Tue
Nov 19 2013 11:00am

Sleeps With Monsters: Thinking About Reading and Radicalisation

Encre L Marquet Eugene Grasset

There was a little bit of discussion about SWM: Reading, Writing, Radicalisation. Now that a couple of weeks have passed, I thought it might prove interesting to revisit the topic—but this time, with a couple more perspectives.

To recap Reading, Writing, Radicalisation: your correspondent spends so much time seeking out and reading books by female authors that there’s very little time left to read books by men. I said:

“[This] has brought home in many ways how women’s influence on literary developments in genre is often written out of the general narrative of who influenced what, and when. It has brought home just how many women are writing and have written a broad and varied array of SFF novels, and how seldom their names are brought up, in contrast to men’s names. And it has brought home just how in so many ways Joanna Russ’s How To Suppress Women’s Writing is still immensely applicable,”

and suggested that as an experiment, one could try to read all the new books by women for a six-month period, to see whether one’s perceptions of the genre change at all.

Today, for some follow-up discussion, we’re joined by the infamous Renay, as well as Tor.com contributor Stefan Raets—who once said,

“I simply refuse to let anything but the novel or story guide my reading and reviewing decisions. I don’t care if a book was written by someone who’s male or female, straight or gay, white or not-white, and you can easily add another bunch of categories to this. I review books, not authors. I refuse to start deciding what to read or review based on the author’s gender or race or sexuality, making sure I cover the right amount of each to avoid showing bias.”

He’s changed his mind quite a bit since then.

 

LIZ: You guys have thoughts on this?

RENAY: I approached the article coming off two specific incidents:

1. The gender bias in SFF roundtable at The 52 Review (Part One, Part Two). It was pretty interesting and I was happy to see it; but then this went down:

Loving the response that the Gender Bias Roundtable is generating. Except for the few outliers who seem to believe I need to atone.

— 52 Book Reviews (@52reviews) October 2, 2013

This whole exchange made me fantastically unhappy, because sure, leave women out for ages, but heaven forbid you flip your parity 100% for a short time to really start digging into the lifelong issue side of the parity equation. His framing of reading women as opposed to men as “atonement” really, really bothered me.

2. I’ve been discussing among some people only reviewing women writers in SF during 2014. I’m pretty close to that already, anyway, so this might not make much of a difference, but generally I spend more time/energy talking about books I’ve reviewed—even if I disliked them. I let them take up space in my brain if I review them. I’ve been trying to find people to do it with me! Everything is more fun with friends. And I’ve been surprised at the hesitation and outright “I couldn’t because my AUDIENCE!”, especially from people with platforms, either blogs or large twitter followings.

I haven’t stopped reading men, except for 2012 where my partner and I deliberately read five women for every book by a man. That was hard. I was so active in the community. There was always A LOT of buzz about books by men, and it’s very hard to ignore it. It was constantly being thrown in my face that I was “missing out” by not reading men. I first noticed it in those lists, “Best SF of the decade,” “Best of the year,” by bloggers from 2010 − 2012. 2012 was a little special, I think I was way more sensitive to parity at that point. Basically: if there was a list and it wasn’t equal, it would make me feel super bad. “Look at all these talented men you’re NOT reading!” I never got that with women. Most of the vibe I get from people promoting women is very…conciliatory? “Here are these women you can read, if you want!” As if they’re important, but not required in the same way the men are, historically or otherwise.

There’s something to be said about how the conversation flows around you when you’re reading women that no one else is, instead of the new shiny book by a man. It was supremely difficult, and got into my head in the worst way, and eventually colored my experience so much that I know in order to do it again I would have to stop reading blogs/keeping up with new releases outside of my immediate social circles.

I read that article and nodded through the entire paragraph about the noise surrounding new releases. It’s not just me and my biases, my internalized habits of valuing men’s voices more, but the industry culture itself is doing a pretty effective job with marketing men. And I also think the more heavily involved you are as a reviewer, the harder it is for us to “let go” and leave men out.

Where we get our recommendations matters. It’s not just about personal preference. You can passively consume the worldview of the same type of person, or you can actively branch out. I don’t think either is inherently negative. What’s negative is pretending there’s not a political/social choice being made. Denial of position.

STEFAN: The issues discussed in that column are ones that I’ve given a lot of thought to in the last year or so.

About a year ago, a blogger friend posted a personal reading challenge: balance his reading and reviewing in such a way that he’d cover an equal amount of male and female authors. I somehow decided it would be a good idea to wade in and proclaim that “I just never pay attention to the gender of the author when I decide what to read.” A lively discussion ensued. (Read: The internet sort of fell on me, I was called some names I hadn’t heard in years, certain folks on Twitter idly suggested that people like me should be murdered, and I almost decided to call this whole reviewing thing quits right then and there.)

