How Not To Apologize

Behavioral etiquette on the Internet is something that is very much in flux, so there is no right way to respond to public outrage. Nevertheless, it is often very instructive to see how people do respond to being called out for perceived misdemeanors, and sometimes you can see people getting it very wrong.

When Maura McHugh complained about a book of interviews with horror writers not containing any women, the publishers, the British Fantasy Society, were immediately very contrite. Chairman Guy Adams penned this response, of which a key paragraph is:

It is disgustingly simple for a man not to notice these things, a blindness to the importance of correct gender representation that I feel embarrassed to have fallen into.

That’s simple and honest. Guy, as the man at the top, stuck his hand up and took responsibility. There was no question of making excuses, or trying to duck the issue. A job well done.

Recently SFX magazine published a horror special that also largely ignored women in the field. Maura challenged this too. The response, from editor Ian Berriman, was very different.

Berriman starts off in victim politics mode. It took the poor fellow three months to put that issue together. It’s not fair, he suggests, that someone should attack it over something as trivial, to his mind, as the number of women mentioned.

The rest of his response is full of excuses, and additional attacks on McHugh’s right to complain. There is talk of emails going astray (would Berriman have made more of an effort to make contact had the author in question been someone he felt was important, rather than just a woman?). There is supposed support from conveniently anonymous female horror fans (yes, “the lurkers support him in email”). Berriman goes to great lengths to show how he rigorously defined the people he would write about, most of whom happened to be male, and doesn’t see any irony in this. Indeed, he appears to be at pains to define what “horror” means to him, and that definition seems to include, “not the sort of stuff that women usually write.”

Perhaps most telling of all, Berriman admits there was one woman writer whom he should have included, but forgot to do so. There were, of course, many other women he might have included as well, but he appears to be unaware of them. As Guy Adams said, it is disgustingly easy for men not to notice these things; for them to be simply be unaware that they have missed out a huge section of the market they are supposed to be covering. And in Berriman’s case, even after having had his omission pointed out to him, to be unable to see that he has done anything wrong, or that anyone has any right to complain about what he has done.

This is why it is necessary to complain. There are all sorts of good reasons why a survey of writers in almost any market other than romance should be male-dominated. Horror may well be worse than most (though I happen to know of three top-class horror novels by women published last year, all of which have been widely praised, and one of which I have read and was hugely impressed by). But all bell curves have tails, and to completely ignore women in such a survey suggests that a lot of “forgetting” has taken place; that women are out of sight and out of mind. And if they are marginalized in this way, then of course their books will sell less well, they’ll be less famous, and people like Berriman will have more excuses for not talking about them. Only by complaining about their absence, as McHugh has done, can women writers be brought back into the spotlight, and only then will people like Mr. Berriman stop “forgetting” them.

17 thoughts on “How Not To Apologize

  1. I happen to know of three top-class horror novels by women published last year

    Are the other two Slights and Audrey’s Door? If there are other great horror novels being written by women, I want to know about them!

    Maura is awesome and that response from SFX is appalling and embarrassing. It’s like Ian Randal Strock asking why I bother thinking about authors’ gender, race, nationality, etc.; come on, guys, where have you been? The 21st century is right here waiting for you, whenever you feel like catching up to it.

      1. I am beyond frustrated at the lack of attention given to White is for Witching. I know that some of the issues are around the title change and subsequent distribution confusion, but even taking that into consideration, I am Not Getting What People Aren’t Getting.

        1. It’s not been marketed as horror at all… it ended up in the ‘mainstream lit that happens to feature ghosts’ pile – but really hasn’t been marketed well there either. I was impressed by it, although none of the other characters seemed to hang together quite as well as Ore – and one or two of the details re: the Kosovars made me want to get a blue pencil out (e.g. a girl who’s clearly meant to be ethnic Albanian in context has a Serb name but lots of Albanian-named relatives). Oh well, shouldn’t nitpick! 🙂

  2. agreed, BFS got a lot of flack at the time but I thought they handled it well and to be fair if you are putting something together from submissions you might not notice they are all the same gender. I have not seen the SFX thing but the response is ridiculous.

  3. I wouldn’t say that’s “the lurkers support me in e-mail”. It’s more, “I asked two people who would feel strong social pressure to maintain good relations with me, and am going to swear I think their answers were totally unbiased.”

  4. The BFS did the right thing and this is coming from a man’s perspective. As a guy, I may not have noticed that until it was far too late. It may be best to have a woman (or women depending on the committee size of the project) on it to be a voice of balance.

  5. Wow, that was some non-apology. I’m a semi-regular reader of SFX, but this has left me with a really sour taste and the strong impression that Ian Berriman either doesn’t understand his readership, or simply doesn’t care. Well done to Maura for taking him to task!

  6. @ Tom – ‘As a guy, I may not have noticed that until it was far too late.’

    I work in a female-dominated industry and I’ve certainly put together teams to work on projects at various points without consciously saying to myself, ‘Hang on, everyone else in this team is a woman too.’ I wouldn’t like to say women have the privilege in this industry, since most members of senior management are still men… so it’s not the same thing, but still, it’s very very easy to just see one’s own identity as the unmarked one.

    None of that excuses what’s happened in this case… Guy Adams’s response was excellent, but will the BFS actually take any *action* that leads to change?

    1. Well the BFS has two other books planned in that series, and the editor of one of them has asked me to interview someone for it.

    1. Not only has it been mentioned, but I’ve seen some people say that this just proves what a waste of time having a “Women in Horror” month is, because there are no women in horror worth talking about.

      1. Please Cheryl, say it ain’t so. 🙁

        If you can find some examples of this I’d like to know because they need to be corrected of that misapprehension.

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