At the risk of starting a flame war – which is not at all my intention – I wanted to address the issue of gender imbalance in genre fiction publishing. I’m not interested in non-constructive finger pointing, but rather a solutions-oriented discussion. So I posed the following questions to this week’s Mind meld panel:
Q: Gender imbalance in genre fiction publishing is an ongoing point of discussion in the blogosphere. Is there an issue here? If so, then what are possible solutions? What can readers, writers, editors and publishers do to rectify the situation?
[NOTE: Thanks to my vague questioning abilities, the original version of this question did not make clear that this was about publishing as opposed to character portrayal, so some of the responses below may veer into that interpretation of the original question. The fault is entirely my own and not that of the panelists.]
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
is currently on the Hugo ballot for her novella, “Recovering Aoollo 8.” She has won Hugos for her short fiction and for her editing. Her latest novel is The Recovery of Man
First, let me establish credentials. I am an American female nearing fifty (that’s a scary thing to write) who is in the cusp generation between the second wave of feminists and Generation X, who were protected by the laws that the second wave initiated. I’ve been groped at work, not hired because I was “too young and pretty,” told I was probably stupid because I was a girl, told I couldn’t participate in sports because I was a girl, and born too late for Title 9 to have any effect on my schooling.
When I became the first female editor of F&SF, I received a LOT of hate mail immediately-because of my gender. One letter said I could not edit because I lacked a penis. I kid you not. I later asked Gardner Dozois about this letter-if there was an editing trick I had somehow missed-and he graphically explained to me how the penis could be helpful in editing, but of course, he was joking. The writer of the letter was not.
Conversely, I have never been invited into an all-female anthology in sf/f. I’m told my writing isn’t perceived as female, whatever that means. I have been invited into all-female anthologies in mystery. Are these things sexist? I’m not sure. I’m not even sure it matters any more, since we have anthologies in all genres from several groups, be they a particular racial group or a particular political group. I don’t sense that the anthologies are done to correct an imbalance, like they used to, or so it seems to me from reading them and from the advertising.
This argument-that there’s a gender imbalance in sf/f publications-has gone on since I entered the field in the early 1980s. When I became editor of F&SF, I thought the argument silly. At the time, women were dominating the awards and slowly taking over the novels. Women published more stories than men at the time. If you split the count by magazine, you’d find that some published more women than others. If you split by anthology, you’d find the same thing. But if you looked overall, you’d see that the numbers belied the argument that women were discriminated against.
Of course, there are the odd holdouts-the you-can’t-edit-without-a-penis folks-and the oblivious. The oblivious, who include the occasional reviewer and the occasional editor, often react badly to “women’s topics” (hearth and home) or emotion. The problem is that it’s obvious when the oblivious leave women out of their reviews/magazines/articles, but not when they leave out men who deal with the same topics. Robert Reed, for example, often deals with hearth and home, and writes beautifully about emotion.
So, in my opinion, the idea that there’s active discrimination in sf/f is just plain silly. It’s been silly since at least 1990, maybe earlier (I’m not as versed in the history of that part of the field). But as long as I’ve been watching the numbers-and the numbers tell all-it seems to me that gender discrimination simply doesn’t exist in sf any more. And I wish we’d stop talking as if it did.
Hal Duncan was born in 1971, brought up in a small town in Ayrshire, and now lives in the West End of Glasgow. A long-standing member of the Glasgow SF Writers Circle, his first novel, Vellum, won the Spectrum Award and was nominated for the Crawford Award, the British Fantasy Society Award and the World Fantasy Award. The sequel, Ink, came out last year from Pan Macmillan in the UK and Del Rey in the US, while a novella, Escape From Hell! is due out in 2008 from Monkeybrain Books. As well as publishing a poetry collection, Sonnets for Orpheus, he collaborated with Scottish band Aereogramme on a song for the Ballads of the Book album from Chemikal Underground, and has had short fiction published in magazines such as Fantasy, Strange Horizons and Interzone, and anthologies such as Nova Cotia, Eidolon and Logorrhea.
