While I’m stuck here waiting for the ice to melt some so I can get to work (it just needs to warm up a bit, I should be able to get out by noon), I’ve been reading some articles and arguments about gender diversity in the Science Fiction genre. I’m not going to comment on the article… or the counter-article… or the response to the counter-article… or the response to that. I’m not even going to post links. (I’m sure, if you want to read all about it, a short search is all that’s needed.)
What I do want to do is post a few of my own thoughts on books as a reader.
First, I’m not married to one genre. (I’m not married to my love-seat either and thank you, Jim, for the biggest laugh of the week!) I want to read good stories and I don’t care what artificial group they’re shoe-horned into. The arguments over S/F vs Fantasy (especially about Pern) make me want to run screaming into the night. The only two kinds of people who actually care about the difference are publishing houses and rabid fans who want a reason to look down on somebody. I will read anything that offers me a good story and if it provokes me to think about something I haven’t thought of before, so much the better.
However, I object to people or objects included in a story that have no reason to be there except to convince a certain audience that this book is for them. Most recently, I’ve been annoyed by the cozy mysteries that include quilting or quilters… and then the mystery has nothing to do with either. If it has nothing to do with the story, don’t include it! I mean, ok, as background… but if you’re talking about a quilting circle that solves a mystery, why is it important that they’re quilters? Could they be a weekly tea-drinking circle instead? If so, then it’s a group of friends that happens to quilt, not a quilting club.
As far as the idea of ending the binary gender default, that’s not really a great idea. The largest segment of readers still default to binary gender by mental habit- if you’re going to do something different, it needs to be mentioned. Being mentioned, and possibly explained, brings the reader up to speed and, by the way, promotes the cause of gender diversity much better than trying to get everyone to assume that diversity. Also, pushing to change the default does not make it change. The default changes as people change and that’s a slow process. What we want is, perhaps, more diversity from the default that is acceptable. (A side note, if you have no default you cannot have more diversity.)
This is true for almost anything. Characters are assumed also to be bipedal humanoids- even if they are alien- until readers are informed otherwise. If they wear glasses, that should be mentioned, otherwise it’s assumed they don’t. And so on. When confronted with a character named “John” we all assume a lot of things, partly based on our own experience of people named “John”. So writers have to do a bit of work and fill in ‘facts’ to take place of assumptions… or not and let us all assume that “John” is male, straight, American (sorry, but that’s my default), WASP, wears no glasses, clean shaven, is about 6′ tall, weighs approximately 170 lbs and has medium brown hair. If “John” differs from these assumptions, it’s best to mention it in some subtle way as long as it’s important to the story.
If it’s not important to the story, then leave it blank and have the ‘everyman’ response of the read assuming that the character is just like themselves in all the blank spaces. I think I have (possibly) read everything P G Wodehouse ever wrote about Bertie Wooster and yet I never remember him mentioning if Bertie is blond, brunette or red-headed… I have no idea what colour his eyes are and it was never mentioned if he was short, tall or average height. His weight is mentioned slightly- mostly just that he’s not especially heavy. It does not detract at all from my enjoyment of the stories. If it’s important that your character is very heavy, mention it. If it isn’t, don’t. If it’s important that they are hermaphrodite, mention it. If not, then don’t.
How is this a hard concept? Tell a story. Mention the things that are important to the story. Don’t bother with things that aren’t and let the reader make their own assumptions. If you want to write a story with a flaming transvestite as the main character, do it- but make it a good story. Then no one will care that the main character is a flaming transvestite. If you want to write a story where the main character is essentially asexual (Sherlock Holmes, anyone?), do it- just make it a good story. As long as the story comes first, the readers will follow.