Posts belonging to Category culture and society



Creativity Within Constraints

Over the weekend, I read Val McDermid’s version of Northanger Abbey. This is one of The Austen Project books, wherein half a dozen very fine writers are (re)writing contemporary versions of Jane Austen’s novels.

I don’t mind saying my first reaction on hearing this was ‘but why?’ What could possibly be the point? The original books are there, readily available for reading, and by general consensus, are some of the finest writing in the English language.

Well, okay, not according to my stepfather. As a schoolboy in the steel and coal communities of South Yorkshire in the 1950s, being made to study Pride & Prejudice for O Level left him with a lifelong loathing of Jane Austen, the Regency, Bath – pretty much anything tangentially linked to a fiction that was so far removed from anything in his own daily life to that point and his primary interests in science. No, he’s not dumb – he went on to get a doctorate in Chemistry and more besides. The book just wasn’t for him.

So is that the point? Would a modern version be more relevant to him – or his current equivalent – and somehow get Jane Austen’s genius for unpicking human relationships in under the radar? Maybe so, but what’s in it for the likes of me, who’ve known and loved the originals for decades? I simply couldn’t see it, and honestly, only picked up Northanger Abbey because I’m such a great admirer of Val McDermid’s work. I started reading mostly in hopes of finding out what could possibly have convinced her to do this.

Wouldn’t it be just like one of those pointless shot-by-shot remakes of a popular TV show? For instance, I cannot see what’s to be gained by remaking Broadchurch as Gracepoint, even up to the point of using David Tennant with an American accent? Where’s the creativity in that? Though I’m equally down on remakes that diverge from their source material. I watched the first dozen episodes of The Killing and the further it diverged from the original which had held me so enthralled, the crosser I became. If they wanted to tell a completely different story, why not do something properly new?

On the other hand… I’ve watched both versions of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Swedish and English, and enjoyed them very much in different ways, while being very familiar with the book as well. Each production followed the source material closely, adapting it intelligently for visual rather than written story-telling, while the variations in performances did bring out different nuances and explore different aspects of that original. Somewhere in the multiverse, there’s the world that got the ideal version with Daniel Craig and Noomi Rapace…

Besides that, I know for myself that finding the room for creativity within constraints can be great fun, as well as a worthwhile test of a writer’s skills. I’ve written a couple of short stories for licensed properties; Doctor Who, Torchwood and Warhammer 40K. Those projects come with huge amounts of established detail and guidelines which you absolutely cannot break as an author. The challenge of doing something genuinely, satisfyingly new within those boundaries of characterisation, tone, background etc, is considerable – and that’s what makes it so rewarding.

The fun of working within the constraints of a theme is one reason why I’ve been involved in anthologies from Tales of the Ur-Bar, The Modern Fae’s Guide to Surviving Humanity, Legends – just to name a few. It’s why I’m really hoping Temporally Out of Order reaches the Kickstarter’s stretch goals, so I can write up my idea… I’m also really pleased that open-submission slots are available for that anthology, because working within these sorts of boundaries can often be a valuable learning experience for new writers.

Well, I won’t spoil this new version of Northanger Abbey for potential readers. I will just say that my reading time was emphatically very well spent. This retelling is great fun and so well crafted on many levels. A reader won’t need the least acquaintance with Miss Austen to thoroughly enjoy an excellent contemporary story. Most impressive of all for me, there are twists to surprise even those of us familiar with all the ins and outs of the original.

Language problems for time travellers – the ones we don’t see.

I’ve been thinking about time travel, in particular questions of communication. This is something we’re used to seeing glossed over for the most part. Occasionally someone turns up from Elizabethan England saying things like ‘forsooth, varlet!’ but that’s about as much of a nod as it gets. This has always irritated me, after having studied Chaucer in the original at school. Drop me in 14th Century England and I’d be reduced to communicating by writing things down in Latin, always assuming I could find someone who could read Latin.

On the other hand, there are obvious issues for storytellers, where being accurate about linguistic barriers is going to throw massive obstacles in the way of smooth narrative. I’m reminded of the TV series, Stargate SG-1, where they did try to avoid the whole ‘universal translator’ cliche in the early series, thanks to the polyglot Dr Daniel Jackson. That faded away pretty soon, I’m guessing as script writers, actors and directors alike simply found it too unwieldy.

The thing is though, this wouldn’t be the whole story by any means. Even if people are conversing in mutually recognisable English (or any other language), there are still going to be misunderstandings around slang and pop-culture references. Here’s an example. A few years ago now, I was sitting in the lounge, reading a book. There was some music playing and a son came into the room. We had the following conversation.

Recognising the music, but not quite able to place it, Son: ‘Who wrote that?’

Mostly concentrating on my book, Me: ‘Elgar. Nimrod.’

Mildly indignant Son: ‘Okay, I only asked. No need to be rude.’

