One of the interesting things about having lived for some time in Australia and California as well as the UK is that you occasionally notice cultural differences. One appeared to pop up on Twitter this morning. People I followed in the US and Australia (and also New Zealand and the Philippines) were giving the thumbs up to this blog post by Nicola Griffith, whereas the reaction from UK people was more along the lines of, “those boring feminists are at it again.” This immediately reminded me of comments made by Gwyneth Jones and Farah Mendlesohn on the recent Woman’s Hour program, in particular Farah saying, “…the market in the States is far better, the market here is problematic…”.
Now of course my Twitter pals are not necessarily a very representative sample. I don’t think, however, I have a different political mix amongst people I follow in the UK to those I follow elsewhere. And of course the debacle of the feminism panels at Eastercon was fresh in my mind. I do think we could do better in the UK. (And a hat tip here to people like Niall Harrison, Ian Sales and Kev McVeigh who have been doing good work, but why do we have to rely on men to do that work?)
Anyway, regardless of whether there’s an issue with the UK or not, the issues raised by Nicola’s blog post, and the complaints I saw about it on Twitter this morning, still need to be addressed. Of course this is yet another post about invisibility and exclusion. It therefore ties in to a long history of complaints about such problems involving award short lists, anthology ToCs, guest lists for conventions (yes, you, Kapow!) and more recently the number of women reviewers, and number of books by women accorded reviews (overview here).
Is this just women being whiny? Are we finding sexism where none exists? Personally I disagree, because the point here is that sexism is a cultural phenomenon, not just a few random acts by bad people. If you define sexism and only occurring when a man does something prejudiced to a woman then you are likely to find Nicola’s post irrelevant, but unless you get at the root of the issue — what Fay Weldon succinctly described on the BBC Book Review Show as the idea that men are more important than women — then sexist actions will continue to happen. Which is why, every time we see something that suggests men are much more important than women, us uppity feminists make a bit of noise.
Talking of the Book Review Show, the issue of gender balance came up there too. I think we can politely pass over John Mullan’s offhand dismissal that the ladies “were exaggerating”. However, Daisy Goodwin asked why women should care about recognition when they sell more books. It is a good question, but before I answer it let’s look at some of the other complaints raised.
Nicola’s post references Joanna Russ’s famous book, How to Suppress Women’s Writing [Purchase]. In particular she quotes the part where Russ notes the various excuses made for not recognizing the contribution of women to the field:
“She didn’t write it.”
“She wrote it but she wrote only one of it.”
“She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist (sf writer), and it isn’t really art (sf).”
“She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly.”
There should be a bingo card, and we can add to it some of the reasons I saw given this morning as to why women shouldn’t care about exclusion from things like “best of” lists.
1a. Women shouldn’t complain about exclusion because their books are more popular than men’s.
1b. Women shouldn’t complain because the lists reflect popular taste.
2a. Women shouldn’t complain because it is only critics talking and who cares what they think?
2b. Women shouldn’t complain because it is only fans talking and who cares what they think?
Yes, I did pair those deliberately. That should be sufficient to make the point. Suggestions for further entries on the bingo card are welcome. (And please note that my copy of How to Suppress Women’s Writing is stranded in California. It would not surprise me at all to discover that Russ had mentioned the above excuses as well.)
Back with the point, why does it matter who gets reviewed, who wins awards, who gets anthologized? Because those things will eventually make up his-story. So when people come to look back because, for example, they have been asked to name their all-time favorite SF book, they will only remember the books that history tells them about. The others will be forgotten, and become invisible.
The issue that Nicola was talking about was not one of, “oh, it is not fair, a bunch of sexists have not chosen any books by women”. Rather it was one of, “oh look, women writers have been forgotten again.” And the sad thing is that, because they have been forgotten, people then use their apparent lack of existence to justify the fact that historical lists ignore them.
I should note here that I am not expecting a 50:50 split. Obviously it was harder for women to get published in the past, and it still isn’t easy today. I don’t think that Nicola was expecting a 50:50 split either. She just wasn’t expecting 96:4.
I note also that this isn’t entirely men’s fault. Back in the 70s feminist critics tended to dismiss earlier SF by women because it was too “domestic”. Recent academic work by people like Justine Larbalestier and Lisa Yasek has show that this “domestic” SF was a lot more pointed and satirical than was earlier thought. Justine’s book, Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century [Purchase] provides a good introduction to some early women SF writers.
The main issue here, however, is that complaining isn’t enough. If we want women writers to get recognition we have to do something about it. We have to talk about them, and we have to get them back into print. Nicola’s post, having noted the problem, was very much all about how we needed to do something, not just sit back and complain. And that’s mostly why I was so sad to see it being dismissed as whiny.
So I’m going to be talking to Nicola, and anyone else who is interested, about getting good SF by women back into print. Suggestions of books/authors you’d like to see available again are welcome.