Here We Go Again

My teh intrawebs have been busy this morning. The gender balance thing has fairly exploded over the past few days, and not in a good way.

Personally I expected this, pretty much from the point where the SF Signal Mind Meld got involved. That can be a very entertaining forum at times, but when asked to discuss anything serious it tends to quickly degenerate into “don’t read the comments” territory. Since then most of what has gone on has been a male dominance game, with men on both sides yelling at each other and women mostly taking a back seat, looking on in despair.

The trouble is that posts that ask aggressive questions such as “is science fiction sexist?” or “are you a misogynist?” invite an equally aggressive and entrenched response, and so on in an ever-widening spiral of animosity. And eventually someone says something really outrageous, and it becomes a battle of his friends against everyone else, with the original issue being forgotten in the rush to arms.

Before going into the specific issue at hand, let me say that I think anthology bashing is not terribly helpful. Looking at a single anthology, you have no idea where the real problem lies. It could be the editor, it could be the publisher, it could be the submissions, you can’t tell. Also, just as an individual’s reading and voting habits are more likely to be a product of cultural conditioning than of conscious sexism, so an individual editor is more likely to choose stories based on cultural conditioning than a deliberate intention to exclude a particular group of writers. The objective of pointing out gender imbalances (or any other sort of imbalance) should be to encourage people to examine their cultural conditioning, not to decide who we are going to burn at the stake.

Rather than single out individual books or people, it is better to try to take an overall look at the field. That way, hopefully, you can show that you are examining a social issue, not attacking a particular person. I’ve been sent some interesting data about the gender balance in science fiction anthologies, which appears to back up the suggestion that there is a cultural difference between the UK and US. However, there’s probably not much point in publishing it right now as I’ll only be accused of making it up and being anti-British. We can come back to it when people have calmed down.

Even then, however, it is important to understand the conditions in which people are operating. The US is a much bigger market, and it is easier to make a success of a book that might be seen as going against cultural norms. The really big companies tend not to do anthologies, but I’d be prepared to bet that the level of sales that the likes of Prime, Tachyon, Small Beer, Night Shade and Pyr get for such books is way above what any UK-based small press can expect.

If you are running a small press (which is something I happen to do) you need to make a choice as to whether you are doing it for love, and hope that your projects break even, or you are doing it to make a living. In the latter case, if you believe that you are operating in a market where most male readers won’t buy science fiction by women — and, let’s face it, that’s what the big publishers in London are telling us — then you would be daft to publish much SF by women. You have to take a conscious decision to risk sales if you want to diversify your content.

Obviously I’m sad if someone isn’t prepared to take such risks. For me one the delights of small presses is that they are often prepared to risk profits in search of integrity of various sorts. I’m not going to criticize someone for doing what they need to do in order to keep a business afloat, though I’d prefer to see some direct evidence that this is necessary, rather than people relying on received wisdom along the lines of “green covers don’t sell”. It may be that what you have been told isn’t true at all.

What I will criticize people for is making excuses, or trying to brush the issue off, and I’m afraid that’s the way Ian Whates now notorious post came over to me. While giving lip service to the issue, he repeatedly cited women in fantasy anthologies as evidence for his lack of bias, when the debate has been largely about women being pushed out of science fiction into fantasy. He cherry-picked data such as Lauren Beukes’s Clarke win to try to show that there is not much of problem, and then had the cheek to accuse other people of cherry-picking data. As someone who has tried to present proper data, I’m seriously insulted by that.

Elsewhere, in this comment, Whates said:

At the end of the day, it’s the quality of the story I look at as an editor, and gender is very much a secondary consideration. If the story is a good or even a great one, I’ll snap it up whether written by a man or a woman.

And yet here we have Charlie Stross and Jennifer Pelland claiming that Whates’s anthologies were invitation only, and that he generally didn’t invite women to contribute unless nagged into it by others. Those two things don’t add up, and I’m not at all comfortable with someone suggesting that women writers are no good when he apparently hasn’t given them a chance to compete. Since then, various women writers have come forward and said that they were invited by Whates, but for various reasons were unable to deliver. If that is the case, a less inflammatory response would have been to suggest that perhaps women writers have more pressures on their time, thereby preventing them from submitting as often as men, rather than suggest that they are no good. (This is a very common feminist response to allegations of, “it’s all the wimmin’s fault for not trying!”)