Around the same time, Renay posted a survey of a number of randomly chosen SFF blogs, counting out exactly how many male and female authors they each reviewed in 2012. My own site was part of that survey, and it was clear that I’d reviewed considerably more male authors.

The real problem was that I really, truly had no idea how limited and privileged my perspective was. I considered myself a fairly forward-thinking fellow. I read everything. How could it be bad to read everything and not pay attention to gender or race or sexuality? Surely, being blind to those labels was good?

It took a few kind people to step back and engage me in discussion before I understood. Sure, you’re pulling cards from a face-down deck, and you have no way of knowing whether you’ll get hearts or spades. But your deck has been pre-stacked: there are more cards of one type than another. If you select blindly, you’re still playing into a pre-established bias.

This ties directly into what Liz wrote in her column about having to put yourself forward to publicists and authors to find works by female authors. I receive a good amount of books in the mail to review. Not a crazy amount like some of the major blogs, but usually too many to actually get them all read. Still, with all of this, once I decided to bring some gender parity to my reviewing, I ended up peering at my stack of potentially-to-be-reviewed books for that month and realizing that I had about 15 titles by male authors waiting for me, and 2 by female authors. That’s not me requesting certain books or discarding others; it’s just a basic sample of what I was getting in the mail. Sure, I can close my eyes and pull something blindly from the stack. But unless I start actively looking for and requesting certain books, there’s a good chance that what I’ll pick will be a book by a straight white guy.

There’s nothing wrong with books by straight white guys. But I have always believed that there’s a huge value in discovering and promoting all kinds of perspectives and backgrounds and voices, and unless you make a proactive choice to do so, you’re involuntarily amplifying one specific perspective to the detriment of all the others.

I was doing this. I guess this is sort of a mea culpa. I came out swinging against the very idea that I should follow a quota and read certain things at the detriment of others, because I was so “enlightened” and blind to all these categories. By now, I’m cringing at what I wrote back then, at what Renay called the “denial of position” and what I’ll just call my own pig-headed unawareness of my own privilege back then. By now, I’m trying to bring some parity to what I read and review. Live and learn.

LIZ: Lots of things I want to follow up on with both of you! But the one that leaps out is:

RENAY: “It’s not just me and my biases, my internalized habits of valuing men’s voices more, but the industry culture itself doing a pretty effective job with marketing... Where we gets our recommendations matters.”

STEFAN: “I ended up peering at my stack of potentially-to-be-reviewed books for that month and realizing that I had about 15 titles by male authors waiting for me, and 2 by female authors. That’s not me requesting certain books or discarding others; it’s just a basic sample of what I was getting in the mail.”

So anecdotally, among the three of us, we’ve noticed an emphasis in what gets pushed and what doesn’t. What does that mean for us, and for the field? Do we get to ascribe that the Inscrutable Forces Of Marketing, or do reviewers and book bloggers bear some responsibility for the state of affairs?

(In this connection, I want to draw attention as well to this older blogpost from 2011, which seems to indicate that there is a distinct difference in who talks about whom, and how often.)

Something I noticed coming up in reaction to the “Radicalisation” post was the idea that there are a handful of massively successful female authors (mostly big YA names), and this means there is no bias in coverage/success across the field. What do you think?

Another thing that came up was, well, what’s the point in trying to balance one’s reading as a consumer one way or another? Does it matter?

STEFAN: It’s probably a self-sustaining loop. Books get pushed, they get more coverage, they become more successful, the same thing gets pushed again. I’ve seen the argument (I’ve probably made it myself at some point) that we should look further up the chain, at acquiring editors and marketing and so on, and there’s probably something there. Still, any part of the chain can make a change, however little it is, and maybe affect a change further up and down towards what gets published and what gets read. I don’t think reviewers or bloggers are the only people to blame for the situation, or maybe even the most important people to blame, but that’s not the point.

There’s an entire segment of the market that I’ve not really taken into account in what I’ve said so far: those big YA names, paranormal romance, and so on. I don’t read them simply because they’re not what I like to read. I think there’s something disingenuous about using them as an example to prove that there’s no bias, because we’re clearly talking about a different category of books here. I am happy to see success and diversity on those shelves, but it doesn’t help people being unable to find a novel by Ann Leckie or Elizabeth Bear on these shelves over here.

I also feel like I should add something to my previous comments on the natural tendency of people who get called out on their bias to get hyper-defensive, and how that’s a natural reaction, and one not always made easier to overcome by the tendency of people questioning that bias to be a bit frustrated and aggressive. That was my problem for a while.

