Roundtable: Intersectionality, Part 1

Ellen Datlow

Moving for a minute outside sf.

As a teenager I was reading Henry Miller –probably for the kick of reading something forbidden. However, as I read those novels (Sexus, Tropic of Cancer, etc) I became more and more resentful of them because they were obviously not written for me–a female–the only females in them were peripheral to the needs of the males in the novels. So I felt so outside that I came to truly dislike that sort of book (including the more “literary” Magister Ludi aka The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse. Not a women in the book at all).

I think how this relates to sf is that when you create worlds that are meant to reflect a “real” world in fiction–a future world or not, it’s the writer’s responsibility to populate that world with all kinds of people–different races and different classes–yes of course, the focus can be on one person of a specific race and class but there needs to be an awareness that others exist outside the purview of the main story.

Paul Witcover

It’s this prescriptive, moralistic tendency that troubles me about intersectionality –and by no means just intersectionality. “It’s the writer’s responsibility to…” “[T]here needs to be…” I don’t like people telling me, as a writer, what I must write, or, as a reader, what I must read.

Rachel Swirsky

“When you create worlds that are meant to reflect a ‘real’ world” is the qualifier beginning this statement.

Do you think that it’s possible to create something that accurately reflects (again, the precondition of this statement is that the work is intending to do that) the real world but has no awareness, or a negative awareness, of the existence of large groups of people?

If you do think it’s possible, do you think it’s likely? Or do you think it’s probably the province of a few works that are exceptional (as in, dealing with exceptions) in one way or another?

Ellen Datlow

I don’t think it’s a moralist stance to take that if someone intends to write meaningfully and well that he or she be aware of populations outside the main story they’re telling.

John Clute

George Eliot/Leo Tolstoy yes. Emily Bronte/Fyodor Dostoevsky no. Ish.

Ellen Datlow

Depends on the “intimacy” of the story the author wants to tell. Is it about family interactions or about epic undertakings? So yes, of course this all must be taken in context of the story the writer is writing.

Paul Witcover

Rachel, to answer your questions, I do believe it’s possible to create such worlds. That is the power, for good or ill, of fiction. I don’t believe fiction has any sort of inherent social, political, or cultural responsiblity to the world outside itself. Which is not to say that it, or the writer behind it, can’t choose to take on that responsiblity.

Note that the qualifier you quote from Ellen’s email itself places “real” in quotes and precedes it with the article “a.” Why is that, do you think? Surely it is because the idea of “a ‘real’ world” is a subjective one.

I would go so far as to say that not only is it possible to create fictional worlds that have “no awareness, or a negative awareness, of the existence of large groups of people,” but that every fictional world can be described in this way, by what it excludes, whether intentionally or not.

Ellen Datlow

Paul, I read recently (and I don’t recall where–sorry to be vague) about a movie or tv show that takes place in Washington DC, –yet there were no African Americans in the film/tv show. To me that demonstrates bad writing.

In science fiction, if one is writing about a future America and leaves out large segments of the population from the narrative (as if they don’t exist and never existed) –then you’d better have a damned good reason for it or at least acknowledge that you’re “playing” with history. As Howard Waldrop does in his alternative history “The Lions Are Asleep this Night” in which Columbus doesn’t encounter native Americans.

No one’s trying to tell you what to write Paul, but once it’s written, a writer shouldn’t be surprised if she’s criticized for not creating believable worldbuilding (which is what this is IMO).

Paul Witcover

Ellen, believable worldbuilding is another matter entirely. I have no disagreements on that score. And I’m not asserting that fiction should be free from criticism — didn’t mean to give that impression. If a writer is extrapolating from our world, or attempting accurate mimesis in fiction, or at least the convincing illusion thereof, then yes, such lacks as you cite would be bad writing. But part of the attraction of speculative fiction, surely, is that it need not restrict itself to mimesis, and can, to a greater degree than other genres, go its own way in terms of an internally coherent worldbuilding that doesn’t require fidelity to anything outside itself. Otherwise, aren’t we just writing allegories?

Cecelia Holland

All we do is allegory.

Ellen Datlow

Paul, I agree wholeheartedly with your statement “I don’t believe fiction has any sort of inherent social, political, or cultural responsibility to the world outside itself.”

In fact, I argued just that at a Clarion west class I taught a couple of years ago. The writer needs to write whatever he/she needs/wants to.

When I put “real” in quotes I did it not for the reason you claim–ie that nothing is “real” in fiction-it’s all subjective. I was merely referring to sf worlds rather than fantasy worlds. An sf USA is based on something that exists, no matter that it may be distorted or changed in the telling of the story.

Again, I don’t call it a moral stance at all but an opinion that believability is crucial to science fiction. From an editor’s pov, basically, if the story works and communicates what the author intends to say then it’s successful. If not, there’s something wrong in the storytelling, which includes characters and setting.

In science fiction it always comes down to believable worldbuilding.

Paul Witcover

No argument, Ellen. We just seem to have different opinions on what constitutes believability.

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