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:
[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.]
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.
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.
Gender imbalance in short fiction markets does seem to be an ongoing issue. As a short fiction editor myself, it’s my subjective experience that more men tend to submit more frequently than women do, which is probably due to a complex of reasons–women who have been socialized not to put themselves forward, lack of confidence in the importance of their work, greater responsibility for housework and childcare. However, it’s also my subjective impression that in general, the least polished slush from women is of higher quality than the least polished slush from men. (The top of the range, of course, is equivalent for either gender.)
However, some markets manage to maintain some kind of gender balance (Strange Horizons, for example) and others are notoriously hard for female writers to crack (F&SF). This is of course due to editor preference in addition to all those other factors, and even an editor who actively pursues female writers may not find they get as many submissions from them. On the other hand, F&SF does publish any number of very fine newer female writers–M. Rickert and Yoon Ha Lee leap to mind immediately.
It’s my subjective impression right now that there are as many–if not more–women writing science fiction and fantasy these days as there are men, and that the best sellers are as likely to be of either gender. There are certainly plenty of female SFF readers. However, comma, it is also my subjective experience that women writers are less likely to be taken seriously critically, less likely to be published in hardback (especially as first novelists), and less likely to be nominated for awards. A lot of the buzz in the genre is about the men, and I honestly don’t think, for example, that Richard Morgan (though he is a fine writer) is a better writer than Chris Moriarty. But it seems like he gets talked about a whole bunch more.
So there’s a complex of factors at work, but yes, I believe that the end result is that female SFF writers in general, rather than in specific, get significantly less attention in the midlist and short fiction markets than men do. I’m pretty sure that in most cases this isn’t due to patent gender bias, but because of much more subtle forces, like the paperback versus hardcover thing.
I do notice, looking at recent Locus recommendation lists, that the gender balance for recommendations for first novels is much more equitable than in the lists of works of established writers. What this tells us, I’m not sure.
Gender imbalance is a tricky subject. I’m not sure what the blogosphere is coming up with at this point in time, but the discussion has been going on since that day long ago when we first discovered “yours doesn’t look like mine.” It is certainly hard to not participate in finger pointing because that’s how this whole thing got started. Humans seem to love to categorize and gender is one of the most obvious categories we use. If we weren’t so big on categorizing we wouldn’t be trying to figure out who’s at fault for everything wrong in the first place.
Meantime we do have this gender imbalance. Of course we need to clarify which gender imbalance we are talking about. The character imbalance, the author imbalance? Why do more superheroes seem to be men instead of women? Why are so few women authors receiving awards?
I think if we really want to change gender imbalance wherever it is, we need to individually identify our own prejudices. No matter how open-minded we are, we don’t like stories, ideas, people that make us uncomfortable. Stereotypes work because we are comfortable with them. We keep accepting the status quo until something hits us upside the head to show us the status quo is not really a reflection of anything truthful. The clouds break, the angels sing, the shaft of light shines down upon us. How often does that happen? Not often, if ever.
Here’s an old one: We feel better with male authority than with female authority. And yet, when you look at who organizes things, who gets things done, who herds the cats, a lot of times it’s a female who acts with personal authority. But to give that female the official title of “Boss” makes us all feel hinky. We’ll follow her direction, do what she says, even go into battle for her, but only if she’s an administrative assistant as opposed to a General.
That’s a prejudice we’re probably not even aware of. Examine yourself. How many women bosses have you ever truly liked? How many male? Even if you have never liked any boss, you probably absolutely hated the women bosses and merely disliked the male ones.
This sort of personal prejudice creeps into what we like in our art, the art in this case being speculative fiction. We don’t really like female superheroes unless they are Lara Croft-like. We can have ugly hulks of mean-spirited male superheroes, but a female superhero has to be sexually perfect, socially adept, and big-hearted. Hard to create compelling stories when the main character is so utterly flawless.
So how do we get people to get past personal prejudices so they can see the world realistically, at least when it comes to gender? That’s tough. This is fantasy after all and we as authors are not allowed to muck around with the fantasy. People are attracted to fantasy because it’s their fantasy. They will run away in droves if the formula is not followed. Or so our thinking goes. Until we can get past our own fears as writers to produce something that doesn’t follow the norm, the reader is never going to get exposed to it. But this is genre writing. There are so many rules beyond gender stereotypes that need to be followed.
I think things like the Tiptree Award go a long way. It proves there’s an audience that is looking for gender-bending work. The possibility of an award attracts authors. They will write a certain way if they know there’s an audience for it. And if nothing else, it brings attention to the fact that there is gender-bending work out there. There are authors that are doing this type of work. It defines what gender-bending is, even if it is narrowly defined by one awards committee. At least it gets people talking.
So talking about the Tiptree Award, giving it spin, is one thing that helps. Investigating the winners and the also-rans for the Award would educate yourself as to what gender-bending work might look like. Maybe you’ll like it.
