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[GUEST POST] ‘Girl Cooties: A Personal History’ by Judith Tarr

Judith Tarr has been called “the finest writer of mediaevalist historical fantasy in English.” She also writes as Caitlin Brennan and Kathleen Bryan. She lives in Arizona with a dog, a herd of cats, and a barnful of Lipizzan horses.

Girl Cooties: A Personal History

So SF Signal’s Mind Meld on the Russ Pledge is up, and the comments are following the usual script, from “This is totally true and I’m totally on board” to “This is total bilge.”

The same applies to the internets in general, although, probably because of my personal (and gender) bias, I see more of the former than the latter. Lots of people are talking about the women men don’t see, the names missing from the “Best Of” and the “Most Important” lists, and the need (or not) to render those authors and titles visible.

Rebuttals tend to declare that this is an invented distinction. “I just read books, I don’t read authors,” “Of course there are women on those lists! I saw one name 12 times!” “If sf by women made money, publishers would publish more sf by women.”

I am a woman. I write science fiction.

What, you didn’t know that?

Right. I’m the great historical fantasist. Wrote a few minor sf shorts, a little alternate history, a couple of totally and exuberantly off-the-wall collaborations with Jerry Pournelle at al. in the War World (female Sauron Soldiers FTW!), but not enough to ping the Importance Meters in science fiction. My Importance Points are in fantasy and in historical fiction.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.


This is my publishing history, in chronological order, in verbatim or paraphrased comments from agents, editors, publishers, and reviewers:

  • 1978: “This is a great debut, but there is one big problem with it for us. It’s a grand-scale space opera with a fantasy/magical feel. Our experience with the market is that while fantasy readers will happily take a dose of science with their fantasy, science-fiction readers won’t take any fantasy with their space opera.” (The Darkover series was well under way at this time. So was Andre Norton’s Witch World. And Anne McCaffrey had long since won her Nebula.)
  • 1983:
    • “We love your historical fantasy with elves! We want to publish it!’ – But it’s not elves. It’s mutated humans. My influence was The Uncanny X-Men.
    • “We love your fantasy! We’ll buy it!” – OK, so the second set of books is secondary world, alien-world sf, late Bronze-Age technology, but, hey, aliens. And psi powers.
    • “We love that fantasy, too! Great magical system! We’ll buy it!”

At this point the gender thing isn’t a noticeable issue. Male protagonists, no problem. The “fantasy” part is coming from the technological level, not from the girl cooties in the byline. The reviewers love my “elves.” I throw up my hands. At least they love ’em. Whatever they are.

  • Ca. 1986: “SF is hard and tough and needs a lot of research. Fantasy is easy. You just make stuff up.”

That’s where it starts to get tricky. And I start seeing a rash of, “Boys write hard sf. Girls write squishy fantasy.” The concepts have been around for decades, of course, but remember, this is a personal history. There are rumbles. There are pushbacks. Articles are written, convention panels are hotly debated, there is even an ad-hoc, mostly comically inspired group called the FFW’s–the Female Fantasy Writers, with pink buttons to be worn with pride at conventions. The Eighties ended in a draw. Fantasy was a hot property. Lots of bestsellers. Lots of whom were male. Most of whom, actually, were male.

  • 1990: “Of course you’re not included in my Dictionary of Important Science Fiction Authors. You’re not important.”
  • 1990’s: I need a brain break. I gafiate (remember that term?). I write mainstream historicals. They’re mostly “women’s fiction” with female protagonists. Greatest Hits of Feminist History. And Prehistory.
  • 1999: “You want to return to fantasy? Awesome! You want to write male protagonists? OK, whatever. Cool beans. Alternate history, even? Bring it on! But don’t bring it on in too exotic a setting, OK? Stay in Western Europe if you can. That ‘way-out Eastern stuff isn’t selling so well any more.”
  • 2001:
    • “You want to sell some more fantasy? Great! But can you do female protagonists? And put more romance in? Romance sells.” – OK, no problem, but I’d really like to do a male protagonist for this one if I–
    • “No, you can’t do that. You’re a girl. You need to write about girl heroes. Also, don’t get exotic. Really. Can you write something set in England?”
  • 2003: “Yes, I know this is a secondary series in an established fantasy world. Yes, I know it’s a great story. And it has plenty of romance. But you have to tell it from a female POV. You can’t sell male POV.”
  • 2005: “Female POV. Romance. Fantasy. You’re good at it. Don’t write anything different. And no, no male protagonist. Please.”
  • 2009: “We love this strikingly unusual cross-genre book! It’s brilliant! We just hate to let it pass. But Marketing feels it’s too ‘girl-friendly’ for science fiction.”
  • 2010: “This is full-on, grand-scale, old-fashioned space opera. Twenty years ago we’d have killed to get our hands on it. Unfortunately, we just can’t sell a book like this any more, unless you’ve been publishing books like this for, well, the past twenty years.” – Actually I would have, I wanted to, I tried. But.
  • 2011: Time to think really seriously about that androgynous pseudonym. No, not because I’m giving up. Because I’m the mood to experiment, and I like to test hypotheses in the real world. A woman writing science fiction set in the medieval period is, by universal fiat, writing fantasy. Likewise if the science fiction is set in a preindustrial technological period, though it’s actually a prequel to a cycle of space operas that predated Stargate by a fair few years. One of those got sneaked into print a few years back as, you guessed it, a fantasy. With a pointed historical sting in the tail. (Points if you can guess, accurately, which one that is.)(It’s not under a pseudonym.) Now it might be the tech level that’s doing it, but all things considered…

I’m deliberately leaving out the Conclusions and Analyses here. You may draw your own conclusions, and detect your own patterns. But I think you can see why I feel the Russ Pledge is important, and why I’m actually rather optimistic about the direction our genre (if not necessarily the current incarnation of its publishers) is taking.