About balance—I guess at this point I see no valid reason NOT to balance. What would be the downside? You find new perspectives. You discover new authors. You broaden your horizons. You help promote diversity. As a reader, just making the purchase and rating the book on Amazon or GoodReads or wherever tells the publisher that there is an audience for this book. You’re voting with your wallet. You’re asking for more. In doing so, you’re amplifying a voice that needs to be heard. As a reviewer, well, ditto I guess, except you’re doing all of this on a larger platform, reaching more people.

What really made me change my mind was the discussion I mentioned earlier, together with Renay’s quantitative analysis. Once I put those two together and managed to extract myself from the defensive shell I’d climbed into, I realized that I’d been unaware of the situation. (I still would argue that this unawareness is very different from actively making sexist choices, and I believe that more can be achieved by laying out the situation and letting someone reason it out than by yelling and personal attacks. Yes, I know that’s the tone argument. I’m just saying what worked for me.)

What made the issue gain urgency for me personally was the somewhat surreal moment I realized that, right when I decided to try for a fairer balance, that 90% of my possibly-to-be-reviewed stack consisted of male authors. Then, when I went to check Netgalley to try and remedy that situation, I discovered that the majority of the books available in the “Sci Fi and Fantasy” category, not counting the paranormal romances, were also by male authors. It was the clearest example of that “pre-stacked deck” idea I mentioned earlier. It actually made me feel a bit helpless, too: without actively making the decision to balance things out, I would have continued to be steered in a direction I don’t want to go in anymore. I can only imagine that that feeling of helplessness must be multiplied a thousandfold for any author who doesn’t fall in the “straight white guy” demographic. And I weep to think what SFF would look like as a genre if these trends continue.

So, short answer: I decided to balance my reading because I prefer a multitude of voices and perspectives rather than just one; because I didn’t like the feeling of being railroaded; because I don’t like the idea of SFF continuing along this line; and because, however small my contribution to the SFF community may be, I hope doing this will lead others along the same path.

RENAY: I agree with Stefan that there’s a self-sustaining loop. However, I still believe that the whole process is an ecosystem, and that looking for one section to hold accountable—acquiring editors, marketing, critics, reviewers, bloggers, fans—is only useful insofar as each area of the system is interested in the question. Each part has to be in concert with the other, which is an idea that doesn’t seem to have caught on yet. I’ve long been of the opinion that editors, marketing people, and professional critics/reviewers have to think more critically about what they’re placing in the field. Otherwise they’ll simply keep repeating the past, and creating situations where readers of all stripes, even ones professing to care deeply about representation and diversity of voices, will often fall back on the default when discussing books, or look elsewhere, to self-publishing, for example.

The larger portions (buyers, fans, etc.) have the monetary power to communicate their preferences, giving editors and publishers the data to say “yes, this”. But we have to support each other, communicate more.

That’s hard when I know I’m terrified to speak with editors and publicists myself to say “hey, do you know of any book like X/Y/Z?” or to ask for a review copy. A lot of my friends—who’re also women—have the same fear about reaching out to these people. Asking is HARD, and that fear seems to impact women more.

And about responsibility, my position has always been that if we place ourselves as arbiters of taste, as reviewers, as critics, with a body of work behind us, then we have an obligation to make the field as wide as possible for many voices so we all benefit from new ideas, perspectives, and even more challenging/entertaining stories. If we just blindly follow the marketing, if we don’t have the ability or interest to critique our own positions, if we ignore the fact we have a particular political positions on intersectional topics, are we really serving the field?

Not serving the field is not an inherently negative position; some people just want to read—I think this is where I might depart from the overall argument of “there’s no reason not to balance,” because I don’t believe in forcing people into positions like this anymore—but reviewing and blogging isn’t just about reading. It’s about writing and critiquing and developing reactions to texts.

“Something I noticed coming up in the comments to the SWM post was the idea that there are a handful of massively successful female authors (mostly big YA names), and this means there is no bias in coverage/success across the field. What do you think?”

I really don’t understand this argument at all. “Hey, you know that marketing category that the adult SF community as a whole derides and loves to mock as empty/vapid—at least when they’re not ignoring it—that’s dominated by women writing about the feelings of young men and women? It PROVES there’s no bias!” Meanwhile, over in SF fandom, a Hugo-nominated fanzine can tag a YA book review with the words “books for chicks”. As if the young women reading these books right now won’t grow up and come to adult SF looking for women’s voices, and not finding them accorded as much respect. SEXISM IS OVER.

“Another thing that came up was, well, what’s the point in trying to balance one’s reading as a consumer one way or another? Does it matter?”

