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It's not a nice thing to fail. But the report published earlier this month by Fireside magazine, which found that of 2,039 original stories published by 63 SF magazines in 2015, only 38 were by black authors, indicates an unambiguous failure on the part of the SF field and, because we know our own numbers and they're in the spreadsheet accompanying the report, an unambiguous failure on the part of Strange Horizons.

Progress has been made, over the last decade, in many venues, in broadening the range of voices heard within SF. Yet black short story writers, who as a group are probably a good proxy for newer black writers, have not been carried along. We, as a magazine which works to be as open to new voices as we can be, have not carried them along. We are proud to have published early stories by writers such as Nnedi Okorafor, N. K. Jemisin, and Alaya Dawn Johnson; we have not done a good job of publishing the next generation. For that, we apologise to those who have submitted to us in good faith, and to our readers.

We have been reading and discussing the responses to the Fireside report, including Phenderson Djèlí Clark's "Submitting (SFF) While Black," L. E. H. Light's "The Fireside Fiction Report: A Reader/Critic's Perspective," N. K. Jemisin's Twitter comments on diversity and soliciting stories, and K. Tempest Bradford's comments on editorial diversity. We want to do better, so today is the start of a response. It comes in three parts.

The first part has to do with our masthead. As Tempest notes, it's clear that only so much progress can be made while the editorial gatekeepers in SF are so predominantly white. We've always been conscious of the need to diversify our staff, and for the long-term health of the magazine we need to make sure we do that from the ground up. We also, simply, want to ensure that black readers have the opportunity to be part of speculative fiction's selection process, and that black creators will have their stories read by people who are likely to understand their language and cultural cues. And so, since we need First Readers to help sort through our fiction slush, we would very much like to recruit black first readers from a range of backgrounds to join that part of the magazine. As with all the jobs at Strange Horizons, these are unpaid volunteer positions (although we might be able to swing you a T-shirt at some point); but if you have the time and if you think you'd like to work with us, we absolutely want to hear from you. Details of how to apply can be found here.

The second part of our response focuses on our contributors. There is more we can do to ensure that we have black contributors across the magazine, and we will do it: be proactive in requesting review copies of work by black authors, approach black artists and critics to work for us, solicit work by black fiction writers and poets. But our contacts list, while not small, is finite, and so we want to specifically emphasise that we want the opportunity to consider the work of as many black creators and commentators as possible. That includes:

  • Publishers of black writers: please request reviews, by emailing our reviews team details of your books
  • Black artists: please send your portfolio to our art editors
  • Black critics: please pitch us reviews and articles (about anything that matters to you)
  • Black poets: please submit your work
  • And, of course, black short story writers, please send us your stories . . . when we reopen to submissions, which is likely to be in late September

(We also welcome suggestions, from both black and non-black readers, of black writers, artists and critics we should be aware of and reaching out to.)

The third part of our response is to gather information—and while we welcome feedback, either in comments or in email, about any part of our plans, this is the bit we're still debating. As it happens, we had already been looking into our submissions statistics, with the aid of E. G. Cosh (who you may recall did excellent work for this year's SF Count back in May). Here's her visualisation of what the fiction department received in April:

There are hefty caveats to be attached to almost every aspect of the chart. When it comes to gender, for instance, our database attempts to make an automatic assignment based on the submitting name—hardly the most precise approach, which is why the "unknown" category is so large. And while we have some geographic data, we have nothing on race or ethnicity.

The (sadly) inevitable objections to the Fireside report on the basis that it did not include information about the demographics of submissions are a distraction: the numbers are offensive in and of themselves. But that is not to say that information about the demographics of submissions would not be useful. It would help to pinpoint the problem more precisely (and thus indicate which additional approaches to addressing it would be most effective); it might identify additional problems of which we are not currently aware.

We would like, therefore, to collect more-detailed demographic information when we reopen to fiction submissions, at least for a few months. The risk is that even an optional survey may be viewed as intrusive, even if the default response is "prefer not to say," even if the responses are anonymised; it is easy to imagine a differential response rate between different groups, or writers being put off submitting all together. So to the writers reading this, a question, which you can answer in comments or in email: would that be a concern for you? What else could we do, in the design of such a survey, to make it as painless as possible?

Together, these three actions—more black first readers; clearly stating our desire to see submissions from black writers; an attempt to understand the problem in more detail—are our start. I'm tempted, here, to invoke decolonization as our goal, but wary partly because I don't want that term to become buzzwordified in the way that "diversity" seems to have been (I don't think a Kickstarter for an anthology of decolonized SF is what is needed here), and partly because I don't think there's an end state. There will always be more to do; almost certainly, more failures to address. Hold us to account as they arise. In the meantime we can aim, as the wise man said, to fail better.

Niall Harrison is a reader and fan.
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27 Jul 2020

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