The land of Internet commentary is never still in any of its domains, and in the SFFH domain, things have been a bit busy lately on some of the community’s favorite topics: racism, sexism, and authors getting paid large amounts for genre novels.
1) First up is one dear to my husband’s heart: Spider-Man. Actor Donald Glover, who is currently starring in the U.S. t.v. show Community and who is a black man, announced a desire to audition for the role of Peter Parker in Sony Pictures’ misbegotten lets go back to his being a teen after we did that already reboot of the franchise (that didn’t actually need rebooting.) He did so in response to a piece at io9 by Marc Bernardin about how Sony should consider a broader palette than just white actors for the Parker role, and commentators on that article bringing up Glover’s name.
In many quarters of the speculaverse, this proposal has brought up a solid, hey that’s a neat idea to think about response that one would hope for from a field that has celebrated experimentation and at least the idea of diversity if not always the practice. But in other quarters, unfortunately, it’s caused a large outpouring of racist goo, made all the more sad by the fact that Glover has absolutely no chance of getting the role so no negative how dare he’s are actually needed. Hollywood is still, as we witnessed this summer, putting white actors in to play Persian princes and Asian wizards. This is apparently because the world market supposedly doesn’t like to see films with non-white leads, the kind of folk wisdom some marketers sell that blatantly ignores things like Slumdog Millionaire and that Will Smith is an international mega-star. Here’s the deal: when race does not define the character (unlike say a Persian prince,) any race can play. When gender does not define the character, either gender can play. Peter Parker is Spider-Man, which is why Spider-Woman was a separate character in the Marvel universe. But his character is not defined by his race. He’s been a clone, an alien symbiote, and a host of other things in Marvel’s many reinventions. (They destroyed his marriage to MJ, the jerks.) He could be a black man, just like Nick Fury. Marvel would happily create an alternate universe just for him.
We are still in a world where most of the studios and filmmakers are white and most of the leads in films are white. Saying that non-white actors shouldn’t be considered for more roles, including plum ones, is again the reason that erroneous marketing folk wisdom exists that keeps racism in place. Which makes films rather more boring than they have to be. People who advocate for the idea of a more multi-hued film world are not threatening white male actors. They won’t lose work if black, Latino and Asian actors get to play more too, if a black actor is the lead and the white guy is the sidekick sometimes. And imaginary characters whose identities are changed every twenty minutes are not somehow immune to that idea.
In the words of Spider-Man’s creator Stan Lee, concerning the design of Spidey’s costume:
“You know the good thing about that? You could be any kid. You could be black, you could be asian, you could be indian, you could be anything and imagine you were in that costume.”
2) Next was the controversy over yet another anthology about the greatest SFFH ever that included no to few female authors. This time it’s Before They Were Giants, edited by James Sutter, which only had one woman contributor. Nobody really likes beating up on anthologies. They don’t sell well as it is and the market for short fiction is small. But this is what, the tenth SFFH anthology or magazine issue in the last couple of years where this has happened? And this problem doesn’t even have a half-cocked rationale like international audiences don’t like non-white leads to explain it. It’s more like women authors are suddenly not there, even though they take up half the field at this point. Whereupon, various people have to make like the Whos in Whoville and let Horton know that women are indeed present, have in fact been present in the field for over a hundred years. Sutter has been gracious about it, admitted he made a mistake and that the Whos are actually more frequent among the Giants than one lone female. But the predictable response from others has been that the Whos should shut up because it is annoying to be reminded that they are there. And anyway, they sometimes have their own Whoville anthologies, so they should be content with their lot.
That minorities should be quiet about being passed over once again has never been a very convincing argument. Especially when they are being studiously ignored. When anthologies stop pretending, deliberately or accidentally, that female SFFH authors barely exist in the cosmos, then the Whos will no longer have to shout. About that issue anyway.
3) Justin Cronin, a novelist and college professor, got a mega-deal for his new novel The Passage, about zombie-ish vampires, after a book auction that went to Ballantine, followed swiftly by about half that for the film rights to Fox and Ridley Scott, all about two and a half years ago (well before the first Twilight movie.) He got the heated book auction because the publishers first off liked the book and second, they knew that there was film interest and likely a film sale, (the ms. was already being leaked to studios,) which meant that even if an eventual film didn’t do that well, the book could be a bestseller. The heated book auction pushed the cost of the advance up higher. The Hollywood money sounds large too, but is actually the kind of thing studios throw around on speculative gambles from unknowns the past decade. Given that the book sounds like it combines Resident Evil with The Talisman, and again that the publisher liked the guy’s writing, this kind of deal is not unprecedented.
Now that the book is almost out to buzz and publisher promotion, and the film script is in the works, there is much grumbling that Ballantine put it out in general fiction rather than their Del Rey Spectra line, even though Del Rey Spectra is of course marketing the book like mad as well. The complaint is that Cronin wrote a vampire book and got lots whereas unknowns who didn’t go to Harvard doing genre fantasy novels are not getting millions. (Of course Stephanie Meyers didn’t go to Harvard and she got millions, but let’s pretend.)
Simply put, that the guy was a mid-list saga writer who’d won a PEN award was not an issue because the book publishers didn’t have the guy’s actual name during the book auction. That he’s a college professor also is not an issue. Kurt Vonnegut Jr. was a college professor. Tim Powers and Adam Roberts are college professors. Countless mystery thriller writers have been college professors. It’s not like it’s a banned profession for anyone not writing a contemporary or historical novel. That he wrote about vampires is not what got him millions. There are thousands of vampire novels and most of them are not bestsellers. There are dozens of fiction writers with high quality antecedents who get millions for writing non-genre novels and millions more when they are made into movies. There are authors who get themselves a good film deal and that leads to a good book deal — Sideways by Rex Pickett, Practical Demonkeeping by Christopher Moore, etc.
This is all normal. It is not a new thing. It is not a sign of the impending destruction of the category market for SFF. Cronin is not shafting anyone and if the book is indeed successful, it will bring in more readers for SFFH, because that is always what happens. If the movie is made and does decently, it will bring in even more of them. Cronin will probably go to at least one SFF convention, so be nice. And yes, some reviewers who have no clue what is in the category SFF market will gush about his writer pedigree, but they would have done that even if he had come out from Del Rey Spectra because of the money involved. Other journalists who aren’t as out of touch will write about how he fits in the field and the importance of SFFH fiction in general. And the imaginary war between high fiction and genre will have one more nail in its coffin, because if there are two things that make vampires respectable literary figures, that would be Hollywood and money. All in all, it’s better that some authors who are writing SFFH novels are getting millions than not. It makes everybody look much more attractive.