In Debate Over Hugo Awards, Science Fiction Community Engages With Issues Of Bias

Apr 19, 2015
Originally published on April 19, 2015 10:18 pm

NPR's Arun Rath talks to author Monica Byrne about how controversy surrounding this year's Hugo Awards highlights a difference in how speculative and literary fiction approach diversity. "The speculative community hashes out its sexism and racism issues right on the surface, whereas the literary community has convinced itself it doesn't have any," she writes.

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A nasty fight has been raging in the world of science fiction and fantasy writers, also known as speculative fiction. This after conservative fans successfully rallied supporters to nominate a slate of culturally conservative writers for the coveted Hugo Awards. That prompted a number of high-profile writers to boycott the awards, as well as a lot of debate and (unintelligible) about diversity in speculative fiction.

Novelist Monica Byrne is among those disappointed in this year's nominations, in part because they left no room for her novel in the genre. But as she wrote this week in Wired, she's not worried about the state of diversity in speculative fiction, because at least there's a healthy debate. She wants us to pay more attention to diversity in the literary world. The organization Women in Literary Arts just published their annual count of how many women get published in literary magazines, and it didn't look good.

MONICA BYRNE: There has been some progress, but overall the numbers are really still pretty awful. At this point, I can only conclude the editors have seen the statistics and said OK, we have a proven record of affirmative action on behalf of white males, and we simply don't care enough to do anything about it - or even respond to it in public. Whereas in speculative fiction, there is a very clear tradition of public calling-out and accountability.

RATH: If you're looking at, say, the number of arts and humanities graduates that are coming out, it's not like women are underrepresented...


RATH: ...In this world, you know, like from the starting points.

BYRNE: Not at all. There is something to be said for submission rates. I think the editor of Tin House is on record as saying like we recognize that men will resubmit no matter what. And women will not, because they get discouraged early on. And, like, that, you know - that's something I've personally experienced absolutely, where I submit once, and I'm like, oh, God, they won't take it. And also, because there are actual statistics to back up bias, you just get this sense of like what is the use of resubmitting because I'm a woman.

RATH: Why bother?

BYRNE: Why bother? Exactly.

RATH: In the situation where other editors won't even acknowledge that it looks like a problem, how do you approach remedying the problem?

BYRNE: I have long wanted to have enough cachet to publicly declare that I will boycott submitting to these publications until they publicly commit to gender parity. I wish the women who already have that cachet would do that now. And they haven't. And I don't know why. And I think it's because there is just like this very genteel tiptoeing in the literary world about like being scared of offending people, whereas in the speculative fiction world, oh my God, we all are like through several rounds of, you know, boxing - like public boxing. And that is just a tradition. We all, you know, have bloody noses and black eyes.

RATH: Well, maybe they're looking over the speculative community and saying we don't want black eyes and bloody noses. We're literary.

BYRNE: It's - oh God. Well, it's very easy to look at the speculative fiction world and say like we don't have those problems. We're not like them. Whereas to me the sexism and racism in the literary world is far more insidious, because it's like if you have cancer, is it better to treat the cancer even though chemo is awful or to just never know about it and - or to have it and just let it kill you?

RATH: Monica Byrne is the author of "The Girl In The Road." Monica, thanks very much.

BYRNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.