The Puppy Axis Returns: Part 2 – Fireside and making sense of it all

In my earlier post, I remarked on how the Fireside report on the underrepresentation of black authors in published SFF short fiction generated an unusual degree of agreement among four major Sad/Rab Puppy protagonists, Larry, Brad, John C Wright and The Dumpster Fire who Walks Like a Man*.

In this post, I want to talk more about the Fireside report, its methodology and flaws and then look at Larry Correia’s “fisk”. I’ll focus on Larry because Brad Torgersen’s blog post is mainly rambling around the issues, while John C Wright and Vox are more open about the source of the animus.

First to the Fireside report. As they say right off:

The methodology is flawed, as it’s based in self-reported data whenever possible, but such data was not always findable or clear.

They also point out:

…we don’t have access to submission-rate data concerning race and ethnicity either overall or by individual magazine…

Other issues/objections that could be raised is national variation. For example, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine is one of the ‘zines included. It is an Australian magazine with (I think) mainly Australian contributors. Different country, different dynamics of race, ethnicity and self-identification, and different population proportions. [Note: that isn’t meant as a justification for the ‘zine having zero in the study, it is purely an observation of the difficulties Fireside faced in collecting this data].

Additionally, caution needs to be applied at a ‘zine level. For a ‘zine with fewer stories in a year, a single story by one black author would make the difference between zero representation and a reasonable proportion (assuming a 13% black population).

What is notable, is the report is up-front about the issues in their approach and they don’t attempt to hide that there is a substantial degree of uncertainty around the findings. They aren’t claiming some indisputable proof but they are pointing out an obvious red-flag that people should pay attention to.

Having said all of that: zoiks! The resulting number of stories published by black authors across this broad spread of magazines is very low. For interest I tagged ‘zines in the Fireside data that were in the Semiprozine directory (n=20). The proportion of stories by black authors works out much the same as for the total – about 1.9%.

Now maybe getting better data of author self-identification might result in a different picture and the study can’t tell us any specific “why’ of the under representation. Yet we can speculate. A good study (and I think this one is good) is not neccesarily a flawless one but rather one that helps us generate new hypothesis which allows us to find better data. For example we can now ask about some of the “why” behind the results:

  • Is it stories not being accepted? If so, why?
  • Is it stories not being submitted? If so, why aren’t they?
  • Is it the study looking in the wrong places? if so where should it have looked?
  • Is it all the various methodological errors all creating a misleading bias in the data? If so, how come? And does that really seem likely?
  • Is it just that there are lots of black authors being published but the author’s ethnicity isn’t particularly visible?

We also have my favourite Franciscan monk to help us out: William of Okham. He gently reminds us not to over complicate our hypothesis. We have, as a given, a know institutionalised bias against black people in Western societies that has existed for a very long time and which exists both as overt racism and as more subtle forms of discrimination. Finding a group which has been historically under-representated is currently under-representated does not require elaborate explanations. That doesn’t mean we all declare the case closed and never look for better data, it just means that we already have a highly plausible explanation that fits very well with known facts.

And a study is not just about discovering facts and forming hypotheses. What this should inform is what action we should take. When considering that it is worth considering what the downsides of an action will be. Let’s have a look at what ‘zine editors can do in response:

  • Actively try and publish more stories by black authors.

And the down side of that response is:

  • Some extra effort expended but otherwise no obvious down side.

Now what I can’t help noticing is that of the various questions we could ask of the data to get better data, none of them really impact much on that basic response. Looking beyond that response, for example into how the SFF community can help foster talent in diverse communities would be helped with better data but again, we don’t ACTUALLY need better data to make a better start. So I’ll add a more strategic response to this report:

  • Actively try and foster SFF talent and writing in diverse communities.

And the down side of that is:

  • None.

The upside EVEN IF THE WHOLE FIRESIDE REPORT WAS WRONG would be:

  • More good SFF writing and more SFF fans.

PS. I was going to get into Larry’s fisk in this post but time has moved on, so I’ll save that for a part 3.

*[Copyright: Philip Sandifer]

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10 comments

  1. iamzenu

    Can’t bring myself to care about Larry’s fisk. I can’t bring myself to click on his link. I have read his fisk before. Man needs an editor.

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  2. greghullender

    The thing about Occam’s Razor is that in the case of magazine submissions, the editors don’t know the race of the authors. The simplest explanation, bar none, would be to say that there just aren’t very many black writers and/or that something discourages black writers from submitting stories to mainstream SFF magazines.

    N.K. Jemisin’s interview https://medium.com/fireside-fiction-company/interview-with-n-k-jemisin-8e3d47f3156c/ turns up a couple of interesting observations.

    “I would say that that was originally created by the industry’s reluctance to publish black writers who weren’t trying to appeal to white readerships or non-black readerships.”

    That makes sense; black characters in SF stories generally turn out to be white people with black skin. It’s very rare to get a “real” black person in an SF story, even today. (Ditto gay characters.)

    “When you’re saying that there is an under-representation, understand that it comes from both ends. . . . Just understand that there are some folks who aren’t trying.”

    That is, because there are venues that cater to black audiences, lots of black writers don’t even try to submit stories to mainstream magazines.

    But if that’s the cause, I’m not sure what the solution is.

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  4. thephantom182

    “Is it all the various methodological errors all creating a misleading bias in the data? If so, how come? And does that really seem likely?”

    Yes. Very likely. Virtually 100% likely.

    What is very annoying to me is that these ASSHOLES are doing is releasing something they made up, based on pretty much zero data, as clickbait for their shitty magazine. Trying to gin up some racial racial unrest, not in a vacuum, but against a backdrop of this: http://www.wisn.com/news/1-dead-in-officerinvolved-shooting/41190354 That shit is happening -tonight- boys.

    If you want to play racial unrest, maybe you should do it about something that is a -real- issue, like kids not learning to read in Detroit schools.

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  5. Mark

    The submission rates issue is an interesting one, and it’s to their credit that they addressed it upfront, and made some efforts to get some views (like Jemisins) on what might be happening.
    Of course, assembling the argument that because the dataset doesn’t include firsthand data on absolutely everything ever it must be discounted, is pretty much a classic attack as seen with e.g. climate change sceptics claiming that because data is collected in real world conditions and is therefore imperfect it can’t possibly prove anything about the real world.
    If submission rates are in fact lower, then the question becomes whether it’s cause or effect. The helpful William of Oakham suggests effect, I think.

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    • camestrosfelapton

      As Greg points out NKJ provides plenty of insight on the submission issue.

      What I really love about the if you don’t know everything then you know nothing style argument is that usually by the very next sentence they claim to know EVERYTHING on the basis of nothing at all…

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