In short, there are ways of presenting these arguments that suggest you understand the problems, and there are ways of doing it that suggest you are trying to brush the issue under the table. Whates, unfortunately, came over as the latter.

At the root of all this we find ideas about correct gendered behavior. Men are put in the blue corner where they are expected to like cars, football and science fiction; women are put in the pink corner and expected to like babies, cooking and fantasy. You can imagine why this makes me very nervous. As female-identified persons go, I am apparently fairly girly. At least several cis-women I know have told me that I am more girly than they are. But this is no real help, because once you are out as a trans person people’s expectations of your gender performance tend to go crazy. If I’m too girly them I’m overdoing it, and if I’m not girly enough then I’m clearly not “really” female. Either way, I am a social embarrassment; people don’t want to employ me or do business with me. This stuff matters.

It is not just trans people who have problems with gender expectations either. Here’s a story from yesterday’s Guardian about a woman who has quit her job at Harrod’s because she’s uncomfortable with their “dress” code that requires female staff to wear full face make-up at all times, and keep it properly maintained throughout the day. I can understand that if she was actually selling make-up, but she worked in the music and video department.

Challenging entrenched ideas like this is not easy. It requires bravery and commitment, and a willingness to risk both profit and social standing. But most of all it requires people to recognize that there is a problem, and be willing to do something about it. If you yell at them and tell them they are bad people, the chances are that they will get defensive and try to claim they have done nothing wrong, and that “OMG YOUS WIMMINS ARE OPPRESHING ME QUOTAS GULAGS MEN REDUCED TO NEKKID CASTRATED SLAVES WOMEN PLAYING FOOTBALL CATS AND DOGS LIVING TOGETHER THE END OF THE WORLD!!!1!” (N.K. Jemisin in comments on the SF Signal post).

Is it possible that we could have less chest-thumping and finger-pointing on the one hand, and less bingo card excuses on the other? I hope so. I rather doubt it.

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48 Responses to Here We Go Again

  1. James Davis Nicoll says:

    In the latter case, if you believe that you are operating in a market where most male readers won’t buy science fiction by women — and, let’s face it, that’s what the big publishers in London are telling us

    Do they have concrete reasons – actual market research, say – or is this merely a firm assertion on their part?

    • Cheryl says:

      I don’t know. All I can say for certain is that Ian McDonald said in his GoH speech in Stockholm that one UK publisher has a firm policy of never buying SF from a woman. I don’t think he would have said that if he wasn’t sure it was true.

      A potential problem with publishers is that something that is true on average (e.g. “SF sells better to men than women) or in extreme cases (“our top 5 SF writers are all men”) can easily turn into a rule of thumb (“women SF writers don’t sell”).

      • James Davis Nicoll says:

        I don’t know. All I can say for certain is that Ian McDonald said in his GoH speech in Stockholm that one UK publisher has a firm policy of never buying SF from a woman. I don’t think he would have said that if he wasn’t sure it was true.

        I apologise if this seems like nit picking but that’s an author commenting on publishers policies. I’d love to see comments on this subject from actual publishers.

        I know from poking around a few months ago that M/F ratios vary a lot between publishers (both for protagonists and writers) but I didn’t think to look at M/F (SF) versus M/F (fantasy) by publisher.

        • James Davis Nicoll says:

          And of course I have the attention of a mayfly on speed so that’s another unfinished project.

        • Cheryl says:

          This is Britain we are talking about, James. No one makes official statements like that. Things are said behind the scenes. No one knows what is really said, we have to rely on leaks. And as leaks go, I think Ian is pretty credible.

          • James Davis Nicoll says:

            Ah, I was assuming the hilariously self-damning statements of e.g. American comic book publishers was more of a universal than it actually is.