I’m convinced that balanced reading (and therefore, experiencing multiple types of world views) makes us better readers, teaches us more about ourselves, and gives us tools and experiences to empathize with other people who aren’t like us, whether it’s gender or sexuality or race or nationality or political stance. More than anything I believe reading gives us the ability to humanize and make space for voices that the rest of our culture often denies us. Through our money/support of those voices, we can prove that there are people who want more of them. As readers, we can undermine culture’s habit of settling into the default narrative by listening to stories by people we might not otherwise hear: we can read and review them, we can ask for them, and we can fold them into our other reading experiences without letting go of where we come from. It’s not either/or—although this is a vibe I get often: that people see the addition of women as the subtraction of men.

STEFAN: I don’t have a whole lot to add. I like the eco-system analogy a lot. (Ecosystems being sets of self-sustaining loops, so it actually sort of works with the comparison I made.)

And—I don’t think “there’s no reason not to” means forcing people into a position. It’s more showing that there are no obstacles to reaching such a position. If that makes sense.

LIZ: I think my own opinion is pretty clear. I’m not trying to argue that women are an obviously oppressed underclass in the literary scene, far from it. But my perception remains that Joanna Russ’s She wrote it BUT is always in play when it comes to assessing who influences what, and who is seen as quote-unquote “important,” in general. There are always outliers; there are always communities where different values are in play; and the field has been undergoing dynamic change over the last several years; so my perceptions—and the views shared here by Renay and Stefan—aren’t going to ring true to everyone.

But it’s worth talking about, and it’s worth thinking about why those “best of” lists that Renay mentioned tend to skew male far, far, far more often they skew female.

And don’t tell me it’s because men are objectively just that much better.

 


Liz Bourke is a cranky person who reads books. Her blog. Her Twitter.

27 comments
Steven Halter
1. stevenhalter
I pretty much agree with the stacked deck analogy. In the previous column I went back through my last three years of reading and saw the percentage of books by female authors was increasing but not at parity. I looked at 2013 in a little more depth just now and found some interesting data. The total percentage of books by female authors for 2013 (for me) is at 40% currently and the percentage of distinct female authors is at 38%.
The percentage of new authors (male or female) I have read for the first time in 2013 is at 30%. The percentage of female authors in the new authors I have read is at 52%.
So, what I am seeing (and finding interesting) is that I have my pre-existing stacked deck of authors who I like and tend to pick up new books from. That deck is tilted towards male authors. However, new authors that I am picking up is pretty balanced.
BDG
2. BDG
I'd think this would be pretty interesting to try along not only genderlines but any underrepresented group. Speaking for myself, I'm about to give up on SFF, despite loving it, simply because I have a very difficult time finding writer who are First Nations and even characters who are, and when they do show up they're usually some terrible stereotype pan-Indian who worship totem poles, where headdresses and have Apache war paint on. Interesting article though, gets me thinking, probably going to go through my books tonight!
BDG
3. Stina Leicht
Thanks for this. Awareness is happening on a larger scale than before and that makes me feel hopeful. That said, I wanted to add that the 'atonement' thing bothered me a great deal too. On the other hand, the attempt to group-police the individual for making the statement was also wrong-headed. And that's why I didn't respond to it.

We're all human beings. Growing beyond the uglier parts of our nature is never attractive, tidy, easy, or painless. It's a hugely personal experience even though there are common steps to the process. (Having to go through it in public makes it even more messy and uncomfortable.) Anyway, I credited the whole thing as part of growing to awareness. It's important to make space for everyone's process--both sides. We're dealing with powerful emotions here. We all do this at our own pace. The fact that we're all going through this mess at the same time and at different rates and from different directions makes everything complicated. I think it's more helpful to keep that in mind. Sometimes people can only go so far in a given moment. It's good to remember that. I also think it's important to not give up, to make them absolutely aware they haven't finished the journey with that one step, to push them a little bit farther than they might be comfortable with, but not so much as to damage the progress already made. There's a trick to it, see.

It's like the joke about how many psychologists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: One. But it takes a long time because the light bulb has to want to change.

The goal is change after all, not vengeance.
BDG
4. Janny Wurts
Huge applause for this post and all the contributors.

For years and years and YEARS, I have been posting recommendations for superb women authors doing epic fantasy, works that are not YA and not angled towards romance - and in my experience it is fighting an uphill curve that has gotten worse since the huge success of Urban Fantasy slanted for the women's market, and the uprise of YA - nothing wrong with either of these genres, but they have actually thrown a barrier in the way of other works oriented for a gender neutral marketplace.

It is always terribly difficult to make even the most enthusiastic recommendation stick - because of the lack of momentum. The comments too often flounder along, unsupported, in the middle of culture oriented lists of male authors' works that 'everyone knows'. The supporting commentary for such a recommendation is either nonexistent, or slow, at best, in an internet social media climate that favors algorithms, this is a deadly trend.

