Writing, publishing, geekdom, and errata.

State of (Steampunk) Universe: Your Comments Sought ASAP

TL;DR: Steampunk Universe, as it exists, has a few potential issues. I want to hear your thoughts about these issues along with possible solutions - or if we’re just imagining it. Enter your comments into the Google form (requires sign in) at http://goo.gl/forms/tS0MHsJXCPhRi87F2 or send an e-mail to opinion@alliterationink.com . We are on a bit of a time-schedule here; while I'm accepting comments through Friday, the earlier the better. 

There’s been two big times I’ve talked about issues around Steampunk Universe already - first in February about the way we handled criticism of our second call for submissions, and then in May, when I talked about when a criticism was a bit less about validity than finding something to complain about. As Ze Frank says:

Let me remember that the impact of criticism is often not the intent of the critic,
but when the intent is evil, that’s what the block button’s for.
And when I eat my critique, let me be able to separate out the good advice from the bitter herbs.

And that advice is what brings me to you today.

Steampunk World addressed a very specific problem in a very specific subgenre that was still gaining in popularity. Likewise, there was a growing popular demand for representation of people of color in all types of fiction - and steampunk was as near-perfect an example as you could find where that needed to happen, and loudly.

Though Sarah and I recognized the need for Steampunk World, we were nervous. We’re both white, so we were concerned that others would misinterpret our efforts as exploitative. But we did not see anyone else doing a collection like we were doing, and saw how excited others were about the idea. So we did it, despite our fears.

And its success - not just for itself, but in the success of other anthologies, films, and more both featuring and edited and written by people of color - is exactly what we hoped for. Our goal was to kick down the door and change what steampunk meant for others.

So when we approached Steampunk Universe, we explicitly did not want to do the same thing. And that led us to focusing on disabled and aneurotypical people - another category of people who are rarely featured in fiction outside of the occasional use of stereotype, as Abed points out here:

Unlike Steampunk World, both Sarah and I have personal ties to either the disabled or aneurotypical community. And despite the terminology mistake we made with the second call for submissions, we really want to see full-fledged disabled characters represented in all kinds of fiction - and especially in the kinds of fiction we love and read ourselves. We don’t want to see “token” characters, and we definitely don’t want to see tropes and cliches; these are people like ourselves and our loved ones we’re talking about here. (For reference, TvTropes has collected a handy list at http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DisabilityTropes). We agree with Kayla Whaley’s essay ( http://www.cbcdiversity.com/post/68062820761/diversity-101-the-disabled-saint ), particularly her closing paragraph:

I’m honestly not sure where I stand on the “no representation is better than bad representation” debate. But I do know I want to see a) more representation of disabled characters, and b) better representations, including fewer “disabled saints” (read: no more ever). I encourage you to add disabled characters to your stories, but I also encourage you to question your preconceptions, to research, to talk with disabled people. Ultimately, it all comes down to being intentional and respectful.

And that’s where the problem arises.

After determining which stories were of high enough quality, we discovered that there we had several problems.

  • The  tentative table of contents is considerably less diverse than what I normally publish. I’m committed to working hard to ensure that there’s diversity throughout the process while maintaining quality in the books I publish.
  • One author withdrew their story - and perhaps others didn’t submit - because they worried that since they were themselves not disabled, that writing a disabled character was ableist itself.
  • This also led to us being concerned, because while there are a number of disabled authors in the tentative table of contents, it is less than 50%
  • The tentative table of contents as it stands will be somewhere in the 60,000 word range. By comparison, Steampunk World was approximately 90,000 words.
  • Most importantly: unlike Steampunk World, at this point, we’re actually concerned that we won’t be advancing the dialogue in the way we intend. Perhaps it’s just because of the earlier mis-step, but since this is something we care deeply about, we don’t want to make things worse.

We’ve brainstormed a few possible things to add on to help further our goal of greater representation - including things like ensuring there’s visual representations of both disabled and PoC in both the book and as part of the publicity process and making a portion of the proceeds go to programs that work to develop and encourage writers from marginalized groups - but we again worry that these aren’t enough.

So I want your comments. This isn’t a simple popularity poll (not least because online polls are easily swayed). Enter your comments into the Google form (requires sign in) at http://goo.gl/forms/tS0MHsJXCPhRi87F2 or send an e-mail to opinion@alliterationink.com . We are on a bit of a time-schedule here; while I'm accepting comments through Friday, the earlier the better. 

