What the Clarke Award data tells us about diversity

This article has some relatively good news and then some particularly bad news.

First the good news.

Of 121 submissions to the Clarke Award in 2020 from 45 imprints, it appears that roughly 40% were from people who identify as women. There were also a small scattering of people identifying as non-binary. As far as this goes it’s a strong year for gender representation when compared to the number of women or non-binary FTSE executives or even in previous years for the Clarke where, as recently as 2007, only 13% of submissions were from those identifying as women. For a proper breakdown (through to 2018 which was when the linked article was written), see here.

A little aside is needed before we continue with the meat of this. The comparison above is not quite apples with apples. The number of novels being submitted to the Clarke has grown significantly in the last 14 years (in no small part due to the tireless work of the organising committee in building engagement) and that rate of growth has far outstripped any growth in the number of SF titles being traditionally published. The list may not be completely exhaustive but it is large, and it is not controversial to suggest it is representative of the state of the industry in the UK. In others words I’m putting down my claim the list is a good data set.

A 40/58/2 split across Women/Men/NB is ok1. It’s far better than it was even just a few years ago. However, it’s clearly not perfect. The trend appears to be in the right direction from my perspective (i.e. towards parity). By the way, parity is hard to calculate because I’m not confident in saying what a representative dataset which includes openly self-identifying non-binary authors would look like.

But. But, but, but. It’s trending that way, not reaching it. Who’s to say it won’t step back in 2021. What we’re not seeing is expected variation around parity – we’re seeing halting movement towards what I consider nothing more than the baseline of how gender-neutral acquisition in publishing should be.

Still. You take your wins where you can find them and I’m delighted with this year’s shortlist and the stories we got to read. I’m also delighted to see books by authors who aren’t men but who are solid mid-listers on the submissions list. This might seem a bit strange but let me explain because for me there’s nothing derogatory in what I’ve just written but rather a reason for celebration. 

For underrepresented populations exceptional actors may well break through into the majority consciousness by chance and skill and hard work. At early stages of the equality debate they are often held to higher standards than their majority counterparts both within their work and in their lives. If they fail, even once, they are often sent back to the gulag and never seen or heard from again. And failing can simply mean not having smash hit after smash hit, in having a work which sells ok but doesn’t hit it out of the park.

For me, the better benchmark for testing representation is whether those in the minority are permitted to perform to the standard of the average, or even to fail. Whether, in failing, they face nothing more or less than the same consequences as those who are privileged. There’s a reason people will say ‘give me the confidence of a mediocre man’ as a shorthand for the way different groups are held to different standards of success in order to be taken seriously.

I’m not casting aspersions on any of the submissions here. What I’m trying to say is that the list of novels submitted to the Clarke has many authors who are doing a solid job of telling good stories which satisfy their readers and who I hope to see on the list again and again doing what they do. Why? Because it’s a sign of real structural change, because it means everyone is being held to the same standard. Because it means the industry’s gatekeepers aren’t blocking them just because they’re not going to 100% definitely write the next million selling smash hit2.

Now the bad news.

To be honest, I thought of writing something witty in place of that last sentence. Maybe ‘now the less good news’ but it’s not less good. It’s appalling and I want to be clear with my language here rather than covering over the situation with typical British understatement.

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

  • 121 submissions
  • 45 imprints
  • 116 authors
  • 14 authors of non-white descent (the specific definition of which we’ll discuss below)
  • 3 British authors of non-white descent

Let me say that again.

Three British authors of non-white descent

Out of 116 authors.

In my view there were actually more books with problematic depictions of race than there are books by authors from those very communities (By my own count there were nine books submitted from seven imprints which featured unacceptable racial stereotypes or tropes).

There are certainly more white authors with two books on the list than British authors of non-white descent.

Let me also say that one of our three authors is a previous winner and another is a world-famous physicist and media celebratory. Let us also remember the argument above about structural prejudice which says when a system is systemically prejudiced it will perhaps let through the truly exceptional actor because they’re so exceptional they can’t be ignored (for a variety of reasons, many of which serve the ongoing system’s prejudice3).