I pull my hair out, despairing, that so many women authors have had to hide behind initials STILL HAPPENING - that the ones who did not launch that way have had to CHANGE THEIR BYLINE and relaunch - and that many are still out there, doing class work, buried alive, as it were, when it comes to statistics.

Monumental works, stalled in mid course - C. J. Cherryh's incredible Fortress in the Eye of Time, killed in mid sequence, comes to mind, or writers like Barbara Hambly who has long and long been doing wonderful, adult work with depth of perception and even, female characters who are not typical of the genre or even, the popular stereotype.

Many who have gotten acclaim in literary circles still are not so widely read in the popular marketplace as they deserve to be - Patricia McKillilp comes immediately to mind.

And let's not begin to address the observation that McCaffrey, Andre Norton, and Marion Zimmer Bradley are all but NEVER included in the same breath as Asimov, Heinlein, and the other male 'greats' always listed as classics.

I have about never publicly commented or done more than lurk the blogosphere, but let me say, this post today brought me out.

There are too many women authors still laboring in the salt mines in the field of epic fantasy whose readership is balanced between male and female, and not slanted towards the women's market - that are not represented nearly enough when it comes to intelligent discussions of epic fantasy works and serious SF work, today. I know how that feels, both as an outspoken advocate of great writing in general, on several sites, and having been on the receiving end of the frustration as well, by review sites and major magazines.

It takes continuous effort to achieve the momentum for any name to gain traction and for the women working in the gray area of NOT YA and NOT Urban fantasy, the challenge has gotten harder still.

Kudos to Liz Bourke, Renay and Stefan for posting such a perceptive exchange.
BDG
5. Difficat
When I first became aware of this discussion a few months back, I counted authors on our shelves, which contain mostly fantasy and science fiction. Counting only those, leaving out the nonfiction and historical fiction and so on, and counting each author only once, we have 117 male authors and 40 female authors, so just over 25%. That's pretty good compared to 10% but still pretty biased. Our daughter is going to be looking at those shelves and drawing her own conclusions.
Elizabeth Bear
6. matociquala
There's also the issue that a strand of the readership that either takes it upon itself or is looked to to canonize writers as "serious" and "worthy" often frankly overlooks work by women. I sometimes see new books by male authors hailed for their breathtaking ideas... when they're using ideas and tropes that I or other female writers were publishing stories about ten years ago.

Jazz isn't art until white people play it, I guess, and ideas aren't valid until men express them. It's the fictional equivalent of the idea that the members of the SF community you should go to to talk about sexism are John Scalzi and Jim Hines.*

*disclaimer: I adore both John and Jim, and think they'd be the first to identify the ridiculousness of the situation.
BDG
7. R.J. Anderson
Aside to BDG: May I recommend to you Erin Bow's just-released YA fantasy-horror novel SORROW'S KNOT? It's a gorgeous, haunting, often unexpectedly funny book that does not play into those awful stereotypes in the least. Since I don't know your exact reading tastes I can't guarantee you'll love it as much as I did, but it's getting some fantastic reviews and accolades and IMO it deserves them.

As for Ms. Wurts' comment about YA not being sufficiently gender-neutral to count in the broader SF marketplace, I can't quite agree. The popular portrayal of YA as a genre, often based on little more than a vague acquaintance with certain overhyped blockbusters, is that it's all written by women, for girl readers only. It isn't, and it isn't. There's an unhappy tendency in YA publishing to put passive-looking girls in prom dresses on the cover and to emphasize the romantic subplot (even if it's barely there or nonexistent) above all else, apparently in the belief that "this is what sells" -- a trend which does many smart, complex, funny, horrifying, surprising, thought-provoking, and well-developed fantasy and SF novels a disservice. There is real SF -- space opera, military SF, colonization stories, even hard SF -- being written in YA; there is epic fantasy of real freshness and imaginative scope, where romantic content (if it's there at all) is merely a small aspect of the story and by no means central to the plot. How is the existence of largely female-written YA SFF throwing up a barrier to the work of female SFF authors trying to reach a general audience? Shouldn't we be supporting and encouraging readers to enjoy SFF wherever they find it?
Liz Bourke
8. hawkwing-lb
stevenhalter @1:

As a datapoint of interest - where are you getting your recommendations for new books these days? Has it changed at all?

BDG @2:

Yeah. It's... yeah. SFF is very limited, in certain respects.

Stina Leicht @3:

*hides vengeful pitchfork sheepishly*

Janny Wurts @4:

Thank you for choosing this conversation to join. (Please excuse me for one moment while I recollect that Stormwarden was one of the very first fantasy books I got out of the library as a kid, and try not to fangirl.)
It is always terribly difficult to make even the most enthusiastic recommendation stick - because of the lack of momentum
Quoted for truth.

