now i'm looking in the mirror all the time wondering what she don't see in me
Back in the dim mists of history, about ten years ago, when dinosaurs still roamed the internet and Livejournal was where the cool kids hung out, I used to get into arguments with certain people who opined that there were no young SFF writers. I would present them with a list of SF writers under 35 (myself included) only to be told that they meant writers under thirty, or maybe twenty-five, and that those writers didn't count because they weren't "Hard SF Writers" (whatever the hell that means), and because they weren't being published in Asimov's and Strange Horizons (still one of the bastions of young writerdom in the SF world) didn't count.
And when I pointed out in return that Asimov's was a hard market to crack (it seems more welcoming to new writers these days), and that literary and craft standards are higher now than they were in 1940 and correspondingly it takes longer to develop a professional skillset--and that maybe the problem was that my correspondents weren't reading the markets that were publishing the young writers, I would generally find myself greeted with the wail, "Where are the Bob Silverbergs?" (Or, from slightly younger handwringers over the Incipient Death of SFF, "Where are the Neil Gaimans?!")
Way to shift a goalpoast, honey.
Because we get more than two or three prodigy geniuses in a generation. And because we can identify them from the scrum of young writers when everybody is not-quite-thirtyish and shooting rockets of possibility everywhere.
Well, I'm older now, and I'm feeling pretty safe in saying that (among many others) Scott Lynch, Seanan McGuire, and Catherynne Valente (All still only in their mid-thirties, ten years later--hell, I think Seanan wasn't even a thing yet when I was still bothering to get in these fights) have some staying power. Also, today is Sam Sykes' 30th birthday, and Max Gladstone just turned thirty last month. Happy birthday, Sam and Max.
It finally dawned on me that the people I was arguing with could not be convinced, and their opinions didn't matter anyway. The best of them, I think, were arguing out of nostalgia. They wanted stories by young writers that would make them feel the way the young Silverberg's stories made them feel when they were twenty. And that's not going to happen, frankly, because they aren't twenty anymore, and because my then-peers (and the writers who are now the generation* after me, to whom I feel an obligation as older colleague now, and how the hell did that happen?) aren't writing out of the concerns that were current and pressing in 1956.
The worst of them weren't willing to accept this new generation of writers because the lists of names I kept handing them were full of female, queer, and person of color names. Because that is what my generation of SFF writers looks like, in large part.
This was around the same time that I got into a certain amount of trouble by pointing out that many of my age-group peers don't read newer work by our older colleagues, and the older colleagues often don't read us at all. Which wasn't meant as a value judgment, but it seemed like one to many people, and no less a light that Bob Silverberg took me to task for it. (There he is again. And as a certain recent publication of mine may seem to indicate, I have been, am, and remain a fan.)
But my point then stands: there is no due diligence to be a fan. And trying to force fans to consume stuff that doesn't speak to them is, well, pointless and alienating and will only drive them away.
I do feel like the standard is a little more exacting for professionals in the field--writers and critics owe it to ourselves to have a foundation in the history of the genre. But I will be the first to say that that is our own responsibility, and our choice, and how we handle our own professional development is our own lookout. I'm going to tend to give more weight to the opinions of a critic who demonstrates herself to be knowledgeable and well-read--but that also means being well-read among current writers, and I'm afraid we probably have as many critics in the field who judge everything against the standard of Poul Anderson as we do critics who haven't read very much published before 1990.
(1990 was twenty-four years ago, by the way, for people my age and older. Just a little bullet of perspective there. When I was a freshman in high school, the equivalent year would have been 1961.)
So I fully encourage people who want to develop a sense of the history of the genre to go back and read, say, Fritz Leiber. Hell, I regularly read Fritz Leiber, and I'm hugely fond of his work. Not in the least, because Fafhrd is a great big fluffy feminist. (Mouser is friendzoned forever though; man, what a douchecanoe.) But even with Leiber, who wrote strong female characters with agendas and agency, I have to keep myself firmly in rein sometimes and remember that he was writing for a predominately white heterosexual male audience that was un-accepting of seeing anybody else placed in the role of protagonist. The white dude always has to save the day, no matter how cool everybody else is. And he usually has to get laid along the way.
And you know, if you don't want to read that, who the hell am I to tell you otherwise?
Which leads me to a point about privilege, before I end this rambling dissertation and go for a nice long run before it gets too hot outside. I too-often see (almost always white, almost always male) commentors and bloggers saying that they don't have a problem reading books in which the protagonists are aliens, or elves, or women, or black people--so why is these so much fuss about the need for diversity and representation in literature? Isn't it about getting out of your own skin and seeing somebody else's point of view?
Other people have tackled this far more in depth than I have time or patience for, but I'm going to take a swing.
It's easy to say that when one has never found one's self in a position of being disenfranchised and erased. When one has that safety of an entire world that considers you the default to return to. When what one is is assumed to be normal and comfortable.
All I can think is that somebody who says he's not worried about representation has never found himself placed constantly in an object position, which is, quite frankly, unpersoning. He's never been told over and over again that he exists only as an accessory to somebody else's story.
Stories are important. Stories are the mechanism that our pattern-making brains use as an engine to understand the world. And our stories need to show all people that they have an important place in that world, and that they are the heroes of their own narratives, not the color in somebody else's.
And I think writers with privilege in any given situation--be it gender, gender presentation, sexuality, race, class, ableness, what-have-you--have the responsibility to make space in our work for readers who do not have those privileges. And I also think that we have the even more important responsibility to make space for the actual voices of other writers who come from different backgrounds, and that the onus upon us to read widely is even more important when talking about writers of our own generation who come from less-widely-represented backgrounds than it is when talking about writers from the depths of the 1930s.
Everybody deserves stories.
And to anyone who is tempted to argue with me on that point: Hey. Isn't it about getting out of your own skin and seeing somebody else's point of view?
*writer generations are a funny thing. They go by publication date rather than chronological age. Which makes me the same writer-age, roughly, as Scott Lynch and as Peter Watts, even though there's about a sixteen-year spread on our physical ages.
(Comments are screened, because I'm going for a run and I have better things to do.)