  2. Martha says:

    I’m fairly new to these forums, so I don’t know if this level /volume of discussion is as it’s always been or…. something a bit different.

    I’d like to believe that the passionate discussions we have been having these past weeks are a newish phenomena – women voicing their opinions, arguing with each other, with men and generally keeping our concerns and experiences in the limelight. But I feel that it is a very positive development – on the order of ‘We’re mad and we’re not going to take it any more’. In my life’s experience, I’ve learned this: Changer happens when those wanting change make the Overlords uncomfortable enough ‘to do some thing about it!’

    I don’t like having my work held for several months and finally excluded only to see the anthology it was being considered for come out with a mostly male TOC and mostly the same old same old’s. But it happens. Probably the editor’s reasons for finally not choosing my story had nothing to do with gender. We’ll never know. But… but… but…

    “Is it possible that we could have less chest-thumping and finger-pointing on the one hand, and less bingo card excuses on the other? I hope so. I rather doubt it.” Sadly I agree with you – but we’ll never know until we try.

    • Cheryl says:

      I have an awful feeling that Joanna Russ would tell us that what we are seeing now is very reminiscent of what she saw back in the 70s, except you don’t have to wait weeks for the next fanzine to arrive.

  3. James Davis Nicoll says:

    I’d like to believe that the passionate discussions we have been having these past weeks are a newish phenomena – women voicing their opinions, arguing with each other, with men and generally keeping our concerns and experiences in the limelight.

    The thing is, it’s not new at all and it’s kind of frustrating, having lived through one previous iteration two generations ago, to see how much ground has been lost in recent years.

  4. Twilight says:

    First – that was an AMAZING post – it explains, in reasoned detail, not only what the issues are but various ways to address them that *don’t* flame the fires.

    I gotta admit, I had NO clue you were anything other than as presented for years (like until relatively recently) – partly because I tend to take folks at face value and partly because I’ve no reason to respond differently knowing that background – I’ve never been good with coloring within the lines and never understood why anyone should have to or care if others do. Your voice is every bit as much a strong feminist voice as any i grew up with or heard since – that anyone would take it any other way makes no sense to me.

    The whole SF vs. Fantasy thing has always amused me – women like Bujold and McCaffrey tweaking the definitions their whole careers and no one seeming to notice contribute to that. And I’m one of those who tends more to Bear & Benford than traditional fantasy – but growing up on Clarke et al probably contributed to that preference for hard SF.

    If the UK is that much more “stuffy” about printing women’s sf than the US, then I have to wonder if it isn’t time for George to make an appearance again…

    • Cheryl says:

      There’s a whole other post to be written about stealth, passing privilege and the very difficult choices that trans people have to make. Please excuse me for not doing it in comments, or immediately. Writing stuff like the above is exhausting.

  5. James Davis Nicoll says:

    The whole SF vs. Fantasy thing has always amused me – women like Bujold and McCaffrey tweaking the definitions their whole careers and no one seeming to notice contribute to that.

    Up to about 2000, Bujold was almost exclusively an SF writer, and a reasonably hard one.

    McCaffrey was marketed as SF in no less a place than Analog of the 1960s but

    A: back then fantasy was a much smaller market.

    B; John Campbell liked thrilling tales of psionics. No, make that “loved thrilling tales of psionics with a manly passion of passionate manliness”; some pretty dodgy stuff written by writers aware of and able to bat to his foibles got published by JWC.

    And I’m one of those who tends more to Bear & Benford than traditional fantasy – but growing up on Clarke et al probably contributed to that preference for hard SF.

    I am going to assume that’s Greg and not Elizabeth up there. Greg Bear’s not all that hard when you get down to the details but he knew the forms well enough. Knows, I guess, now that he has returned from Thrillerville. In any case, there are lots of women whose SF is as hard as anything Bear or Benford wrote (not that you said otherwise).

    • twilight2000 says:

      James Davis Nicoll:

      Nod to everything you said – and if you could point me to some hard SF writers of whatever persuasion, i’d be forever in your debt! Unfortunately for me, Charles Sheffield stopped writing when he passed…

  6. Martha says:

    A: Whole lot of man-splaining going on.

