So yesterday I took to Twitter to get an answer to a question I had about the value of special theme issues as a tool in addressing representation. It was driven in part by an incomplete editorial sitting on my desktop for a couple of months now. That piece was shaped by personal experience, observations, and even an article I’d read by an author that declared specials to be ghettos.
To keep this direct and on-point, however, I’m going to summarize why I even asked. Over the years, editors have been accused of not doing enough to ensure diversity within their slush piles and the pages of their books and magazines. It’s something that cycles around every now and then and sometimes it can flare up—justifiably so—in quite a spectacular way, as it has recently. One of those pieces included the article I mentioned above.
If the goal is to address those diversity issues across the board, it’s fair to look at past efforts, as well as those across the field, and assess whether or not they’ve been generating effective change that can be replicated and expanded upon. It’s also an end-goal that can be measured in quantitative results.
I think it also worth mentioning some context. The majority of these specials have been directed at women. This isn’t an area we’ve ever had difficulty with at Clarkesworld. While not deliberate, our published male-female ratio has always been pretty well-balanced and even occasionally tips more towards women. Despite this, our slush pile has remained solidly 70:30 over the years. Quantitatively-speaking, I can’t say that publishing more women has yielded any change in the makeup of our slush pile. I also have data that indicates that the gender of the slush reader hasn’t had an impact on the decision process. Qualitatively-speaking, the gender breakdown of the stories in the top 2% have been relatively unchanged at 50:50. By those metrics, it would seem as though “build it and they will come” is not viable, at least with this demographic. This example would indicate no clear replicable process for others to learn from, which always is a possible outcome in these questions.
I’ve previously expressed my belief that recurring features feel more like you are making something part of who you are and what you represent. This is the approach we’ve taken with translations and while I’m happy with it, it does need to be evaluated in contrast to other efforts. We’ve never done a special issue, but they’ve been around for decades, so I assumed there must be some opinions—beyond what I’d already read—on their effectiveness towards changing the landscape. It’s fair to compare the two approaches or even look for other options. If you want to make progress, you have to be willing to question what has been done before.
[Side note: I value diversity from the standpoint that more voices and perspectives strengthens the genre. My own taste in fiction tends to drift towards stories written by people with different influences than my own. It doesn’t diminish my past. It builds on it. I believe that the more diverse your slush pile, the more interesting stories you’ll end up publishing.]
Here’s where I made a few mistakes:
- Assuming that the primary goal for these projects was long-term (as in taking a long time) or that there ever was just one. In fact, it appears as though in many of these cases, a goal was to spotlight a specific community or provide a safe entry point, not necessarily to focus on altering the landscape for the field or attract a permanent change in the slush pile for the magazine. Yes, some of these already had existing policies in place to monitor and maintain that specific branch of diversity. They were a celebration rather than a corrective measure, but hasn’t been the norm across the years.
- Trying to convince people to look past the short term or their specific project when that’s what they perceived as most important. Despite freely admitting that there were recognizable and immediate benefits to these projects, the act of asking whether or not a long-term change to the magazine also existed was met with resistance and concerns that I was dismissive of the short-term benefits. This was particularly true of people close to specific projects and I should have seen that coming as these can be deeply personal.
- Believing that a track record of publishing more stories by women, LGBT, or foreign authors would be sufficient indication of good intentions towards achieving the broader goal. The job is ongoing and if you’d made little or no progress in one area, the rest can be overlooked. Again, this is a deeply personal subject for some and should have been expected.
- Trying to use Twitter for a meaningful conversation about something complex and personal to some people. Nothing screams misunderstanding more than having to be extremely brief. While convenient, it was just wrong for this. This is why this summary is a blog post that will be announced there.
What I learned:
- That there is a serious and demonstrable benefit to the theme projects, but not necessarily in direct service of the results I hoped for. I heard from a wide variety of people who had career-changing moments from their involvement in projects as ranging from anthologies, to Helix, to Escape Artists, and Lightspeed’s Destroy series. A common refrain was that it encouraged them to try, gave them a confidence boost when they needed it, made them feel like they belonged, and served as a stepping stone. That last one is a long-term thing. It might not be to the big scale of the long-term goal I was talking about, but it was certainly step in the right direction. There is something to be said to the qualitative safety element of these projects even if it doesn’t specifically raise to the level of changing the playing field on a bigger scale.
- Even though they have merit, special issues are not enough. I may have been completely misreading the “ghetto” comments in that original article. Yes, if that’s all you have, it’s problematic. But replacing them with a different distribution method doesn’t really change things. It might send a slightly different message, but in the end, it’s still the same—too low—number of stories. It’s only a ghetto if you aren’t finding those stories elsewhere in the magazine’s run.
- Some people don’t like to think many steps ahead and can perceive doing so as downplaying the earlier steps or prior victories. Celebrating the small victories is great and some need to focus on and accept the now before they can consider more. I never intended to rain on those parades. Not everyone is a big picture person and that’s fine. When asking if you can do better, it doesn’t mean the result was a failure, but it can be perceived that way.
- That I’ve reached a point in my career where people take me much more seriously than I expect or intend. (Combining this with #4 in the above section above makes this even worse.) I’ve mentioned my battles with impostor syndrome. This is a place where it can come back and bite me. I need to be more aware of an honest fear of retribution (not buying stories, blacklisting, etc.), even if that perception is not how I work. For the record, when I post theories about the state of the market or criticisms of how various aspects of the field are operated, it’s just a theory and I’m perfectly fine with being contradicted. You don’t get banned from Clarkesworld for disagreeing with me. Brainstorming and conversation are important. It’s when civility goes out the window that we have problems and that still requires significant effort on your part. I hope people understand that I share my opinions because I hope to cause discussion, which might lead to me changing my mind, helping someone in a similar situation, or nothing at all. It’s a pay-it-forward community and that’s why I share . . . perhaps too much.
- My prior comments on the state of the field seem to have tainted portions of the conversation with financial concerns. While finances are important, when I spoke of long-term goals, my questions did not include a financial implication. My approach is figure out what I need to do, assess the cost, then how to pay for it. At this point, I was only concerned with step one.
- There are some people that will assume the worst. History encourages some to be naturally skeptical, no matter what your true intentions are. They don’t have to believe you and can ignore any track record you think you have. It’s neither your fault, nor theirs. Don’t take it personally or let it discourage you. Just be respectful of the fact that they may not want to talk or even have you involved. I fully anticipate some will even find fault with portions of or my entire summary and that’s perfectly fine. If they want to have a conversation, I’m willing, if not, that’s ok too. We may not be on the same path, but hopefully we can share a direction and some common ground.
- There are some amazingly patient people who were willing to assume that I had good intentions in this line of questioning. I appreciate the time that they were willing to spend and want them to know that it is remembered, appreciated, and will be put to good use.
So where do I go from here?
I don’t think we’ll be launching a theme issue. I understand why they work for some, but I have an idea for something that might play better to some of my prior experience in education. I just need to work out logistics, so I’ll be back with that as soon as I can. Is it a big picture solution? No. It’s something foundational and scalable that builds on some of the comments I received about what has worked.
I also have to become somewhat more aware of the impact of my words. As much as I’ve tried to ignore it, I have a certain stature within the community and what I say, particularly about business models and the state of the field, can have repercussions on people within it. That’s not helpful, at least not in a way I’m comfortable with.
And speaking of comfort, my conscience does not permit me to end this without an apology to those I might have upset over the course of learning these things or from prior statements about related issues. Asking questions and presenting theories are important to moving anything forward, but it was never my intention to put people on the defensive or imply that their victories were any less than they were. I apologize for that.