Once upon a time, there was a reviewer confident that his reading habits were egalitarian, at least as far as books by men or women went. After all, he knew the relevant stats for one of the three companies he freelanced for: 45% books by women, close enough to 50% for folk music.
To his surprise, the story was different at another company he freelanced for. Very different.
|Year||Books by Women/Books Total|
That reviewer was me.
How did this happen? I was overconfident and didn’t notice that not only were the lists of works I was offered were dominated by men, my choices amplified those biases.
As I saw it, I had three basic options, in terms of moving forward:
1: Deny that there’s a problem
I could draw on Brust’s “Everybody generalizes from one example. At least, I do,” and argue that all reviewers have some degree of gender bias. After all, the other reviewers freelancing for the same outlet, all women, had grabbed most of the books written by women before I ever saw the list of books to review. For all I know. It’s not like I checked if the lists started off with a lot more books by women.
“I sure hope my biases are general” seemed methodologically suspect, however. I already knew my gut instincts were flawed. Also, just because biases are common doesn’t mean they are acceptable.
2: Deny that there are women writers!
This is a surprisingly common gambit, along with its sibling, “women do not write anything of significance.” The first led John Lauritsen to arguing that Mary Shelley didn’t write Frankenstein, because it’s significant and she was but a callow 19-year-old girl, and the second led Germaine Greer to argue Mary Shelley did write Frankenstein but dismiss the book as crap. It leads to articles in The Guardian astounded at the idea of women fantasy authors, as though women have not been writing speculative fiction all along.
I know from personal experience there are lots of top-notch books by women. I also don’t actually want to use Joanna Russ’ How To Suppress Women’s Writing as a personal how-to, so that was out as well.
3: Actually pay attention to what I read.
Which, as a reviewer, is what I am actually paid to do. I keep a running count for each months’ reviews, as well as an annual one and I make a point of posting them so if I screw up, it’s public.
This might seem a very artificial approach to what is after all the perfectly natural process of experiencing guided hallucinations by staring at a series of arbitrary symbols on thin sheets of pulped wood. As I sit here typing on oil and dirt transformed by will and cunning into an electronic brain, I find I am surprisingly comfortable with artifice. I live in a house, not a natural cave. I wear clothes. My eyesight is rendered less laughable by eye glasses. I use a slide rule. Humans and their kin have been modifying their environment and themselves for millions of years. Being particular about what I read is just another tool.
As well, prioritizing deliberation over whim serves several goals that I find worthwhile. The more parameters I track, the easier it is to pick specific books to read from the ocean of noteworthy books published each year. It gives me a broader grasp of the field than I would have if I focused on a tiny specific subset of the people working in it. Most importantly, it staves off the day when I turn into one of those old people who are utterly convinced nothing good has been published since they were 14. Being consumed piece by piece by the Brain Eater I myself named will no doubt be hilarious for everyone else to watch, but I won’t give in to it willingly.
Perhaps one day the publishing industry will reach a point where women and people of color will have an equal shot at having their work published and reviewed, but until that parity is achieved, reviewers who put in the effort need not accept the outdated status quo.
1: Some years later, I had a related epiphany: I don’t make a particular effort to read books by POC but I may still have read more such books than the venues Strange Horizons looked at not because I read a lot of them but because the competition generally read so few… This time my gut instincts didn’t fail me: it turned out just 7% of the books I reviewed were by POC. It also turned out that that was a higher fraction than the overwhelming majority of the sites covered by the 2014 Strange Horizons annual count.
2: To balance the potential humiliation with the occasional burst of endorphins, I use the Strange Horizons count as a comparative. It’s not that I am in any sense competitive. You could line up a hundred people and I would be less competitive than ninety-five of them. Maybe ninety-eight. It’s just that not outdoing the competition by at least an order of magnitude is the same as failing.
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.