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[GUEST POST] Tansy Rayner Roberts on Fantasy, Female Writers & The Politics of Influence

tansyTansy Rayner Roberts is an Australian fantasy author, blogger and podcaster. She won the 2013 Hugo for Best Fan Writer. Tansy’s latest piece of fiction is “Fake Geek Girl,” a novelette at the Australian Review of Fiction. She is also running a web serial, Musketeer Space, on her own blog. Come and find her on Twitter or listen to her on Galactic Suburbia!

*The speech below was presented by Tansy Rayner Roberts as the guest of honour speech at Continuum 11: Southern Skies, Melbourne Australia, 7 June 2015

Fantasy, Female Writers & The Politics of Influence

by Tansy Rayner Roberts

I started reading fantasy fiction in my early teens, in the early nineties. It started out because of peer pressure – I came back from travelling to find out that my friends were all deeply immersed in the Belgariad, and nothing they said for the next several months was going to make any sense to me unless I jumped off the bridge with them.

I had a lot of reading time on my hands, back in those days, and I read a lot. But it wasn’t until I found a book on the shelf by an Australian author, and an Australian publisher, that I realised – oh, I can do this too.

Obviously I was going to spend my life writing books: I’d figured that out a while back, but it hadn’t quite occurred to me that Australians were allowed to publish epic fantasy, until I saw that title on the shelf. It was The Madigal, by Beverley McDonald, Penguin Books, 1995. I was sixteen.

I’d also spent three years on and off writing my own epic fantasy eight book masterpiece, so it was a good thing I’d finally figured out you didn’t have to be American to get published.

1995 was a good year for Australian fantasy fiction. HarperCollins Voyager launched with Sara Douglass’ BattleAxe, and we were off and running – Australian epic fantasy had well and truly arrived. Within three years, I was studying Sara Douglass at university.

Here’s the thing – it never occurred to me, back in the mid 90’s, to be excited that Beverley Macdonald was a woman – or that Sara Douglass was a woman, for that matter. It was the idea of Australian-published fantasy fiction for adult readers that was new and exciting.

At sixteen, it never occurred to me to read female fantasy authors as a deliberate political act. I never especially looked for them, because I didn’t have to. They were just there. They were everywhere. They still are.

There’s this odd sort of conversation that keeps circling the internet, and it usually starts with a question. Where are all the women, in epic fantasy? Where are the female authors? Why is it all so dominated by men?

As Australians we tended to bat our eyelids in confusion, because the idea of commercial fantasy authors being a mostly male species is completely alien to us – for the last twenty years, our conversation, our publishing scene, has been rich with female authors of influence. Successful, bestselling female fantasy authors. If anything, the big name male fantasy author has been the rare special snowflake.

dragonsBut this isn’t just a cultural issue. It’s not the case that US publishing only recently discovered that ladies can write about dragons too. Whenever someone asks, where are all the women, I’m not just confused because I’m an Australian.

Because, seriously. They were here a minute ago. Why can’t you see them?

As a voracious teen reader of fantasy in the early 90’s I was spoiled for choice when it came to female authors – so much so that there are a bunch I never even got to. I missed out on Darkover and Pern, and I’m pretty sure I’ve only ever read a third of an Andre Norton novel. I was drowning in Patricia McKillip, Robin McKinley, Elizabeth Scarborough, Jennifer Roberson, Teresa Edgerton, Judith Tarr, Sheri S Tepper, Pamela Dean. To this day, I have not read the entirety of any of these women’s backlists because they are just. Too. Numerous.

I missed Katherine Kurtz, Katherine Kerr and Melanie Rawn. But I’m going back for them, I swear.

Terry Pratchett introduced me to the sub genre of comic fantasy, which I think many of you know is very dear to my heart. But it was Esther Friesner and Carolyn Cushman who made me think of it as a sub genre rather than just that thing that Pratchett does.

I never gave Tanith Lee much of a chance – we got off to a rocky start and I didn’t go back to find out if it was me or her that was the problem. I suspect I was too young to get her, and I regret letting go so easily. But it’s never too late, right?

