2015 in numbers and broad generalisations

Broad generalisation 1.:

Well it’s been a pretty shit year, hasn’t it? Good things happened (people I love got engaged or married, or had babies or achieved book deals or degrees), but wow, on a macro level 2015 was bad.

 

Disclaimer:

Before the numbers, the bit where I point out that the numbers are wrong. I made a decision this year to leave out rereads (I reread for comfort the way real people watch TV, and obviously my PhD work often requires me to go back to a book several times) in my reading round-ups; I made an exception for books where those rereads “mark a huge change in how I read the book in question”, but that’s an arbitrary judgement too. And obviously I read parts of books (anthologies, collections, plus there are several books this year that I didn’t finish, and that I plan to return to), short stories, literary theory (because thesis), and things on the internet (which you can partly track because of my infrequent Sunday Reading posts).

Over and above this already-wrongness, as it were, the numbers regarding authorial identity are also far from certain– people’s races and genders aren’t always going to be evident; the criteria by which we make those judgements are themselves often deeply flawed (I worry that my gender count might be erasing nonbinary authors, for example, and can’t imagine how I’d reasonably track how many queer authors I read); in any case, I haven’t figured out a reasonable way to take multiple-author or author-illustrator works into account within this framework. The best I can do is therefore to remind you at length (two paragraphs so far!) that these numbers can only ever be approximate.

 

Numbers:

All that being said, as near as I can make it out I read (about) 82 books this year. Of them, (about) 55 were authored by women, (about) 32 were authored by people of colour (of whom [about] 20 were women). Which is not perfect (what would perfect be?) but feels a lot closer to where I want to be than last year did–and though rereads are not counted, I think I did do less rereading than I did last year.

 

Shortlists:

I read two awards shortlists; the Carnegie and Little Rebels (thoughts on individual books at those links). I suspect I’ll be reading the Carnegie shortlist at least in 2016, and if I have access to the Little Rebels shortlisted books will be looking at that as well. However. Both of these shortlists, as far as I could tell at the time, were comprised entirely of white authors and illustrators. This is an issue for me–my work requires me to take an interest in contemporary UK children’s publishing, which currently appears to be so blindingly white (Broad Generalisation 2, except it unfortunately isn’t) that a couple of years of all-white shortlists aren’t treated as a crisis but as the natural order of things. Characters of colour do occasionally pop up, with very mixed results (this isn’t the place to rant about how a mostly white literary establishment is what leads to books like this and this being legitimised, but the thought of how many decent, well-meaning adults must have read them and thought “this is fine” before they ended up on the shortlist is mindboggling). So what’s a reader with a particular interest in the related topics of children’s literature in the UK and canon formation to do?  I’ve cut SFF shortlists out of my life, and that was a good choice, but children’s lit is what I work on and I can’t apply the same solution here.

What I can do, I suppose, is seek out alternatives. I’ve spoken elsewhere about my discomfort with #diversity! campaigns, and I love this Kavita Bhanot essay. But I’ve tied myself to these awards, and for as long as I continue to do so, this is a pledge that I’ll also seek out other contemporary children’s authors and books for every white British or American writer that a shortlist makes me read. And if the Crossword (or Raymond Crossword now, I’m informed) awards put out a children’s shortlist this year, I will be reading that as well.

 

My year in books and film:

The Strange Horizons year in review is up, with a couple of paragraphs from me. Here’s what I said (I have shamelessly replaced links to legit SH reviews to links to my own thoughts, but you should read the SH reviews):

It may not quite be SF, but if you have not yet read Yuri Herrera’s Signs Preceding the End of the World (translated from Spanish by Lisa Dillman), you should probably do so immediately. Other highlights of my year in fiction: Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, and Jennifer Marie Brissett’s Elysium. I loved Frances Hardinge’s Cuckoo Song, shortlisted for the 2015 Carnegie award, and JiHyeon Lee’s Pool, a picture book about a fantastic underwater world. N.K. Jemisin’s The Fifth Season was a book I had Issues with, but when it was good was intoxicatingly so. And though almost none of the nonfiction I read was new or SF-relevant, Black Quantum Futurism: Theory & Practice Vol. I, edited by Rasheedah Phillips, is a collection I think I’ll be coming back to over and over.