Thank you.

Thank you.


Elizabeth Hopkinson said...

I'm one of those writers who wanted to submit but felt stifled by the conditions. Even though my major work-in-progress has tons of disabled people in it (eunuchs, wheelchair user, Little Person, facial scarring etc.) and they're all pretty normal. When you said that steampunk had to be relevant to the disability, I didn't see how that would work unless they were using a specific form of technology (which limits it to wheelchairs, prosthetic limbs, hearing aids etc.) I personally suffer from depression/anxiety and fibromyalgia, but I couldn't think of a situation in which steampunk tech would either help or hinder that.

Elizabeth Hopkinson said...

Another problem is that disabled people are not a specific culture. (The only possible exception are the Deaf, because they have their own language(s), but there again, that's only limited to people who use sign language. So like with the first anthology you could have Mongolian steampunk or Kenyan steampunk, using those people's history, customs, food, language etc., you can't do that for people with depression or Down's Syndrome or whatever. That's probably another reason why it's been hard to get good stories.

Unknown said...

I disagree with the above comments. I loved the challenge of meeting the submissions criteria and imagining how steampunk tech might affect those with disabilities of different types. I found it really empowering to explore my own disability through this lens with honesty.

I also disagree that there isn't a disabled sense of community. People come together in many different groups through specific disabilities as they live through similar symptoms and feel they are not alone in support groups, occupational and therapy groups, social groups and even Facebook and online communities. They may not have a separate language in common but they have a way of life that people who don't have that disability don't understand. Their medication, therapy, daily living and interpersonal abilities can often make it feel like they are a different 'culture' and one that is not often explored by those who are not part of it except through condescending pity or sadly a fear not only of what is different but of what they can say or do around that person without causing offence. Now the world is opening up and we can learn what is appropriate to properly respect, validate and incorporate anuerotypical and disabled people by going online, researching and learning so much. We can ask, we can be corrected, we can grow and become an inclusive and diverse society.

Stewart O'Fee said...

Hi- I personally feel like it is a great idea for an anthology and definitely worthwhile considering how marginalised disabled people are in both real life and in fiction. It seems to me like you are picking it apart too much and overthinking all the details in a way. Even if you do not have 100 percent diversity in the writers themselves it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t go ahead with what you have collected as publishing this book will open more doors and create more discussion which will encourage more writers with disabilities to come forward with their stories through a creative medium.

My partner suffers from debilitating mental illness and is a diehard Steampunk fan. She was super excited to come across this anthology idea as publications of this type are limited. Plus, the media is currently ablaze with conversations about representation of all types, not least the arguments surrounding things like an all-female Ghostbuster crew.

While having stories written by aneurotypical and disabled people themselves is important, yes, it is even more important to focus on the stories themselves, the characters in them which will be an inspiration to readers who are disabled and those who aren’t alike!

Even if a writer is an able-bodied and neurotypical, they may have been affected in life by a person close to them that has a disability. They also deserve a voice and need to be heard.

You have written about the fact that some people may feel that writing about disabled people when they are not disabled is a form of ableism. I do not agree with this, for in that vein no one should ever imagine themselves in anyone else’s shoes which undermines the very basis of fiction, not least its use in schools and through childhood to help children develop their empathy and emotional skills. As when any writer is including a character from a minority, research is paramount and the representation much be honest and stripped bare of tropes and traditionally spewed or romanticised visions.

In terms of the 90000 vs 60000 word issue? Well, it really is quality and not quantity that matters with the stories.

To the author that withdrew their story and the commenter above who was off-put by the submission criteria, these issues lie solely with them. It is their choice whether they want to submit, and their responsibility to imagine and create a story that fits the anthology.

I just ultimately feel that this level of scrutiny and fear surrounding doing something like this only goes to highlight the fact that it needs to happen, because that is the only way that the dialogue can go forward as you said. To back out now would in my mind only solidify the stigma and isolation surrounding disability.

Sami Clara said...

Dear Editor,

I am most interested in adding my comments regarding your current doubts and concerns around Steampunk Universe. I’d like to first start by saying that I did not respond to the call for submissions because I wasn’t aware of its existence until a few days ago, otherwise I would have happily wrote a short story for consideration.

After having read your survey notes and blog post, I have to say that I feel most touched by your commitment and dedication to providing such honest and careful representation of disabled and aneurotypical people. It is clear to me that you are incredibly cautious, both in your words and your actions, not to offend or otherwise misrepresent those that you wish to stand for. I already hold so much respect for you and your team for this commitment.