42 Comments on [GUEST POST] ‘Girl Cooties: A Personal History’ by Judith Tarr

  1. There’s a twofold argument you bring up here, Judith. The sex and the setting. god knows it’s bad enough trying to figure out the sex (whether of writer or of protagonist), but it’s a compounding error when you bring setting into it.

    It really is like standing outside the house, looking in. There’s all this wun-der-ful news, dahling, about opportunities and visions and movie adaptations but it doesn’t apply to those who want to place their books in non-Western setting and ::shudder:: with non-Western protagonists. This is why I’m going to self-publish (as Cara d’Bastian) my paranormal, Asian-based, Asian-heroine based series. Because what publisher in their right mind wants a brown woman in a brown world battling spirits and ghosts and beliefs that aren’t Western-based?

    As for the stuff I usually write, there is no way it can easily be categorised as fantasy, so its tag is “SF romance” but stuff that! I’m calling it “space opera”. I made the same observation in a recent interview. “Why is it that the men write space opera but the women write SF romance?” Simple. It’s because we can’t dismiss it by calling it “fantasy”, so we dismiss it by calling it “SF romance”. That way, it’s nice and compartmentalised in the “romance” basket and…pffffft!…what Real Man(tm) reads romance, right?

    Think I’ll go lie down and have a Bex.

    (Btw, I love your ongoing blog series on horses and how to write/portray/observe/handle them. Don’t know that I’ll ever use the info, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.)

  2. Because what publisher in their right mind wants a brown woman in a brown world battling spirits and ghosts and beliefs that aren’t Western-based?”

    Um, mine? Lauren Beukes notably just won the Clarke Award for a novel about a black woman in a near-future South Africa with African-inspired magic, published by Angry Robot here in the UK.

    I do sympathise on the “being pushed further into the fantasy category” problem, though. The world-building for my forthcoming book is SF-inspired, but because of its preindustrial setting and the characters’ consequent viewpoint that anything unfamiliar must be “magic”, it’s easily perceived as pure fantasy. I don’t know whether that’s girl-cooties, though, or just the nervousness of marketing in the face of genre-bending. I guess I’ll have to wait until the reviews come in…


  3. What a revealing and fascinating post. This feeling that women writing SF were often actually misleadingly re-labelled Fantasy was part of my motivation behind the list of 225 Women SF Writers list.

    Despite this, and even though your books are now on my wishlist thanks to Kari Sperring’s recommendations, I’d still missed you off that list, I’m sorry Judith.  Just shows how insidious this trend is.  I’ve added you in now though.


  4. Wow, how do writers remain sane against this onslaught of stupidity?

  5. The trend of using classification as a way to dismiss “undesirable” work continues.  I haven’t been around long enough to have pushback from publishers/the industry on SF vs F — I write some SF, and stuff with male protags, but I do prefer to write fantasy and female protags, which makes it easier.  I have gotten pushback on setting, but we’ll see what happens with that when my Dreamblood duology (set in an Egypt-like fantasy land) comes out next year. I’ve heard all the usual crap already re my current published books:  my work is fantasy chicklit, it’s fantasy but not epic fantasy, it’s not fantasy it’s paranormal romance, it’s not fantasy it’s horror, and so on.  But I’m dealing with another layer.  I’ve seen a lot of readers label the protagonist of THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS an “authorial insertion” and assume she’s black, mostly because I’m black and they figure That’s What Black Writers Do, write only about themselves.  They then attempt to relegate it to (and occasionally shelve it in) Black Interest Fiction, which of course only black people should read.  One reader called it an “African American Studies” book, whatever that means — then proceeded to get several key characters’ races wrong, which sort of scuttled any point he was trying to make, bless his heart.

    I’ve also seen a lot of readers wrestle with the fact that there’s romantic content.  The romance is superfluous to the plot, but because it’s there, I’ve seen any number of epic fantasy fans vehemently insist that my books should not be part of the epic fantasy canon (::looks heavenward::) and should instead be dismissed as bodice-rippers.  Which tells me that these people haven’t read any bodice-rippers, for one — but it also tells me that some readers have a vested interest in thinking of their preferred genre as a “manly” one, and defending it against the encroachment of Cootiedom at all costs.  Somehow, despite Le Guin and Friedman and Rawn and Elliott and all the other bestselling women, they’ve claimed it as a genre for men. 

    Then again, I’ve seen those women’s books dismissed as bodice-rippers too, even when they contain no romance — so it’s nice to be in good company.

  6. Kaz (and Nora): And of course women must write romance, which can then be dismissed as fluff and trite and all the rest of the buzzwords designed to render it inferior. Fantasy has a better rep overall, but that’s because it’s been dominated on bestseller lists by males. Female writers outside of romance, as far as I can determine, sell less, make fewer Important Lists, and trail their male counterparts in reviews, respect, and general prominence.

    I’ve been told to self-publish my space opera. Or see if a small press will look at it. It will get out there, no fear.

    (Thanks re. Horseblog at Book View Cafe. I’m having a grand time with that.)

    Anne: It will be interesting to see what happens, but my money is on you getting the Elf Effect. Having been there and done that, and all that.

    Isn’t the Clarke Award juried? Juried awards can skew the stats, because juries can consist of people who are aware of persistent myths and trends and inclined to buck them.

    Kev, thank you. Kari’s list is amazing, isn’t it? So many wonderful works and names that have been pretty widely ignored, but so many people are seeing them and saying, “Oh! I remember that! Wow, I’d forgotten how good she was.”

    I left out the comment, back in 1993, by the publisher who said, “Judith Tarr might as well write in invisible ink for all the attention she gets.” I do and did get great reviews for individual books, and do and did have a fiercely loyal base of dedicated fans (I call them The 5500), but awards? Larger sales? Notice from the Very Important Arbiters of Importance? Bueller? It really is a gift. Perhaps a mutant superpower.

    Scotoma: Sane? Me?