Then there’s the question of gender-imbalance in the publishing industry. Editors will always tell you they don’t look at gender when selecting stories. Of course they don’t, they just don’t like the way women write. They’ll never say that, but deep down inside, it’s probably true. Just like the manager of stand-up comedians once said: I have nothing against women comedians, I just don’t like stories about menstruation.
How do you combat that? Women’s work, their subject matter, their stories about women are not interesting to the wider world. Sadly, though, they probably are. It is just perceived to not be interesting. If the people that make the decisions perceive a prejudice in their readers (while missing it in themselves) they will not pull the strings necessary to get the work to those readers.
This is the reasons why affirmative action was put into place. It’s an ugly truth. You have to force people with power to recognize you. By law. But how do you put affirmative action into place in the world of art? I don’t know, but organization of boycotts would go a long way. Identify the venues that are lopsided and organize a boycott of them. Don’t bring up names, don’t point figures at individuals, simply stop buying materials that are clearly dissing half of the world’s population.
Would I take the lead on this? Absolutely no way. I’m too busy. I might need these venues at some point. I’m not a leader. I have too much to lose. I don’t have time. I’m not really sure there is anything like this going on. I’m an author, not a martyr.
My first anthology, Live Without a Net, was criticized for gender-imbalance. And, more to my surprise, for being “mostly British” – which seemed a prejudicial form of nationalism I didn’t quite know how to unpack. I took the former criticism very much to heart, especially since I had worked very hard to include female SF authors and had had several of them drop out unexpectedly.
I spoke with a very prominent award winner and longstanding editor in our field about this, who told me that she simply picked the best stories she could find and didn’t worry a bit about balancing gender, ethnicity or nationality, and to do anything else was wrong.
To be fair, she was most likely talking about “open reads” anthologies and reprint collections, where the pool of potential contributors is either the hundreds or thousands of works submitted or the totality of relevant work published previously everywhere. I tend to do ‘invite only” myself as there is no way I could read manuscript submissions for Pyr AND short story submissions for my anthologies. Therefore, in my personal, exploratory reading, I make it a point to address this concern by reading more female authors than not, and I tend not to read too many stories by the same author either at the expense of new-to-me works. In other words, when I pick up an Asimov’s or an F&SF or a smaller zine or antho, if I can’t read it cover to cover, I will start by reading the female authors and/or the authors who are unknown to me first. This is a deliberate attempt to expand the pool of talented woman and newcomers I can call upon on my next “invite only.”
Fast Forward 1 ended up with nine women authors in it, and I’m very proud of that. Sideways in Crime had less, though, again, I had some people pull out at the last minute (actually, after the last minute, which left me no time to react. Grumble grumble.) But the point is, you can’t always control these factors, and when someone inevitably points out the gender imbalance in Sideways in Crime, they don’t know how many female authors turned me down, (or ditched and left me to twist in the wind after promising a story). Replace them with others you say? Well, yes, but the best writers in our field are just that – the best writers in our field. And consequently overworked and in great demand! And taking on an inferior writer at the last minute just to replace the loss of a superior one is absolutely not an option!
I believe that as editors, we absolutely have a responsibility to inform ourselves of what’s going on in the whole field, not just the male half. But as readers and reviewers, we should be judging stories (and the books and zines that contain them) based on their merits alone, not based on the sex or skin color of its author.
Recently, I had a conversation with a major buyer at a major chain, who was surprised to find that only one woman author placed among his current bestselling science fiction books. He wondered if this reflected a prejudice on the part of readers, or an assumed prejudice acted upon by the publishers, or even a blind spot in his own thinking. But that’s speaking ONLY about science fiction, excluding fantasy, dark fantasy, epic fantasy, and slipstream. If we include the entire range of speculative fiction – well, yes there is a very definite imbalance. None of us guys are selling anything like JK Rowling, and next up to take her place is Stephenie Meyer. And a major buyer at another chain just expressed the obvious to us last week, which is that the best selling books today – whether they are penned by men or women – are all the ones with strong female protagonists.
I don’t have an answer, but I’ve been pondering the question for some time now. In (sci)fantasy – our Quantum Gravity series from Justina Robson has been going gangbusters. In “pure” SF – I’m very proud of how Kay Kenyon’s epic science fiction adventure series has done as well (Bright of the Sky, A World Too Near, the forthcoming City Without End and the still-being-written final book.) Critically, it’s being compared to the kind of classic “Big Idea” SF of Ringworld or Hyperion, and sales have been good. But just as an experiment – I ask the guys reading this post – the ones who are reading current works like Karl Schroeder’s equally mind-blowing Virga series maybe – have you read Bright of the Sky yet? And if not, why not?
BroadUniverse, of which I’m a member, has been wrestling with this question since its inception. I don’t think there are easy answers. People will often say that there just aren’t enough women writing SF/F, but the membership numbers of BU belie that assumption. And, if you expand your definition of fantasy in particular, you see hundreds of women successfully publishing paranormal romances/urban fantasy novels, as well as being collected in New York Times bestselling anthologies.