That said, I wish to reassure (and convince) you to go ahead with this anthology, not just for the writers but for the potential readers of thee stories. These are stories that need to be heard, no matter how diverse your content may be. I’d like to add here that I am the editor of a recent literary journal, called Inside The Bell Jar, which I created to give a voice to not just those suffering from mental illness, but those who help, support or assist those that are living through this pain. Now, here’s the thing: I received more or less 140 submissions for my first issue, and a little under half of those entries came from people who were not directly affected by mental illness. Like you, I worried that by publishing work by these writers I too would be ableist. I worried that I wasn’t correctly and carefully representing those with mental illness in the way in which they/we deserve; with compassion and understanding, but mostly with insight.

As it turns out, some of my best stories and poems came from those who do not suffer from a mental illness, and I decided that that’s actually okay. I figured that if the story was good, and the characters were strong, that I shouldn’t discriminate the writer for not having a mental illness. In the same way that a white person shouldn’t avoid writing people of colour because they either a) fear making mistakes, or b) feel that it’s not their ‘territory’.

I absolutely believe that we, as writers, have a responsibility to represent people of all colours and all backgrounds. Sure there are people of colour out there, writing people of colour, just as there are people with mental illnesses and disabilities writing themselves into their work, but it’s not enough. And it will never be enough. To believe otherwise is ignorant, and only alienates those from minority groups further.

As for me, as a reader, I can tell you that I suffer from an extreme case of obsessive compulsive disorder, BPD and depression, and I am always, always reading novels, short stories and poetry that speaks to me, that tells my story. I crave that solidarity with the character. But never have I been concerned whether or not the writer is disabled or suffers from a mental illness themselves. So long as their story is engaging, and their characters real and represent the true side of what I live through, I am more than happy to read their words.

I do understand your fears and concerns, but I implore you… please do go ahead with this anthology; it would be an absolute shame should you decide not to. Something you might like to consider is having a small group of beta readers that are affected by the topics your stories cover; for they will be able to let you know should any of your stories not be as accurate as you might have originally thought.

I, for one, would happily read your stories should you wish to consider having beta readers.

Thank you so much for giving us the opportunity to have our voices heard, and for coming to us for help and guidance in these times of doubt. I can only assure you that your intentions are more than good, and that your anthology will help a lot of people.

Consider this email a promise to pre-order my copy! ;)

With love and positive wishes,
Sami Clara

Editor | Inside The Bell Jar

Matt Sloan said...

Dear Editors,

I wanted to weigh in with my own two cents here. Honestly, it sounds like you are doing everything 'correctly', and are working hard to represent characters of colour and aneurotypical characters in fiction - something that is sorely lacking in other publications. As for having less than 50% disabled authors in the table of contents, this is not a problem at all. Just as one does not need to be female to write strong, realistic female characters, one does not need to be disabled to write disabled characters, or a person of colour to write the same. While representing authors that fall into these marginalised groups is indeed important, it is not at all necessary in this case and certainly not necessary to have only disabled authors in your table of contents.

It would be an utter shame for this collection to not go ahead based on the fears you are having. While these fears are valid, you are doing something wonderful and commendable. The world needs this anthology and others like it, and you have already gone above and beyond to give a voice to the marginalised, without even considering the suggested add ons. I sincerely hope you go ahead with the anthology, and cannot wait to purchase it when it becomes available.

Matt Sloan
Editor and Founder
Between Worlds Zine

matthew-bright said...

Full disclosure: I submitted to this and received an acceptance pending publication.

There are a couple of things I wanted to say about this. First: I've been following this since the beginning and took issue (in a different forum) with the author's criticisms that you highlighted in a separate blog post. Secondly: I'm abled, white and male, but I'm also part of the LGBT+ community and my background is writing in queer literature, so I'm very conscious of my position both of privilege and of minority. I found watching the various levels of criticism levelled at the call etc., quite difficult to watch because I've been in the same position whereby statements of inclusivity have been picked apart on a semantic level, rather than a generally ideological or intentional level, purely for the sake (it often seems) of attack. But then I also accept that the 'exceptionalisms' terminology was problematic, but thought your steps to learn from it and correct were admirable. (Again I repeat: I am abled, so I'm aware that it might be a patronising to be perceived as patting someone on the back for learning-and-correcting, but from the perspective of working in queer lit, if heterosexual authors took steps to make sure their terminology was right, and learn and correct, etc. I'd be overjoyed.) Thirdly: I'm also an editor of anthologies and have encountered (with very single anthology) objections that suggest I am not the right person to edit the collection, even when objectively I almost certainly am. I'm not suggesting that all criticism should be discounted, but it should be remember that not all criticisms are immediately valid either.