As a reader, I wasn’t looking for female authors in particular, but I was looking for something in particular, even if I hadn’t yet worked it out in my head. The book which really seized my heart and refused to let go was Dragons and Warrior Daughters (1989), edited by Jessica Yates. This thin and much beloved Lion Tracks paperback at on my shelf for years, reminding me what it was that I loved about this genre – adventure stories for girls, in fabulous, magical worlds.

I don’t know what genre you were reading, but that’s always been my definition.

This book was so important to me that I painted the dragon from the front cover on my bedroom wall, eight foot high, wing curling around the door, in shiny acrylic black paint. I often wonder who owns that house now, and if you can still see the scales through the undercoat they undoubtedly painted over it.

When I went back to the book, years later, I discovered some surprises. Like, this was my first introduction to Diana Wynne Jones, years before I happened across Archer’s Goon. Also, against the odds, I actually did love Tanith Lee’s writing – or I had done, when I read her story “Draco, Draco.” My first Robin McKinley and Jane Yolen stories were in there too, and I had forgotten they were even there – I remembered the stories, but forgot who wrote them, because I was so new to the game that I hadn’t been paying attention to author names.

I’ve never been able to wrap my head around the idea of fantasy fiction as a genre for and by only men. That’s never made any sense to me. My reading gatekeepers and tastemakers in my teen years were basically my parents and half a dozen girls my own age. And without even trying – for the most part, for the first ten years or so – I was rich in female fantasy authors as well as female fellow readers. Those authors didn’t go anywhere.

They’re still here.

There’s another conversation that’s been going on, alongside the Where Are All The Women? And Why Is Big Fat Fantasy All About Men and Their Swords?

This other conversation is happening mostly among the women. I’ve seen it across blogs and Twitter, on Facebook, in corners of conventions. It often sparks up in response to one of those well-meaning Where Are All The Women In Fantasy articles. It’s been going on for years, as all the best (and most frustrating) conversations tend to do.

Judith Tarr tweeted in March of this year:

“The disappearing of women in fantasy is everywhere. Even in loving memories of women fantasy writers of decades ago. We’re air and darkness.” 1

Also in March, Kari Sperring wrote an article in Strange Horizons, about the importance of Katherine Kurtz, and how her 1970 novel Deryni Rising marked a new development in fantasy fiction:

Sperring writes: 2

“Quite simply, she was the first writer of secondary-world historical fantasy, which was to become a flourishing sub-genre within SF, producing Guy Gavriel Kay, Judith Tarr, and George R. R. Martin. Kurtz makes this point herself in her introduction to the revised edition of Deryni Rising:3

In 1969, when I actually began writing Deryni Rising, the sub-genre of what I now refer to as historical fantasy did not exist. I was making it up as I went along, though at the time I thought that all fantasy had to have magical creatures, rhyming spells, and special languages.” 4

I haven’t read Kurtz myself – one of the many holes in my epic fantasy knowledge – but of course I have read authors who were influenced by her. That’s how influence works – Kurtz was a hugely popular author in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. But why isn’t her role in the development of the genre more widely known or discussed now when many of the male authors who came after her are held up as icons of the genre?

It’s hard to accept that the answer might (STILL) be because she is a woman.

Joanna Russ laid it out for us in 1983 in her book How to Suppress Women’s Writing, which showed in damning, sharp detail the many reasons why women’s writing has been left out of the canon, the history of writing. The worst part of what she had to say – well the second worst part, after how relevant her book still is thirty years later – is that most of these techniques aren’t even being employed deliberately.

Ideas like: she didn’t write it, she wrote it but she shouldn’t have, she wrote it but look what she wrote about, she wrote it but she’s an anomaly are buried so deeply in our cultural consciousness that you don’t even have to have a sexist agenda to let them spill out.

All you have to do is forget to mention women.

Ironically, in the comments section to Sperring’s article, several commenters suggested that the main reason Kurtz has been “denied” her “place” in the “canon” is a single article by Ursula Le Guin, “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie” which derides Kurtz’s work for the same reason Sperring thinks it is important – because of the focus on everyday, mundane detail.