Sometimes I think the answer is about perception. I left science fiction for paranormal romance, and didn’t change much other than my name. Granted, what I’m writing now is more fantasy than science fiction, but it’s still true to my own vision and style. I even have the same editor, though I’m now published with a non-SF ghetto imprint. Not much is different, yet I sell ridiculously better as Tate Hallaway than I ever did as Lyda Morehouse because of one word on the spine: “romance.”
I’m not going to try to sell anyone on the idea that romance is for everyone (though it’s surprising to me how quickly SF readers/writers/et. al will denounce romance as schlock, when they clearly haven’t read anything written in the genre in the last decade… the same issue SF writers often confront when talking to mundanes who dismiss us as little more than Trekkies or Heinlein clones), but romance is called “women’s fiction” for a reason. The Romance Writers of America, of which I’m also a member, has great resource on-line showing just how much money women spend on romance in a given year. Romance represents billions of dollars in fiction income for publishers.
The SF/F publishing industry has started to reach out to romance readers, which I think it a step in the right direction to bring female readers into the mix. I think once it can be established — ala the “surprise” summer hit “Sex in the City” — that women readers represent a dollar sign, it will be easier for women of more “mainstream” science fiction to find a publisher willing to take the risk on them.
I’m not suggesting that SF/F publishers need to sex it up, because I don’t think that’s necessary. Romantic Times reviews what they call mainstream science fiction in every issue. Most romance readers admit to being book-aholics and will read anything that’s marketed to them as a good read. And I think, ultimately, the issue comes down to the bottom line. I don’t think that any amount of affirmative action (ala having an all-women’s SF anthology, publishing line, etc.) will help convince publishers and editors to aggressively include women writers in anthologies or their line-ups unless they believe that having a woman’s name on the cover will sell more books.
Keep in mind, too, that a woman wrote the single most popular fantasy novel in the world – J. K. Rowling. You want to dismiss it right away as YA, but don’t. Women can, and do, sell science fiction and fantasy; we just have to broaden our perception of what that is.
Let us answer the questions in order. Is there an issue here? That depends on our definition of an issue.
If we say anything that riles up anyone for any reason or no reason is an “issue”, why, yes it is an issue, merely because it is being discussed widely and heatedly.
But if we ask whether anyone is being harmed by an alleged imbalance between the sexes, that question can only be answered by those who bring forward the complaint. They would have to show what harm is being done, propose a solution, and only then could we decide whether the detrimental side-effects are likely to be outweighed by the benefits sought.
I assume, because we are using such elliptical language to ask the question, that the real issue is one that cannot be asked directly. We are not asking why the Romance field is dominated by the matriarchy of women, who are oppressing poor helpless males (or “spermers” as we call them). The question only ever comes up when someone claims that women are under-represented in science fiction.
(At least, I assume we are talking about science fiction. If there are too few women authors writing Westerns, pirate stories, techno-thrillers, or murder mysteries, I have yet to hear that particular issue. Come to think of it, I have never yet heard a man complain that there are not enough males writing erotic vampire fiction.)
The possible solutions, if any, depend on how we perceive the problem, if any.
Which problem? Are we talking about the sex of the characters, or of the authors?
If we are talking about the characters, the solution to this non-issue would be to read and write more old-fashioned pulp fiction. Dames who date from before the so-called sexual revolution were routinely portrayed as tougher and smarter than the modern allegedly independent playboy-bunny image of womanhood. I will take Vivian Sternwood Rutledge from THE BIG SLEEP over Buffy the Vampire-lay any day of the week.
If the complaint, on the one hand, is that the number of female authors is low compared to the number of male authors, then, in order for there to be an issue, the complainant would have to show that the number should be other than it is, given the circumstances of reality, and this low number is due in large part to malfeasance on the part of a particular person or persons.
For example, my writer-wife, L. Jagi Lamplighter, has not sold the same number of novels to date as have I. She took some years off to raise our children. I am also older than she, and started writing earlier. Likewise, if even a few woman authors take off a few years to tend to other duties, the statistical impact will be disproportionate. What can one do? Ask my very feminine and maternal wife, or women like her, not to like babies? Good luck with that.
Another example, it seems (from some reports, at least) there is also a bell-curve of talent statistically different between men and women: we men outnumber women at both extremes. There are both more male geniuses and more male no-talent hacks. If so, males would be over-represented among the Nebula winners, and also among the potboilers, even if they did not outnumber the women. Again, what can one do? Redistribute that elusive quality called genius by an Act of Parliament? I think King Canute proved there are some things human power cannot influence.
If the situation springs from factors human institutions can not change, the question of what human institutions ought to change the situation becomes meaningless, if not risible.
If the situation is a natural result of factors beyond human control that produces these low numbers, no one can complain of harm, because no one is conspiring against him. You cannot have a crime without a criminal. In that case, there is no issue.
