Ashok Banker wants to disassemble science fiction publishing

Paul Raven @ 20-10-2009

The last year or so has been punctuated by debates on the inherent racism and sexism of genre fiction publishing, but if you thought there had been some strong opinions stated boldly before now, you should really go check out the exclusive interview with Ashok Banker at the World SF News blog.

Banker is a hugely popular and prolific writer in his home country of India, but is virtually unheard of in the West… and he doesn’t pull any punches in his assessment of the Stateside publishing industry:

I won’t mince words here: SFF publishing in the US today is the Klu Klux Klan of the publishing world. It’s anachronistically misrepresentational in its racial mix, religious mix, cultural mix. The few exceptions to the rule only prove the endemic, systemic and deeply bred bias in the field. There are even editors who claim to champion ‘coloured’ writing, by publishing anthologies that segregate non-white non-Judeo/Christian non-American authors of speculative fiction from their ‘mainstream’ genre counterparts.

[…]

For decades SFF has been accusing mainstream literary critics, readers and authors of being snobbish and denying them their due. In fact, it’s the other way around: SFF’s pathetic cries of outrage and refusal to change with the times are proof of SFF’s own snobbishness and bias. SFF is dead and rotting. Long may it stay dead! We who love the elements that make great SFF don’t need the label so Klansmen can recognize work by other Klansmen. We don’t care if our milk was drawn by brown hands, black, or white. We just want our milk!

I think the Klan metaphor is perhaps a little strong (not to mention calculated to offend), but the man has a very valid point. The easy (and lazy) response would be to call him out for jealousy, but given that Banker points out that his earnings are far higher than most US or UK writers of genre fiction, that doesn’t really hold a lot of water. Banker doesn’t need the SFF industry; the question is, does it need him?

The wider business of publishing in general doesn’t escape Banker’s ire, either:

In four words: Publish less, publish better. If publishers and editors are so obsessed with commercial viability, then why are they so out of touch with what readers are looking for? Why are publishers so surprised when the next it new sensation comes along and upsets their apple cart? Why can’t they accept and understand that readers and authors decide what sells, not editors and publishers. Why are racial, cultural, religious backgrounds relevant when signing an author? Why not just good books, period? Why not just good books that readers respond well to and want to read? Get the fuck out of your offices and get down to the streets and live. Fire your marketing departments. Hire bloggers on per-hit pay-basis. Look at frontrunners like Cory Doctorow. Think about the Long Tail. Explore free publishing as a marketing model. Get bullish on ebooks, drop the prices and tighten your belts. Reduce print runs on the big sellers, reduce your risk and stop flooding the stores with ‘product’. Tell Dan Brown to go get a life. Stop letting James Patterson use the Warner jet and chopper. Spend money on authors, not on the business of publishing and the fairyland of PR. Let readers decide what should be published and what shouldn’t – put work for free out there online and let them vote. Then, once you know what they’ve picked, go in and edit it well, package it well, do your stuff. But remember that you’re a meat-packer, you don’t build the cow, you don’t eat it. You just pack it. So pack it well, or get packing.

There’s quite a few chewy home truths in that little screed… I get the feeling this particular interview will be a hot topic for a little while.

What do you think about Banker’s assertions of endemic racism in SFF publishing, or about the state of publishing in general? Drop in a comment below – but keep it polite, OK? In line with the Futurismic comments policy, any racist or ad hominem rants will be removed, so play nice.

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14 Responses to “Ashok Banker wants to disassemble science fiction publishing”

  1. Jonathan M says:

    The racism charge is quite correct and fair comment. How many covers have been ethnically cleansed? The publishing business are quick to say that it’s nothing to do with them it’s down to the fact that their customers won’t buy books with black people on the cover but that’s clearly just cowardice and enabling.

    As for the rest of the piece, I stopped taking him seriously once he started talking about Cory Doctorow being some kind of exemplar. Doctorow’s Little Brother is the Triumph of the Will for Wired readers, it’s as right-wing and racist as any mainstream work of science fiction produced in the last decade.

  2. dan says:

    Am I stupid (don’t answer that), or are these two excerpts:

    “SFF publishing in the US today is the Klu Klux Klan of the publishing world. It’s anachronistically misrepresentational in its racial mix, religious mix, cultural mix”

    and

    “Why are racial, cultural, religious backgrounds relevant when signing an author?”,

    if not fundamentally opposed, at at the very least not wholeheartedly backing each other up? Also, this: “Doctorow’s Little Brother is the Triumph of the Will for Wired readers” = brilliant.

