When I published “A Tower for the Coming World” in Clarkesworld two years ago, I felt a tremendous sense of clarity about the kind of voice I wanted to develop going forward: a global voice, a voice that de-centres Western narrative and assists in naturalizing in our canon whole other traditions of thought and speech and action. I wanted to write more and better stories that integrate ideas of restorative justice even for the most difficult members of our society, and to help legitimize a multitude of ways in which people could find satisfaction and purpose in life. I wanted to participate in exposing majority-culture Western readers to more language barriers, and the knowledge that a profound lack of agency does not inherently make certain life stories unworthy of being told.
However, “A Tower for the Coming World” was also my last science-fiction sale, and as I have tried to live up to the promise of that story in subsequent output, I have hit upon numerous hurdles related to the task of trying to appeal to majority-culture North Americans with stories that do not intrinsically favour or centre our expectations of worthy protagonists and themes and plots.
Not, as it turns out, an easy task.
As such, in this instalment of The Failed Story Project, I want to look at one piece that exemplifies my problems in this ambition. Before I do, though, I want to make perfectly clear that I know there is already an abundance of writing in the West about other parts of the world, and about marginalized communities closer to home as well. These stories fall loosely into two categories–work by authors from those demographics, and work by authors outside those demographics–and as a writer usually outside those demographics, I am most certainly not trying to suggest that my problems are by any means unique, or that I am discovering anything new. Most likely, as the following story will illustrate, there is simply a certain amount of lacking skill that must account for why I haven’t yet surmounted the problems facing oh so many writers in this vein.
One of the central problems, of course, is that when writers such as myself depict other cultural contexts and demographics, we are too often using these contexts as “flavour”, as “props” for enlightening some centralized majority-culture Western protagonist. (Conversely, if writers from other cultural contexts want to get published, they tend to have to write to suit the expectations of Western readers about other cultural contexts, or else to write for “niche” markets.) This is why the #OwnVoices movement has been so important, and why it is ludicrous to suggest that centring authors who have direct experience within non-majority communities is somehow an attack on any author writing about the same communities from external subject-positions.
In the words of the creator of #OwnVoices, Corinne Duyvis:
Q: Are you saying privileged authors shouldn’t write outside their experiences?
No. People can write whatever they want; that goes both ways.
That said, it’s common for marginalized characters to be written by authors who aren’t part of that marginalized group and who are clueless despite having good intentions. As a result, many portrayals are lacking at best and damaging at worst. Society tends to favor privileged voices even regarding a situation they have zero experience with—just consider the all-white race panels on talk shows.
All #ownvoices does is center the voices that should matter most: those being written about.
I keep this in mind as I reflect on my own, past efforts to de-centre certain norms, and try to learn from my mistakes. For instance, I don’t think Game of Primes is necessarily a bad story, but even putting aside sentence structures sorely in need of another round of editing, I remain pressingly aware of the fact that my protagonist’s neurodiversity is too much a “selling feature” of the story, and not simply a naturalized facet of that particular character’s vantage point. I would write quite a different version of that tale today.
Similarly, I resonate deeply with Aliette de Bodard’s excellent essay for Uncanny Magazine, “The Fallacy of Agency: on Power, Community, and Erasure”, in which she deconstructs one of the most frustrating problems with a great deal of Western SF&F: the idea that stories are only worth telling if they involve people in power or people engaged in dramatic attempts at its reclamation. As she notes:
The other thing about dismissing powerlessness is that it devalues and erases the oppressed. It’s saying, essentially, that the less power one has, the less worthy of a story one is. That if someone is truly oppressed, and the story isn’t about some brash rebellion, some gaining of that overt power, then it’s not worth telling. That being oppressed is some sort of grey, featureless state where nothing worth notice happens—that there are no sorrows, no joys, no everyday struggles, no little victories to be snatched. That, in short, the only story of oppression worth telling is the brazen breaking of it.
(Snowpiercer likewise illustrates the fallacy of so much dystopic fiction in this vein, by advancing the argument that even fixating on breaking a system of power is more often than not still a reification of that system of power. The only way to break the cycle is to blow up the narrative “engine” in its entirety.)
And yet, as much as SF&F editors are sympathetic to this perspective in theory, one of the major criticisms I receive from editors about my writing is the lack of more immersive action right out the gate, which both serves as an indictment of my particular skill-set and hints at a pervasive industry norm. Now, there is a style of writing that does well in the markets today without direct action–a much more lyrical, immersive, free-indirect voice–but I find that style to have a somewhat classist, workshop-writing feel, and don’t much enjoy using it, except in circumstances where I think the story merits it (e.g. “The Aftermath”, a trauma narrative). As such, when it comes to market-failures, my reluctance to employ a “high literary” approach, though I know these sell better, is entirely my own, stubborn fault.
But so it goes. Suffice it to say, I have a ways to go to be a more compelling storyteller of tales that de-centre and otherwise challenge Western norms–but if I managed it once, maybe I can again. I just have to learn from failures like those in the story discussed below.
Part II: “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other”
I was moved to write “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other” after reading about horrific circumstances for child-labourers in the tanneries of Bangladesh. I couldn’t even imagine what life must be like for such children (like so many other child-labourers the world over). However, in the alien-ness of that subject-position, I found myself returning to a common source of wonder in my life: the idea that we, as a species, will never experience monumental cosmological transformations on an equal footing. As William Gibson has observed, “The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” And so, after reading this latest example of just that terrible fact, I desperately wanted to write a sci-fi story that highlighted just how uneven that distribution would be even if our species were on the verge, say, of a first-contact scenario.