But what if the case is one of institutional prejudice? In so, it is something caused by human factors that we can indeed change, and ought to. Then there is an issue.
If the accusation is that editors and publishers wish to foreswear the profits to be made from publishing well-crafted and entertaining science fiction books and stories from talented authors because and merely because the author is female, in order to satisfy a prejudice against women, then the solution in that case is for an enterprising publisher to exploit the talent pool that his prejudiced competitors are unwilling to exploit.
If there is a widespread prejudice against women authors among the publishers, then there is a mother lode of talent, nay, a mother lode of money, merely waiting for whoever first troubles himself to go mine it. Drawing on female talent nearly doubles the available number of incoming manuscripts from which to choose.
There used to be a color barrier in baseball. But when Jackie Robinson broke that barrier, suddenly the managers of ball clubs found that they could no longer afford, could no longer financially afford, to exclude the pool of talent presented by the black athletes. A team who called upon a wider talent pool than its competition could, in the long run, outperform a team who restricted their talents to “whites-only.”
So, I submit that there is a natural force in the free market, a profit motive, that makes prejudice of any kind too expensive to maintain in the long run. Talent will always prevail, eventually, because truly talented people never give up.
Will the free market guarantee that the number of male and female authors will be equal? Well, no, of course not. The free market guarantees nothing aside from a tendency that the consumers will be sovereign. What the customers like, they tend to get more of.
Do the customers want more women authors, or do the customers want good books? If the customers decide to buy bad books merely because they are written by women authors, I will be the first to use a girly pen name. I will call myself Alice Triptree, Jr.
Now, I must confess that, as a reader, I do not give a tinker’s damn what the sex of the author is. It does not make a bad book better if it was written by a member of the set “female”; it does not make a good book worse if it was written by a member of the set “male”. My only concern as a reader is whether the author is a member of the set “talented” or a member of the set “no-talent hack”. As a reader, if all the books I like best turned out to be written by women writing under men’s pen-names, or written by men writing under women’s pen-names, it would make not one iota of difference to me whatsoever.
(I am not speaking hypothetically here. When I first read them as a child, I did not know which sex C. L. Moore or C. S. Lewis happened to be. Indeed, if you had asked me at the time, I would have assumed noir-tough Northwest Smith to have sprung from a man’s imagination, and sweet Lucy Pevensie from a woman’s.)
If widespread institutional prejudice is the issue, then several possible solutions suggest themselves:
To readers, the solution is to buy good books, no matter who writes them. This will encourage writers to be good, which is something they can control. If you buy bad books only because they are written by females, this will encourage writers to be female, which is not something they can control, absent radical and uncouth surgery.
To the editors, the solution is to buy good books, no matter who writes them. Buy manuscripts from authors who use their initials.
To the publishers, the solution is to exploit any untapped pool of talent which the short-sightedness or prejudice of your competitors has foolishly caused them to overlook.
To the writers, you have enough trouble worrying about how to get your next check from the publisher, and how to prevent your editors with monkeying with your copy, without worrying about abstract issues. If you really and honestly think that there is a prejudice against your sex, write under a pen name, or use your initials.
Let me end with a personal comment: I may not be qualified to venture an opinion because I am not someone who joins in this complaint. Indeed, I am sore pressed to imagine what the alleged harm might be. There are readers (ex-readers) who have written me hate-mail telling me that they will not buy my books because I am a Christian, and because I doubt the wisdom of self-centeredness, unchastity, divorce, sterility, death as a way of life. That is their prerogative because they are my customers, which is to say, my real employers. They owe me nothing. I cannot complain if someone who owes me nothing does not give me his money. The money is his: he can buy another book with it, or throw it into the sea. The world does not owe me a living.
I thank my lucky stars every day that I am allowed to be a writer at all, much less get paid for it. It is a dream come true. May my tongue be torn by red-hot pinchers before I utter a single word of ingratitude against my readers.
What is the real issue here? I think the issue is spiritual and psychological, not actual. Human beings, male and female both, tend to be touchy over anything that offends their pride. If your pride is caught up in a group identity, any slight against that group is greeted with exaggerated wrath.
Wrath distorts judgment. Soon you being to hallucinate minor slights against womanhood at home; soon you begin to ignore real victimization of women abroad: sexual slavery, polygamy, genital mutilation, unwanted girl-babies being exposed to the elements to die. In a world where women are stoned to death for wearing fingernail polish, complaints about lesser offenses sound shallow.
Pride distorts judgment. Group-pride is just as illogical as group-prejudice; indeed, the flip side of the same coin. Any given man and woman have more causes in common with each other than they do with other members of their sex. I am much more likely to enjoy reading a book by someone who shares my tastes and my world-view than I am someone who shares my biological plumbing.
Who is making this complaint? I suspect that it is not humble and meek authors, those who are grateful to be allowed to write books at all, authors who are delighted with their fans and thankful for the opportunities a gracious providence gave as a gift to them; not these authors are the source of the bellyaching.