Looking up, slightly bemused, Me: ‘Sorry, what? You asked about the music and I told you. Elgar wrote it. It’s called ‘Nimrod’.’

Incredulous Son: ‘He called a piece of music, ‘Nimrod’?’

Now definitely confused, Me: ‘Yes, Nimrod, the mighty hunter.’

Curious Son: ‘So how did it come to mean ‘stupid person?’

Closing my book, Me: ‘It means what?’

Okay, we subsequently established that, at least according to the Internet, ‘nimrod’ became a term of derision thanks to Bugs Bunny. That’s what he repeatedly calls Elmer Fudd, in ironic fashion but presumably younger cartoon viewers didn’t get the literary, Biblical reference and simply went with the insult. Which does make me wonder what happened in the RAF, since that was the name of one of their planes through the 70s and 80s. In my experience, aircrew are much more likely to be familiar with Looney Tunes than the Book of Chronicles. But I digress.

I’ve been trying to think if I’ve seen this sort of thing ever covered in SF&F. The closest I can come up with is Janet Edward’s ‘Earth Girl’ trilogy (highly recommended YA SF) which isn’t about time travel at all but is set in the future where linguistic shift has seen ‘butt’ become a taboo swearword.

Oh and I think there may have been a few one-liners in the TV series ‘Quantum Leap’ but it’s so long since I watched that I may well be misremembering.

Can anyone else flag up a book, TV programme or film that’s tackled this sort of thing, well or badly?

At least this wouldn’t be a problem for gadgets finding themselves Temporally Out of Order. Or could it be? I wonder if we’ll see any stories along those lines in the anthology we’re hoping to write. Excuse me while I go and see how well the Kickstarter’s getting on today.

Why that Facebook ‘Ten Book Challenge’ was impossible for me…

I’m sure you’ve seen it, and mostly likely been tagged – and unsurprisingly it turns out that was in service of Facebook generating a ‘news’ story. Which is harmless enough, as far as it goes. I didn’t not respond by way of any principled stand against being manipulated or exploited or anything. I just didn’t get round to writing a list because every time I tried, my brain just stalled. Hung. Locked up. Needed a firm ctrl-alt-delete.

“List 10 books that have stayed with you in some way. Don’t take more than a few minutes, and don’t think too hard. They do not have to be the ‘right’ books or great works of literature, just ones that have affected you in some way.”

I don’t have to take a minute to come up with twenty or thirty titles. A couple of minutes? Then I’ll have a hundred and then I’ll realise that I’ve still left out a vast chunk of my lifetime’s reading experience. There’ll be crime and SFF and historical – but no literary fiction, no comedy… And what about non-fiction? Biography? Memoir and diaries? Some of those have made a great impression.

Looking at the bookcases here was no help. Seeing one title would instantly remind me of five others just as memorable in their own and differing ways. I simply could not dash off a superficial selection without instantly regretting it.

On the other hand, I have found reading other people’s lists very interesting, by way of insight into them and their work, offering some surprises along the way. And being tagged by people doing that, it does seem a little rude not to respond in kind.

So I have come up with a list of books that have stayed with me – not any sort of definitive list, not the most memorable books in my life or even the most significant. For a start, I’ve limited myself to fiction. But these are ten books which have a significance for me and my own reading and writing, where each one is an exemplar for any number of similar works.

(and yes, this is consciously gender balanced list because what possible justification could there be for it not being so, given the thousands of books I’ve read in my life thus far?)

The Horse and his Boy – CS Lewis – the first Narnia book I read on my own with themes of being true to one’s own self that will still draw me into a book today.

The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien – for an introduction to epic grandeur which never loses sight of the human (or halfling or dwarven) costs of heroism.

The Ogre Downstairs – Diana Wynne Jones – for child-centered drama acknowledging that life isn’t fair, that everyone, old and young, makes mistakes and the only thing to do is tackle all that and move on. Also magical chemistry set!

Something Fresh – PG Wodehouse – for an introduction to the insights into the human condition that can be so very effectively conveyed through comedy.

Warrior Scarlet – Rosemary Sutcliffe – showing me that the past is a different country and they do things differently there, thus inspiring me to learn more about history while exploring how far the essentials of life and love stay the same.

The Hound of the Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – introducing me to the popular fiction of decades gone by. Reading needs depth as well as breadth.

Brat Farrar – Josephine Tey – an introduction to just how much a crime/mystery novel can offer beyond the puzzle of Whodunnit.

Dragon Prince – Melanie Rawn – my personal favourite of the game changers writing epic fantasy in the 80’s, showing just what the genre could now address.

Vanishing Point – Val McDermid – showing how a genre novel can equal the very best of so-called ‘literary fiction’ and then go far beyond it in commenting on contemporary society.

Intrusion – Ken Macleod - informed, engaged, political, thought-provoking, giving the lie to any notion of SFF as ‘mere escapism’.