    I skimmed an article yesterday by someone who will not be taking the Russ Pledge. Boinged right out of it when it made a reference to how Joanna burned out on fighting sexism, got chronic fatigue syndrome and all. I didn’t even try to see what it said after that, but now I’m thinking, hey, I have that, too. Mostly women get that. So it’s just because we’re so -tired- and it makes us -crazy- and and and.

    Anybody remember the “Raging Hormonal Imbalances” shtick about why women can’t be political leaders? Maybe it’s not that. Maybe we’re just too tired all the time.

    Nora: I’m reading HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS now. It’s good. I will LEAP on your Egypt-like books. Love that setting and that mindset and that whole worldview.

    One thing about being invisible. I’ve been writing non-white characters forever, and getting them on covers (Robert Gould did amazing ones for the first three Avaryan books). But note the trajectory as I was steered further and further away from anything that wasn’t northern European. I had a Middle Eastern alternate history with highly sympathetic Muslim characters come out in September 2001. That was it for selling anything set outside of England or France, or with characters that were anything but my own personal ethnic heritage (you guessed it–England, Ireland, France). Though the way I was told it was, “Readers won’t buy anything that isn’t extremely familiar to them any more.”

    It’s divide and conquer. Slot the author into whatever the author is or is perceived as, then put a label on it that implies some sort of diminishment. If the author succeeds in spite of it, she seems to be perceived as an aberration. If it goes the other way, that’s seen as proving the thesis. I don’t think there’s a way to win.

    Except maybe, right now, there is. People are awake to all this, and talking about it. And publishing is in such flux, with authors actually having a little bit of power for a change, what with the digital revolution and all. That’s where I’m optimistic, in spite of the personal trajectory that ought to have me feeling more tired than ever.

  7. I come from the romance spectrum. When I write fantasies, they’re unabashedly romance from the POVs of both male and female. The only gender bias I discern from over here is against men, who have to hide their names behind unisex pseudonyms. So your bandwagon has passed me by.


    I can only speak to the marketing aspect of your tale. Currently, print publishers can only make ends meet by appealing to the vast majority. We no longer have the luxury of writing for a niche market. We have to compete against WAY too many books. In another post we can argue that publishers are pushing quanity junk that hits the masses instead of quality that appeals to a small market, but that’s not your point here. The point is, editors are looking for any excuse–in all fiction markets–to reject a manuscript. And readers, because they have so many books to choose from, do the same. In romance world, they reject American history as if it’s space opera set on another planet. England is required, although I’ve seen evidence of exotic locales opening up.

    I think, I hope, that this sea change in publishing will change all that. If books can be made cheaply again, if authors can bypass the NYC dragons and offer their tales to readers who want what we write, then we can hope both writers and readers of niche markets will be happy again.  And one day, the dragons will die, and publishing will return to what it should be–a clearing house for good books. Of course, by then, they probably won’t be in NYC. Maybe that’s the key.




  8. Stephen J. // June 17, 2011 at 10:40 am //

    As I see it, the fundamental vicious cycle is [i]presented[/i] as a chicken-and-egg scenario:  Agents and publishers argue that women’s SF/F writing — especially if it features non-Caucasian protagonists or non-European settings, or features too much (for some publishers) or not enough (for others) emphasis on relationship-centered plots — does not sell well enough to be a viable major focus.  Because so little of it is sold, the audience never grows beyond the classic “cult following”.  Because the audience is small, there is no demand for more of it.  Because there is not enough demand, the agents and publishers conclude it does not sell well enough and only publish a little of it if any at all.  And so it goes.

    Now, let us assume that this state of affairs is not necessary, and that some of the assumptions posited are not true.  Which ones are not true, and why are they upheld as if they were, if so?

    Possibility #1:  A crowd of mostly male, mostly Eurocentric agents and publishers (and fans and readers) are consciously passing over writing that doesn’t interest or represent them, and are claiming lack of economic viability as a cover for their own simple lack of interest.  This probably explains at least some of the establishment resistance, but Hanlon’s Razor (“Never attribute to malice what can be adequately explained by stupidity”) suggests it’s insufficient as an explanation for all of it.  There’s not much to do here except wait for this generation to pass on.

    Possibility #2:  The agents and publishers are fundamentally mistaken in thinking there’s not enough market for a woman-written work that can’t be conveniently categorized as romance or fantasy.  This belief may simply be rooted in what they are taught, or rooted in their own (real but perspective-limiting, and -limited) experiences in the industry.  Either way, it has to be shown as incorrect.

    Here is where you can run up against one of the fundamental realities of trying to be commercially successful in an artistic/creative medium:  A work can be high-quality, well-reviewed and highly-promoted, and still flop financially for reasons outside anyone’s control or even understanding.  (William Goldman, on Hollywood:  “Nobody knows anything.”)  And the need to explain a failure can lead to identifying irrelevant factors as relevant ones, especially if there’s an accidental correlation (“Our last three books did OK; why didn’t this one?  Well, the last three were all by men, this one was by a woman — hey, that must be it!”).

    The problem with the Russ Pledge is not that it is unnecessary, but that it will not be sufficient on itself.  I think for there to really be a breakthrough it will have to lay the groundwork for something outside its control; i.e., a blockbuster-successful, but woman-written non-traditionally categorized, SF/F work or series, that both creates and sustains the audience for such work.  (It may be fair to say that such a series already exists and my own bias has kept me unaware of it — but that is precisely the level of success needed, enough public penetration to overcome that bias.)  The Russ pledge may help wedge the door open for that work, but it still has to appear and succeed — and that’s out of anybody’s control except the author’s and Providence’s.

  9. Pat, true. But look at the bias against romance in the larger publishing world. Talk about Girl Cooties. Wow.

    Romance sells better than any other genre by a wide margin. But it’s marginalized, trivialized, and dismissed just about everywhere outside of itself.

    When the biggest genre of all is treated as “niche,” and not in a nice way, you have to wonder, you know, why.