I suspect it is not the readers who are delighted to be living in the golden age of science fiction, when our once-despised genre now captures more shelf space in bookstores than any genre aside from Romances, and who are grateful that SF is no longer the “boy’s-only club” it was back in the day when the main readership were only boys.
If so, then the ultimate solution is the hardest of all: be patient. Show fortitude. To those who are complaining, I suggest you adopt an attitude of meekness, and forgive those who offend you. Your life will be better and ulcer-free if you drop the burden of arrogance, and avoid the dark joy of bemoaning life’s injustices.
I have a simple answer:
Publish more women writers. It’s just that easy.
Hmm. I think different genres attract different genre stereotypes. For example, I know very few women who actually, genuinely, passionately love SF. I know plenty of women who love Bridget Jones romantic comedies, and maybe it’s just that fundamental broad-spectrum thing, wherein school girls love writing love letters, and boys love watching Star Wars. Stereotypes are there for a reason. Some genres, obviously, attract a broad spectrum of male, female (and something in-between) adoration – like mainstream literary fiction. But, generalising, boys like boyz toyz, and girlz like girlz stuff. Writers, editors and publishers can try and squeeze square pegs into round holes as much as they damn well please, but readers read what they want to read, what they enjoy, what they are naturally drawn to. For some reason, my Spiral books, with gun-toting soldiers and nuclear warheads, didn’t really draw a female audience. Can’t possibly think why. But it would have been wrong of me to insist on a romantic comedy cover when I have East-European squaddies farting and eating cheese. How can you change human nature? (Although I confess to watching the recent Sex in the City movie, and laughing at the jokes)…. so maybe if this old, burned out, cynical grumpy fluffy bunny of a squaddie can enjoy something intrinsically designed for the girlz, then there’s hope for everybody yet.
If we are going to talk about “Gender imbalance in genre fiction,” I think we are going to have to specify that the genre we are talking about here is science fiction and not fantasy. I took some recent Year’s Best anthologies off my shelves (edited by Gardner Dozois, Rich Horton, David Hartwell, Kathryn Cramer, Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling, Karen Haber, Jonathan Strahan, Kelly Link, and Gavin Grant) and went to the trouble of counting authors. In all the anthologies, picked out randomly, male authors were in the majority, but in fantasy, the discrepancy wasn’t as strong, with 76 male authors, 58 female authors, and 11 uncertain. For science fiction, the imbalance was huge: the four anthologies contained a total of 14 female authors compared to 72 male authors and 5 with uncertain gender. So obviously, yes, there still is a gender imbalance in science fiction.
As to what we can do about it — not being an editor, I can only answer this as a writer. I think we women writers must keep writing the best science fiction we can and sending it out. I plead guilty to not doing my part. Recently, I have been writing more fantasy than science fiction. But taking a look at these numbers, I think it’s about time I got back to working on science fiction stories again.
Just as a reality check to this question, I looked at various bestseller lists covering the most recent time period (generally last week). Bookscan’s Top 10 Fantasy books included six titles by women. (As did their “Adult Fiction Overall” list, though not the same six.) The Bookscan SF list had four female names in the top 10. The current Publishers Weekly bestseller list – not primarily genre, admittedly – has eight women in its fifteen slots. The New York Times list has eight women out of sixteen hardcover fiction slots.
So let’s be clear: the question is not whether women have the opportunity to write big, popular books – even ones with SF and Fantasy tropes, even ones published in the SFF genre. They are, and they do. Any gender imbalance at the top end of the field is a slight one towards women, which is exactly what we’d expect, since the audience for fiction is predominantly women in the middle of life.
And I imagine an analysis of books published would show something similar – if we included all of the Young Adult and romance novels with SFF ideas and settings, women would probably strongly dominate the field.
What we’re actually talking about here is the number of short stories – a form that may not be dead, but hasn’t been healthy commercially for two generations now – published by mostly very small publications, paying quite badly even compared to longer fiction, that happen to be written by women.
My flippant answer to the question for the past year or so is that most women are too smart to write short SFF for what the market can afford to pay, and I’m only half-joking when I say that. Economically, it makes very little sense to write short fiction.
I see no reason to believe that the economics of SFF short fiction will change radically for the better; that ship has sailed, and the once-huge audience for short stories moved on to radio, then to TV, and so on. Given that, we’re talking about a lifeboat situation, which is why all of the sniping is so vicious – like modern poetry, the knives come out the fastest when there’s the least at stake, and where those who have very, very little think they might lose what they have left.
I’m not sure why anyone not a female writer collecting rejection slips would care about the gender balance – if a reader enjoys a majority of the stories in some venue, that’s a good venue for that reader. If not, that reader should look elsewhere. Is there some reductionist, essentialist bullshit lurking behind the scenes, making us all think that “women” write stories that are utterly different from those of “men?” Every good writer writes stories that no one else would or could write – that’s no different for men or women.