  3. SMD says:

    Well, I was considering looking up this young fellow’s work when I saw he was from India (I have an interest in Indian SF/F) right up until he went on the big racism rant. I guess I’ll be joining the clan by not purchasing any of his work…

    I wonder how he would respond to people like Amitav Ghosh, Salman Rushdie, and others who have clearly not been held back by this evil system he seems to think exists. I’m not saying that he’s not right on some level, but his venom against Western publishing is doing him no favors whatsoever.

  4. Jonathan M says:

    SMD that’s a pretty disgraceful attitude to have. An Indian author complains about the racism of genre publishing and you want to punish him by refusing to buy his work? Talk about spiteful and vindictive.

  5. Schrodinger's Lolcat says:

    I’m not sure I follow you Johnathan. I remember reading Little Brother but I don’t remember it being a stridently right-wing book nor racist…

    Are you claiming any whiff of libertarianism as “right-wing?”

    And what was so definitively racist about it exactly?

  6. SMD says:

    Jonathan: It’s no different to me than refusing to buy Orson Scott Card’s work based on his comments.

    I don’t see how you can expect realistic change to occur in Western publishing if all you’re doing is calling the people who run it racists. I’m not saying that he’s wrong on some level, I just have no interest in buying work from people who try to play political/emotional/cultural games with serious issues, particularly when he’s not entirely correct in his assumptions. There’s nothing necessarily racist about a system that seems to contain a disparity in racial demographics. There’s something wrong with such a system, yes, but his assertions that it’s like the KKK are ridiculous at best, particularly when he’s only making those assertions based on visual data (i.e. the number of people of racial/cultural diversity that you see). This is the same problem I have with other arguments about racism in SF/F. Almost nobody is asking the BIG questions, and instead they are recycling the same arguments, over and over, and then wondering why nothing is getting done. The argument does not hold when all you say is “well, because there aren’t a lot of them, all the people who run this are racist bastards.” You have to account for other factors: submission pool, market, etc. As of yet, there is no clear evidence that suggests that the publishing industry here is part of a grand conspiracy to prevent minorities from getting published. There very well may be a million other factors contributing to the racial disparity in SF/F publishing. I don’t now, though, because nobody I have seen has actually collected the data to determine whether or not things like market or submission pool have any influence on all of this.

    So, my refusing to buy his work is an extension of my refusal to support people who try to raise people’s hackles, particularly when all he’s saying is the same thing others have said, but with more venom and anger. If that’s vindictive, then I guess I’m vindictive in all instances where I refuse to buy certain author’s works…

  7. SMD says:

    And I should add to this discussion this: http://www.cheryl-morgan.com/?p=6758

    Read the comments too. The fact is that this guy has so much anger in him about this topic that it leads him to shun the people who work within the system he thinks should be different. I understand why he would be angry, but there’s a line between rational and irrational anger. He’s crossed that line.

  8. Jonathan M says:

    SMD,

    Firstly, I don’t buy Card’s books because he’s a terrible writer. The fact that he’s a bigot and a fascist (much like John C. Wright) is simply a bonus.

    Secondly, are you seriously suggesting that there’s a moral equivalence between not buying someone’s books because they’re bigoted and not buying someone’s books because they’re complaining of bigotry in others?

    Thirdly, I take it you didn’t hear about racefail? Not only are non-white authors massively under-represented but non-white characters are frequently white-washed in publicity materials.

    You don’t need a conspiracy for there to be racism. All you need is institutionalised racial and cultural bias and the genre publishing industry has that in absolute spades.

    When you accuse Banker of trying to raise hackles, do you not in fact mean that he’s being ‘uppity’?

    For centuries, cultural and institutional prejudice ensured that white people effectively kept non-white people pegged at the level of second class citizens. While some white people certainly hated non-whites, most of them helped support said system simply by refusing to think. They didn’t think twice about treating people differently because of the colour of their skin. They didn’t think twice about giving jobs to people who looked like them at the expense of people who didn’t. They didn’t think twice about a culture that suggested that if you weren’t white, you were something a little less than human.

    Because of this terrible history, white people have a duty to listen when non-white people accuse them of racism. It is so easy to fall into the trap of treating someone differently because of the colour of their skin that people need to be constantly vigilant and constantly aware that they’re making the right decisions for the right reasons. Racism is insidious.

    For you to not listen to him is one thing, it suggests a degree of intellectual laziness and smugness, but to actively hold someone’s complaint of racism against them and to punish them for calling foul on an institution and a culture entirely dominated by white people is morally unconscionable.

