Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: Thinking About Reading and Radicalisation

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 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.


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