So I’m the wrong person to ask – I think it’s a stupid question, focusing on the least important, most superficial aspect of a story. The reason to look at the author of a particular story is for parallelism – you want to find more by people who wrote stories you like, and avoid further work by people who wrote stories you hated. If you’re looking for more stories by women just because they’re women, you’re being sexist.
The Emperor’s New Spinach
I don’t know that anyone can in good faith deny that there’s an issue in the number of women being published in genre fiction unless the denier is claiming that fiction written by men differs in some quantifiable way from that written by women. The ToCs of magazines, anthologies and Best Ofs all demonstrate gender discrepancies that fluctuate from year to year but are always on the side of the mainstream — which is, like much of our society, white, male, middle-class, heterosexual. Most of the names in these ToCs are white, male, middle-class and heterosexual, and write stories that reflect the globalization of American culture and the accompanying worship of the commercial.
Some writing embraces, celebrates and perpetuates the dominant culture. Sometimes that is written, edited, and published by the people who most benefit from it. Sometimes it is written, edited, and published by people who do not benefit from it, but who have internalized it too well. I would argue that to consciously embrace and celebrate the dominant culture through an act of writing, editing or publishing – or even reviewing/acknowledging — knowing the inequities and injustices that the dominant culture is built on, is an unethical act that perpetuates the worst of that culture’s inequities and injustices.
But what is an unethical act for me may differ for someone else, who may frame the dominant culture differently and thus value it differently. I do acknowledge that viewpoints can (at times radically) diverge.
As editor, writer, game developer, and feminist scholar though, I don’t buy into the “my editorial picks have nothing to do with gender, they just turn out that way” argument.
This is because studies have shown that people have a tendency to -unconsciously- evaluate writing differently depending on whether they think the author male or female. That’s something beyond the overt sexism we often see in the field. It’s something that even the best intentions don’t mitigate.
This is why one needs to either strip names off manuscripts or else be aware of this phenomenon. It’s not difficult to check for gender-related patterns every once in a while. It’s awesome to see more people acknowledging that they exist.
And isn’t being caught exhibiting unconscious gender imbalance something one would wants to know about? Much as a real friend, a true friend discreetly nudges you and mentions that you’ve got spinach between your teeth rather than let you keep talking away?
Jonathan Strahan has talked about why he slipped on checking for gender bias in the Eclipse 2 ToC here. He has apologized and acknowledged the importance of concerns about gender issues. He is working to be part of the solution, rather than perpetuating the problem.
Had I been the focus of attention in the past for actions which other people have seen as sexist, I would bear that in mind when making public decisions. The decision to do so would of course depends on whether or not I were worried about being perceived as sexist, a position which does have marketing implications. To make the spinach in your teeth analogy complete, if you’ve had it there once, and you –care– about whether or not you have it there, then you might start looking in the mirror more often. And I emphasize the “if you care”, because if your teeth are mossy and shagged with green, that is a public statement in and of itself.
I would hope that if the intentional strategy behind a book was to appeal to a male audience, the publishers would have the gonads to admit it. I’d find that a much more respectable position than deliberately shaping this book to appeal primarily to male readers and then acting as though that were not the case, because that seems too much like outright lying and pretending that the spinach were invisible.
I’m going to stick to the aspect of the question I know most about, here, and speak for readers, or more particularly for that subset of readers who write reviews. It seems to me that any reviewer who has an element of freedom in their choice of subjects — which seems to be increasingly common, and not only online — also acquires a certain responsibility. Put simply, reviewers should read widely, and talk about a representative sample of what they read, if they’re going to pretend to be any sort of guide to the sf field as it exists today. And given the sf field as it exists today, that should mean reviewing plenty of work by both men and women. (Similarly reviews editors should try to make sure that they’re requesting and sending out as diverse a range of books — in all senses — as possible, and that individual reviewers are getting to see a good mix of stuff.)
Each episode of G.I. Joe ended with some sort of public service announcement aimed at children. The closing line of the PSA was “Now you know, and knowing is half the battle.”
Twenty years later the statement is as true now as it was then. Knowing IS half the battle. Being aware that there is a problem is the first step required to correcting the problem.
There is a perceived gender imbalance in short SFF fiction today. I think the perception is real. I have not read nearly enough magazines to be able to speak towards that aspect of publishing, but time and again in major anthologies I have found that far more men than women are being published.
Outside of a true “blind” reading process by editors where all author names and identifiers are stripped off submissions (thus allowing editors to honestly say that they are truly blind to gender), the only realistic answer is “Be Less Blind.” I can’t take credit for the idea, but now that you know and knowing is half the battle, take the next step.
Editors need to be mindful of the gender disparity in their publications. Those editors who actively solicit submissions should cast a wider net. Seek out more than just the usual suspects. Not only will this help finding “the best stories” (a subjective opinion to begin with), but the publication will have a greater range of narrative voices that better reflects the reading and writing population. This can only be of a benefit to the publication.