Difficat @5:

There's still time to find other female authors to enjoy!
Wm Henry Morris
9. WHM
I intentionally made an effort to read more SF&F by women over the past year. My overall stats are likely still skewed towards works by male authors, and I need to be even more intentional about my reading (and especially in bringing in non-straight, white voices into my regular reading), but a couple of weeks ago I was thinking about the reading I have done, and I had this dawning relization (which, of course, led to a twitter outburst) that women genre writers are very important to me. That should have been a much less startling conclusion for me to have. Yet the fact is: my engagement with the field is better and richer because I've been reading more work by women.
Paul Weimer
10. PrinceJvstin
@6
"Jazz isn't art until white people play it"

I think that sums up the problem pretty well.

When our entire culture is soaked in this stuff**, can we build a dike and drain the polder of genre fiction of it? Or at least make a running attempt at it?
BDG
11. Matt Gilliard
I followed a hit on my blog to this discussion, and was sad to see that I'd been mentioned in such a negative light. But the discussion here is important, and I've been pleased with the traffic the Gender Bias Roundtable has generated as well.

I'd have to agree that the way new releases are marketed is indeed part of the issue, as is reviewers own internal and often unconcious bias. I've all but stopped requesting review copies these days because the very act of accepting them creates a 'obligation to read them in a timely manner' and I've found that while questing for parity it's better if I have more control over what I'm reading. Which has left me free to search for female names I've neglected in the past.

I've had to spend a lot of time lately analyzing my own biases and there isn't any room for excuses. I'd like to think my comitment to acchieving parity in reviewing is making a difference, but at the end of the day the most important aspect of this whole debate is simply getting the word out. While those of us who are interested in these issues may read op ed pieces like this, many more casual readers will likely pass them over. Which makes reviewers more and more important, by drawing attention to quality work that may not be on the casual reader's radar. I'm pleased that my own embarassing snafu's have led me to such fine authors such as Seanan McGuire, Elizabeth Bear, and Catherynne Valente who had been mere blips on my radar beforehand.

Stina is right, change is hard and it happens at each person's own pace and level of comfort. I certainly wish I had responded to suggestions that I read nothing but female writers with a little more forethought rather than reacting to what I felt was a call for me to rectify my bias on someone's terms other than my own, but what's done is done. I'm glad to be part a small part of the voices calling for folks to diversify their reading. Speaking from my own limited experience in the last few months, you'll be glad you did.
BDG
12. Shveta Thakrar
Also for BDG and anyone else interested: A Native American author who writes Native American characters is Joseph Bruchac. You might also want to look up Cynthia Leitich Smith.
Jaime Lee Moyer
13. JaimeLeeMoyer
R.J. Anderson @7 You said "The popular portrayal of YA as a genre, often based on little more than a vague acquaintance with certain overhyped blockbusters, is that it's all written by women, for girl readers only."


Who exactly puts this idea out there? It's not the YA writers I know, who ALL talk about writing for ALL readers, not just young women, and tell stories about all the boys and young men who come to their signings. It's not the readers of YA that I know, both male and female, teens or adult.

I know this isn't something that you invented or made up, and please don't take this personally, but everytime I see this idea put out there I cringe. It's really a screwed up perception, one that is flatly untrue.

And if the majority of YA authors were male, I can guarantee you that this idea wouldn't even exist. YA, and its writers, would be praised as highly as all the other males writing SFF who hit the NYT Bestseller lists. It's just another backdoor, work around way of not taking women writers seriously, without saying flat out that we are inferior.

As far as women writing YA SFF putting a barrier in the way of women authors writing adult SFF--all women writers get lumped together. All of us.

It doesn't matter what you write, how well you write or the subject matter and genre. The first default assumption is that women never have anything important to say, nothing original or groundbreaking.

The second default assumption is that secretly, in our heart of hearts, all of us are romance writers and looking to slip that past the gatekeepers.

The two go together, like toast and jam. A book written by a man with healthy, adult relationships, and female characters with agency is still reviewed as serious SFF, with themes and an important message.

Put a woman's name on the cover and the same book, with the same characters and relationships, is riddled with that icky romance stuff. It is now "lesser" and not worthy of notice.

Men write relationships. Women write romance.

The truth is that women rarely get reviewed in big venues, rarely get nominated for important awards, and winning one of those awards is rarer still. It's a harsh reality that every single woman author I know, myself included, is keenly aware of.

How to get noticed, to build that all important thing called "buzz", is what keeps the debut author up at night. That goes double for women. And yet it seems to come so, so easily for men. One wonders why that is...