    B. I’m almost certain she meant Elizabeth Bear one of the strongest womens voices in the arena today. Sorry James

    • twilight2000 says:

      FWIW, I meant Greg – no disrespect to Elizabeth, I’ve just not read her work. I’m just NOW getting to Bujold (and LOVING it!) – but I’d love more hard sf writers because that was my first love and I miss it.

  7. Martha says:

    It occurred to me after I posted the above, that we both were being rude to assume we know what Twilight means. Perhaps we should ask HER.

  8. James Davis Nicoll says:

    Surely we can go around at least a few more times before resorting to that?

    The reason I made the assumption I did was that Elizabeth Bear is an author whose first published story was in (IIRC) 2003: Greg Bear, Gregory Benford and McCaffrey are from olden times (1967, 1965 and 1953 respectively, IIRC, although I think AM had a long gap between her first published story and the second). Bujold showed up in the mid-1980s; admittedly post-Disco but not nearly as recent as post-9/11 Bear.

  9. Martha says:

    I repeat: why don’t we ask HER what she meant?

  10. James Davis Nicoll says:

    I have taken no steps to prevent you from doing just that. I note that thus far you have not actually done so.

    Twilight, what did you mean?

    • Cheryl says:

      James:

      Could you please try to make whatever points you have without feeling the need to score points off people? It is getting annoying.

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  12. “And yet here we have Charlie Stross and Jennifer Pelland claiming that Whates’s anthologies were invitation only, and that he generally didn’t invite women to contribute unless nagged into it by others.”

    My comment refers to “The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction, volume 3″ which was edited by George Mann (as were volumes 1 and 2).

    • Cheryl says:

      Ah, thanks for the correction. My apologies to all concerned.

      For those not following this closely, Solaris was sold a while back and the George Mann anthologies were effectively published by a totally different company to the Ian Whates ones.

      • twilight2000 says:

        I imagine it’s both lengthy and difficult to write – I would never expect it in comments or immediately – I mostly wanted you to know how wonderfully you crafted the piece at the top of all these comments and how much I look forward to hearing your take on things.

        Oh – and the whole stealth thing – I have to admit to being easily fooled, in large part because I’ve never understood why I *shouldn’t* take someone as they present – but also because I trust those who are introduced to me by those I trust – and you came into my awareness that way :>.

  13. One thing I haven’t seen said yet is that it’s not just sf. The Harry Potter books, for instance, were bought as children’s literature, and J. K. Rowling famously had to use her initials because her British editor asserted that boys wouldn’t read books by someone named Joanne, regardless of genre.

    (As for the less-biased US market, the US editor who bought the first book insisted that the title had to be changed because American parents would turned off by the academic connotations of the word “philosopher”.)

    • Cheryl says:

      That’s complicating matters considerably. Bloomsbury presumably wanted to aim the book at both boys and girls. However, for many books the rule is that fantasy is for girls. Except if it is Abercrombie-style blood & gore, in which case it is for boys. Gender stereotyping goes on, but with fantasy it is much more difficult to understand and explain the patterns. The case with SF is much clearer.

  14. Paul Ewins says:

    Just on cultural biases – the perceived wisdom in Poland was that Fantasy was written by men for men and women weren’t interested. Trudi’s publishers basically bet their company (she was their first acquisition) that this was wrong. 500,000 books later it seems that women will buy fantasy written by women. Anecdotally it also seems that if they pass those books to the various males in their lives they will also happily read them. (Actually, I’m sure that there were many men who were buying their own copies, but the “My girlfriend gave me the first book and I loved it” story was fairly common amongst the guys in the autograph queues.) The whole “X doesn’t sell so we don’t sell X” is lazy and dangerous for a company since tastes change, and often quite quickly. I would have thought that tapping into the small niche market known as women might be worth trying.

  15. Martha says:

    “I would have thought that tapping into the small niche market known as women might be worth trying.”