I find this idea – that this one essay could have such an effect – fascinating. Le Guin is a huge figure in our field – one of the rare female writers whose influence and reputation is so massive that the usual derailing and invisibility techniques simply bounce off. But is she so powerful a figure that a single article is enough to render another author unimportant for the rest of time? Or is that just an excuse? I’m pretty sure that if Le Guin wrote a scathing takedown of A Song of Ice and Fire, it wouldn’t make much of a dent in George RR Martin’s sales. (Though it would get quoted to infinity across Tumblr)

I’m actually going to read out Judith Tarr’s response to this in full, because it’s amazing: 5

“It’s awfully easy to blame Le Guin for the systematic erasure of a seminal woman writer, don’t you think? Surely all the hundreds of thousands of readers who made the likes of Kay, Martin, and Jordan bestsellers were not reading that one essay and saying, “Oh, she sucks, let’s disregard her.”

Bestsellers are made by publishers making the decision to pay for large amounts of shelf space plus ads and promo. Readers take it from there, but it’s rare for a book to take off by pure word of mouth. It usually gets a boost first.

So one has to factor that in. And if it’s not romance, it’s probably a male writer getting the boost. I was there when Terry Brooks was systematically manufactured into a phenomenon, and David Eddings’ five-volume trilogy was promoted by the same publisher who rather quietly kept producing Kurtz novels.

It’s not that medieval historical fantasy has gone distinctly out of fashion, though it has, but that its founding mother has been erased. And I don’t think that’s Le Guin’s fault. Tolkien has come in for some similar salvos (“Oo, Those Awful Orcs!”, anyone?) without any apparent damage.’

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m a little bit in love with Judith Tarr. I liked the fiction she wrote in the 80’s but I am adoring the outspoken crankiness and sarcasm she is spilling over the internet right here in 2015.

So there are two main reasons why we might still be talking about an author twenty or forty or whatever big number of years after their book was first published: commercial success, and critical success. One or the other – and that magical combination of both – are reasons why books get reprinted, re-distributed, re-assessed, chewed over, set as official university texts and generally talked about long after they pass their Hugo eligibility period.

But I’m not convinced those are the only reasons. Because a lot of popular, beloved, sometimes critically adored authors in the fantasy genre are disappearing from our history, falling through the cracks. They don’t get talked about any more.

There is nothing I like more than a problem that can be solved by talking.

I first started thinking about the history of our genre and who makes it when I noticed many years ago that Diana Wynne Jones was just about the only female author I had ever seen referenced by multiple popular, bestselling male authors as being a direct and important influence on their work.

Something we talk about a lot on Galactic Suburbia 6 is the idea that there can often be only one woman – a pink power ranger, if you like – in a List of Important Writers, or Favourite Books, or General Specialness. This is happening less often than it used to as more and more tastemakers and bloggers of influence have started realising what idiots they were making of themselves, but it used to be pretty common to see a List of Importance, say a list of Three or Five or Ten Authors of Influence in Fantasy, feature one woman, and that woman was usually Ursula K Le Guin.

It was like, if you had Le Guin in your Top 5, you could relax and not worry about the gender thing. (Sometimes it wasn’t Le Guin, sometimes it was C.L. Moore or Tiptree or Russ or Butler or Brackett or Zimmer Bradley or Norton, but the important thing was, you had one. Unless of course you had been asked to recommend One Thing in which case you couldn’t be expected to choose a woman at all)

Once I started actively searching out these references, I was genuinely shocked at how few men were willing to state that their work had been influenced by female writers.

Let’s be clear: I don’t think this was a deliberate choice, any more than the One Exceptional Woman in a List is a deliberate choice. When asked to think of authors whose work had influenced them, they simply wrote all the names they could think of, and happened to stop before they thought of any women.

I started looking closely at author bios. And then I started looking at obituaries.

