fiction is taken more seriously in some circles and may reach a wider audience.

The downside is that it complicates the inclusion of such works in SF/Fantasy centered events in ways that are currently bothering some readers and authors. Works shelved as 'literary' aren't likely to receive genre-based awards if they aren't perceived as exemplars of the genre. They and their authors don't get included in conventions and discussions around the genre, even if some* readers like myself don't really distinguish between fantasy and magical realism in their reading and thinking. This is quite odd in that we merrily group SF and Fantasy as if they just naturally went together. At Loncon 3 I've been quietly navigating around all the SF stuff because it isn't really my thing. Then, when I go to discussions on the stuff that is my thing, we're talking a lot about 'magical realist' authors without having them directly included in the proceedings

* allowing for the fact that some readers are hardcore genre fanatics.


I'm very frustrated about this obstacle right now because of the tantalizing existence of books I want to read and can't. The English-speaking world does very, very badly at facilitating the flow of translations compared to other cultures. However, other cultures mainly translate from English, so they have their own problems of access to diverse literatures. Whole swathes of literature are essentially out of our reach, though often not from the groups we usually think of first when we talk about diversity and inclusiveness.

Africa, North America, large swathes of Oceania and sections of Europe and Asia are quite well represented by authors who write in English (although also by authors who don't). South and Central America have largely dropped off the map, along with very considerable areas of Europe and Asia. The exceptions are authors who make it really big in their native language areas and perhaps Japan, since demand for Japanese work has been high enough to generate frequent translation.

What I'm very much hoping is that the rise of low-investment publishing and small independent publishing houses could be used to address this problem in the near future. I really don't think it's due to a lack of willing and capable translators.

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