This isn't a new discussion, at least among women who write. I personally feel as if I've talked about this issue for years, mostly because I have. It's only recently that a few people have started to listen.

You're right about promoting good SFF to readers. I'm all for that idea. Taking off the blinders and tearing down the barricades between readers and women authors would help that idea become a reality.
Aidan Moher
14. aidan
I'm happy to see this conversation continues, and continues to inspire people to recognize, analyze, and fight against the weaknesses and biases in their selection process.

I was in the same boat as Stefan once, making the same arguments of 'gender blindness' that are mentioned in this article, and I can say without hesitation that my life as a reader and critic has been signifcantly more rewarding since accepting and challenging this flawed way of thought.

Thanks to Liz and Tor for facilitating this discussion.
BDG
15. Oyceter
@BDG: Ugh, I find that so frustrating! I've been to more than one panel at Wiscon where all the talk was about indigenous characters in books by non-Native authors.

Also, aside from Joseph Bruchac and Cynthia Leitich Smith, I've also found Drew Hayden Taylor's Night Wanderer and Stephen Graham Jones, and I still need to get my hands on Walking the Clouds, an anthology of indigenous SF edited by Grace Dillon.
BDG
16. R.J. Anderson
JaimeLeeMoyer wrote:
"... if the majority of YA authors were male, I can guarantee you that this idea wouldn't even exist. YA, and its writers, would be praised as highly as all the other males writing SFF who hit the NYT Bestseller lists. It's just another backdoor, work around way of not taking women writers seriously, without saying flat out that we are inferior."

Absolutely. I agree with everything you said, so there's nothing for me to take personally -- thanks for expanding on the issue so well.

(And for the record, I'm a woman too. I chose to use my initials when I went pro because I liked the "writerly" look of them, not because I was trying to trick readers into thinking I'm a man. Indeed, my debut novel was based around an all-female society and had only one speaking male character -- it actually failed the inverse of the Bechdel Test. Bit of a giveaway there, I'd think!)
Steven Halter
17. stevenhalter
hawkwing-lb@8:Looking through the titles by authors new to me, I see fairly equal numbers coming from recommendations of friends, tor stories/reviews and Hugo nominated works.
One interesting data point is that I had 3 new female authors from Hugo nominated works versus 1 new male author.
Another interesting point is that none of the new authors came from looking over bookstore shelves. All of them came via internet sources in one way or another.
BDG
18. Rosebrier
Since YA came up several times in the comment, I thought I'd point out an anlysis I was reading about the other day. The analysis looked at author gender for the NYT YA bestseller list over the past year. The primary conclusion was that (for the past year at least) YA hasn't really the female dominated genre it is always held up to be. Far from needing help in the genre, there wasn't a single time in the past year that that number of men on the list was less than number of women on the list. That list doesn't include series books once they go over 3 books so it does exclude long running series. So while there are some mega hits by some female authors, men are still dominating one of the main lists people go to for recommendations. http://www.stackedbooks.org/2013/11/a-closer-look-at-new-york-times-ya.html
BDG
19. Sia
I know all of this is true - I've seen it so often - but for the last four years, I make a point of regularly counting up how many male vs female authors I've read. I do it about every four months. And consistently, I end up with VASTLY more female authors than male ones.

Like this year. I read almost exclusively fantasy and sci-fi, and I've read 221 women authors to just 44 male ones. And it's been like this for four years. No idea why, I'm not doing it on purpose. But it does leave me baffled as to how everyone else seems to keep getting the opposite.
BDG
20. Gadfly
It seems like the problem here is an entrenched feedback loop in the standard publishing model -- the sales success of certain books leads to audience factionalization and segregation, which in turn drives new author formation, which in turn drives both submissions makeup (see the article by Tor editor Julie Crisp at Tor.co.uk about the fact that she just doesn't get the submissions she wants from female authors) and publisher selection, which in turn influences which books get the opportunity to succeed and which don't.

Conscientious readers can make an attempt to break this cycle at the point of consumption choice, but it's very difficult to get a sufficiently large mass of consumers to change their entertainment tastes based purely on that conscientiousness -- and the problem is that so long as that remains true, the publishers can't break the cycle either unless they're willing to take a risk that may cost them dearly if they're wrong about what will actually sell or not. (As the career of Dan Brown proves, no publisher ever went wrong underestimating the masses' taste for pulp.)

It therefore occurs to me that it may be more effective to go straight for a new production model. Has anyone applied similar parity studies to e-books and self-published books yet? I would be interested to see how much difference the removal of the normal filters on established publication, review and distribution made.
Jaime Lee Moyer
21. JaimeLeeMoyer
Gadfly @20 I don't know where to start with this one...so, from the top.

