Is Australian Fantasy Dominated By Women?

In all of the discussions about gender balance in SF&F, Australia has seemed to stick out as a counter example. Is that really the case? I asked Tansy Rayner Roberts to take a closer look at the issues. Take it away, Tansy…

Our industry runs on perceptions and, let’s face it, superstition. All manner of beliefs still do the rounds like gossip that never dies: from green books don’t sell and you must have a name on the A-F shelf to Boys Don’t Read Girl Books, SF is For Menfolk, No One Hires Proofreaders Any More and, oh how about:

Australian Fantasy Fiction Is Dominated By Female Authors.

Cheryl asked me to peck away at this particular perception, because it’s been raised several times in the Writer and the Critic podcast, usually as a throwaway, teasing comment from Mondy, followed up by a necessary jab of the Pointy Stick by Kirstyn.

Yes, it is a common perception in the Australian spec fic community, that our fantasy (itself the most healthy and flourishing of the spec fic genres) has more female authors than male, and certainly more women who have a substantial professional profile. But is it true?

Certainly we can see impressive representation by female authors across awards lists in Australia over the last few years. I was startled after winning last year’s Ditmar Best Novel (a community award voted upon by members of the National Science Fiction Convention each year) to realise I was only the sixth woman to have won it in the 40+ years of the award’s history. (Cherry Wilder, Lucy Sussex, K.J. Bishop, Margo Lanagan, Kaaron Warren and me, in case you were wondering) Those wins occurred in 1977, 1997, 2004, 2009, 2010 and 2011.

What a development! Four of those wins are from the last seven years, and the last three consecutive Ditmar awards have been won by women. Which suggests something big has changed, right?

The indomitable Mondy wrote his own post recently, looking at the pattern of Ditmars given to Australian spec fic writers over the last decade which includes not only the Best Novel category but the two short fiction categories too, and notes a definite shift in the pattern overall, from being an award that mostly honoured male writers to being one that mostly honours women.

But that’s just one award. Luckily, we have another! If you look at the Aurealis Awards, a jury-based award of Australian speculative fiction excellence which has been running since 1995, awarding a Best Novel prize annually across several categories including science fiction, fantasy and horror (as well as categories for children & young adult which I won’t look at for the purposes of this article), we have the following breakdown:

Best Fantasy Novel
Male authors – 6
Female authors – 13

Best Science Fiction Novel
Male authors – 15 (including 3 co-authors)
Female authors – 3 (including 1 co-author)

Best Horror Novel
Male authors – 6
Female authors – 8

In the last three years, when the Ditmar has been won by exclusively female authors, the Aurealis has also awarded Best Fantasy Novel to three women, while awarding Best Science Fiction Novel to two men and one woman, and Best Horror novel to two women and one man.

On the face of it, then, when it comes to local awards, we see that female authors are doing better than male authors in Australian fantasy fiction, but also that they are doing better in fantasy than in the other two speculative fiction genres.

Ah, but I hear you say, never mind awards! Answer the question! Is Australian fantasy dominated by women?

The trouble with the word ‘dominated,’ and the reason so many of us roll our eyes when it is trotted out, is that it has connotations of unfairness. If there is a dominator, then doesn’t that also mean someone is being oppressed? And indeed, that’s the reason I was hesitant to tackle this topic. The last thing I wanted was to give ammunition to anyone who wanted to throw stones at the women of the Australian spec fic community on behalf of its poor, oppressed male authors (most of whom, I should note, are not publicly complaining, at least where I can hear them).

The truth is that as long as Australia has had an active professional science fiction and fantasy publishing industry, female authors and readers have been a massive part of its success. While Australia has also had successful male authors in science fiction and in fantasy, we have never lacked for female role models; living proof that a) fantasy by women can sell in high numbers and b) fantasy doesn’t necessarily become less epic because of a female byline.

