Today on the BBC4 programme, Woman’s Hour, we had a short discussion of science fiction featuring Gwyneth Jones, Karen Traviss and Farah Mendlesohn. This was, of course, sparked by the British Library exhibition, which is having all sorts of wonderful knock-on effects because it has suddenly given us geeks legitimacy with the Establishment. So, how are we doing taking advantage of that opportunity?
I should say at the start that listening to Woman’s Hour is not a pleasant experience for me. I know it tackles all sorts of “difficult” topics, but I still find it oozes middle class smugness and is obsessed with that favorite British social game of proving your moral superiority by demonstrating that you are a better wife/mother/person than your friends and neighbours. (And I chose wife/mother/person deliberately, as it is almost always women whose lives are held up for scrutiny in this way.) Fortunately the BBC has divided the show into chapters, so if you go here, scroll down, and click on Chapter 4 you will get straight to the interesting bit.
Then there is the supposed question to be answered. The programme wants to know whether science fiction is still a male-only genre, and if not why do “we” still think that it is. The obvious answer to that is, “because you keep telling us it is, fuckwit.” Fortunately Farah is much more polite than I am, and was able to demolish the whole idea with some well-aimed academic authority.
The conversation then went on to discuss real issues faced by women writers. Farah made some good points about women writers being invisible or banished to a feminist ghetto, and Gwyneth said that she felt having been labeled as a feminist early on had damaged her career, partly because everything she now writes is regarded as ‘feminist” even when she’s not addressing feminist issues, and partly because, “The word ‘Feminist’ is poison to many sectors of the science fiction audience.”
Karen went on to talk about how she is published primarily in the US where she can make a lot more money and no one seems to find it odd that she’s a woman writing SF. I note also that no UK publisher would touch her fabulous Wess’har series, despite three PKD nominations. Liz Williams has also found difficulty getting published in the UK. Farah then came in and commented about the difficulty of finding women SF writers in bookstores and libraries in the UK, commenting: “…the market in the States is far better, the market here is problematic…”
So yeah, we Brits do not come out of this very well. I have probably noted here before that the US, Japan and Australia all have SF awards promoting gender and diversity issues, but we don’t. I think Farah was right to say at the end that we shouldn’t blame readers for this. I suspect that cultural attitudes amongst publishers, major booksellers and the media are more to blame. But no one is going to do anything about it except us readers and small presses, are they?