A lack of parity isn’t the LRB’s only problem

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted that I might need to rethink my support for the London Review of Books; not only in light of their poor record on gender parity – one shared by many publications – but because of their apparent disdain for the notion that active steps should be taken to correct the imbalance. Having just read Elizabeth Day’s piece on the LRB in today’s Observer, I find myself having to rethink my rethink.

I now have the impression that 75-year-old LRB editor and co-founder Mary-Kay Wilmers is less a reactionary anti-feminist than a woman who has already seen so much change over her lifetime, has already been so much a part of – in many ways, so emblematic of – those changes, that she is perhaps a bit bemused at the anger and impatience of younger contemporaries. An Oxford graduate who was told by the then equivalent of the careers office to train for secretarial roles, she has for the past 22 years edited what many regard as the world’s best literary magazine. You don’t gain that kind of stature by accepting crap about your own supposed inadequacy, but you also don’t achieve that kind of recognition by willfully upturning establishment applecarts.

The LRB has maintained a standard of lengthy, thoughtful, well-argued (and well compensated) articles that have largely disappeared from the mass media. It does not seek to avoid controversy, and has in fact earned a reputation as a venue in which contentious opinions are voiced; but neither does it pander to the current vogue for poorly considered groupthink and knee-jerk outrage. Despite a significant amount of free online content and a fairly consistent Twitter feed, it is in many ways the antithesis of the kind of intellectual morass into which social media conversations so often descend. This is why I like it. But this is also, I suspect, why it has found itself criticised for being in its own way moribund.

The coterie of intelligent, articulate, highly literate contributors who make it the success that it is are – no doubt for historical reasons – largely male. They appear also to be very insular. They know each other. They know they can count on each other. They know they need to expand their talent pool, but they don’t know who else can be counted on, and they’re scared of risking that which they have already achieved.

Fear is not an excuse, but it is an explanation.

The challenge of achieving parity at the LRB – a challenge which Wilmer should, I stress, be meeting head on, no matter how tough she and her colleagues find it – strikes me as not unlike the situation facing the newly appointed managing editor of a venerable SFF genre publication, with whom I recently had a conversation. Said publication has gender parity statistics even worse than the LRB’s. There too the problem appears to be less a matter of active sexism than institutional inertia: the (mostly male) commissioning editors in the various departments have had the same pool of reliable (mostly male) contributors for decades. They are used to dealing with what that pool produces; it is content which, in tone, focus and quality, they understand and are comfortable with. Moreover, they don’t really know anybody else. They don’t quite know how to go about expanding their circle of editorial acquaintance. And they definitely don’t know how to suddenly start saying ‘No’ to those reliable contributors – and friends – of a lifetime in order to make space for a broader, deeper, more diverse and more evenly gendered talent pool.

When told this, I sputtered that being able to turn down regressive, repetitive work in favour of something new, adventurous and exciting is fundamentally part of an editor’s job. Few would disagree (and the editor I spoke to is committed to achieving parity, no matter how many toes have to be stepped on). But editors are people, and like people everywhere, the entrenched crew with the poor record are nervous about change. They don’t want to upset their own applecarts. And they are scared of hurting people’s feelings. That’s unquestionably a failing in editorial terms, but it’s also a very human response. It shouldn’t be accommodated – not in this context – but it does merit some degree of compassion. And I wonder if something very similar isn’t going on in the rarefied atmosphere of the LRB’s editorial meetings. After all, they too are full of humans.

So I’m feeling slightly more kindly towards them than I was when I tweeted that tweet. But I’m also now far more concerned about the future of the LRB because, ironically, they appear to have a further problem that the tiny subscription-supported genre publication doesn’t. For all their acclaim and relatively high circulation figures, Day’s article also reveals that ‘the most successful literary publication in Europe’ doesn’t break even, let alone actually make any money. That high level of quality and commensurately high level of compensation to writers is supported by generous infusions of cash from the family trust fund of Wilmers herself – a trust to which the LRB is already £27million in debt.

That makes it not a viable business, but a labour of love; one that is not likely to be sustainable beyond Wilmers’ tenure, or at any rate once the money runs out. Important though the parity imbalance is, resolving it isn’t likely to have much of an impact on the financial one. And if the end of the story is the failure of the LRB as an institution – even if by then it’s a meticulously equitable institution – because it can’t work out how to make such a high-quality publication financially sustainable, then I’m not sure what, in the long term, will have been gained.

