I didn’t set out to stop reading work by men. And I haven’t, entirely. But writing Sleeps With Monsters has, slowly but surely, altered the way I choose my reading material, and altered the way I respond to many forms of entertainment across a variety of media. When the good people here at Tor.com were brilliant/mad enough to invite me to write a column on feministy things, I had no idea how utterly it would change my reading habits.
It’s now rare for me to read the work of male and female authors in equal proportion in any given month. For, to write about female authors, to sing out their work both new and old, you have to read them. You have to seek them out.
More than that, you end up writing to authors and publicists and putting yourself forward in a most unbecoming fashion. (Because if you wait for certain books to turn up on bookshelves, you could be waiting a long time.) There is a terrible guilt associated with the review copy that one asked for and either hates or bounces hard off, and a terrible fear that the next time one asks, one will be considered a poor return on an investment. I don’t know how many other reviewers/columnists agonise over asking in the first place, but there must be some…
It probably won’t surprise many of you to learn that there are a lot of books in this genre written by women. It did surprise me to learn that there were more than I could hope to keep up with. I’m a fast reader. Not fast like the wind, but three-books-per-average-week-while-doing-other-things, 120-to-150-books-per-year fast. You would imagine that at the very least I could keep mostly on top of a lot of new female-authored releases in the SFF genre and on occasion take the backlist out for a wee spin, in order to find more things about which I could write weekly, enthusiastically.
Oh heaven and hell, dear readers. Keeping up with recent books could be a full-time job in itself! There would need to be three columns like this one just to scratch the surface. I’m not complaining—perish the thought that I should complain: it is an absolute privilege to come here every week and talk about something interesting, something I enjoyed or something I love—but maintaining this women-in-genre theme over the course of a year has done something I never expected.
It has been radicalising. I only recognised how very much when I attended the Irish National Science Fiction (Octocon), and realised that many of the people around me, when reaching for titles to use as examples, or to recommend, were four or five times more likely to mention a male author as a female one. To me, who for a year had read the opposite proportion, this was very jarring. “Well,” said I to myself. “In the UK market, between 15 and 30 percent more volumes by male authors are published than volumes by female ones. Perhaps this accounts for some of the discrepancy.”
On the other hand, the US market has seen near parity over the last three years (which is as long as Strange Horizons has been providing us with these handy little summaries), but the volume of noise on the internet is still, in general, louder when it comes to male authors. Now, I will freely grant that many male authors write rather good books, but the engagement/enthusiasm surrounding them, surrounding their series, and their new releases, seems rather disproportionate by comparison. (It is certainly disproportionate in terms of what is reviewed in genre publications and what makes it onto New And Notable bookshop displays.)
I say writing this column has been radicalising for me because it 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.
She wrote it BUT…
It makes me astonishingly, surprisingly angry. But I was always rather on the cranky side.
I want to suggest an experiment, if you think I’m exaggerating. If you think my perceptions are off. For six months, try to read as many new books by women published out of a mainstream SFF publisher (on either side of the Atlantic) as you can. I’ll go easy on you: you can leave out one subgenre if you absolutely must. If they’re in series, try to read the preceding volumes first. If the author of a book you enjoy mentions female authors as influences, try to read them too. If someone recommends an older book by a female author that you haven’t read, add it to your list.
It’s a relatively simple experiment. (Although it may involve a lot of cajoling library staff.) But I’d really like to see if anyone else’s perceptions change, as mine have. I’d really like to see if anyone else’s perceptions change differently.