One thing I noticed was that when a famous, important, major, big name female fantasy writer died, the people who were talking loudest and most passionately about INFLUENCE, about reading a woman and learning something from her and taking that something away and pouring it into your own work, those people were mostly women too.

That made me wonder about what we mean when we say an author is important, or integral, or significant. Because I don’t think that a fantasy author should only count as influential if the writers they are influencing (and who enthusiastically own to that influence) are men.

What can we do about this? There are some obvious answers to that question, which isn’t new, and solutions to the problem, which is also not new.

Let’s go back to 2011 and talk about the Russ Pledge.

In the midst of a fervent discussion about women in SF, the female authors left behind, and those who had mysteriously failed somehow to jump through the exact combination of invisible hoops and traps to become “Official SF Canon,” Nicola Griffith wrote the following: 7

“To be clear, in this blog (and in life in general) I’m only interested in moving forward, in improving the visibility of women writers on the shelves and in the media, and securing that visibility for the future. I don’t give a fig for assigning blame.

“The single most important thing we (readers, writers, journalists, critics, publishers, editors, etc.) can do is talk about women writers whenever we talk about men. And if we honestly can’t think of women ‘good enough’ to match those men, then we should wonder aloud (or in print) why that is so. If it’s appropriate (it might not be, always) we should point to the historical bias that consistently reduces the stature of women’s literature; we should point to Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, which is still the best book I’ve ever read on the subject. We should take the pledge to make a considerable and consistent effort to mention women’s work which, consciously or unconsciously, has been suppressed. Call it the Russ Pledge. I like to think she would have approved.” 8

The Russ Pledge was a pretty big topic across the blogosphere, in June and July 2011. If you google the term now, you find links to all sorts of people talking about what the pledge means to them, and why they are or are not signing up to support it.

Unfortunately, it didn’t really extend beyond 2011. I’d love to be wrong on this, but when hunting for references to the Russ Pledge it seemed to have fallen back through the cracks in the conversation and disappeared – though I did find a tweet from SFWA president Steven Gould a couple of weeks ago, noting that the Solstice Award is being given posthumously to Joanna Russ at the Nebula Awards Weekend 9 – this weekend, in fact – and now would be a great time to revisit the Russ Pledge.

It’s never going to be a bad time to revisit the Russ Pledge.

Closer to home, there have been some pleasingly long lasting efforts to build and celebrate the legacy of female authors. The Australian Women’s Writing Challenge, which also kicked off because of the discussion happening around books, publishing and reviewer statistics in 2011, is now in its fourth year and going strong. I highly recommend booklovers everywhere take the challenge and contribute to this amazing community of readers and reviewers.

The Stella Prize was awarded for the first time in 2013, and has quickly gained prestige and enthusiasm – even occasionally including genre authors in its shortlists. It emerged from a discussion panel in – you guessed it, 2011 – about the lack of reviews for female authored books, and how few female authors have actually won the Miles Franklin prize, despite it being named after a woman.

These initiatives have shown that talking about this issue – as Nicola Griffith suggested – is what makes the difference. So here I am, still talking.

I think all the work that’s been done is amazing, and I am very grateful that many more podcasters, bloggers, essayists, critiques and commenters are taking this issue more seriously than ever before. But reviewing books and talking about books is not just about making sure that the author sells copies now, and maybe gets to pay her mortgage or have jam for tea.

It’s also about legacy. About looking back, acknowledging influence, and remembering to talk about women in the field whenever you talk about men.

Because there are so many women, and always have been. They’re right there. They didn’t go anywhere. They’re not new.

Meanwhile, I’m still fascinated by the idea of authors of influence, the ones who had an effect on writers who followed and the writers who followed them, whether we’re talking about fiction writing or politics (or both at once because everything is political, even stories about talking dragons).

So before I finish, I’m going to acknowledge some of my influences.

Diana Wynne Jones is my hero because she writes the most ridiculously precise plots. I can never match them, but I want to. Her The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is the book I always recommend when people ask ‘what’s the one book every fantasy writer should read?’ Do you know how often people don’t recommend a woman when asked to recommend one thing? Too often, but that’s not even why I do it. She’s the best.

