“Shouldn’t It Be About The Work?”: On White Dudes Getting Award Nominations

Brad R. Torgersen had this to say about my discussion of the Hugos the other day:

In an ideal world nobody would care about the ethnicity or gender or sexual orientation of the person on the ballot in a given category — they’d care about the story that was written.

I agree.  But it’s not an ideal world…. And so we do care.  And yet I suspect Brad’s comment was far more along the lines of “Why must we make such a fuss about whites and women and minorities, when we should all just concentrate on the work?  Why not just let the works speak for themselves?”

The issue is that when we let the works speak for themselves, we wind up with the Gemmell Awards: 70,000 votes (several orders of magnitudes greater than the Hugos), and every single nominee for Best Novel is a White Dude.  Every best debut novel is a dude, most of them white.

And here’s why I think white dudes shouldn’t make up the majority of award lists: because I’m a programmer, and I do a lot of database queries in my day job.

How’s that work?  Well, I work with half a million Magic: the Gathering cards we sell, put into hundreds of thousands of decks that we also track, and one of the things I’m tasked to do most frequently is, “Run this report.”  In other words, “Find the best-selling cards, find the most popular decks, find our most popular authors.”

In other words, I am paid to ascertain, via data analysis, what the best is.

Admittedly, I have it easier: I have objective criteria to look at, such as “Find me the product that sold the most units on shipped orders between this and that date.”  Still, some of the retrievals get pretty hairy as we start adding in more clauses to narrow the data down, until eventually I’ve got maybe ten or twenty sets of criterion that I’m searching by.  It gets complicated.

And when the query is all structured, I check the data it’s returned.  Just as a sanity check.  And here’s the thing pretty much every programmer can tell you:

If I query for our bestselling cards, and every one of the top sellers I’ve found is a “white creature,” that’s a sign I’ve probably fucked up my query.

Real data is messy.  So the first thing I check for when running reports is a little messiness.  Because if I’ve run a report and the results are very clean and even and uniform when I didn’t ask them to be, then chances are good that my query is wrong.  I likely haven’t actually asked for “the best-selling card,” I have instead accidentally introduced an error that somehow narrowed the query to “show me the the best-selling cards that are white and a creature.”

Now, sometimes data aligns, and it turns out that thanks to a run on cards, this suspicious data is correct.  But as a programmer, if you don’t double-check that too-neat list to verify the data, you’re a terrible fucking programmer.

Likewise, with the Gemmell awards, I ask: with all of the vibrant new voices in fantasy out there, putting out work by the score, with hundreds of novels published annually on this topic, what’s the likelihood that only white dudes turn out to be really awesome at this?  I’ll grant you, there’s a chance that maybe white men have a very special connection with fantasy – such a natural bond, in fact, that out of the twenty-one nominees over the past four years, only two have been women.  Maybe there’s something about writing good fantasy that only white guys can really do it.

Or, if we’re looking at this data with a programmer’s cynical eye, maybe there’s some sort of accidental bias introduced to this equation, where white guys are disproportionately rewarded in the field of fantasy, and in that case it’s not about the books, it’s actually about some subtle query error that’s funnelling our results in the wrong direction.

None of this is to say that the Gemmell Award nominees are bad books.  I’ve read some of ’em.  I liked ’em.  They’re definitely worth picking up.  But if we’re asking, “What’s the best novel in fantasy?” and for four years running the answer has been, “A book a white guy wrote,” then either you’re arguing that white guys are somehow just better at writing fantasy than anyone else, or you’re wondering if that data is somehow skewed.

I think it’s skewed.  That doesn’t mean that I think the Gemmell Award nominees are bad writers, or that these books aren’t good – but I do wonder what’s going on with that data that tells us that either women aren’t very good at writing fantasy, or women are not getting rewarded for their fantasy-meanderings.  And if the answer is that women aren’t getting rewarded, then it could be a ton of subtle biases introduced into the query, all the way from agent-queries to marketing to covers to reviewer biases to fandom biases, all of which cascade into one quietly skewed set of answers.

Tell me that question’s not worth exploring.

13 Comments

  1. Travis Hall
    Apr 21, 2014

    “If I query for our bestselling cards, and every one of the top sellers I’ve found is a “white creature,” that’s a sign I’ve probably fucked up my query.” That, or Craig Wescoe just won a Pro Tour.

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 21, 2014

      I approve of all obscure Magic jokes in this thread.

  2. Kudzu Bob
    Apr 22, 2014

    But if we’re asking, “What’s the best novel in fantasy?” and for four years running the answer has been, “A book a white guy wrote,” then either you’re arguing that white guys are somehow just better at writing fantasy than anyone else, or you’re wondering if that data is somehow skewed.

    Would you also apply this type of reasoning to the percentage of black players (78%) in the NBA, particularly given that they only comprise 13% of the U.S. population?

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 22, 2014

      Considering that at one time, Jews from the ghetto dominated professional basketball (though then a less-popular sport), I’d say the answer is “absolutely yes.”