What’s really surprising is that it has taken this long for that success to be mirrored in the Ditmars (whereas you can see it reflected in the Aurealis results of the last 15+ years). The change, if this is a change and not an anomaly, may be found by looking at who are nominating and voting in the Ditmars, whether this demographic has changed or merely changed their reading habits. As I commented at Mondy’s blog: either Ditmar voters have begun to respect females, or readers who respect female authors have begun to vote in the Ditmars.

Rowena Cory Daniells has been blogging a regular series of interviews with female fantasy writers (and occasional men) on her blog, and one question she consistently asks is about their experiences with gender issues and fantasy — have they found fantasy & SF to be a boys club in countries other than Australia, and whether they think women and men write differently. It’s worth looking across the interviews because of the variety of responses!

Still, that’s still mostly talking about perception and anecdote, isn’t it? Let’s get back to some number crunching.

Tsana Dolichva was kind enough to compile some stats for me. Her data is based on the eligible works for the 2011 Ditmar ‘Best Novel’ which was an open wiki, and almost certainly has some texts missing, but should give us some good general information. Tsana looked at the gender breakdown across genres of all fantasy/SF/horror novels published by Australian authors, and then again with children and YA books filtered out to just look at the adult books. Her numbers include small press and self-published works, which combined provide a little over half the data. They also don’t distinguish between Australian and o/s publishers.

The results?

Tsana worked out that 55% of all published Aussie specfic books in 2011 were written by women, 44% by men, and 1% by other. When she looked just at the Aussie specfic written for adults in 2011, it shifted to 53% women and 47% men.

But we weren’t really talking about speculative fiction, we were talking about Australian fantasy. And what do the numbers (for adult novels) say about that?

62% female authors. A healthy majority, certainly, but I’m not sure it’s enough to justify the term ‘dominate’, and I certainly don’t think it’s a dramatic enough statistic to make people panic about the lack of menfolk, especially seeing it side by side with the gender statistics for science fiction and horror. Neither, of course, is it a dramatic enough statistic to explain the recent ‘DOMINATION’ of Australian spec fic awards.

What the numbers do tell us is that Australian Fantasy is NOT dominated by Male Authors, and that’s apparently something that makes us stand out from the international crowd. I’d love to see the gender number crunching pie charts for other countries to check against the perceptions we have about UK and US fantasy being dominated by men…

Many thanks, Tansy. For those of you not familiar with her work …

Tansy’s award-winning Creature Court trilogy: Power and Majesty, The Shattered City and Reign of Beasts, featuring flappers with swords, shape changers, half-naked men and bloodthirsty court politics, have been released worldwide on the Kindle, and should be available soon across other e-book platforms. If you prefer your books solid and papery, they can also be found in all good Australian and New Zealand bookshops.

You can also check out Tansy’s work through the Hugo-nominated crunchy feminist science fiction podcast Galactic Suburbia, Tansy’s short story collection Love and Romanpunk (Twelfth Planet Press). You can find her on the internet at her blog, or on Twitter as @tansyrr.

5 thoughts on “Is Australian Fantasy Dominated By Women?

  1. I don’t know about “dominated” by women, but when I think of Australian authors, I think of female authors as much as or more than male authors. For every Sean Williams and Ian Irvine, there is a Sara Douglass, Margo Lanagan, Jo Anderton, and Tansy herself

    I wouldn’t call that dominate. But I think its because the numbers are on par that it looks like domination as compared to the rest of the world…

    1. Hey Paul,

      I think that’s exactly right. I need to find a permalink to that theory that people (not just men) perceive women as dominating a room/conversation once they get to 40% representation, because I so often need to refer to it…

      True parity has to incorporate peaks and troughs.

      It does mean that Australians occasionally get culture shock to realise that so many of the bestselling fantasy writers in the top tier in other countries are not women… and the big question that constantly flits past my consciousness is… why not?

  2. Interesting post. I’d love to see a break down of those stats into publisher/self published, because it might show a difference between what is being written and what is being selected and invested in by others. Or if men or women are more likely to give up or skip the search for a publisher and take on the task themselves. But I suppose that’s a whole other blog post.

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