Jennifer Roberson is my hero because one day, I lay down on a bunch of mattresses left over from a slumber party and I started plotting out an epic multi-generational fantasy series made up of standalone novels, because she showed me that it was a thing our genre can do and she turned it into a thing that *I* wanted to do.

Robin McKinley is my hero because she didn’t just turn the fairy tale novel into an art form and a sub genre and a personal brand – she wrote the definitive version of Beauty and the Beast, and then she turned around twenty years later and did it again.

N.K. Jemisin is my hero because she took epic fantasy and made it unrecognizably beautiful, and emotional.

Tamora Pierce is my hero because she built a world out of fantasy adventure stories for girls, and she never stops making her world bigger, more diverse, and more challenging for an ever-widening circle of female protagonists.

Malinda Lo is my hero because she uses fiction and blogging equally to promote diversity in fantasy, to fight for books for teenagers to be taken as seriously as anything else in literature, and because her Cinderella changed the way I think about fairy tales all over again.

Sarah Monette is my hero because she wrote a fantasy series that was so dark and strange and broken and wonderful that it made me fall in love with my genre all over again. And then, when it was marketed badly didn’t sell enough copies to build a career on, she picked herself up by her bootstraps and became Katherine Addison instead.

Joanna Russ is my hero because she broke all the rules and she made new ones and she broke those too, and her fiction always makes me feel like it’s maybe going to break me and I would have been terrified to meet her in real life.

Ambelin Kwaymullina is my hero because her guest of honour speech at this convention last year10 made me cry, and made me see the world differently, and if I even thought for one second about the phrase ‘big shoes to fill’ I would never have written a word of this or anything else ever again.

Judith Tarr is my hero because she’s still here and she’s angry and she doesn’t care who knows it. She’s willing to stand up and shout in public on behalf of other women writers, and I want to be her when I grow up. I want to be her now, she’s awesome.

You may have noticed I have a lot of heroes. That’s barely scratching the surface. I haven’t even started on the inspiring writers who I actually know well and consider friends, because I’d be here all week and I’d probably cry and no one wants to see that.

I sort of meant this to be about writing fantasy fiction but for me, reading the genre has gone hand in hand with writing for so long, I don’t know how to separate them any more. Writing is boring. You sit down and you type for a long time and sometimes you drink tea. Reading is where the magic lives.

But the thing that’s better than reading – if anything can be better than reading – is remembering the books we have loved. Sometimes, the book gets better in the remembering. Sometimes the author becomes larger, bolder, more important. If we don’t remember them, the books will endure, but the authors will get smaller and smaller until they disappear altogether.

We are the legacy of our favourite authors. We are their estate. We are what they leave behind. If we really love them, and really value them, then it is worth remembering them and their influence on us as loudly as we possibly can.

1. [https://twitter.com/dancinghorse/status/572595156760674304]

2. [At this point, to ensure those listening and live-tweeting the speech did not accidentally mistake the words of others for mine, I put on a series of invisible crowns to make the distinction clear. Kari Sperring’s crown is made of swords.]

3. [Katherine Kurtz’s crown is made of history.]

4. [http://www.strangehorizons.com/2015/20150330/sperring-c.shtml]

5. [Judith Tarr’s crown is made of lions and anger.]

6. [A Hugo-award nominated industry podcast I host along with publisher Alisa Krasnostein and reviewer Alex Pierce]

7. [Nicola Griffiths’ crown is made of wisdom]

8. [http://asknicola.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/taking-russ-pledge.html]

9. [https://www.sfwa.org/2015/04/joanna-russ-and-stanley-schmidt-recipients-of-the-2015-sfwa-solstice-awards/]

10. [At Continuum X – http://www.andromedaspaceways.com/ambelinkwaymullinagohspeech_continuumx/]

5 Comments on [GUEST POST] Tansy Rayner Roberts on Fantasy, Female Writers & The Politics of Influence

  1. Paul Weimer (@PrinceJvstin) // June 15, 2015 at 10:03 am //

    With footnotes and everything. Extremely erudite and well done, Tansy (I should have expected no less!)