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Charlie Hill’s Literary Fiction Manifesto

I’m Pressing This amusing, perceptive and heartfelt post on the state of and prospects for literary fiction; it deserves a discussion I think. I’ve already added my own comment.

writers’ hub – Literary Fiction Manifesto – Charlie Hill.

What’s in a genre? Unpicking science fiction, fantasy and horror

My bookshelves are bastions of unreality. Narnia and Middle-Earth, Dune and the Culture. Morgan and Mieville. Gaiman and Pullman. Joe Hill and H.P. Lovecraft. The direction of my reading has been second to the right and straight on ’til morning since I was young enough to want to be Wendy.

Most bookshops stack the stuff I love in a corner labelled Fantasy/Sci Fi/Horror, and they do indeed sit very comfortably on a continuum of related reading experiences. As a reader, I never thought too much about the underlying structure of the fantastical. As a writer, I have to. And I’ve discovered that the distinctions which are often subtle for the reader can be quite profound for the writer.

All three genres posit a reality that is different than the humdrum, everyday “real world” that we all inhabit; the writer has to create that reality and draw the reader into it. This is worldbuilding, and while it’s a necessary element of almost every story, its demands on the imagination are arguably greater for horror, fantasy and science fiction than for other genres. But there are some key differences between these broad categories of the unreal. I find them in the measure of internal coherence required of the fictional world; the degree of continuity between it and the “real” world; and the amount of explanation that needs to be provided to the reader.

In horror, the reader is given little or no information about the hidden mechanics of the storyworld; it often appears to be the same as the “real” world (and therefore to require no explanation), until weird things start to happen. Then the inexplicability of events, and their disconnection from a rational, coherent framework wherein they make sense in relation to other events is what drives the sense of apprehension and terror. (A caveat: this applies more to modern horror writing. Classic novels such as Frankenstein and Dracula were written following what we would now think of as a science fiction or fantasy approach to worldbuilding.)

In fantasy, the reader is given a greater degree of explanation for how the world of the story works, which is necessary as it is usually immediately obvious that it is not the “real” world. These explanations are often elaborate and detailed, but they only need to be internally coherent – in other words they only need to make sense within the covers of the book, within the world of the story. The laws and logic of the fantasy world can be completely disconnected from the “real” world, as long as the story obeys the special rules of the fantasy world.

In science fiction lots of explanation is required, and it needs to be both internally coherent and to have some continuity with the “real” world. The physical reality of the science fiction story needs to follow the same basic rules as the “real” world, or at any rate to provide a rational explanation for any discrepancies. Science fiction need not always be set in the future; but wherever and whenever the story occurs, and however profoundly different the world it inhabits, the reader needs a plausible connection between the “here” of the real world and the “there” of the science fiction world. A fantasy world does not require the same degree of plausibility.

It seems to me that this sequence represents an ascending order of difficulty for the writer as worldbuilder. In horror the storyworld does not need to make rational sense; in fantasy it needs to make sense internally, but not externally; in science fiction it needs to be plausible both internally and externally. (I’m not, by the way, suggesting that it’s easier to write horror than science fiction – far from it. Creating the suspension of disbelief necessary to make you scared of an implausible monster is a tough trick.)

Having managed to unpick the nature of the writers’ challenges and readers’ complicity in constructing these imaginary settings, we inevitably run up against the stuff that just doesn’t seem to fit. Novels like The Time Traveller’s Wife or Never Let Me Go create a problem for genre cubbyholers. The scenarios they posit should be classic science fiction Big Ideas – but the authors make no real attempt to explain the how or why of the situations the characters find themselves in. Their worlds could be ours, but for the disconnects – an unrecognisable history that just is, seemingly impossible stuff that just happens. And excellent and acclaimed though these books are, there remains a sneaking sense of unease amongst both the SF geeks who want an explanation, dammit, and aren’t entirely inclined to trust an author who doesn’t give them one; and the snobbish literati who can’t quite put to bed the suspicion that they’ve been conned into reading something that smacks – gasp, shudder – of sci fi. Horrors.

Which, actually, is pretty close to the mark. I’m not a genre pedant; I’m happy to simply read a good book. But if I had to shelve these two in my fantasy bookshop of the fantastical, under Horror they would go.

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