I missed many of the films I wanted to watch, but of those I saw I loved Mad Max: Fury Road and will defend Jupiter Ascending to the death. Avengers: Age of Ultron, meanwhile, convinced me that tolerating the MCU is no longer just artistically/intellectually lazy, but morally abhorrent as well. But perhaps the best pieces of SFF I watched this year were the utopian alternate universes (our world, if our world was good) of Magic Mike XXL and Paddington. One of the virtues of SF is its ability to help us conceive of alternate presents—I suggest that these films did just that in a year when they were sorely needed.

Other favourites: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Danez Smith’s [insert] boy, Uday Prakash’s The Girl with the Golden Parasol, Leela Gandhi’s Affective Communities, Robin Stevens’s Arsenic For Tea. I’m incredibly grateful to Naomi Novik’s Uprooted for giving me a sort of reading experience I very rarely have nowadays. Moviewise, other than the big films I mention above, I loved Girlhood, identified a bit too closely with parts of Appropriate Behaviour, really enjoyed Carol and … I sat through Hard to be a God; that’s got to count for something, right?

Obviously I’m not entirely serious above when I claim Magic Mike XXL as a form of science fiction. But if art is about helping us find ways to navigate the world (Broad Generalisation 3 but let’s assume for the space of this post that it is), and if one of the reasons SFF is important is that it has such scope to do this (Broad Generalisation 4 but see above) the books and films I value most at a time like this (do I need to explain the hundreds of reasons the world is currently bad? are there people existing and moving about in the world thinking “well, that was a fun year! bring on 2016!”?), the ones that feel most radical, are the ones that offer some sense of that.

In May I wrote, of Gill Lewis’s Scarlet Ibis (which subsequently won the Little Rebels award):

There’s a magical moment towards the end of the book in which Scarlet’s new school friends think that she has done something terrible, but then they verify her story (well done, responsible kids!), ascertain that she’s doing something they find morally okay, and then stand by her in solidarity and give her what help they can. There are no mean girls here. Whether they are random employees of the local zoo, interfering but kindly neighbours, teenage boys who have just had a foster sister thrust upon them or primary school students, every person in this world is fundamentally decent; it is possible to ask for help and receive it. As a fantasy fan and a children’s literature fan I end up being presented a lot of literature that insists on confronting the grimdarkness of the world by reproducing it endlessly, and to me Scarlet Ibis felt radical in its goodness. This isn’t escapism, it’s imagining a world as it could be.

There’s something of this sense about Magic Mike XXL, as incongruous as these titles may look together, not just in the men’s attitudes towards women but towards each other as well. None of these worlds are entirely free of badness (Paddington, for example, has imperialism and UKIP), but their niceness still feels central to what I value in them. I don’t fully understand yet how to hold on to this position and also to the importance (moral, transformative, cathartic) of anger; I don’t want to defang us or to suggest that we sit here exchanging platitudes about the importance of kindness while the world burns. If I’ve got a resolution for 2016 (and for my thirties) it’s to be more uncompromising, if anything. And yet.

Or I could have just quoted Kate Schapira, here: “I read more and more not to escape in the often derogatory way that word is used, but to slip the limits on my own habitual knowledge of what is possible, to think of ways of living and, yes, even dying that I could not have thought of on my own.” That.

4 Comments to “2015 in numbers and broad generalisations”

  1. “As a fantasy fan and a children’s literature fan I end up being presented a lot of literature that insists on confronting the grimdarkness of the world by reproducing it endlessly, and to me Scarlet Ibis felt radical in its goodness. This isn’t escapism, it’s imagining a world as it could be.” I really like this phrase, that is all.

  2. I don’t fully understand yet how to hold on to this position and also to the importance (moral, transformative, cathartic) of anger

    That’s a good point. I guess my answer to it would be that in most of the pop culture I see, I don’t sense a choice between the kindness and generosity you identify (and which, I agree, is increasingly what I want to see) and this kind of righteous anger. On the contrary, it’s a choice between kindness and nihilistic darkness that inevitably prioritizes the tortured angst of privileged people over the actual suffering of the people they hurt. I’d be fascinated to see what pop culture that delves into moral anger looks like (maybe Jessica Jones comes close?), but for the most part I don’t think that’s what’s on offer.

    • Oh I don’t think there’s any real sign of it in mainstream pop culture (is there a non-mainstream pop culture?) at all. I’m looking for it, and seeing flashes of it pop up occasionally; but I think by its nature it’s something that can only exist outside the mainstream. I’m just going to keep looking.

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