In response to this post: I absolutely think the anthology should go ahead. I respect your reservations, and I respect the idea that, in an ideal world, this might be edited and entirely written by a non-abled/non-neurotypical editors/writers, but it's not an ideal world, which I think is important. There are very few other anthologies coming close to trying to dissect the assumptions and prejudices of the genre, and having read Steampunk World I can certainly confirm that your commitment to the diversity of the collections and ensuring the representation is not exploitative are solid. I am a supporter of the idea of 'own voices' insofar as I would encourage people to seek out minority voices telling their stories; if perhaps there was an ocean of writers or editors putting out anthologies as diverse as this perhaps I'd be less sure, but the bottom line is, you are one of very few, and we would be far better off for this anthology existing. I would be very say to think that the idea of 'own voices' and its associated ideas could eventually turn itself around to preventing people dedicated to publishing diverse and interesting content from doing so for fear of backlash.

So in short: Steampunk World was great, and I anticipate Steampunk Universe being equally as good. Regarding word count, quality is better than quantity. I hope this project goes ahead.

Matt Bright

Dale Cameron Lowry said...

Disabled, queer, genderqueer, raised bilingual outside the Anglophone world, has lived in "developing world" (Anglophone and non-Anglophone), mostly white. I'm also that person you think was complaining for the sake of complaining, when really I must have been bad at expressing my concerns. Putting that aside ...

I got the sense from the anthology call that you all were trying to accomplish too many things at once with your call for submissions, given the time frame.

Are there lots of steampunk writers who can write from a disabled perspective? Yes.

Are there lots of steampunk writers who can write from a non-white perspective? Yes

Are there lots of steampunk writers who can write from a non-Western perspective? Probably fewer, but still significant numbers.

Are there lots of steampunk writers who can write from a non-English-speaking perspective? Probably fewer, but still significant numbers.

Are there lots of steampunk writers who can write from all of these perspectives? Probably not.

Did you want all writers/stories to represent all categories? I don't know. I read your call for submissions multiple times, and reread it when you & the publisher told me I was reading it wrong. I still think it comes across as wanting each story to represent each of the four categories, or most of them.

I don't hit all the categories, so I didn't try to write for it. I would guess that there are others who chose not to submit because they and/or their stories didn't fit all the categories. That might have affected your numbers of submissions from people w/disabilities.

In addition to the above questions, I had another question going through my mind back when I read the call:

Are there people who can write from all four of these perspectives but never considered writing steampunk? Huge numbers.

If you're looking for representation from all four of the categories, that means approaching writers who fit them and asking them if they're interested in writing steampunk. The downside of that is it inviting non-Westerners to participate in a Western literary tradition could come across as patronizing. It would need to be done carefully.

Since you asked for advice: If you're satisfied with the diversity in the anthology, publish it. If you are not satisfied with it, determine what exactly your book is missing and solicit more submissions. Do that by inviting specific writers, and/or by putting out another call for submissions. Decide what you biggest needs are in terms of diversity and content and make them clear. Also make clear if you are looking for diversity in author identities, in story content, or both.

My own opinion about representation: As for whether the authors are disabled themselves, I don't feel strongly about this as long as they portray characters realistically (given the world they've built) and tell a good story. I am disabled, but I don't have every disability that I write about in my stories. I am queer, but not in all the manifestations that arise in my stories. I am multilingual, but sometimes write from the perspectives of people who are fluent in languages I'm not really good at. I don't think it's a problem when I do it, and I don't think it's a problem when other people do it, as long as they use empathy and research.

My own opinion about whether you should publish the book: Of course you should—whether it's now or later after you so elicited more submissions. You had the same demographics at the beginning of the project as you do now. You had the same vision then as you do now. And I'm sure the writers whose work you have accepted pending publication could use the money. Regardless of demographics, we writers tend to be an underpaid bunch, and as I recall you were paying SFWA professional rates. Writers need more of those gigs.

Good luck and best wishes!