Q&A On Gender Issues – Part 2
Posted by Dominick
Lately there are a lot of blogposts published and discussions on Twitter going on about gender issues in the world of fantasy authors. Despite the modern times we live in, there are still a lot of prejudices about fantasy books written by a female author. So I decided to ask some of those female authors their opinion about this matter. These authors are Francis Knight, Elspeth Cooper, Anne Lyle, Teresa Frohock and Courtney Schafer and their responses are wonderful. I asked them five questions and below you’ll find their great answers.
Since the complete post was getting a bit too big to publish in one piece, I decided to break up the whole thing in three parts. Today, for part two, you get to read the authors’ answers to my third and fourth question.
For part 1, click here.
F.I.: Welcome back, ladies. Now for my question number three: There are a lot of female fantasy authors who started their successful career in the 60’s, 70’s or 80’s: Marion Zimmer Bradley, Patricia McKillip, Anne McCaffrey and Robin Hobb, just to name a few examples. They prove that female fantasy authors could be as good, or even better than most of their male colleagues. So why is it that most readers are still inclined to take a book from a male author instead of a female author, in your opinion?
Courtney: “Most” readers? Or do you mean, male readers? Speaking for myself, I never paid conscious attention to the gender of an author until I got published and started hearing stories of discrimination; yet my SFF shelves have long had a distinct majority of female authors. Proof that unconscious bias runs both ways! This doesn’t excuse it. I think it behooves us all to examine our prejudices and assumptions; if nothing else, because if you only ever choose books to read that are solidly in your sweet spot, you miss out on all kinds of excellent novels that may delightfully surprise you. One of the most wonderful things about speculative fiction is its ability to show us worlds we’d never imagined, and new ways of thinking – so why miss out on that by forever huddling in one little corner of the genre?
Teresa: I’m not sure if it is about “most readers”, which is a very broad categorization. I think it is more about which readers are barking the loudest and the most often, and sometimes this is the reflection of a very vocal minority. These are usually people with a lot of time on their hands, and they spend that time online talking about their personal favorites.
I mean, let’s face, in today’s market, if people weren’t buying books by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Patricia McKillip, Anne McCaffrey, and Robin Hobb, these ladies wouldn’t still be in publication, but they are, and their novels are in just as much demand today as they were when they were first published. The simple reason behind this is because they wrote/write stories that resonate with a large number of readers, male and female, young and old.
I also believe that we cycle—male authors can be very popular to a certain group today, then next year or even the year after, female authors will be all the rage once more. It’s not so much a matter of productivity but a matter of writing works that touch a great cross-section of the reading populace and the ability to continually produce works of high quality. All of the authors that you mentioned have accomplished this and proven their storytelling abilities time and again.
Anne: As I said, I don’t think it’s “most”, just a vocal minority. And to be honest the writers you name, however good, were not for the most part writing the kind of fantasy that tends to appeal to boys. McCaffrey in particular wrote what was basically a fantastical equivalent of the “high school/pony club” stories of the sort traditionally beloved by teenage girls. These women put their own, often subtly feminist, slant on the genre and did a great job of drawing in female readers – but in doing so they may have made their work less attractive to a male audience. Ironically that could have worsened the problem from the point of view of women trying to break into, say, epic fantasy, because they might be seen as writing “that girly stuff about shy bards and telepathic animals”. Yeah, you all know the kind of books I mean…
Francis: Most readers? Hmm…I’m not entirely sure that’s true for *most*, or if it is it might be for other reasons – the covers, the titles, the way the book is presented, who it’s marketed to, these all play a part in how we choose books. Which of course gets all very complicated…. (Not to say there haven’t been problems/cock-ups on that front from some publishers, because there have – female authors getting more ‘girly’ covers even when the book itself isn’t etc.).
However, all else being equal, if we are saying that it is true for most or many, and I know that some people DO do this, consciously or otherwise, then….well it’s back to those preconceptions. I do recall talking to a gent who was adamant he loathed female fantasy writers – so melodramatic and overly emotional, don’t you know? But you like Robin Hobb, I said. ROBIN HOBB’S A WOMAN??!! Um, yes? He did then have to concede perhaps he’d been unconsciously filtering, and women just might be able to write.
PS: You forgot CJ Cherryh! I had no idea of her gender when I first read her books. I just knew I loved them.
Elspeth: It may have something to do with marketing choices made when promoting male authors in bookstores, or in the media. If readers consistently select a book with a certain cover style, that feeds back to the marketing departments as “This approach works!” so it becomes self-perpetuating – see the rash of hooded figures on fantasy covers of the last few years.