Recently a story in the news vindicated one of this piece’s other underlying assumptions–namely, that even in an age of advanced computing there will still always be some use for analog systems, even if they mean the waste of whole lifetimes to anonymous drudgery–but mostly, my research for this piece involved immersing myself in Bengali subcultures and trying to anticipate how those cultures might change (or remain unchanged) a few decades down the line. In the process, I gained a deeper appreciation for which parts of the region have a monopoly on media distribution, learned a great deal about tanning processes and the associated chemicals, and integrated pre-existing knowledge about how government policies try to curtail reproductive poverty.
I also read related poetry, watched Bollywood films, and listened to contemporary Bengali classics. For this reason the title of the piece is a translation of a line in a famous song by Mohiner Ghoraguli, in keeping with my strong belief that when a writer uses another cultural context, they have a responsibility to remind readers that the other cultural context has its own, rich artistic tradition already speaking for itself. Margaret Atwood may have notably suggested that the role of the writer is to give voice to the voiceless, but I firmly dissent from the assumptions in that framing: the role of the writer is to call attention to voices that already exist but are not being heard.
One other element in this story’s construction might also have been its downfall: I also wanted my character to have a sexual orientation following–as I do–attraction to the person, not the gender. However, for some reason, when I get hung up on the possibility of doing something subversive (and indeed, when I was writing this story, I felt I was being subversive by trying to integrate a fluidly bisexual character without pointedly calling attention to his sexuality), I tend to get way too subtle in my execution. To me, such stories always feel terribly provocative when I first finish them, but when I read the piece again months later, I am baffled by my initial assumption that the grand reveals were really that grand after all.
Such was the case with “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other“–a story in which I wanted to call attention to the fact that many people in the world do not have the agency to engage with the meat-and-potatoes of sci-fi’s grandest adventures; that many of these people are nevertheless used by people in different class strata to achieve their own interstellar ambitions; and that these exploited persons–while lacking in traditional agency–still contain multitudes. What human being does not have their share of guilt and reservation, talent and community, foolishness and yearning? And so I tried–and failed–to write a story where all of these and more were realized in the tale of one young man in a near-future version of the brutal tanneries where so many live and die.
I only had three places to submit this piece–Fantasy & Science Fiction, Asimov’s, and Clarkesworld. I knew it wouldn’t work for Analog, and Tor.com has been closed awhile to new short-story submissions. Even then, those three places were a bit of a stretch, because Clarkesworld tends to favour more stylistic experimentalism or snappy action, and C.C. Finlay at F&SF definitely prefers more action. I think Charlie summed it up rather gently when he wrote,
Thank you for giving me a chance to read “Like The Stars That Are Light-Years From Each Other.” I liked the characters here and I thought this ended in an interesting place, but the narrative developed very slowly for me after the first page or two, and overall the story didn’t quite win me over. I’m going to pass on this one for F&SF, but I wish you best of luck finding the right market for it and hope that you’ll keep us in mind in the future.
In short: It’s a boring story. I had some hope when Asimov’s kept it in queue for a good month at a time when most folks were getting rejections within a week… but I also tend to notice that Asimov’s slush readers don’t necessarily read submissions in order, so I wasn’t surprised by the ensuing form letter. Nor did the boilerplate rejection from Clarkesworld surprise: ever since Neil took on more slush readers (to handle a monumental submissions load!), there is zero expectation that past publication with Clarkesworld will grant me more rejection commentary even if a story does get to second-round reading (as this one, I am fairly certain, did).
Simply put: this story didn’t work for these three places, and then it ran out of places for consideration. So it goes!
I was excited to have found a sense of direction after “A Tower for the Coming World”, but so much went awry in the months after its publication–so much that eventually led, too, to my decision to uproot to another country, and spend quite a bit of time learning the ropes of survival in an entirely different culture. I have a novel that also pursues some of the themes I mentioned above–a true labour of love, and something I value deeply–but I haven’t been able to touch its near-finished manuscript in a year. After “Tower” I found it difficult, in general, to complete fiction while struggling in my post-PhD-program life (a miserably precarious existence that had me working most every day with little hope of light at the end of the tunnel). And then I finished “Like the Stars that Are Light-Years from Each Other”–my first short story after that last publishing success.
I suppose I should be glad of its existence, then, if only as a leaping-off point.
Going forward, though, there are quite a few things I need to keep in mind to better harmonize ambition with output and marketplace viability:
- Slow stories do not sell, unless they are highly aesthetic by design.
- Subtle stories–when I write them, at least–are too damned understated to be effective narrative engines. I need either to improve in this style or find another.
- If I am writing slow and subtle stories as a matter of course when trying to engage with different cultural contexts, I need to ask myself if the story really warrants slowness and “subtlety”… or if I am simply being tentative, as a writer, for fear of erring in my portrayal of some aspect of this different world.
- It will take a while to become adept at this kind of storytelling, and I have to give myself that time to improve. Just because I lucked out with one story does not mean I don’t still have significant growth ahead.
- If I invest too heavily in any one story, it will be harder to accept its failure when there are so few market opportunities for any story I might envision. Write more. Write diversely. The best ideas will always re-emerge elsewhere.
Questions for Fellow Writers
How much time do you spend on the research phase for your stories?
What narrative factors vary the amount of time you spend in research mode?
How do you keep yourself from getting too caught up in your own preoccupations when writing work that could be regarded as controversial?
Which stories would you write differently if writing them for the first time today?
What are the most pressing themes and focal points in your work on whole?
Good luck, and good writing, to you all!