SF/F and Disabled Voices
I’ve been thinking a lot about disability and Science Fiction and Fantasy lately. Partly that’s inevitable, I’m both disabled and an SF/F author, and I’m currently trying to market the Urban Fantasy meets Police Procedural novel I took through Pitchwars at the end of last year – an exhilarating, exhausting process that was a fantastic opportunity. A novel which happens, not so coincidentally, to have disabled protagonists.
But I’m also a reader of SF/F, a fan of SF/F, and the way the genre treats disability worries me. There’s a general movement of late, triggered by We Need Diverse Books, to push for the greater representation of minority voices across all genres and all forms of diversity, but when it comes to disability I’m not sure adult SF/F could recognise an authentic minority voice even if we walked up and hit them with a crutch. There are some disabled voices working in YA SF/F, check out Disability in Kid Lit and DiversifYA for reviews and articles, but adult SF/F often seems a disability desert.
It’s vanishingly rare that we get disabled characters in adult SF/F who aren’t there to fill in the token-minority-sidekick or see-not-all-my-characters-are-Straight-White-Males role, and when they do, they’re almost inevitably there for Inspiration Porn, where the disabled character is used to let the other characters and/or the reader feel good about themselves, or because the author wants to write a Cure Narrative ending, where the disabled character is cured of their disability in order to create a cheap feel-good sensation for the readers. Which is Erasure. And then there’s Eugenics: “Oh, we cured autism centuries ago”, to paraphrase the ‘good’ guys in one of the most prominent SF/F series of recent years – the authors clearly didn’t bother to ask what the autistic self-advocate community thinks on the matter, even though their opposition to a ‘cure’ for autism takes about 30 seconds to google. Erasure again. And when a disabled character does get some actual agency within the story, it’s usually because the author is using ‘disability’ as code for ‘is evil and self-loathing’.
As writers we’re urged to be extremely careful in resorting to cliché, yet as soon as disability enters the scene even the best of writers seem to plunge their hand into the cliché jar and pull out an oozing handful. Whether Tokenism, Inspiration Porn, Cure Narratives, Eugenics/Erasure, or Coded Villainy, disability in adult SF/F is overwhelmingly used as a tool to overtly manipulate the reader, rather than portrayed as normal. I’ve even read an SF/F novel that quite literally turned the love-interest’s disability on and off to suit the convenience of the plot – oh, that real life disability worked so neatly! Adult SF/F novels that treat disability as a normal minority identity are vanishingly rare. SF/F novels that do that, and have the disabled character in the protagonist’s role, are the black swans of the SF/F world, legendarily out there, but rarely seen.
Two recent incidents have convinced me the lack of comprehension of disability amongst published SF/F authors is even worse than I thought. The first was pretty well publicised, the SF Signal “We Are All Disabled” fiasco, a guest column in their “Special Needs in SF” (ick!) series, that displayed breath-taking ignorance about autism, claimed disabled people get special sensory powers (for real, not just in fantasy, and she was talking about wheelchair users like me), and then tried to erase us all by claiming 'everyone is disabled'. I wrote about that incident here and here. The second one was on an SF/F message board, where I’d raised some points about lack of comprehension of disability and disability culture, as illustrated by cure narratives, only to have a prominent SF/F author, with a significant following within fandom, inject himself into the discussion to proclaim to me that “disability is not an identity, it is a predicament” and go on to deny that there are disabled people who don’t want a cure, even though I’d pointed out the significant groups of disabled people who very publically don’t, and had stated I belonged to several of them.
That refusal by majority society to listen to minority voices is so well established it even has its own clichés, the “uppity n-word” and the “bitter cripple”, used to dismiss not just our concerns, but our right to a voice. And when that silencing is combined with the perpetuation of clichéd views of minorities such as ‘all’ disabled people wanting to be cured, or that disabled people are all self-loathing (and villains), then it becomes not just the denial of a voice, but actively dangerous.
And that’s why an opportunity for diverse voices of all kinds to be heard is so valuable, and #DVpit promises to be one such. #DVpit is the idea of literary agent Beth Phelan and takes the idea of #pitchwars, #pitmad and similar twitter-based manuscript pitching events and applies them specifically to Diverse Voices.
It’s happening on the 19th April – Tuesday coming – from 8AM EST until 8PM EST, and full details can be found on the #DVpit page here, but the general concept is that if you have an unpublished manuscript that’s ready for submission, with minority group protagonists, and especially if you’re a minority group author yourself, then this is your chance to sell yourself to a whole heap of agents who are going to be watching the #DVpit hashtag and specifically looking for diverse authors telling diverse stories.
The catch is you have to do it in the 140 characters of a single tweet (the rules of the contest allow one pitch per hour, but that’s to get coverage across the 12 hours that #DVpit runs, not to split one extended pitch over several tweets – at one an hour that’s unlikely to work well). So that’s going to need your ability to precis your story honed to a knife edge. And if an agent likes it enough to want to see more, then they’ll like (<3) your tweet and you’ll then need to check their twitter feeds and or websites to see what comes next, which means you’ll need a full synopsis and submission letter ready to go. (It also means you shouldn’t like (<3) tweets if you’re not an agent).
The list of agents participating has been growing day by day, and there are now at least 50 agents across around 30 agencies, plus several editors, announced as intending to take part. And their participation has been backed by a bunch of volunteers willing to help you tweak your pitch to perfection – see the lists at the bottom of the #DVpitch page for both, though it’s probably too close to the event to hope for any significant input from the volunteers (Kayla Whaley, @PunkinOnWheels, has published her most common advice here).
So if you’re an author with a diverse voice, telling stories about diverse characters, then what do you have to lose?
See you there!