I have used a specific form of words above and it’s because the definition of who isn’t white changes depending on where you live. If you’re a US reader it’s far more likely that you’d consider people whose immediate ancestors were from southern Europe as non-white. That’s not the case in Europe (perhaps for the blindingly obvious reason that we’re in Europe and Europe’s view of itself is predominantly one of whiteness whether you’re from Italy or Norway).

My heritage is confusing but suffice to say I have ancestors from North Africa, the Ukraine and India among northern Europeans. And of course, my Indian friends do not consider themselves People of Colour even though they are clear they’re not white…

Above I have taken a broad brush approach. This means I’ve included foreign authors from China, Japan, Mexico and Americans who in their own context would identify themselves as other than white.

However, a number of those authors come from majority populations and in their own contexts are not, in any way, marginalised.

Let’s look at the numbers again.

Fourteen authors from other than white heritage. Which is 12% of books submitted.

Six of those come from majority populations and, in some cases, were already well established in those contexts (notably, one of them was published more than 25 years ago and is only just making it into English).

Which leaves eight, or c.7% of books submitted.

However, of those eight, four are American. These four are definitely from minority communities but they’re hardly informative of what British publishing is getting up to (well they are but not in a good way).

Which leaves four. One of those is French/Vietnamese.

Which brings us back to our three authors. They represent ~2.5% of the total number of authors4. This from a national population where there are c.14%5 who identify as other than White. Given that, simple maths suggests representative publishing would have seen 17 novels by British people who identify as other than white.

So far so bad.

The questions raised by the above numbers are many and sadly aren’t new. This stunning piece of research makes the case from a different vantage point.

You might argue that non-white authors simply aren’t writing the books. I can point to many non-white authors writing SF – many of us have representation as well. And if it was the case, those few of us who are writing would surely find getting published easier than we do.

You might argue we’re not as good as white authors. I can’t really argue that point and I won’t get into debates about whether there are books by white writers which are mediocre at best but somehow still found a market.

You might argue that we’re not writing about what people want to read. And I’d ask if you mean ‘white’ when you say people and even then I’d say many people, of whatever background, like fiction precisely because it’s not about them and the specific world they inhabit. Shockingly men read books about women and I’ve had to read about white heroes my entire life…

You might worry that authors will be exposed to racism if they write about their lived experiences, even in a genre like SF. You’d be bang on the money. I can’t think of one author like me who hasn’t received racist reviews and comments – whether coded or outright racist. Will we stop writing? Of course not.

 You then might read on Twitter editor after editor saying their doors are open and they want to see manuscripts from non-white authors…we could ask what were they doing before Black Lives Matter? There’s a lot of support and good noise right now but not a lot of reflection on how things could be this bad in this day and age and there have certainly been no official statements by publishing houses about how they’re going to change. Because, let’s be clear - a RANDOM6 approach to selection would have seen many more non-white authors being published. You don’t get just 3 authors in a list of 116 without explicit filtering by the publishing industry.

Am I saying the industry is racist? Yes.

Am I saying individuals within it are racist? No. Not quite.

It’s clearly problematic that nearly everyone working in the industry is white. As a person who doesn’t identify as ‘White’ and who is certainly treated as not-white I can tell you a hundred codes for why I’m not acceptable in White space[7]. The most common one in publishing is ‘voice’.

In other spheres its clear the words ‘not the right voice’ is used to mean ‘not like me’. In my day job we have taken mitigating measures in our hiring process because the ‘not/like me’ bias was leading us to hire rich white people from elite universities with alarming regularity. Denying that idea a hold has seen our hiring outcomes radically diversify. Hence, I see no reason to apply it in a different way in the context of publishing.

We typically encounter two reactions to our work. It is either not exotic enough or it’s too much about our lived experience8

In the first we’re not stereotypically ‘Other’ enough. We’re not writing characters and cultures whose alienness is attractive because it’s exotic and different. Basically, when we don’t reduce our identity to a cartoon white people can categorise as ‘foreign culture’.

