More thoughts on reading and the diversity issue

My initial reading for the Paul Harland Prize is almost at an end. Only a handful of stories to go and I can send in my tabulated results and then we can all powwow on email and argue about who gets in and who stays out of the top 30 or 40 entries.

Looking at my numbers, I find myself wondering if I’ve been too harsh this year. I think of how adversity and low scores can serve as a winnowing tool as well. Writers who treat this as a hobby or who don’t really care about it will take that low number and probably quit writing. The ones who take those numbers and look at them as a challenge to come back and prove that they can be better than that number are likely to be the ones who will eventually make their mark in the field.

The road to publication is never easy. Even after you get published, the road never becomes easy. There is always a struggle, and there is always something that you have to overcome.

Aside from the Paul Harland stories, I’ve been reading quite a lot. This past month, I read Shimon Adaf’s excellent Sunburnt Faces. We’re reviewing it for the bookblog and we even managed to snag an interview with the author himself.

Last night, I finished reading Berit Ellingsen’s beautifully surreal The Empty City. Berit’s short story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin has the same quiet feeling, but it’s fascinating to see that voice at work in a full-length novel.

I’ve also read Wesley Chu’s Lives of Tao which is bursting with action and energy. It’s an interesting first novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing what my Big Sis thinks of it.

Another read that I enjoyed a lot is Kaaron Warren’s Walking the Tree. I’ve since purchased quite a bunch of Kaaron’s books.

For the book blog, I’m rereading Karin Tidbeck’s fabulous Jagganath. I won’t do spoilers here, but I remember just what it was about this work that fascinated me so much.

I am reading Hiromi Goto’s A Chorus of Mushrooms and am loving it for so many different reasons. At the same time, I’m thinking yet again of Claire Light’s excellent Slightly Behind and to the Left.

If you haven’t read Claire Light’s book, I suggest you head over to Aqueduct Press and grab a copy. It’s not too pricey and it is a thought-provoking read.

Alongside all these readings, I’ve been sneaking reads and rereads into my favorite poetry books and nonfiction books. I am so grateful for mobile technology that allows me to carry so much on one small device.

I write about these readings that I’ve been doing because I keep on thinking of the discussions around diversity in SFF and how we find ourselves disappointed each time people interpret this as meaning: let me write characters of color or let me include QUILTBAG characters or let me include someone who has a disability in my work.

Yesterday, I had a long conversation with Sean Wright about this for Galactic Chat. I’m not sure how good I am as an interview subject, but basically my thoughts on diversity are summed in this: It’s not about you or your work, it’s about saying: look there’s this fantastic author who comes from this place we don’t hear enough voices from.

Instead of saying, I write LGBTQ characters, encourage and promote the work of LGBTQ writers. Instead of saying, I write brown characters in my novel, encourage and promote the work of writers of color.

Not that writers shouldn’t include a diverse cast of characters in their own work, but I’ve seen the conversation often boil down to people saying: but look at my work. I’m a white writer and I write brown people or I’m a straight writer trying to write QUILTBAG characters.

And yes, I appreciate that people are making that effort to write thoughtfully about us, but what I really really want to see happen is people saying: Oh, you must read so and so. Not because they’re this and that but because the work provides a different perspective from what we usually see.

Which brings me back to my diverse reading. Shifting from Shimon Adaf’s work which is brilliant and burns like the sun to Berit Ellingsen’s cool and surreal work, from Kaaron Warren’s wildly imaginative Walking the Tree to Wesley Chu’s energetic The Lives of Tao–these readings bring home why we need a more diverse pool of writers in the field.

In reading works from writers who reside and know their part of the world intimately, I find myself gaining more insight into the world. An opening happens in my psyche and while I may not understand fully, I am ready and willing to understand. And I think it’s at this place where dialogues and conversations happen.

Paul Harland Prize, Midway report

Martijn Lindeboom, organizer of the Paul Harland Prize, has translated and posted my midway report on my reading for this year’s Paul Harland Prize. This is the second year that I’ve read for the prize, and it’s interesting to me to be able to make comparisons to last year’s reading. It also brings home the point that we are all in a constant state of change. And growth is always a good thing.

Paul Harland Reading, Midway report

I’ve been reading the Paul Harland entries in groups of five or ten stories at a time. Professional slush readers have said that it usually takes the first three paragraphs to determine whether a story is worth reading through to the end or not. Unlike slush readers, I do read all the stories to the end—and while I do see the value in the first three paragraphs rule, I also think reading the full story gives me a better understanding of where on the scale the writer sits when it comes to mastery of craft.

On a more personal level, I find it interesting to note how I have also matured as a reader and I think I may have become more demanding as a reader. Where last year, I might have excused sloppy writing, this year I’m less inclined to do so.

So, what insights have I gained in reading thus far?

When I think of last year’s entries, I get the impression that this year’s writers have worked harder and have progressed when it comes to craft. More stories work better and are better put together thematically as well as plotwise and so far most of the stories I’ve read seem to have broken away from the urge to be Martinesque or Tolkienesque. It’s true that there is still quite a bit of mimetic and gimmicky stuff, but this all relates to how new the writer is to genre. I do hope that in time, and as writers read more and look for more challenging work, this will improve. ( I keep telling people to read more and I’ll reiterate that again: read more and read outside of the work that’s translated or sold in the Netherlands. Read not only in genre but read outside of genre.)

What does frustrate me, and this is something that also frustrated me during last year’s reading, is when I come across a writer with an incredibly strong voice who relies on gimmicks and stereotypes to tell a story. It makes me feel frustrated because a strong authorial voice is a gift and if a writer doesn’t stretch themself, that voice becomes nothing more than a gimmick in itself.

As a writer, I don’t believe in being contented or self-satisfied. If you are a writer who feels self-satisfied in your work, if you’re resting on the laurels of past praise, you won’t grow as a writer. It’s not enough to write the same as you did yesterday, you must work to write something better than you did yesterday.

Finally, I’m not yet done with my reading, so I can’t write a conclusive note, but writers do yourselves a favor and pay attention to the 10% rule. Longer doesn’t always mean better and a lot of stories would benefit a lot from cutting at least 10% of its content.

This year showed us 206 entries which is a huge leap from last year. It is a positive sign and I hope it means that Dutch genre is finally reaching a point where something has to give. It will be interesting to see new voices emerging and becoming part of the greater field of World SF.

**with thanks to Martijn Lindeboom for the translation from English to Dutch.

***For context regarding the 10% rule, the cut-off for the Paul Harland is 10,000 words. Most writers come very close to that limit.