  10. Karen Miller // June 17, 2011 at 4:24 pm //

    Romance sells better than any other genre by a wide margin. But it’s marginalized, trivialized, and dismissed just about everywhere outside of itself.

    When the biggest genre of all is treated as “niche,” and not in a nice way, you have to wonder, you know, why.’


    Brilliant point, Judith. Nail on the head, absolutely. None of this issue has anything to do with quality. It’s only about the fact that if a woman wrote it, then by definition it is inferior. Not a universal belief, by any means, but pervasive enough that we are still fighting this damned battle in the 21st century.

  11. Dr. Tarr, If you do publish under an androgynous pseudonym, just don’t keep it a deep dark secret. I’ve bought and read everything you’ve published (not counting your scholarly work) that I know of (including the two pseudonyms that I know about). I buy whole anthologies to get your short fiction. I don’t care what genre you work in; you mix them up anyway. (I’m not a total uncritical fan–I found the Epona books a bit of a struggle.) I”m fine with protagonists of either sex (and even with ones who change sex); I prefer them to have functioning brains.

    Mostly, I read for good story and good storytelling. I don’t much care who writes it.

    Most of the romance that sells in such quantity IS marginal and trivial.

    I have no trouble coming up with a list of women who write science fiction, even military sf (Bujold, for one). Or of women who write hard-boiled detective fiction.

    Can’t think offhand of a woman who writes about Napoleonic-era fighting sail, though.



  12. Rene Sears // June 17, 2011 at 7:15 pm //

    Ruth, Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books spring immediately to mind for Napoleonic-era fantasy.


    Sturgeon’s law applies to romance as much as anything else, but the converse is that the percentage of good books is much the same also.  Yet the entire genre is constantly dismissed as trivial.


    Judith, thank you for this article.  I believe it’s Mercedes Lackey who’s also written that she wanted to write Scifi but was unable to leave Fantasy once she’d written her first trilogy.  Looking at the careers of writers like Elizabeth Bear, who writes both, makes me hope that things are changing.

  13. Judith, thanks for such an eye-opening post. I hope more authors share their experiences so we can shatter the collusion of silence on the subject.

    I linked to your post from my blog ( and invited authors to tell my readers how they, the authors–the authorities on their stories–would prefer to label their work. If readers can get information right from the source regarding which genre a book belongs to, all the better.

    Kaz, I’m sorry to hear that science fiction romance could be considered marginalizing, and I invited my readers (along with me) to reassess our use of that label in my latest post.

    And one day, the dragons will die, and publishing will return to what it should be–a clearing house for good books. Of course, by then, they probably won’t be in NYC. Maybe that’s the key.

    Hear, hear.

  14. Stephen J: Chicken and egg indeed, and good points made. If the market is selecting against women’s science fiction, the book that might truly break out may never even have got through the door. It’s one of those circular arguments that can drive you even crazier than you already are.

    There’s also the attitude that women’s work just isn’t worth as much. Isn’t paid as much, isn’t valued as much. Something like the Russ Pledge isn’t going to cure this, but it’s a step in the right direction. If it changes just a few attitudes, bumps up just a few authors, makes just a few dealmakers sit up and take notice, it’s a start.

    There are bestselling female sf writers. Anne McCaffrey, anyone? But isn’t she seen as fantasy now? Despite her John Campbell pedigree? If she were named Piers or Sprague, would she be seen this way?

    Marion Zimmer Bradley had to go over to outright fantasy before she hit the big list. Her Darkover books were well ahead of their time in terms of their sexual politics, but they’re often dismissed as “hack work” and “silly space opera.” If she had been Michael instead of Marion, I wonder if she would be more respected as a science-fiction writer (and therefore “really serious” instead of “writing fantasy stuff for all her female fans”).

    Karen: Yes. That’s why everybody is so tired. Same war, different century.

    Ruth, thank you. We need many more readers like you.

    And, like Rene, I thought of Naomi Novik. Napoleonic fighting sail. With dragons.

    Rene, indeed. Romance will self-sabotage (“Oh, it’s just a romp!”), but the sheer scorn that’s heaped upon it, even as it dominates the sales figures, is amazing. If it were a men’s genre, it would be a Major Literary Phenomenon and all the serious people would be finding gold among the piles of dross.

    And you know, all that Jane Austen stuff? Female authors have been trying to publish books of that sort for decades, and been slapped down hard. “It’s just fanfic.” A male author did it and it’s Brilliant! Fantastic! BEST-SELLING!!!

    So again, it’s not the market that’s the problem, it’s who gets in the door.

    Heather, thank you so much for the shout-out. I agree with Kaz, for the most part. The times are changing. And that’s a good thing–if we do our part to make it so.

  15. @Anne Lyle: Anne, I take your point, but that’s not the whole story. Just broadening the field a bit, remember the kerfuffle about the cover of “Liar”, the YA story of a “nappy-haired” young girl that got translated to a white girl on the cover?

    Remember the original “Magic Under Glass” cover that also whitewashed the main protagonist? What about the paperback edition of “Fury of the Phoenix”? In other media, what was done to “Avatar: The Last Airbender” was atrocious, and even Ursula le Guin has written of her disappointment with the whitewashing of the “Earthsea” mini-series. Barry Hughart was treated abysmally by his Big Six publisher over the Master Li & Number Ten Ox series, despite it winning the World Fantasy Award. I’m sure if I dig deeper, I could find more examples.

    The lesson is quite clear. Non-white characters in non-white settings are a tough sell and, even if they’re picked up, that’s not quite the be-all and end-all because of the cover situation. I believe that Angry Robot may very well be the exception that proves the rule but it IS the exception.

    (Sorry to go off-tangent.)


  16. @Kaz Augustin

    I don’t think it’s a tangent at all!  The racism (intentional or not) in the publishing industry is atrocious.  All you have to do is check out Zetta Elliott’s blog to get a taste of what’s going on in children’s book publishing (this piece is a place to start Bookstores don’t like stocking books with brown faces on the cover, unless they can put them in a special section.  It’s maddening, because if the books aren’t stocked how are they going to sell–no matter how good they are? — and then it becomes ‘only white covers sell books.’  This happened to Cindy Pon and Neesha Meminger in YA, and probably to others as well.