First off, the article you cite from the UK editor raised a cry of bullsh*t that rang across the internet for days. I was head down in finishing a book and racing a deadline at the time, but I'm sure that if you google you can find the discussion. Likely you'll find it in several places.

Second, unless my understanding of this column and the last is way, way off, the issue isn't a lack of submissions from women writers, nor a lack of published books written by women. The entire issue is that there are stacks and stacks of books written by women already out there that recieve little to no attention.

Women write great, challenging, and important books all the time. Those books get published all the time. Then more women come along, and their books get published too.

So with all these great books written, published, and out in the marketplace, ask yourself why women writers are left off award lists, year's best lists, and men dominate bestseller lists? It's certainly not because there aren't any choices. And it's not because the vast majority of readers refuse to read or consider books written by women.

Which comes right back to the subject of this column: Women don't get reviewed, or talked about in major or minor venues at near the rate men do.

And if no one knows your book exists, it doesn't sell, no one talks about it, and the book doesn't get nominated for awards.

Not touching the new production model part of that comment. Nope.
BDG
22. Gadfly
"Women don't get reviewed or talked about in major or minor venues at near the rate men do."

Out of curiosity, what specifically is considered to be a "major" or "minor" venue for author and title promotion, either in-genre or in publishing generally? I myself almost never make my buying choices based on "what everybody's talking about" or on book reviews -- I tend to pick my buys in the bookstore itself on the "does this sound cool" and "do the first few pages hook me" test, which is author-blind as far as it goes but is by definition limited to what makes it to the shelves in the first place -- so I honestly don't know what's considered wide exposure or not. (I assume Goodreads and Amazon don't count as "major" venues, for excessive signal-to-noise ratio if nothing else, but getting some concrete idea of the desired thresholds would help.)

As for the new production model, why wouldn't that be relevant? If part of the case being made here is that publishers skimping on promotional effort for female authors is part of what limits their profile and distribution, and thus their sales and impact, why not go to a model where distribution isn't limited by finite resources of production and shipping and thus more time and effort can be invested in promotion? If the problem is in the basic filter structure of the system, then changing the system seems like it would be a good idea.
Tabitha Jensen
23. pabkins
Being a female SFF reader/reviewer I have always strived to read a as close to an equal amount of male books as I do female. While I haven't crunched the numbers I think do fairly well at it. I believe it is so unfair how YA as a genre in SFF is looked down upon or snubbed. I just don't get it. I read just as much adult SFF as I do YA SFF and there are some really quality books in the genre. These are the authors that are instilling a love of reading in our younger generation. As as was said in the post - will someday encourage readers to pick up adult titles. There seems to be such a stigma in the SFF crowd about writing a YA book that I can't understand.

I think the review books available to us reviewer/bloggers are definitely stacked heavily towards one genre or the other depending on the genre you are reviewing in. I agree we should all make a more conscious effort to diversify what we are reviewing because ultimately even if its a small impact on the reading community it is still an impact.
Nancy Lebovitz
24. NancyLebovitz
I'd missed that there are new ideas in sf which don't get noticed as new until male writers pick them up-- what are some of the ideas?
Jaime Lee Moyer
25. JaimeLeeMoyer
Gadfly @22 I'm done after this comment. Life is short and my list of obligations keeps growing. I should sleep once in a while as well.

Short answer to your second question: Self-pubbed books don't get reviewed on or in professional review sites or publications. They just don't. Ebooks aren't a seperate entity from the print version of any book put out by traditional publishing. They are just a different format.

By and large, hardbacks and the odd tradepaper get reviewed.

Keep in mind that when I talk about major and minor review venues, this is along industry lines as I understand them. It's not a personal opinion or rating system.

Major would include The New York Times, Washington Post, L.A. Times, USA Today, Booklist, Publisher's Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, etc.

Minor could be anything from Locus to a blogger with 100 followers or less. It all depends on who is making the distinction and how they are ranking the site.

Amazon and Goodreads are an island unto themselves.
BDG
26. Synchronicity
@24

Read the Dragon's Egg section of this post for an example:
http://coffeeandink.dreamwidth.org/1140802.html
BDG
27. tjhairball
TIME is a big factor when you're talking about "important."

Fifty years ago, McCaffrey hadn't even published her first novel, and most new authors entering the field, especially SF&F authors, were still male. The word "authoress" was still being seriously considered in some quarters.

Today, most new authors entering the field, even in SF&F, are female.

Talk of "greats" is biased towards the old. So are people's ingrained reading habits, as several commenters have noted. Not all of the difference in how often people talk about female authors as opposed to male authors should be explained by reference to sexism...

That said, the lists up top are pretty weird for reasons aside from the author genders they have. Can someone comment in a little more detail about the composition of the panel in terms of what the panelists' backgrounds were?

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment