Fear of the unknown

News of the day: I have author copies of

This proves it IS possible to get them before a book is released and not, necessarily, 3 months later if at all. And to the right address too. That’s the first time in about twenty. I hope it is a trend starting, not a fluke.

I’ve always been more curious about the unknown than afraid. Still, I accept the comfort of familiarity, and the idea that something nasty might be out there, beyond the circle of lamplight.

I’m of the kind who would go and look, because I’d infinitely rather find out what it was and deal with it than shiver in my little piece of known. The one thing you can absolutely guarantee is I would not stick my head in the ground and pretend that if I can’t see it, it can’t see me.

I would have guessed a relentless curiosity and anything but stick your head in the ground would be the defining trait of sf/fantasy writers. I would think, by definition almost, we’d be the one group of people who would want to know everything, even if it was nasty.

Now I belong a fairly large group of sf/fantasy writers. Someone sounded off about a problem they’d had on facebook in terms which were less than flattering about Christians, lumping them all into the right wing, and to my ear, implying such people were all racist homophobes. Well, everyone is entitled their opinions. And everyone is entitled to disagree with those. I might not agree with either side, but I’ll defend to the death your right to sound off about them, and I personally don’t care what religion, orientation, or skin color you have. I don’t even care where you sit politically. I might argue with you, but my own ‘politics’ come down to thinking about issues and making up my mind. I don’t let others do my thinking for me, which means I’ve never really sat in any camp and try to be reasonably tolerant about most viewpoints, especially in public. Actually, if anything cooks my goose it is intolerance. Back where I grew up this was called – and this may seem odd to modern Americans, but wouldn’t back in history – liberal thinking.

I’m, I suppose, a statistician of sorts. Fisheries science is about half biology and half really esoteric statistical modelling which is pretty close to fantasy really. So I tend to think of things in terms of probabilities and numbers.

Given a healthy society(or fish population), any reasonably sized subgroup in that society will more or less mirror the demographics of the group, unless there are major reasons why not. For instance if you sample all the fish in one large rock-pool it will contain most of same fish as in all rock pools on that coast (with some of the rare ones not being represented or found there but not typically) and, unless there is some good reason in roughly the same proportions.

Now, sometimes there are very good reasons why this is not so. Reasons that make sense. Reasons which are logical and understandable. And sometimes the proportions show there is a difference, and either there is no discernible reason, or the reason is just plain dumb, or is historical or no longer relevant, or is because you’re taking a snapshot at a point in time. Sometimes they show a real underlying problem that is fixable, or getting worse. One thing they don’t really do is any harm to individuals, unless those individuals benefit by the odd proportions being maintained. But for example, you’re a good doctor, and a Sikh, and the proportions of Sikh’s in the general population 2% and the proportion of Sikh doctors is 5%… well, the world needs good doctors, and obviously that culture encourages children in that direction. Every now and again the figures will show up something that bears thinking about. An obvious thing would be say the number of women on Company Boards. If it doesn’t remotely resemble the 50% that it should be by natural reflection, you need to take some thought to why not, and look at things like the historical numbers (let’s say it was 0, then 5 then 15… you could see it was changing with time and work out what is happening).

Without looking at the numbers, at the stats, and then working out why they are what they are, you will remain ignorant. Blind to all sorts of things. Opportunities. Problems. Dangers. Money.
Getting those numbers is a way of finding out what the unknown is. The point is, without some kind of survey and rigorous thinking statistical analysis… What’s out there is unknown. You may think you know, but really you’re guessing. And any guess that your subgroup does not reflect the overall demographic to some extent, is just dumb (unless you KNOW it doesn’t for some reason, and even then, you’re actually guessing aren’t you? Not logical. Not clever.)

So for instance, this group of readers will be self-selected and not really reflect the demographic make-up of the internet audience. But I’d be a lot stupider than I am to assume that this group would be a ‘safe’ place to badmouth for example ‘Hispanic’ people or ‘Same-sex couples’ without knowing the probability that they’re part of the audience. If I’d surveyed the audience and knew that my audience were abnormal demographically and I wanted that on my permanent record (which the internet is) and I wanted to, I could, if I was that daft and unpleasant and felt that way, do that. But otherwise… it would be a stupid thing to do.

And here is the point: we, the writers of sf/fantasy, should in broad terms more or less reflect the demographic make-up of our audience. I’m not suggesting, or even hinting that a writer has to be green and a practicer of the Ying-tong faith to write characters who are green Ying-tongers. Stupid idea. Completely off the wall stupid. But let’s be real here, if green Ying-tongers read, the probabilities show that 1: (A certain number of them), will want to write.

And if green Ying-tongers make up 10% of the population and read, and are of normal intelligence and education… and you have none being published, you have one of three situations. 1)They’re actually not reading. 2)They’re deliberately being excluded. 3)there is some other reason preventing them either reading or writing (if the group has a religious injunction against writing, or reading anything that is not the book of Ying-tong, or prayers to Ying and Tong for example. It’s big, obvious stuff. There is no space for subtlety here.)

Now you can break this up into genres, fiction, non-fiction, whatever. But it is very valuable to both the writers and particularly the publishers… if their goal is to sell as many books as possible. For authors, if taken at narrow, short term self-centered focus, there is less benefit… for example it tells you where there is a probable hole – and many of us fit multiple demographic ID’s, we’ve just chosen to focus on one. Say the author whose parents are Ying-tong and Atheist… who considers themselves neither really, but went along with mummy’s Atheism, but in looking at the demographic of Horror writers, finds Atheists are there in 50% – way above their representation in the population, there is some value in the author claiming his Ying-tong roots. The only other advantage, of course, to writers would be that sooner-or-later the fact that your group leaves out Ying-tongers or whatever, will come out. If it is Ying-tongers themselves who find this out, Ying-tong publishing will probably spring up, and it is likely they’d declare the rest of the industry bigots (rightly or wrongly) biased against the Ying-tong faith, and hurt the authors and their publishers. If the authors did the stats, or the publishers did, and started asking why their were no Ying-tonger writers, it’s pretty hard to hold it against them. It would be tried of course, but most people have good a BS meter. It’s admittedly of less short term value to authors than it is to publishers.

Taking a broader, longer term point of view, a society that loses part of its potential – be that as writers, or readers, or women being educated – is hamstringing itself. Sooner or later that is going make life worse for everyone, including those who were on the ‘winning’ demographic. For writers of course it’s a no-lose situation really. While they may be getting a few readers from chunks of the demographic that they don’t have anything in common with, they don’t have to lose that — it really means there is much bigger pie. And a bigger pie means a bigger industry, and you’re more likely to find enough readers to keep you afloat.

Yes: you might see publishing of other things – or authors who write say sparkly vampires from from LDS point of view – do very well. But those readers are not ones you’ve lost. They’re ones you probably never had, and may now get. But yes, people or cultures you don’t like might benefit. Or not.

Now I know I came from a odd subculture, that group ‘white’ South Africans who actually always opposed a system of government designed to favor them. Yes, they were always there, long before the ‘oppressed’ started organizing. Of course, to me, this is a noble, honorable thing to do. It’s the right thing to do. I am biased, yes. It runs parallel to the concept of ‘I disagree absolutely with what you want to say, but I’ll fight to the death for your right to say it. It means if you see your worst enemy, that you dislike/ distrust/ hate with an ancestral hatred is getting a raw deal at your expense… you’ll try and give them a lift up, even if you can’t stand them and know their first act is going to be to spit at you, and try to get you down. You’ll still pick the bastards up, and stand clear. Which is pretty damn dumb too, I suppose. It has a long tradition, and was I’d guess it originally from ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you,’ and has had centuries of history in western civilization. You might – if you were me – say it was one of the things that drives civilization forward.

Which brings me back, full circle, to the comments that started me thinking down this track… I thought, either the demographics of this group are totally out of whack with the demographics of the main reading population, or someone hasn’t thought about this. The chances are she’s offending a large chunk of those reading her comment… or not. So I suggested a strictly anonymous survey – run through something like Survey Monkey (which so long as you didn’t make the survey publicly accessible would give you a good handle on some basic data without cross referencing)- which would give us a handle on the demographics of a group that I though broadly representative of sf/fantasy writers. Ask the same demographic questions as the census and other generally available population stats (such as electoral data). Such a thing have to be 1)Anonymous, 2)be voluntary 3 )have a broad general buy-in, to be worth while. Look, whatever it showed I am a weird outlier – Flinders Island has a low probability of having an author of any description. So basically it’s of no short term ‘benefit’ to me. I was just curious, and naturally assumed in my profession, everyone is.

I was amazed and perplexed by the response. You’d have thought I suggested a baby-killing with a spot necrophiliac bestiality thrown in by the general stunned silence. Two people out of a couple of hundred thought it might possibly have some merit. Not enough to say ‘yeah we should do this’ but not ‘nay’. The most curious ones to me were those who said it would ‘divisive’. I was rather gobsmacked by this, as they’re – shall we say, not secretive about their own rather extreme religious, political, gender, orientation points of view – not in the group or in public. Outspoken would be more accurate. So… knowing who you spoke to would divide you from them? Making assumptions, which are almost certainly partially wrong is… better? I didn’t get this, but didn’t see any sense in arguing.

I tried briefly to argue the idea, but rapidly decided the cake wasn’t worth the candle, shrugged and walked away. It needed real buy-in, and I wasn’t getting it. I think people are needlessly suspicious about this sort of thing. I don’t understand why, unless you’re exploiting some kind of false perception. And it’s a waste of effort to do so: You can avoid it… briefly. But basically the internet is a vast data repository. If the traditionally published Sf/fantasy writers actually matter in 10 years time — someone will compile the stats. They’d be less accurate, but we’ll know how many are between 50-60 or 20-30. We’ll know their gender, we’ll know their orientation. We’ll know if they are religious, and if so, what religion. We’ll know if they ever supported a political point of view or party. We’ll know what race they feel they are and what country or state they come from. Short of staying in a hole, and posting manuscripts snail-mail, this is public domain data and data-mining tools are getting better and better. You simply cannot hide as a statistic, even if you succeed as an individual.

I thought it would be fascinating and tell us a lot about ourselves. I guess I was the only one. But in reality I suspect it won’t matter and won’t be worth doing, because let’s face it, self-publishing WILL be demographically representative of readers. And I suspect these folk will just be in a little area of that. Not divided, of course…

reposted in Mad Genius club

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15 Comments

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15 responses to “Fear of the unknown

  1. Pingback: Fear of the unknown | madgeniusclub

  2. I’m quite aware that being openly atheist probably hurts my chances of being read by devout Christians, particularly in a country like the USA where atheists are distrusted even more so than Muslims. I do not judge all Christians by the actions of the right wing fundamentalists, however, as from personal experience I know the fundamentalists are not the majority.

    I do feel it’s necessary to be open about my lack of faith, though, rather than keep the status quo and be quiet. I feel that way because I think the more people who do identify as atheists, the more accepted that way of thinking will become. It’s a time for people like me to stand up and be counted and shake off the misconceptions.

    If that loses me Christian readers, then fine. The type of people who would not read an author because of their faith, or lack of such, are the type of people who probably wouldn’t like my writing anyway.

    • I don’t think it will – only in rare cases would the extreme end of fundamentalism write you off. I think you’re missing the bus about the NY publishing scene :-). Intolerance there is in fact largely the other way around where atheism is only slightly less fashionable than Paganism or Islam.

      • Perhaps you’re right. You certainly have more experience of the publishing industry than I. I suppose I assumed that it would reflect the US culture as a whole, where religion is everywhere, despite a claim of separation of church and state. England, with its very own national church, is much more secular, by comparison, ironically. I never felt the need to stand up for my lack of beliefs before I came to live here 🙂

        • ppaulshoward

          Cheryl, the “claim” of Separation of Church and State isn’t just a claim. To me that means that we don’t have a State Religion. Until very recently, the involvement of religious people in the “Public Marketplace of Ideas” was the norm and few thought anything wrong about it. Unfortunately, the Political Left (and others) have pushed (as Dave mentioned) intolerance toward religion & religious people (unless they are pagans or Muslim).

          As for your stories (which I don’t think I’ve read), you being an atheist isn’t a problem unless the only religion/religious people in your stories are “evil”.

          By the way, what name do you write under so I can check out your stories?

  3. ppaulshoward

    Haven’t had enough coffee to give a good response.