    And here in the UK there are very, very few novelists of color being published in SF/F.  I can think of NK Jemisin, Charles Yu, Aliette de Bodard, and Sarwat Chadda–all more or less newcomers in an otherwise-white landscape.  Only Sarwat actually lives in the UK; the others are imported.  Yet none of us individually see ourselves as racist (or want to, anyway, despite the racist air we all breathe).  It’s not so different from sexism.

    They aren’t identical issues, but there is overlap for sure.  I suspect it’s a problem about systems, and marketing systems these days are very sophisticated and very stupid at the same time.


  17. @Tricia

    I had an online conversation with David Anthony Durham about the issues he’s run into being a black author. Books that don’t have a racial component will end up on the African American aisle in the bookstore for no other reason than the author is black. I saw it myself when I was looking for a particular book (L.A. Banks I think) at my local bookseller. I couldn’t figure that out. The race of the author had no bearing on the book at all, but it was separated by race anyway. WTF? 

    I wonder if ebook and self-publishing boom will have an effect on all of this? If we’re lucky authors will have more control over their own product and how it is presented in the future. 

  18. jjmcgaffey // June 18, 2011 at 1:29 pm //

    Tanya Huff is one author who (in my mind, as an avid SF/F reader) was firmly fantasy, until she started the Valor series. That’s done very well, I think, and it’s very “manly” space marines. Admittedly with a female (though not ‘feminine’, in the ‘girly’ sense) protagonist and a romance arc that’s increased in importance through the series. I don’t know how much work she had to go through to get the first Valor book released, though I bet it was a lot.

    Personally, I had no idea that NK Jemison was black – THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS was shelved with the rest of the SF/F in my local library. I think I remember a brainshift adjusting to her (the protagonist’s) appearance in the second or third chapter, and it may have been a race thing…but it could just as well have been height or hair color or something (I form firm ideas about appearance early on, and sometimes authors get around to explaining something later that makes me adjust my mental image).

  19. @sqt I’ve read other authors complaining about the same thing as David Anthony Durham.  The marketing system looks at the author and reads ‘specialist African American thing’ and shelves it there without consideration of the content of the book.  The most generous interpretation I can come up with is that they are targeting black readers in the misguided assumption that only black readers read black witers  and so the book will have its best chance there??  Which, even assuming the best of intentions, is pretty disturbing.  (And I don’t assume the best of intentions for one second.) It’s kind of sickening, but it also seems to be part and parcel of the way marketing systems work. 

    And it kind of reminds me of how, a couple of weeks ago at the British Science Fiction Association Annual General meeting, when I asked Simon Spanton why Gollancz had tried to make Jaine Fenn change her name to initials, he said they were trying to improve her sales and their market research had indicated this was a possible solution.  ‘We had the best of intentions,’ he said.  And maybe they did.  And maybe Judith is wise to pull out the male pseudonym, and maybe Gwyneth Jones knows what she’s talking about when she says she wished she’d used a male name years go.  But to have to do this is to be forced to deny what you are, and it only perpetuates the problem.  It’s horrible.  It’s wrong that an author should be classified on the basis of race first and subject matter second.  And it’s wrong that a woman should feel she has to pull a Tiptree and degender herself in order to sell in SF. 

    I don’t see how this sort of ‘WTF’ stuff can sustain itself, but somehow it does go on and on and on and on. Last year Ari at Reading in Color urged her readers to write to Borders and B&N demanding that they stock writers of color and books with POC lead characters.  I wrote, and Borders responded with some thin platitudes about ‘yes, we’re very concerned to be diverse but we have to serve the market’ and then about two weeks later, they folded!  (I was like, ‘Ha!’ )

    I really think that the marketing machine behaves in racist and sexist way in its own right, perhaps sometimes unbeknownst to the people within it who would not like to think about themselves that way.  Because marketing is all about categorising things and simplifying people and things into their most obvious characteristics.  I’d like to think the current shake-up will improve matters, but I’m not at all sure that the newer models will make any difference unless readers AND publishers start to work on becoming conscious of these issues. 

  20. I know I’m being long-winded, sorry.  I just wanted to add, Judith, that none of what I just said is meant to take away from the long list of problems you’ve experienced.  The content of books, the definition of SF, the fact of whether or not the door will even open for a female writer to work in SF–all of these issues seem to have been on the table for you at one point or another.  It’s staggering to read it all spelled out like this.

  21. Tricia et al., that’s why I did it. Not to complain but to illustrate. I’d love it if others would do the same. Just lay out the trajectory. See if others have the same history.

    I had non-white characters on the covers as a matter of course in the Eighties. Maybe I’m one of the reasons why “those covers don’t sell.” It was just never an issue, but my work was also pretty totally invisible, minimally commented on, and barely noticed. Except for the total pans of my third Avaryan book, and the hate mail and the ripped-out pages scrawled on in black marker and…

    That wasn’t for the color of the characters, that was for the gender-bending. Oh boy did that piss people off. The next three sank without a trace, though they’re still out there in Orb omnibus volumes.

    So I’m the historical fantasist, instead of the epic fantasist whose epics were really science fiction. By number 6 they were so invisible I could get away with writing actual space opera, and not one reviewer or official arbiter of taste that I know of even noticed. It was freeing, though it didn’t do much good for the bottom line.

    What I see when I line it all up is a progressive narrowing of the field from the publisher end, even while the readers and writers became more consciously diverse. I also see where “science fiction is dead” and “science fiction just doesn’t sell any more” comes from. If you suppress enough of anything, people who want it stop even trying to look for it, because they’re conditioned to believe it doesn’t exist.