    Paul, I agree. I also think that now, more than ever, tastes will change and quickly. That the volume of discussion we have been generating will contribute the the energy activating these changes. It could be compared to turning an ocean liner – takes a long time to get the first few centimetres, but once it starts moving – watch out.

  16. Patty Jansen says:

    I’ve followed this debate from the sidelines mostly.

    Testing the waters, writing hard SF as woman and emerging writer, I’m finding this whole prejudice bemusing and scary. Do men really refuse to read SF written by women? I’d love to see data on that, because my very incomplete and limited personal evidence shows no such thing. Or at least it’s lot more complicated than suggested.

    That said, I have wondered often enough if I should use a male pseudonym. However, that would feel like conceding defeat.

    • Ian Sales says:

      I hope, Patty, you’ll consider submitting to Rocket Science when submissions open on 1 August.

      Incidentally, I fully intend to post the submissions stats as they happen, which should provide some good data for this discussion.

    • Cheryl says:

      Do men really refuse to read SF written by women?

      You know that’s right up there on the bingo card, don’t you? Alongside “do men really beat their wives, my husband wouldn’t hurt a fly?”

      It really gets very tiresome having to go through this again and again. Yes, it is complicated. No, not every man behaves in the same way. I am not an idiot. I’d appreciate you approaching this by assuming that I’ve actually thought about the issue rather than just open my big mouth and say the first thing that comes into my fluffy little head. Hmm?

      A quick Google turned up this article from The Observer from 2005 and here’s Goodreads with some data from how people behave on their site.

      As to your career, it depends very much what you want out of it. If you are determined to make it big then you’ll probably want to do what your agent and the big publishers tell you and adopt a gender neutral name. It won’t be hard, you can call yourself Pat. If, on the other hand, you don’t want to admit defeat, then keep your name, and submit to venues that are less concerned about giving the public what they think it wants. Sean Wallace at Prime is always happy to publish women writers.

      • Patty Jansen says:

        I really don’t see the need for such an aggressive reply.

        Where do people in general get the data that today’s generation men don’t read fiction in their preferred genre that happens to be written by a woman?

        • Cheryl says:

          If you don’t want an aggressive response, don’t treat the person you are talking to as an idiot. It is quite simple, really.

          I gave you two sources of data. Clearly that’s not good enough. I suspect I could give you an hundred sources and you’d still come back questioning the validity of it. So there’s no point having this conversation, is there?

  17. Mike Cobley says:

    Cheryl – I understand the argument you’ve made vis-a-vis the treatment of female SF writers by publishers, and I also understand the criticisms levelled at Ian Whates, even though these seem to be based on extended inference and interpretation of what IW meant when he said this or that or the other, or when he didnt meet some unstated quota of invites to female writers to submit stories. Yes, I understand the argument and can see where IW might have done things differently, although I ultimately could not go along with the disapproval voiced in the para beginning “In short, there are ways of presenting these arguments…”

    But then you proceed to expand the range of malefactors, referring social stereotyping and rigid gender forms etc, all quite a valid argument of itself – but it follows on from the argument about IW’s editorial decisions, thus conflating those criticisms with your opposition to wider problems of social imprinting. Then you follow that with the story from the Guardian, then a concluding para that sums up your verdict. Which seems to imply that you see IW as someone out to do down women SF writers at every opportunity. “If you yell at them and tell them they are bad people, the chances are that they will get defensive and try to claim they have done nothing wrong…” Honestly, is this what you think that Ian Whates is doing?

    As I said, the former part of your argument I understand and respect, but I really think that you’ve weakened it by bringing in extraneous material to the point of overkill.

    Got no wish to attract ire and so forth, but this had to be said.

    • Cheryl says:

      Mike:

      There’s really nothing I can say to that. You are entirely free to read coded messages into what I write if you want. I’ll continue to assert that a) there is a real issue to be discussed here, and b) that witch hunts, anecdata, derailing arguments and attempts to turn the argument into inter-personal feuds are not helpful.