      • Kate Elliott
        Apr 22, 2014

        This is a great post. Thanks for writing it.

        Also — that link! I had no idea about the Jewish element in professional b’ball’s history.

        • TheFerrett
          Apr 23, 2014

          Neither did I, until last week! The timing on that one couldn’t have been better.

    • Mecha
      Apr 22, 2014

      To answer your question honestly, it might be skewed because non-black children are told they can be things that aren’t basketball players and be successful. It might be skewed because scouts value things that aren’t strictly correct (see: Moneyball) such as height (which may be racially correlated or not) and ‘what a basketball player looks like to us’ (which is fairly racially correlated at this point.) It might be skewed because of the NBA’s relationship with the NCAA and the NCAA is skewed for those same reasons and that skew carries later in the process. It could be skewed because it takes a certain level of obsession to be any sort of professional sports player, and white people are allowed a lot more types of obsessions than black people. It could be skewed for many, many reasons.

      But the interesting thing is that the response ‘just let the talent shine through and it’s colorblind’ is obviously not colorblind, _through the fact that people will even bring up the NBA example ever_. People are very aware that the NBA is majority black, and have no problem bringing it up, and the response is never ‘just let the talent shine through and don’t talk about it’, it’s always some implication of reverse racism or ‘therefore white people should be the best at X and it’s fine too.’ It’s only when someone challenges a dominant cultural group that ‘but they’re just the best!’ comes into play to defend the space. Magic players? Chess players? Violin first chair? Conductors? Doctors? Senators? Sci-fi writers? Comic book artists? Yeah.

    • Glenn
      Apr 22, 2014

      Clearly the data on basketball players is in fact skewed, in a variety of ways. The primary elements are certainly genetics and culture, which affect a majority perception of the NBA within the world at large but specifically (and significantly) within the United States.

      You could make a ton of arguments for theoretical causes when samples conflict with populations (or “queries with aggregate data” as we’ve used here) demonstrate a potential for bias, but the most important point is that it likely exists.

  3. Andy
    Apr 22, 2014

    White dudes make up ~30% of the American demographic. That’s a plenty-big-enough bloc. If I’m a white dude (I am) and my writing is part of the 80+% of white-dude-published-writing out there (it isn’t but my goal is to be published someday, so if I’m successful, that is what will happen), my writing becomes much less interesting TO ME as a result of that 80+% dominance. It should be less interesting to everyone else as well.

    How does this privilege feel? Well, I have to redefine it as something else to keep from giving up writing altogether. I don’t feel the pressure to be just-good-enough to break into the 80+%, but to be so good that I displace one or more other white dudes in my competition for non-white-dude eyeballs.

    Every other realm in my life where I’ve faced threat or competition has always been with other white dudes, so moving to other audiences to judge that competition is something fresh. That idea does play into the fallacy that the world of white dudes is the only world that is important, but I think that acknowledging that the world of white dudes is important to me (a white dude) isn’t the same as making that point for everyone.

    The diminished application of white-dude-centered-stories is waking people up to whole new worlds of art. So there are other ways out of this as well. The happiest way is in expanding the market so our white-dude piece of it dwindles to a more reasonable and interesting proportion.

  4. Valentin Ivanov
    Apr 22, 2014

    I suspect the battle for diversity is lost when the non-white kids or girls are at about the age of 5 or so, when they see their first few children movies or the first basketball game on TV.

  5. Marc Cabot
    Apr 23, 2014

    That is a really excellent point and I approve unreservedly of ANY attempt to improve mathematical/logical/statistical literacy.

    However, the “query” we’re running in any popularity contest is not “what is the best,” but “what do the most people think is the best?”

    Given the nature of our society and culture at this time, it is totally plausible that the results of such queries will end up mostly Dude, White, One Each. There’s nothing wrong with the “query” in this case. The data is bad. Garbage in, garbage out.

    The thing is, you can write queries to make the best of bad data, but you’re just trading one sort of statistical error for another. And in both cases, what you’re really doing is arguing that a result other than the one reached by the stated parameters is to be preferred. There might be quite valid reasons to argue that, but it doesn’t change the fact that that is, in fact, your argument.

    • TheFerrett
      Apr 23, 2014

      Indeed. In fact, as I pointed out in the entry that generated this one, “To sum up: The Hugos are broken. They have always been broken. They will always be broken. Just like every other award.”

      But that involves the issue of acknowledging that these are not the best books, but rather “The books that this audience liked.” And that audience can be deeply problematic.

  6. Mark
    Apr 26, 2014

    “The issue is that when we let the works speak for themselves, we wind up with the Gemmell Awards: 70,000 votes (several orders of magnitudes greater than the Hugos), and every single nominee for Best Novel is a White Dude. Every best debut novel is a dude, most of them white.”

    That is indeed frustrating and it doesn’t really make me care about the Gemmell Awards, but I don’t quite understand why you think that the Gemmell Awards are a good example of an award where the work is separated from the author. I’m sorry, but I don’t see the connection.

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