    I woudl like to hear from women writers who have managed to get and keep a rep for writing sf. What’s their trajectory? How have they managed it? What roadblocks have they run into, if any? And how many have kept their careers alive by being published Baen or DAW?

  22. It is very easy to say ‘I don’t care about the gender/race of the author, I just want to read good books’ but that glib statement rather misses the point and serves only to entrench the status quo. Unless we, as readers and purchasers, make the effort to add even one new female and/or black writer to our own shelves then we all run the risk of missing out on some very excellent writing.

    It makes me very angry that any author who is NOT a white male is marginalised and belittled in terms of their work. I have heard several well known women authors complain about the following:

    • being asked to replace their [female] forename with initials
    • being told to rewrite a science fiction book for a YA audience
    • being advised to add more sexual content so the book can be sold as paranormal romance
    • being asked to change the setting of their fantasy book to a ‘western european’ type world

    Judith’s experience through the years supports what I have come to realise is institutionalised sexism (and racism) within the publishing industry. All of us need to make a stand, however small, to redress the balance, and thus help improve the situation.

    [Aside] When I bought books by NK Jemisin and David Anthony Durham I was not aware at the time that either author was black. Knowing that wouldn’t have stopped me from buying either book as they were both books I really wanted to read. In fact they are both authors I would buy anything they published, such is my enjoyment of their writing. Thankfully in the UK, these books are shelved in the SFF section, but why would bookshops in the US shelve them anywhere else? It doesn’t make any financial sense to me, as both authors clearly write epic fantasy and do it very well.


  23. Stephen J. // June 20, 2011 at 9:53 am //

    Without disagreeing with any of the legitimate and valid complaints observed above, or that people need to try to do better, I will note two cautionary points that are not going to go away:

    1) Whenever agents and publishers find themselves asking of an author, “Does she want to make money, or does she want to make a point?”, the majority of them will plump for the money over the point, because that’s how they make their money; and:

    2) Whenever readers and fans find themselves asking themselves, “Should I choose to read/see something I think I’ll enjoy, or something I feel obliged to choose by my social conscience?”, the majority of them are going to choose “I want” over “I should”, as a general rule.

    While the false dichotomy fallacies of both these reactions are obvious on a logical, per-example level — something can make money while making a point, and you can certainly enjoy something you initially chose out of a sense of responsibility rather than interest — the general audience tendencies are real, and very hard to overcome.  A large part of breaking through these habits will have to take the form of positive salesmanship rather than proselytizing on principle.

  24. So, I’ve spent most of my morning coming up to speed on the Russ Pledge Mind Meld post and this great post too. First off, kudos to SF Signal for continuing to cast a wide a net as possible to Just. Find. Good. Books. This, to me, is the essence of the Russ Pledge. I don’t understand the pushback when all the pledge is asking is that we make the effort to find a representative sample — y’know, a solid concept of scientific analysis. 

    My first book came out last March, THE SPIRAL PATH. It deals with inflating microscopic wormholes with exotic matter and traveling to another brane in the (potentially) ten dimensions of space-time. It’s space opera. It has a romance in it. Go figure. 

    Shortly after it was released, a friend directed me to a podcast where they were supposedly talking about my book. The exchange went something like this (I’m paraphrasing):

    Podcaster the First: “One of the SF Signal bloggers has a book out — THE SPIRAL PATH by Lisa Paitz Spindler.”

    Podcaster the Second: “Oh yeah? What’s it about?”

    Podcaster the First: “Evidently there’s a romance in it.”

    <awkward pause>

    Podcaster the Second: “Oh.” <another awkward pause> “What else ya got?”

    I cried. With laughter. OMG who put girl cooties in their science fiction?! I did, yo. The upside is that a book like mine would never have been on their radar at all if places like SF Signal didn’t, as I said, cast such a wide net. The book’s two main protagonists are also minorities: If they were from Earth, my heroine would be considered Latina and my hero Asian. I was so apprehensive about what my cover would look like — would it be whitewashed? It wasn’t, thank you Carina Press. Sadly, I have had one acquaintence ask me if I “ever write about white guys.” Sigh. 

    Romance writer Teresa Medeiros said that: “Probably the most subversive thing we dare to do is to make the woman the hero of her own story.” Guess that goes for reading female science fiction writers too.

  25. Murf61: Yes. I would like to see more dates and names attached, by the people who have undergone this. It would be interesting to see how they all compare.

    I’ve been told to rewrite for YA, because that’s what sells now. Though when I did, I was told I couldn’t have a male protagonist. I’ve also been asked to put more sex in my adult novels, and definitely to put in more romance. “Because romance sells.” (It does.) And for sure I’ve been told not to set anything anywhere that isn’t northern Europe. England preferably. Because “American readers don’t want anything that isn’t familiar to them.”

    I’m afraid that’s probably true, in terms of the general market. But. And but.

    Stephen J: Quite true. But as a writer I take that as a challenge to write books that people will want to read, but that aren’t in their usual comfort zone for setting and characters. At this point those books have a very small chance of selling. But–thanks to the changes in the way publishing works, they don’t have to languish in the “Unsalables” folder any more. I can publish them online and see if they find an audience.

    So, good news as far as that goes.Lots of voices that have been silenced can now emerge in ebook form, and books and series that died for lack of sales can reappear. I like that.

    Lisa: I feel your pain. Has your book been dismissed unread, based on title alone, as “Oh, just another New-Agey romance” yet?


  26. Lisa, I’ll read your book if there are flying cars in it. Why? Because flying cars are AWESOME with AWESOME sauce.

    Let me know what podcast that was so I can be sure never to subscribe to the feed.

  27. Fred: Flying cars are awesome! I know I want one too.

  28. Stephen J. // June 20, 2011 at 4:07 pm //

    You know, I might just be generally mushier and more sentimental than the average guy — which, to be honest, my wife and most of those who know me would agree — but when did incorporating romance in the plotline become a disqualifier for “good” SF/F?!  I like love stories as much as any other element of the plot.