  18. Jodie says:

    ‘If you yell at them and tell them they are bad people, the chances are that they will get defensive and try to claim they have done nothing wrong’

    I seem to end up on the other side of internet town more often where someone is having a calm discussion, someone else comes over and piles in, the originator continues to clamly explain and the arguer continues to ignore, dismiss and pull up misinformed arguments (although in a less aggressive way than they might in other arguments).

    Just wondering at what point/whether you thin there is a point where you think it’s best to give up on putting your calm reasoning out there and just step away from the ‘someone is wrong on the internet’ type discussions? Do you have to keep putting forward arguments, because uncountered arguments breed more agreeing misinformed comments, or is it ok to say ‘ I can’t have this discussion again and again’? I don’t want to be someone who won’t do the work, but it is as I’m sure you know it is continually mentally exhausting to have to try and keep calm in these situations.

    • Cheryl says:

      Jodie:

      Is it ever exhausting. I can assure you that I would not have waded back into this again if it didn’t seem like the whole issue was being swept under the carpet because it had become an argument about personalities. The trouble is that if you give in and stop talking about it then nothing ever changes.

  19. SF publishers are being remarkably stupid to ignore the demographics issues.

    In America, every con panel with sf authors I’ve attended has an audience filled with older men and women of all ages while the younger men are in the gaming and computer rooms.

    The more successful publishers like Baen advertise not only in LOCUS but magazines aimed at female genre readers who are the ones buying the books.

    So many of the old guard are wringing their hands over “the dead of science fiction” while they are busy excluding the women who will buy their books. How dumb is that?

    • Cheryl says:

      Marilynn:

      I’m not convinced that it is dumb. Publishing has become a very complex business, heavily focused on the search for the next best seller. I think that has lead the big multi-nationals to become very focused on publishing books that conform to what is believed to be a “winning formula”, and nothing else. Baen is a smaller outfit on more free to be flexible.

  20. Baen is owned by one of the major conglomerate publishers, but it has remained successful because it acts like a small company. If its strategy failed to produce very successful and bestselling books, its parent company would kill it.

    SF publishing has one main weakness. Most of its companies are run by the old guard of SF who still sees its audience as pimply geek boys like they were, and that demographic no longer exists as a viable market.

    If they continue to make SF exclusive rather than inclusive of a wider audience including women, they are being dumb, bestselling formula or not.

    • Cheryl says:

      Marilynn:

      Most of the decisions abut SF in the major publishers (especially in the UK, where this discussion has been focused) appear to be taken by marketing people who don’t even read SF, they only read sales reports.

      • To a certain extent, the same here in the US, although with the improved sales figures offered via various sources, the editor and the number crunchers have a much higher involvement in recent years.

        If the marketers are only marketing to guys, it’s not surprising they don’t see women buying. A self-fullfing outcome.

        In this ongoing argument about the sf market and women writers, it would be a smart strategy to show who is buying books and who isn’t and that women writers can bring in the genre-omnivorous female readers.

        The current upsurge in the SF/fantasy market in the US is owed almost entirely to huge numbers of women buying urban fantasy, and from what I read on genre reader boards catering to female readers they are more than willing to give harder sf a try when it has strong characterization and a decent plot. The writers who capture these readers are the ones who will survive, not those writing to the geek boys who no longer read.

        • Martha says:

          As one of those omnivorous women readers who insist on strong characters and a believable plot AND as a budding sf and fantasy writer I really, really hope you are right. At the risk of repeating myself (which I’m going to do anyway) I think we (women writers and readers) have to keep talking, discussing and attacking the system – any way we can.

          It’s ALWAYS been this way. If they can shut us up, talk over our voices or convince us that it’s a lost cause, they will win; if we don’t give up/in – (some) progress will be made.

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  22. V says:

    I’ll say this . . . it took having women writers, academics, and fans talking about this for me to open my eyes and start reading and buying science fiction by women.

    So the only thing I can think of is that we don’t stop making noise until a female Charles Stross is commonplace.

    Also, I thank those women mentioned above for talking about Joanna Russ.

    The Female Man blew my head off. I wish I’d read it when I was a teenager and it would have changed the following years for the better.

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