David Farland Missed the Point About Discrimination in the Writing World

Tunnel in space © Genty
Tunnel in space © Genty
Wormhole © Genty

A recognizable speculative fiction author published a blog post that I feel needs attention before it spreads through the writing community as gospel.

In “Discrimination in the Writing World“, David Farland opened with,

A few days ago, I saw a Facebook post from a woman who complained that she didn’t want to see panels by “boring, old, white, cisgender men” at the upcoming World Science Fiction Convention. Now, I’ve always fought against discrimination based on age, race, sexual orientation, and gender, so I was kind of surprised that this person managed to offend me at every single level. I can’t help it if I was born sixty years ago, male, white, and cisgender.

Worldcon 76 was this weekend. This is a huge event in Science Fiction publishing every year. The Hugo Awards are selected by WorldCon members and announced at the event.

I followed the WorldCon 76 controversies on Twitter a few weeks ago. What offended many science members of the science fiction community was discrimination on the convention’s original schedule, which favored authors who might match the description in the quote. You can read a take on the situation by Mark Sumner at Daily Kos: “What’s happening at the World Science Fiction convention is important, even if you don’t like sci-fi“.

One big issue is that authors nominated for expect to be given the opportunity to sit on Worldcon panels. (Wouldn’t you?) That was one of several expectations that the Worldcon planning committee struggled to meet. This year, the programming staff notoriously left off certain nominees for authors who look like David Farland.

The programming was so skewed that it had to be reworked by new volunteers in the last month to present more than white, heteronormative, American men as leaders of the world’s sci-fi community.


Not Wanting to See More of the Same

In his post, Farland mentions none of discrimination against young, non-white, and/or transgender professionals. He declares his offense at a comment on Facebook from “a woman” who comes off in his description as someone he might not know and that might not have even been directing comments at him.

Meanwhile, many authors face regular, focused attacks based on age, race, sexual orientation, and gender–as well as ethnicity, residency, physical ability, and socioeconomic status.

I could accept his ignorance if not for the racist comment–“With the Hugos, white men in particular are not even getting on the ballots, much less winning.”

Think about that. Not even getting on the ballots, much less winning.

The 2018 Hugo finalists for Best Novel include John Scalzi and Kim Stanley Robinson. The identities of these widely famous identities doesn’t appear to be in any debate. White men were clearly on this year’s Hugo ballots.

White men’s works have won major literary awards this year. Sam J. Miller’s The Art of Starving won the latest of The Nebula Awards‘ Andre Norton Award for Outstanding Young Adult Science Fiction or Fantasy Book.

This implies that all David Farland notices are people who are different than him. White men weren’t the only people whose stories were nominated and chosen for awards. How is that surprising? A rough estimate is that around 10% of the world’s adults are white men. Offense that any other statistical group receives recognition would stem from an assumption that a particular minority deserves the majority of awards every year. Farland’s false statement drew a line between White Men and The People Who Don’t Deserve Recognition.

I can’t sympathize with someone complaining about having to endure an angry Facebook post, a pen name when/if writing in Romance, and the potential lose of privilege in recognition events. All the rest of us endure the same things plus discrimination in the writing world not mentioned in a post supposedly on that topic.

Advice for Writers

Farland’s advice comes up in writing groups. What follows is my attempt to preemptively address what he shared in “Discrimination in the Writing World”. He gave four points of advice that are supposed to help deal with discrimination in publishing.

First, work harder and try to write better than your competition. Make sure that the quality of your work stands out.

This is obvious. Isn’t it?

I guess we can look at it from the angle that fellow authors are competition instead of comrades who provide support in a publishing career. That’s true in competitions. For example, an author aiming for a literary award might see others who wrote similar stories that year as competition leading up to nominations.

Then Farland stated,

Second, forget about awards. So many of them are rigged nowadays that they don’t mean much.

This advice is more confusing. When weren’t awards rigged? There’s also a few who do better at quality control than the rest. Those are the names many readers in the genre recognize.

I had to remind myself that Farland is talking to a particular audience that might’ve believed, deep down, that they deserve more awards because of their skin color, ethnicity, gender, and political leaning.

Let’s continue on to the part about awards not meaning much.

In the past few years, non-men, non-whites, and non-Americans have been pushing more for a place on awards ballots. Competition no longer looks the way that it did. That doesn’t make the awards meaningless to the writers who value award recognition from readers and peers.

A big-name award isn’t essential  for a good writing career. I’m confident of that after watching publishing for ten years. Not every writer cares about awards. Some do. Some don’t. Dismissing other writers’ dreams is unhelpful.

Farland wrote,

Third, as you build up a library of well-written books that can’t find a publisher, maybe you should just consider self-publishing your works.

Here is good advice!

Independent (compared to trade) publishers do better in certain genres than others these days. Creating several books to be released close together is said to help with ebook marketing in particular.

Finally, he acknowledged,

Fourth, many authors try to create gender-neutral names to hide their identity, and some authors even go further, creating pseudonyms that misidentify their gender.

This is acknowledgement, not advice. Choosing a gender-neutral or misgendering pseudonym is an old practice. The sisters Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë (Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell) are oft-cited examples. Almost everyone who reads in English knows of Joanne Rowling is J. K. Rowling and Robert Galbraith.

There is a history of men using feminine pseudonyms in Romance. Two contemporary examples are British authors:

  • Peter O’Donnell (1920–2010) under the byline “Madeline Brent”
  • Christopher Wood (1935–2015) who wrote as Rosie Dixon and Penny Sutton in addition to several masculine pen name across genres

Also, marketing is not a concern for all writers with gender-neutral pen names. People whose parents gave them names not strongly associated with one gender might use their existing name instead of creating a gendered pseudonym. Gender-neutral pen names are also used by authors outside of the gender binary who might not want to deal with the baggage of their assigned names.

I hope readers remember not to make assumptions about an author’s gender from the name on a cover. Declaring gender is not often the primary purpose of a pen name.

Fiction writers more often want readers to see a story before questioning who wrote it.

For the curious, planned protests and a MAGA (Trump-supporting) group beside Worldcon didn’t seem to have stopped participants from enjoying themselves.

Edited August 21, 2018 to add a promised link.