  29. Tiferet // June 20, 2011 at 4:31 pm //

    @Judith ~ I will come out and say that I was one of the people (although I never sent you hate mail or any such thing) who was furious over the third Avaryan book, and that was not because you engaged in anything I’d call gender bending, but rather because you presented magickal sex reassignment surgery as an acceptable and even an ideal solution to a situation where two men wanted and needed to marry each other, but could not, due to societal prejudice and the internalised religious prejudice of one of the men involved.  I don’t think that’s okay, and I am never going to think it is okay.  I will defend your right to write what you choose as you choose to write it, but at the same time, I am going to be critical of it, because queer erasure and gender essentialism and cissexism and homophobia are not NOT problems in SF, and also because the Iranian government is today doing this exact kind of thing to people who are not transsexual because they would rather turn non-transgender men into forcibly-transitioned transsexual women than allow gay people to live in peace.  I have a lot of similar problems with the whole Lady Donna – Lord Dono thing in Lois Bujold’s stuff, but at least this wasn’t positioned as THE solution to the problems that were driving the entire series and I could tell myself that Donna who became Dono had never been a POV character and we had just not seen him go through the process of realising that he wasn’t really a woman inside and needed not to be on the outside.

    That book made me furious in ways I still have a hard time articulating.  Whether or not you intended to send a homophobic, gender-essentialist message, the ending of that book just made me ill, and to be honest I don’t think I’ve picked up another book of yours since, not because I think you’re a bad writer, but because you are a good writer, you made me love those characters and then you did something to them that was so horrible to me that my stomach gets tied up in knots just thinking about it.

    I wholly support people who are trans who want to transition and freely choose to do so because they truly feel they are the wrong gender, and I write trans characters, and hopefully I don’t suck at it.  But transition (chosen or imposed–and yes I know your character chose it, but not because s/he had wanted to change gender all along for hir own reasons, rather so that the relationship could happen) as a means of making a relationship socially acceptable?  No, just no, and I am sorry you were hurt by the reaction of the fans, but we were hurt too.

  30. Jeff VanderMeer // June 20, 2011 at 6:01 pm //


    All authors get pegged as one thing sometime in their career and find that there’s pressure not to move into other areas. I was told several times to stick with fantasy and not move into SF.

    While the kind of information you relate above may be necessary, I would really *love* to hear from you some of your great experiences with editors and publishers, because the unfortunate side effect of only relating negative experiences is that it tends to discourage people from entering a field. Obviously, you love fantasy and SF and you’ve carved out a great career in it. What positives have you found that make it worthwhile?


  31. Tiferet, thanks for your input. It’s valuable.

    Everybody imposes his or her own personal template on whatever they read. There are times when this template and the writer’s purpose and intentions run into direct conflict. Then the reader becomes furious with the writer for breaching a contract the writer might not even have been aware of.

    Your reaction is totally valid. The fact that I did not make the choices I did for the reasons you think I did is also valid.The experience taught me a great deal about filters and assumptions and expectations, in genre and out. It also helped me understand why some of the positive, even rave reviews I got for that and other books were so annoying. I didn’t write -those- books, either.

    But the people who wrote the reviews -read- those books. A few loved the book you hate so much with just as much passion and just as little connection with the book I thought I was writing. And some–mostly historians and students of ancient cultures–got it.

    It’s all valid. That’s the lesson. A writer writes what’s in her. What happens to it after that isn’t anything she can really control.

  32. Oh, and Tiferet? Thank you for another thing. I’m getting motivated to write something new. Because the book you hate is 20 years old, and that’s 20 more years of experience and thinking and reading and observing the world. I explored the plot/themes again in book four, which you never read, and which would probably piss you off, too. But I’ve opened a new ideafile and will start blocking out a new project. If it sees the light of day, you get the dedication. I hope you’ll find it a stronger, more thoughtful, better exploration of the theme.

    JeffV, while I see your point, there are a whole lot of people out there encouraging new writers to enter the field. I’ve done a lot of it myself in a lot of places and will be doing it again.

    But that’s not the purpose here. The purpose is to show why the Russ Pledge might be important, tracked in relevant experience, with dates.

    My relationship with the genre has been somewhat ambivalent. I left it for over a decade. I came back because I love the ideas, the possibilties, the exhilaration of building worlds. And I have dear friends and colleagues whom I missed, and I realized that they were my people and I was happiest with them.

    Love to write in this genre. Love my fellow writers. Love the camaraderie that extends to editors and publishers–the adversarial relationship some genres have between writers and editors/publishers is Not There. It’s a tribe, and I belong in it.

    But here are things that need to be noticed, and if possible acted upon. And that’s what this post is about.

  33. Write what you want to write;  if it doesn’t sell, write what sells.

    Feel free to ignore the second part if you don’t mind not selling.  I mean this honestly.  

    Is selling critical to you?  If so, then make sure to write what will sell. That means selling to the publisher, the editor, and even the public.  This isn’t different than anybody anywhere who creates something for sale.  I don’t mean to imply art either, I mean literally anything you create.  If you create software for a living (ahem) and selling it is important, then you probably ought to figure out what sells and write a program that does that.  N.B. Angry Birds.  Same applies to writing.  N.B. Water for Elephants.

    Is selling not that important? Then go ahead and create (write, build, develop, etc) anything you want. Put it up on the web as free content, self-publish, or whatever works for you.  Or put it in a drawer or only show it to close friends.  It all works.

    But honestly, don’t give a whit about your sex.  Seriously, don’t let other people’s opinion of you based on something as uninteresting as your X/Y chromosone setup imfluence you at all.  If you find yourself feeling dismissed because of your sex, move on and keep doing what you want to do.  

    Sometimes people are mean and superficial.  Some folks get hung up on sex, or age, or weight, or race, or sexual preference, or religeon, or any number of other things.  That just means that those people are making themselves appear small.  Stay big.

