Friday, January 13, 2012

Self-Publishing: Sometimes the only Gate that's Open

'Lock The Gate Master Brand' photo (c) 2011, Lock The Gate - license:

The review blog All Things Urban Fantasy recently published a piece regarding their refusal to do reviews of self published books.  The author of the post said that she has had negative experiences with authors who have reacted unprofessionally to critique.  She further went on to cite amateurish covers, as well as grammatical and spelling mistakes in the books. Obviously, we believe that the owner of each blog should have autonomy over their own spaces, and so we respect the right of the owners of All Things Urban Fantasy to place limitations on which books they will cover however, in our space, our policy is quite different.

At Fangs for the Fantasy, we accept all books with the only requirement being that they fit our specified genre (and we have been known to bend that - albeit not often).  If the book has a protagonist of colour, a GLBT protagonist, a disabled protagonist or a strong female character, it is more likely to end up on the top of our to read list.  Together, we negotiate a number of marginalisations and as such we want to see ourselves reflected in what we read.  We further recognise how important it is to children who come from historically marginalised communities to see positive representations of themselves.

Publishing companies, just like any social organisations, have inbuilt biases. This means that privileged people are far more likely to get publishing deals and books that support a narrative in which historically marginalised people are either erased, or subject to negative portrayals are more likely to be published. The idea that traditionally published books are simply a marker of professionalism is missing the fact that agents and publishers act as gate keepers and, like all gate keepers, their role is to support the active oppression and silencing of historically marginalised people. As reviewers, contributing to the attention a book receives, our reviewing policy can risk enabling the gate keepers or becoming gate keepers ourselves if we ignore the built in biases.

Rachel Manija Brown, author of All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, and Sherwood Smith, author of Crown Duel and a great many other novels for adults and young adults published a piece Publisher’s Weekly this past September about the suggestion that they should remove a gay character from a book that they had written.

An agent from a major agency, one which represents a bestselling YA novel in the same genre as ours, called us.

The agent offered to sign us on the condition that we make the gay character straight, or else remove his viewpoint and all references to his sexual orientation.

Rachel replied, “Making a gay character straight is a line in the sand which I will not cross. That is a moral issue. I work with teenagers, and some of them are gay. They never get to read fantasy novels where people like them are the heroes, and that’s not right.”

The agent suggested that perhaps, if the book was very popular and sequels were demanded, Yuki could be revealed to be gay in later books, when readers were already invested in the series. (source)

This is an example of gatekeeping in action. You’ll note that the agent's issue was not with elements of the story, but simply the fact that the authors dared to have a gay teen and one whose relationships matched that of their heterosexual counterparts. I know that there are those who will argue that there is already some gay representation in the genre (though erasure is far more likely to be the norm), but to that I must point out that the addition of a gay character, does not necessarily mean that the role is affirmative in any way.  What we tend to see are the gay best friends, or gay uncles, who are usually celibate and fulfill every trope associated with gay men.  These men love to shop, they sashay, are limp wristed  and catty, all while practically farting unicorns and fairy dust.

The closer the representation comes to being affirming, the less likely publishers will want to publish it. There is a very solid belief that books that involve gay characters belong in the m/m genre where they can be appropriately fetishised by straight women. Mainstream representations of gay characters is few and far between and in the urban fantasy genre trans people are downright invisible.  

The GLBT community is not the only historically marginalized people that are subjected to erasure within the urban fantasy genre. I cannot tell you how many books I have read that have been set in major urban areas only to find that there isn’t a single person of colour in the story. Let’s consider for the moment the struggle that Australian author Justine Larbalestier had when Bloomsbury Children's Books decided to publish the American release of her book Liar with a young White girl with long hair on the cover of her book, despite the fact that the protagonist, Micah, is a Black girl with short hair. After much online discussion, Larbalestier took to her blog to write the following:

Liar is a book about a compulsive (possibly pathological) liar who is determined to stop lying but finds it much harder than she supposed. I worked very hard to make sure that the fundamentals of who Micah is were believable: that she’s a girl, that she’s a teenager, that she’s black, that she’s USian. One of the most upsetting impacts of the cover is that it’s led readers to question everything about Micah: If she doesn’t look anything like the girl on the cover maybe nothing she says is true. At which point the entire book, and all my hard work, crumbles.

Every year at every publishing house, intentionally and unintentionally, there are white-washed covers. Since I’ve told publishing friends how upset I am with my Liar cover, I have been hearing anecdotes from every single house about how hard it is to push through covers with people of colour on them. (source)

As with erasure in books with GLBT characters, white washing characters is hardly an isolated experience.

In short, marginalised work faces constant suppression. From Amazon delisting, to book shop shelving in the “niche” section, to publishers, agents and editors demanding protagonists, covers, even significant bit characters be as privileged as possible so as not to “alienate” readers. There is a constant battle from mainstream publishing - and beyond - to push marginalised characters out of our books and marginalised authors off our shelves.

It is an effort to avoid the gatekeeping activities of traditional publishing houses that minority authors have taken to independent publication. It has meant a lack of support in terms of editing, book covers and publicity; however, the flip side is real characters that accurately reflect the experiences of historically marginalised people. The very idea that authors resort to self publishing because they lack skill, ignores the very real roadblocks that marginalised people face.

To be honest, it smacks of snobbery. You’re  self-pubbed? Oh you’re not a REAL author. Your work is lesser and not worth my time. Now go find this publishing house full of cis, straight, white, able-bodied men to tell you you’re a real author and your work is worth my attention, then get back to me. In other words, books are only considered books once they’ve passed through a filter controlled by the privileged.

To refuse to review these works is to participate in the maintenance of a system that has proven itself repeatedly to be biased. Of course, such a decision is always backed up with the claim that self published books aren’t polished or that the authors are not professional, but I can tell you that after reading countless books in this genre, there are plenty of books which are filled with spelling and grammar mistakes - to say nothing of dubious stories, weak characterisations and plot holes you could sail a tanker through. And we have had run ins with authors who are displeased with the reviews that we have posted in this space, who have made us aware in no uncertain terms that our decision to consider the role of isms in their work is unfair. No one wants to be called a bigot, however, because we live in a White supremacist, ableist, sexist, homophobic state, the very idea that any work can be free of isms is ridiculous. We don’t live in a Utopia but somehow recognition of one's failure is supposedly more difficult to deal with than the historically marginalised people who have to live with consequences of having this bigotry become the ground work of our discourse. Traditional publishers are certainly no guarantee of quality or professionalism.

Whether or not reviewers are consciously aware or not, a refusal to branch out and consider the work of independently published books is based in a desire to conform and maintain a status quo that in some way benefits them. I think it would be fair to say that as marginalised reviewers, we have a responsibility to consider the work of self pubs, simply because they are some of the best opportunities to see good positive representation, without the influence of those who seek to erase us from an entire genre, furthermore our support evidences that there is a market for the work of marginalised people despite claims to the contrary.

If it’s drek, we may snark it - but never for just being a self-pub.