The gender imbalance is self-evident in genre fiction, I’d say, a no-brainer, but if you pull apart the phrase “genre fiction” I think you get to some of the roots of it. I mean, Romance and Chick-Lit are “genre fiction” (with a lot more female writers than male) just as much as SF and Fantasy are. So what we’re really talking about is sfnal/fantastic genre fiction. For my money, the gender imbalance isn’t too surprising here given the pulp roots of the genres; SF/F began as “boy’s own” stories in the early magazines, fans of that fiction became the formative writers, and we’re still living with that legacy. Hell, it’s still a large part of the market and the process, the brand image of SF/F, so much so that any discussion of this issue is bound to spark off a backlash of conservative ire at the attempt to “feminise” the genre(s). I actually see this as going hand-in-hand with a lot of the rhetoric about what’s “real” SF/Fantasy and what’s not. The reactionary response is coming from a (male, of course) sector of the field who see no reason why this genre developed to supply a certain demand should be required to satisfy a contradictory demand.
Genres are specialised literatures, after all. It’s a bit like saying there’s a “sexuality imbalance” in Gay Erotica, more gays published in this genre than straights, so shouldn’t we be trying to correct this by ensuring that the ToC for anthologies of Gay Fiction reflect the actual proportions of sexualities in the world? Whatever the gay:straight ratio is in society at large (say one in four, for the sake of argument) shouldn’t the ToC be made to reflect this? But if three quarters of the stories then reflect straight concerns rather than gay concerns, don’t you just end up with an anthology of fiction rather than an anthology of Gay Fiction? It’s a specious argument, in many ways, but what it boils down to is there’s an extent to which the SF/Fantasy genres can be seen as having emerged as a field of fiction “by boys for boys”. It’s a brand that’s defined itself as male-oriented. To take a devil’s advocate stance, you could say: if there’s a problem with getting your average bloke to actually sit down and read a book, why shouldn’t there be a genre they can depend on to cater to them specifically, a “Bloke-Lit” to balance the “Chick-Lit”?
But there are two aspects to the issue then. One is equality, plain and simple: even if you take the most “masculine” paradigm for what SF/Fantasy is meant to be (and I don’t) there’s no reason that can’t be written by women (other than the possibility that, well, maybe they’re not interested in writing that sort of bollocks). There are male Romance writers. And in SF you had Alice Sheldon writing so “masculinely” as James Tiptree Jr. that Silverberg argued she couldn’t possibly be a woman. In this context, it seems to me you’re really just dealing with a lot of presumptions and prejudice about the capacity of a writer of a certain gender to tell a particular kind of story. I don’t buy the idea that female writers aren’t going to be just as good at writing to that market. If you’re a fashion house with a line of clothes for men — Dior Homme, say — that doesn’t mean all your designers have to be male.
To be honest I don’t know how you deal with that bullshit other than to keep kicking up a fuss about it, try and heighten the awareness required to counteract that ignorance. As a writer you can use interviews to highlight the female writers of the highest quality (Kelly Link, Cat Vallente, Kathy Sedia, Anna Tambour) in order to counteract the tendency for male names to get more limelight. As an editor you can do your best to ensure parity in ToC or in the names you put on the front cover. You can even do all-female issues like John Klima with Electric Velocipede, to make a pointed statement about the available quality of female writers. As a reviewer you can pick up on gender imbalance as and when it’s notable, and the same is true with blogs, journals, forums and the like; just keeping the issue in people’s consciousness is an important part of it. Where it comes to more practical nuts-and-bolts approaches, there are strategies that are actually testable: Do slush-bombs work or are they counter-effective? Does an anonymous submissions process help foster gender parity? I’m not in a position to give the answers to those questions though.
The second part of the issue is, I think, both more abstract and more crucial (in my opinion): the field has long since radically shifted its focus away from that boy’s own pulp mode; with the New Wave, the feminist SF of the 70s, and everything since, the field has broadened its aims and its target audience to the point where it’s really a different creature entirely. I’m not even sure it’s strictly speaking a genre anymore. We partly acknowledge that with the term speculative fiction but I don’t think we’ve gone far enough in recognising the changes; we’re still tied to that brand image. Personally, I’d rebrand the whole fucking field — market it as indie fiction, critique it as strange fiction, try to totally reboot it in people’s imaginations so that we think of it in a way that’s not coloured by that male-orientation. This is, I freely admit, not even remotely practical, and beyond the scope of the specific problem of gender imbalance, but there’s a part of me that thinks — to use a programming metaphor — we need to utterly redefine the system architecture rather than just tinker about with patches and fixes on the legacy code.
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