  4. Hi Paul, I haven’t had any short stories published for years, because I’ve been working exclusively on novels. Those that were, tended to avoid religious ideas at all and concentrate on fantasy or paranormal. The work I’m submitting to agents now has several kinds of religion, represented by good and bad people alike, much like real life.

    I took ‘separation of church and state’ to mean that no law would be made by congress in order to promote one religion over another. But state legislators all over the US are trying to introduce pieces of legislation based on one religion’s beliefs.

    I don’t listen to Liberals or Republicans, as I think that they’re all as bad as each other – career politicians out for themselves and the oligarchy that pays them, and not to serve the people who voted for them. I march to the beat of my own drum, which may be a little off-kilter, but as far as I can see, there is no separation of church and state when a high school student has to take her school district to court to have a prayer removed from her public school wall, or when taxpayer money is used to fund vouchers to send kids to private religious schools. Heck, there are even religious messages on the money. 🙂

    For the record, while I’m not anti-religious, I am an equal opportunity atheist. I don’t believe in Islam or paganism either.

    • ppaulshoward

      I don’t want to get into an argument here but something is “wrong” when schools tell children that they can’t bring a Bible (for their own use) into a school or paint a picture with religious themes.

      The problem appears to be that some want “Freedom From Religion” and go to “weird extremes” to get “religion out of their sight”.

      Neither of the “problems” you mentioned are IMO real problems and I’ve heard of too many cases where the State (and Public Schools) act as if a major crime has taken place when students show their religion in schools.

      • I’m not sure that this was the kind of discussion Dave was hoping for, so I’ll just say this and leave it alone 🙂

        Of course I want freedom from religion. I don’t want my children or anyone else’s to be indoctrinated with any religion at school. Nor do I want to pay for other people’s children to be indoctrinated at school. Would you still see it as ‘not a problem’ if those vouchers were paying for children to go to Muslim schools? You can’t favour one, so you’d have to allow both. Better to allow none, I think. Leave it to the parents to decide whether they want their children to be indoctrinated. 🙂

        • ppaulshoward

          I see no problem with giving parents extra money to send their children to a school of *their* choice, Muslim, Christian, Jewish, atheist, etc.

          As for “indoctriated at school”, right now in the US the “indocriation” is that Religion is Evil and kids will be punished if they show their religion there.

          As for the “Prayer on the school wall” that you mentioned, I didn’t know that atheists are harmed by seeing them. [Sarcasm]

  5. Chill, the pair of you :-). Paul, I’ve read some of Cheryl’s writing. It’s good. My only contention with faith based beliefs is that they’re yours and you should be free to hold them as long as they do not seriously affect the way of life of others (and that includes the whole range from Atheism to Zorasterism – they all rely on some degree of belief in something which cannot be proved. I have no problem with this. I just have a problem when someone tells me their version of belief is right and better for everyone, and anyone who dares disagree, or worse, lapse or change to another system should punished or killed.) By ‘affect the life of others’ I do not mean in a passive sense, like someone wearing a Sikh bangle (unless they’re in healthcare and it means a problem washing) or wearing a cross or putting an Atheist advert on a bus or prayer on a wall, or piece of the Koran on a wall. I mean in an active sense, like making all meat Halal, ringing bells at 6 AM, forbidding me to eat or drink something for your religious reasons (you’re welcome do without meat, beef, pork, mixed-milk-and-meat, shellfish, alcohol etc. Just don’t expect me not to).

  6. I’m chilled 🙂

    I don’t get mad at opposing views, we’re all entitled to believe what we want. Dave, I’m pretty much in the same frame of mind as you. I don’t care what anyone believes as long as it doesn’t affect mine or anyone else’s life. My only reason for wanting to keep religion (any religion, not just one) out of schools, is that it’s not the place for that. It’s a place for learning, and unless you’re learning about all the religions from an educational point of view (i.e., these people believe this, these other people believe that) then you run into danger of pushing one religion as ‘the one’ and that’s where my dander gets up and starts arguing 🙂

  7. Sorry if this breaks the flowbof the discussion above, but I just reviewed Cuttlefish for SciFiPulse: http://scifipulse.net/2012/07/in-review-cuttlefish. Terrific book!

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