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