  2. Great article that articulates an issue I’ve been trying to put my finger on for a while. Why do so many people “forget” once popular and celebrated female writers when asked to list their favorites? And why do so many people seem to think that female writers of epic fantasy are nearly as rare as hen’s teeth when there are so darned many?

    BTW, another female writer who was a pioneer in SF and F is CJ Cherryh. She’s most often mentioned (when she is at all anymore) as a writer of SF, but in fact, she wrote and writes a lot of fantasy also. A really fantastic writer.

    The Strange Horizons count is interesting too (don’t know about linking in comments, but it’s easily googleable). This is a survey of the SF and F titles subbed to locus each year in the US and UK (unfortunately, not Australia) by gender with an analysis of how often male and female authored SFF books are reviewed, blogged about and so on. Turns out that books by male authors get proportionally more buzz and promotion.

    This is huge, and until this discrepancy is remedied, assertions made by some that women simply don’t write these genres as well are hard to support.

  3. A. Marina Fournier // July 7, 2015 at 4:33 am //

    I have got to read How to Suppress Women’s Writing–I’ve known the basic points for years, as in, since it came out.

    Andre Norton is the first SF author I remember reading–after that, a book by Heinlein. Many folk never realized she was female.

    My response to Where Are All the Women in [Genre] is, “What do you mean, where are they? MY library is filled with them–you must not have been paying attention.” followed by, “Do your own research, and let me get on with my reading of women authors, who are so damned prolific that I can’t keep up with them. Where are the women writers, indeed. In front of your nose, if you’d only open your eyes!”

    How did I get here, to this article? Another woman on a female author’s fan email list. That nobody, Lois McMaster Bujold–you know, she can’t write her way out of a paper sack, but that’s because she found other places to write, and to write about. Good yarns, good plots, good characters–and no doormats to be found. Why stick to paper sacks, anyways?

    I’m familiar with most of the non-Australian authors you mention, but I appreciate the reading list. I have a mailbox full of Desiderata, and I may have to copy and edit your list so that it can go there, where I could find it again.

    I find myself very disappointed in LeGuin’s words about Ms. Kurtz. I read the first Deryni book as a courtesy to a social acquaintance (we were both in the SCA in the LA area before she was published), and all the rest because they were interesting. I loved the considerations for history, languanges, names, and culture–topics of non-fiction of interest to me, as well. Research-loooovve good research and world-building.

    I seem to recall Ms. Russ got slammed with the anti-feminist-fiction sector (men, for the most part), a good way to dismiss her writing. I remember a class in which she participated–and seeing her partner behind the curtain on the stage, carefully staying out of sight, lest someone get upset–about 1974. I remember feeling sad that she felt she had to hide, whether she was shy or not.

    I can’t tell you how many copies of Ms. McKinley’s or Ms. Wynne-Jones’ books I’ve given as gifts, for the language, the sheer storytelling genius, or the humor or snark.

    It was women writers, more than males, who gave me dream fodder.

    I think I’ve delighted you quite enough (Jane Austen ref.–she wrote social commentary on the lot of women whose menfolk had let them down financially and socially, when gentlewomen had few options to support themselves. She may not have been a Wollstonecraft, a Shelly, a Lovelace, a (Hannah) More, but she was a keen observer), and will sing off.

  4. Jean Lamb // July 9, 2015 at 9:27 pm //

    I was reading rapidly, but one writer I didn’t see was Elizabeth Moon. Since I’m read SHEEPFARMER’S DAUGHTER, her name is at the forefront of my head (at least for little while). We haz epic battles, with swords! Military strategy that actually makes sense! (something that some of us search for in vain in some male epic fantasy). I also recommend INDA and its several sequels by Sherwood Smith, if only for my delight in its fantasy nautical warfare.

  5. Jean Lamb // July 9, 2015 at 9:28 pm //

    Gah. I meant ‘reading’ SHEEPFARMER’S DAUGHTER.

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