From a marketing perspective, and I freely admit I know very little about marketing, it may be easier to reach a wider range of potential book buyers if the contents reflect who the book buyers are. It surely can’t hurt.
The “Best Story” is one of many things that need to be taken into consideration in this highly subjective field. Publishers should provide direction to editors to seek more and better stories from women (and non-white writers of either gender). Editors have the primary responsibility of making sure that not only are the stories good, but also that there is a solid balance of authors.
Simply saying that you “only publish the best stories” when 85% of the stories in your anthology are written by white males just isn’t going to cut it anymore.
No one who can count can deny that the gender (and racial) imbalance in genre publishing exists and is a problem. As for what can be done about it, I’m sure that other contributors to this Mind Meld, especially those who work within publishing, will have important practical suggestions, but I’d like to talk about what people outside that sphere can do, and more importantly, how they can think about this issue. It seems to me that a major problem in addressing prejudice and gender imbalance within our field boils down to our insistence on clinging to inaccurate and oversimplified notions of how both publishing and prejudice work.
When I wrote about the Eclipse 2 table of contents a week and a half ago, I noted that one of the greatest hurdles that proponents of gender parity in genre publishing face when they try to raise this issue is the straw man argument of affirmative action or quotas (and indeed, several commenters to that piece made that argument, genuinely–or disingenuously–asking just what the approved ratio for women or non-white authors ought to be in any given table of contents). In reality, I suspect that the work of achieving a balanced mix in one’s story selections happens long before the editor sits down to review their submissions–by making up a balanced list of authors to solicit stories from, by searching out new, promising names, by making it clear that one’s market is not hostile to submissions by people other than straight white men.
There are other pernicious fallacies and straw man arguments that infest this debate. Angry Black Woman has been crusading against the ‘I’m not prejudiced! I’m X-blind!’ defense for several years now, in several arenas. Just last week, Nick Mamatas posted an excellent piece about the inherent fallacy in claiming that an editor ‘just wants good stories.’ Another huge hurdle to overcome, for anyone who wants to have a reasoned, well-informed debate about this issue, is the image that people conjure up in their minds whenever the accusation of prejudice is leveled. Are you seriously saying, the people who make this accusation are often asked, that editors and publishers are cackling away in their dread fortresses, maliciously crumpling up any work with a recognizable female byline to use as kindling because, as everyone knows, women can’t write?
Well, of course that’s not what’s being argued, and most often the discussion then turns to unconscious bias–we are all the products of a misogynistic, racist society, and this burden tells in our reaction to fiction as it does in other aspects of our lives (and in all the discussion of an editor’s reaction when they see a female byline, there’s been no talk about what happens when the editor gets past the byline and find a protagonist who isn’t a straight white male). But it seems to me that there’s also a genteel form of conscious bias that doesn’t get talked about as often.
When the Eclipse 2 discussion broke out I kept thinking back to the Deep Space Nine episode “Far Beyond the Stars,” in which the series’s black main character hallucinates that he’s a writer for a 50s pulp SF magazine, who writes a story about a black space station commander and can’t get it published because his editor and publisher find the premise too controversial. Discussions of this episode tend to focus on displays of the overt racism the character endures–harassment by policemen and an attempted lynching–but what destroys him is a more subtle form of racism. “I’m a magazine editor, not a crusader,” the writer is told when his story is rejected, and “as far as our readers are concerned, [you’re] as white as they are.” The person who tells him these things doesn’t think of himself as a racist. He’s a good guy. It’s the rest of the world that’s the problem, but he has to live in that world and make a living in it, so what can he do? It’s easy to hide behind commercial considerations, to shrug and say that you, personally, wish the world were different, but sadly it isn’t, but this is still prejudice, and no less ugly and dangerous than the overt kind–more, perhaps, because the people who exhibit it can usually pass for civilized human beings, and their excuses are accepted by too many of those who hear them. The most important thing we can all do to help the gender, and racial, imbalance in genre publishing go away is to develop a better ear for these kinds of fallacies, and to stop accepting them as reasonable explanations.
Gender imbalance is definitely an issue, and I think a fairly major one given that people in SF can no longer claim that there aren’t enough women writers who produce great fiction and can sell books. (I suppose people can still claim it, but they can’t do so without sounding foolish.) Therefore, there’s no good reason why many of the major short fiction markets still have the balance tipped far over to the male side. I don’t know the numbers on novels, so I can’t speak to that.
If readers are concerned about this issue (and they should be) I say that they should make their opinions known to the publishers and editors of the magazines they enjoy (or want to enjoy). It’s true that many people vote with their wallets and simply don’t buy on the newsstand, renew their subscription, or donate, but that may not be enough. There are editors or publishers who’ll still claim that the readers don’t care about this issue even when subscription numbers go down. Readers have to send a letter, or participate in online forums, or blog about the things that matter to them when picking up a magazine. It also helps if they’re tenacious about it. Don’t just mention it once, mention it whenever it comes to your attention.