  34. You know what, Scott?  There are just a few too many imperatives in your post for me to feel comfortable with it.  Nearly every sentence contains an instruction.

    Judith knows what to do with her life.  She’s not asking for advice.  She’s sharing her experiences.  I for one value this, and thank her for it. 

  35. Thank you, Tricia. I read Scott’s comment as a response to JeffV’s, actually, since i would hope he wasn’t trying to tell me I’ve spent the last three decades doing it all wrong, or rebuking me for not doing it “right.” 

    Because if I am being rebuked, it effectively proves the point that there is a problem, it is prevalent, and it’s completely unconscious on the part of those who perpetuate it. The prescriptive tone is very much in line with analyses of dominant-sector behavior, in which the dominant demographic tells the rest of the world how to act. It’s easy if you’re dominant to say, “Don’t give a whit about what makes you non-dominant,” because as a member of the dominant sector, you’ve never had to deal with the consequences of being anything else. It doesn’t occur to you that it might not actually be that easy.

    I’m deliberately not specifying the nature of the dominance because it’s not specific to gender. It applies to race, class, income level, identity, anything that places a person in a privileged position in relation to the rest of the population. The challenge is to realize that one is privileged, and to understand that not everyone enjoys those privileges.

  36. Tricia, I bet you’re right about Judith.  I don’t know her so I can’t say and wouldn’t presume to.

    However, I wasn’t commenting to Judith specifically, but more to the folks who commented on her piece and on the larger one.  I didn’t say that though so I can see why you’d think that (it is her post after all!)  I was trying to be positive and not authoritarian, but I again I can see how it could be read that way.  Tone is very hard to convey in writing – especially for me (numerous gaffs on this site can attest to that.)

  37. Scott: I see.  Thanks for clarifying. 

    Unfortunately, the question of ‘what sells’ is still a product of dominant cultural trends, so (as Judith just said) it ain’t that simple.  But there is probably something to be said for sheer persistence, and perhaps that is what you were trying to get at?

  38. Jeff VanderMeer // June 21, 2011 at 9:35 am //

    I don’t have anything to add except–I sure as hell hope Scott’s comment wasn’t trying to somehow explicate mine because his was incredibly condescending and didn’t have anything to do with what I was trying to say.


  39. Btw for those who say there isn’t a gender issue in sf or publishing in general, here are a couple of sets of stats, with charts:



    These articles have been linked and referred to elsewhere, but not everyone may have seen them or clicked on the links.

    It’s these articles and the responses to them, along with the Russ Pledge posts here and elsewhere, that led me to write this guest post. I wanted to line it all up from a personal perspective and see what it looked like.

    I got steered out of fantasy and into women’s fiction because there was allegedly more money in women’s fiction…for a female writer. And actually there was. It wasn’t “my” genre the way sf&f is, but it got quite a bit of review buzz and a bunch of new readers. Some stayed after I returned to the tribe. Others keep writing and asking me to write more historicals. Which I might, but my agent says he can’t sell the ones I want to write.They’d have to have a lot more sex and be set in England.This used to frustrate me severely, when it wasn’t outright devastating. Now? Ebooks, baby. The challenge is to afford the time to write them.

    Another lesson learned: If you write alternate history, especially at novel length, be male. Or use a male pseudonym.

    The collaboration with the male writer was a numbers game–he had better numbers in genre than I did, and I had no problem with his name being first on the cover, though he did. His objection, which I was too tired/jaded/beaten down at that point to even really notice, was to the tone of the discussion. I was referred to, in so many words, as the “junior” writer, though I predated him in the field by some years. That had a definite gender-related undercurrent, along with the perception that it was a me book trying to ride his coattails to bigger sales. (It wasn’t. It was his book. He wanted  my mad skilz in characterization and prose style. He wrote the first draft, I wrote the second.) He was quite upset by this and fought hard on my behalf. Didn’t budge anything. Even that point (1997) I knew it wouldn’t.

    Which means I probably played into the hands of the patriarchy or some such thing. I just wanted to work with a friend and a fine writer, and I got to do that. No regrets. But it does add to the data set.

  40. Jeff, I’m glad to see that you didn’t intend to be incredibly condescending, but I have to say that from my perspective, you failed.  Did you not notice that from the title of the post onward, this was a discussion of Ms. Tarr being pigeonholed and ignored in her chosen genre(s)? And here you are, telling her what she should be writing just like all the others.  Why discuss sexism when we could be advertising what a fine genre we have?  Why discuss women being marginalized when we could be talking about that whizbang Gor series?  Why discuss racism when we could be be selling those cute little Jar Jar action figures?  Here come the 1950s again!

  41. Judy, this is a great post: thank you. I can remember hearing Anne McCaffrey talk about how people insisted to her that her books were fantasy because of the dragons as long ago as 1975, when I think the bulk of her published books were pure sf and there were only two Pern books out — and those were clearly sf. But her opinion was discounted. I’ve never heard anyone describe Dune as fantasy, even though it shares many of the same tropes as Pern in its world-building and its portrayal of a long-created colony with its own beliefs etc. I do wonder what we have to do, sometimes, because this issue comes back and back and back, despite all the wonderful women sf writers out there — Butler, Cherryh, Bujold, Czerneda, Tricia Sullivan, Liz Williams, Justina Robson, Jaine Fenn… I could go on and on. Somehow they are still not seen as sharply and as clearly as their male colleagues.

    I, of course, am a fantasy writer. I fell long ago for the line that science was too hard for girls and gave up that ambition. You’re a far braver woman than I — and the Avaryan books remain some of my favourite 2ndary world sf novels ever, and I am still plugging them to people even now. (And I loved book 3, because of what it said about ancient cultures and gender roles and the iron rod of inheritance law. But then, I’m a historian, as you noted above.)

    Kev, listening to me is *always* a good idea!


  42. Three women just talked about ‘how to suppress women’s writing’ & ‘the female man’ for 2 hours:


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