Or it may be that much of what Joanna Russ wrote about in How to Suppress Women’s Writing is still applicable, and still permeating the market and the readership in ways which are so ingrained, it takes a conscious effort to overcome them.
F.I.: Teresa Frohock’s contest about female vs. male writers proved that most readers can’t tell if they are reading fantasy written by a male or a female, when not given the name of the author. So aren’t you frustrated by the fact that the fantasy genre is still dominated by male authors?
Elspeth: Is the genre really dominated by men, or are the men simply more visible? Do they get the lion’s share of the marketing spend, garner the most press attention? Part of me says “probably”, given the reviewing bias that Vida and others have identified, but the rest of me finds that a bit surprising, given the overwhelming number of women who work in genre publishing today. And if your definition of fantasy includes paranormal romance and urban fantasy, I’d say it wasn’t male-dominated at all, though blokes do seem a bit over-represented in the high and epic categories and under in PNR and UF. It would be an interesting exercise to go through the major genre publishers’ catalogues and actually attempt to tabulate this, and find out once and for all if the genre really is male-dominated, but that’s a job for someone with more time on their hands than me!
So am I frustrated? No, not really. If someone could show me that I was actively being overlooked, purely on the basis of my gender, I might be more inclined to get on my hind legs about it. Until then, I’m happy just to be on the shelves.
Teresa: *coughs* Well, as Teresa Frohock, I haven’t been frustrated, just curious, and when I’m curious, I create weird experiments, because I like numbers … and stuff.
Anne: Yes I am. Though I think a big part of the problem is the disparity in exposure that male authors get compared to female. I helped Juliet McKenna with a survey of Locus, and found that whilst overall their numbers were balanced, male reviewers were more biased (75/25) towards reviewing books by men than women were in reviewing by women (66/33). Now, I think it’s quite natural for men to prefer books by men and vice versa, so a problem only arises if you have a gender imbalance in the people putting books in front of the public – which does seem to be the case for the post-publication process. (There are lots of women editors and agents so, as mentioned above, I don’t think there’s any discernable bias pre-publication.)
For example, Locus has more-or-less equal numbers of male and female reviewers, but the women reviewers were more likely to be relegated to the short reviews section of the magazine, resulting in less exposure for each (usually female) writer reviewed. Admittedly Locus is a pretty obscure magazine from the point of view of the general reader, but if anything the major review outlets are far more biased – not in their treatment of women’s books per se, but in their bias towards employing more male reviewers and giving their reviews more exposure.
It all kind of snowballs from there. Book sales reps and shop managers are (I think) predominantly men, so you probably get a smidgin of natural bias there too. Add in the fact that women writers tend to be more reticent (otherwise we get accused of being strident harridans!), so they get chosen less often for interviews, author events, convention panels, etc., and you can see how each tiny disadvantage soon adds up into a serious, albeit unintended, difference in the status of male and female authors.
Courtney: Again, I raise my eyebrows a bit at your usage of “dominated.” There are scores of excellent female-authored fantasy books published by the major houses, and in recent years, quite a few women have appeared on the Hugo and Nebula award ballots (and won!). If you mean in terms of bestseller lists and online discussion, and are specifically talking about non-urban, non-YA fantasy…okay, yes, it can be frustrating. Mostly because it gets tiring to constantly hear only about the same narrow subset of novels. A host of other awesome books exist out there, both male and female authored, that get far less love than they deserve. But really, there’s only one solution: if you love a book, TALK about it. So I try and do that for the lesser-known novels I adore, wherever and whenever I can: on my own blog, on Reddit’s, Fantasy forum, on twitter, etc.
Francis: Frustrated? Not exactly, no. It’s a reflection of more subtle things in society as a whole, of what is conceived as ‘male’ and ‘female’, much of which is just cultural baggage to be honest. I think it’s changing too, in the younger generations, certainly if my kids and their friends are anything to go by. But I prefer to see it as a challenge rather than a frustration. Then hopefully at some point I can twirl my fictional moustaches – yes, female authors get them too – and ‘mwahahaha!’
F.I.: Thank you again for your great answers, ladies. Tomorrow’s post features the answers to the last question. See you then.
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Posted on 26/02/2013, in Books, Miscellaneous, Interview and tagged Elspeth Cooper, Courtney Schafer, Anne Lyle, Francis Knight, gender issues, teresa frohock, female authors, prejudices. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.