    Seriously, if I were you I would take a long, hard look in the mirror because from where I’m sitting you’re very much part of the problem.

  9. Ashok Banker says:

    Hi all. I’m here to say two things, civilly and calmly. (As I always do, despite what some people may deduce from their reading of my words.)

    One: I choose not to make any of my work available outside India. I could easily list my work on Amazon, sell ebooks, etc, if I wanted. The fact that I don’t means that I know where people like SMD here are coming from – I’m not interested in your money. I have a readership, I love writing for them, and I don’t need to try and win converts from your side of the sociopolitical fence.

    Two: If you argue that my vehemence is reason enough to dismiss me out of hand, then take a look at the kind of reactions to my interview circulating around the net. That should make you wonder: If I’m the crackpot or ‘uppity’ brown man or whatever putdown you want to apply to me, why are there so many people merely venting bile and vitriol at me, calling me names, and yet not addressing any of the specific points I’ve raised?

    Since I don’t stand to gain financially or otherwise from saying these things, and SFF is not by far the only genre I work in, you have to at least ask yourself: What point is there to my saying all this?

    A little research would also show you that I’m not an angry person by nature. And that the very antipathy to my outspokenness is itself drawing a huge amount of attention to the basic issues I’ve raised.

    Kill the messenger if you will. But you’ll still have to read the missive, whether you like it or not!

    Ashok

  10. SMD says:

    Okay, I’ve finally managed to get on here. I’ve had the hardest time connecting to Futurismic, so I want to say this while I still can.

    Firstly, I would like to offer my apologies to Mr. Banker. I agree that my reaction to refuse to buy your books was a wrong one to take. I legitimately am interested in SF/F and fiction (and graphic novels, too) by authors from (living in or outside of) India, and I would really like to see your work, if only it were readily available in the States. While I understand you dislike of our system, I do think you do yourself a bit of a disservice by refusing to publish, in some fashion, here in the States. Aren’t there any small press publishers you might want to work with, or something? I think a part of breaking the system that you have clear issues with would be to make sure more people of color are pushing their work out there. But that’s besides the point here.

    A lot of my initial reactions were born out of an exhaustion with the style of rhetoric being used to discuss this issue. While I understand the anger and irritation, I think it has become clear that nothing is really getting done. We’re pissing people off, creating tension, etc., but all we’re doing is making things even worse, in my opinion. A lot of people who might be inclined to act are pushed out by the labeling and screaming (me included). There’s a point, I think, where the intentional creation of discomfort ceases to hold value. We need action, collectively, from the community as a whole (or at least most of it). There’s more at work than just publishing, just editors, etc. This is an enormous issue that will not be solved by attacking editors or publishers.

    Anyway, I want to end this while I still can. I’d like to touch on other points, but I’m unfortunately short of time this evening for Internet things, and I’m not sure if Futurismic will work for me on another day.

    So, yes, there’s a problem. Yes it needs solving. I just don’t personally see how we’re solving a problem by being, as John says, “uppity” about it. The issue is too big for us to have faces to blame. Publishers do respond to consumers. Maybe consumers need to start demanding more, but perhaps some of the root of the problem is with consumers…

  11. Denni says:

    I don’t think Mr. Ashok would have any problems finding a publisher in the US (and not a ‘small press’ one either). It seems to me that he chooses not to.

    I also think that big publishers had better wake up to the issue of implicit racism in publishing. It seems to me one of the last bastions of Fifties-style thinking. Time to be dragged into the twenty-first century, methinks.

  12. Denni says:

    Sorry, I meant to say Mr. Ashok Banker!

  13. SMD says:

    Denni: I know he chooses to, but let’s say that one of the big boys takes notice and says “hey, we haven’t published anyone from India and we really should.” If more people take the position that Mr. Banker has, then it wouldn’t matter what changes in mind set were to occur; it would be like shooting oneself in the foot.

    It just seems to me that if you have a problem with the system, the best way to fix it is to be active in the change, rather than excluding oneself from it entirely. Mr. Banker likely has very personal, very good reasons for his personal exclusion, but such a practice isn’t doing anything to change the way things are being done, at all.

    That’s my concern on that front.

  14. Callie says:

    I bought Mr. Banker’s book, Prince of Ayodhya at least, on Amazon…so…I don’t know why others couldn’t. Maybe it’s only the SF that can’t be bought outside of India… And he is right about the racism, and it exists in all of literature, not just SF/F. Whether others believe it or not. Be brown for a while and you will see. Just try it on, I dare you.