As for writers, the best thing they can do is to keep writing and submitting. Editors can’t publish what they don’t get to see. Writers should also be vocal in forums and blogs and conventions about the magazines that are paying attention to diversity in their editorial practices. We’re a pretty close community, and writers often find out about markets, changes to markets, and what editors are looking for from other writers. I posted a few months ago about a trend I saw happening at Asimov’s because I wasn’t sure that everyone was aware that Sheila Williams is not Gardner Dozois. It seems like a silly thing to have to point out, but not everyone thinks of a market in terms of the editor, but in terms of the brand.
I’ve already written an extensive blog post on what publishers and editors can do, but it comes down to this: they can’t just sit around saying “I’d like to publish more women,” and then wait for the submissions to roll in. They have to be active in making sure that writers know that they’re looking to create a balance. And they have to do so not only by saying so on their own forum, but by being proactive about getting the information out (perhaps via the aforementioned writers in the community) and reflecting that desire in what they publish. Solicit more from women writers they know will deliver a story they’re likely to like. Be proactive in finding new writers in other venues of similar quality and soliciting them. And, even more important, taking a good hard look at the reason why their magazine is out of balance. Is it just because more men submit, or is it because their biases, conscious or not, cause them to dismiss good stories as not quite right? I don’t think that any editor should compromise quality just to get a few more women in the TOC. However, taste is subjective, and sometimes it takes a lot of self-examination to realize that taste is based on a lot of factors, including which voices and subjects you think are interesting or important.
Let’s face it-we’re all here today because of the controversy over Eclipse 2. I think the best way I can comment on that controversy is by talking about perception, intent, and transparency, rather than about the core issue of sexism in the field because the two are inextricably linked. (And I think any number of women can do a better job of discussing the latter than I can.) I make these comments with an open admission: I consider myself a friend of Jonathan Strahan, I have an antho coming out from Night Shade (a respected publisher in the field), and I am also friends with many of those in the field upset about the Eclipse 2 situation.
Here’s my two cents. I think both the editor and publisher in this case forgot what happens in any situation where you in effect say you are providing the consumer with a ham sandwich and instead you give them a pig fetus in a jar. If you then continue to insist the fetus is a sandwich and also insist any irregularity is coincidental…well, things tend to get worse. If you’ve also made comments at a convention indicating that you’re still offering a ham sandwich after you’ve already started creating your pig fetus, this just makes it even worse. In the aftermath of such a debacle, apologies are great — and I believe Strahan is being completely sincere and contrite — but the real proof and the real act of good faith is if it doesn’t happen again and if public statements about books by the publisher match what actually is published. It also helps if the parties involved are transparent about their process and provide honest updates about a project’s progress throughout its creation stage. This can, in fact, be essential in our current internet age. Eclipse 3 will, fairly to Strahan or not, be a bit of a crucible for the series, and Eclipse 2 had better be extremely strong.
With regard to process, I also believe Strahan found himself in a situation that can happen any time you don’t have a real open reading period. Strahan’s open reading period was rushed, poorly publicized, and wasn’t proactive in actually letting working professionals in the field know they were welcome to submit. (It was, however, in good faith, and it was not something he had to do, so he gets points for that.) This is not a situation specific to Strahan, but one that comes up many times and, I think, contributes to the mediocre quality of some general anthologies by limiting the talent pool just to those writers the editor knows s/he likes or is comfortable with or thinks will sell the book. Which may or may not include equal numbers of women and minorities.
I would argue that a really smart model includes an open reading period (of whatever length) and includes sending out the guidelines for the open reading period to EVERY professional out there, in addition to the general places that post antho guidelines. Then you are not committed to a particular group of writers, you have done your best to alert working pros, and you can still send more specific invites to the half-dozen writers you think you need to make the antho a success. It really depends on whether you’re collecting the best stories or the most prominent writers, who may or may not produce great stories.
This mostly works with non-theme anthos, of course. And I’m not saying every antho should have an open reading period, but that solicitation-only (or solicitation-only with a weak open reading period) creates a few problems: (1) that you have a very small subset of pros who send you stories (which also, over time, can make you insular as an editor), (2) that you are to some degree beholden to take stuff above a certain level of dreadfulness after a certain point (this level of competency then becomes an editor’s baseline for “good” when in fact it’s like grading on a curve over time), (3) that when you do have to reject stuff you wind up with unnecessary imbalances affecting the focus and slant of the antho, (4) that you discourage diversity in terms of those able to submit, and (5) that the element of surprise is minimized (i.e., we assume certain writers produce certain kinds of fiction, but many are more various than we think).
We tend not to think about our processes and whether they make as much creative/artistic sense as they do marketing/financial sense-and if they’re fair or not with regard to minorities, with the idea that especially in our rapidly evolving internet-centric world, transparency, openness, and clear communication are incredibly important. And that being fair also often does make economic and artistic sense. Especially with regard to word-of-mouth. Any discussion of possible sexism in the field has to also include discussion of these issues, in my opinion.