The second is seen explicitly when people write about different cultures living among one another and dealing with those concerns. It’s seen when we don’t pander to white ideas about our culture, where Mexicans aren’t all drug smugglers and Indians aren’t wrestling with arranged marriage (even when it’s in their space age analogue…). Or we’re too political or we’re asked to provide a more ‘sympathetic perspective’ by which we understand they mean a white voice (even if it’s in a brown body).

The other key issue here is standards. Given the three British people to make the submissions list in 2020 (and get published first!) I’d say we still have the issue of people with not-white bodies and stories still being held to a higher standard than their peers. I see little need to rehearse the argument again.

And this is all before we start looking at ethnicity pay disparities and whether books by white authors get more budget in terms of marketing, design, promotion. This is all, so far, about gatekeeping. I haven’t space to even begin discussing what happens after I’m allowed at the table.

British genre publishing has a problem and it’s structural and that structure is, as they always are, leading to screening of non-white authors because they ‘don’t fit’. They don’t fit the idea of what an author is or what kind of content they should be producing to be acceptable.

You could argue otherwise but we have this terrific dataset which states in bald numbers the outcome of the current system. If you have a different understanding of how we can’t even get the random selection number of authors published I’m interested in hearing it.

How do we end an article which is so much about the problem?

I am really encouraged so many white editors are asking to see more manuscripts from a diverse background. Those manuscripts definitely exist9. However, this willingness has to translate into actual action and the authors coming through have to be of minority ethnic backgrounds – and explicitly not from other majority populations from around the world. Otherwise that’s white washing.

Publishing has to learn how to see other voices as valuable to the market and it has to learn how to market them and how to engage with them. One clear requirement is that publishing needs to find ways of being less White behind the scenes (but that’s an article which is as much about class as it is about race and gender).

Publishing needs to set some metrics. The Clarke Award’s dataset is a fantastic barometer. I’d love to see it used as a measure of progress on this and gender representation. I’d love it to hit parity by the 50th year10 of the award (earlier is better but, you know). The changing roster of judges could look every year at progress and trends and there’s every reason to do so because good will fades – especially in the face of resistant structures and cultures.

This is not a case for positive discrimination. Getting back to random selection would mean nothing more than stopping the negative discrimination currently built into the decision making process of genre publishing.

To end we turn back to the good news. Change can be accomplished. The opening of this article demonstrates that change can come, that trends can be in the right direction if the people involved are intentional about making a change.

Just having the space to say these things is a profound statement about how we can change the landscape and the language around what we’re expecting, what we’re looking for.

As arbitrary goals come, seeing representative parity in SF publishing by the 50th year of the Clarke is on the nose but, honestly, I think it’s a good one.

[1] For a given definition of ‘OK’

[2] If you want to read more about how implicit bias is central to structural and institutional sexism and racism, look here: The Gender Delusion by Cordelia Fine; Queer Theory, Gender Theory by Riki WIlchins; What is Race, Who are Racists, Why Does Skin Colour Matter? by Nikesh Shukla and Claire Heuchan; White Privilege by Kalwant Bhopal; On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life by Sara Ahmed.

[3] This, of course, does not in any way diminish the quality and brilliance of those actors.

[4] One of these authors has two books on the list which increases the number from British people by 33% which when the number are so small is a problematic skew.

[5] https://www.ethnicity-facts-figures.service.gov.uk/uk-population-by-ethnicity/national-and-regional-populations/population-of-england-and-wales/latest#by-ethnicity. I note it has no breakout for the Jewish population and I suspect just lumps them into ‘Other White’ but I may well be wrong.

[6] By which I mean a statistically random sample from the population

[7] And given my multiple heritages there are plenty of non-white spaces where I’m not welcome either but that’s an entirely different conversation.

[8] i.e actually seen from the perspective of a person of colour as they interact with white people.

[9] And I don’t simply mean me!

Stewart Hotston is a judge for this year's Clarke Award on behalf of the BSFA and is the author of political thriller Tangle's Game, published by Rebellion Publishing. He comes from a diverse background himself and is represented by John Jarrold of JJLA.