And now I’m going to hit ‘post’ before I start arguing with myself again about ones I’ve left off, but how am I supposed to choose which of these ten to chuck over the side…?

Ctrl-alt-delete!

“Challoner, Murray & Balfour; Monster Hunters at Law” – my new ebook out today.

As established fans may remember, I’ve had three stories featuring these characters previously published; one in the BFS ‘A Celebration’ anthology and two in Murky Depths magazine. If you’ve read those, you will recall one tantalizing loose end. What becomes of poor Bertie? Well, now you can find out. As well as those three earlier stories, this little collection includes a whole new story, The Fate of the Villiers, in which the hunt continues…

Artwork by Nancy Farmer

Artwork by Nancy Farmer

You can find the book here at the Wizard’s Tower Press shop and it’ll be rolled out to other ebook retailers over the next few days.

But hang on, I’m an epic fantasy writer. Why am I writing adventure stories set in the 1890s with supernatural monsters and steampunk apparitions? Well, first and foremost, I write to entertain; to engage and thrill my readers. I can do that just as well in late Victorian England as I can in Einarinn. Because one of the great things about writing SF&F is the immense freedom it offers.

Wait, what? Surely that’s a bizarre thing to say about writing in a genre – any genre. Isn’t the whole point of genre following the rules? Well, yes, and no. Bear with me.

When I’m writing epic fantasy, I’m looking to honour that particular genre’s core traditions while at the same time examining, testing and driving those traditions forward to ensure the genre still stays relevant to the world today and readers who live in it. Which is why aspiring fantasy writers really should be reading Robin Hobb, Kate Elliott, Adrian Tchaikovsky and Stephen Deas (among many, many other excellent current writers) as well as Tolkien, CS Lewis and Lord Dunsany – to see how the genre develops.

Er, how is this relevant to a book with a werewolf in evening dress on the front? Because as well as appreciating the roots of speculative fiction in Tolkien, Lewis and similar works, aspiring writers will also do well to read the classics of Victorian and Edwardian popular literature by the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, H G Wells, H Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. These are at least as much a source for modern SF, Fantasy and Horror as anything Tolkien or Lewis wrote. They are as much part of our literary heritage as anything by Dickens, Hardy or the Bronte sisters – and written to be enjoyed in an age before artificial genre boundaries arose. Indeed CS Lewis was a passionate advocate for the values and virtues of popular reading, as his letters to FR Leavis reveal when the latter was determined to embed literary snobbery in university English degree courses between the wars.

So I wrote these stories – and may yet write more featuring these characters if this collection proves popular – to honour these other forebears of our genre. Also, as you’ll discover on reading, I wrote these tales with an eye to both recognising and challenging some of those forebears’ less palatable assumptions about men, women and their respective roles a hundred-plus years ago. Because such debates are still relevant today.

Because it is never enough to merely revisit our literary sources. We should all aim to be breaking new ground, not merely trailing after well-trodden footprints which will only bring us back to our starting point. That’s where the real challenge – and the most fun – lies in writing genre fiction.

(And once you’ve written it, if you’re as lucky as me, you’ll have the immense fun of seeing your creations envisioned by a talented artist, in this case Nancy Farmer.)

Is it time for a Women’s Speculative Fiction Prize?

I’m heading into London later today for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. No, I have no idea who’s won. But I can tell you one thing for certain. All the prize winners will be men because the shortlists are all male this year. No, I’m not criticizing the DGLA administrators for that, or scolding the thousands of fantasy fans who take the time to nominate and vote for their favourites each year, and I absolutely respect and admire the shortlisted authors, hard-working professionals all.

But this does nothing to help the ongoing problem of lack of visibility for women writing epic fantasy.

Yes but, I can hear someone saying, this is just one award. Look at the progress towards gender (and other) equality in other areas.
Three of the last four winners of the Arthur C Clarke Award have been women.
The Nebula Awards were dominated by female authors this year.
The British Science Fiction Association best novel award has been won jointly by Ann Leckie and Gareth Powell.
The Hugo Award shortlists are encouragingly diverse, despite blatant attempts to game the system by die-hard sexists (and worse).
Even the British Fantasy Society is offering a wide-ranging slate for 2014, including a Best Newcomer shortlist that’s all women after so many years dominated by male nominees and a definition of fantasy heavily skewed towards horror.

All that’s absolutely valid. And that means this whole issue is worth a closer look rather than simply deciding it just means these Gemmell Awards are an unfortunate aberration.

Look closer and you’ll see all these recent awards and shortlists I’m citing come from Fandom with the active participation of juries in many cases. These are driven by the high-volume readers (and writers) who actively engage with genre debates and developments through conventions and online venues, blogs and forums. This is where so much recent change to broaden diversity and inclusion within SF&F has happened and continues to be driven forward, not without difficulty at time and with profound thanks to the determination of those who refuse to be silenced.

By contrast, the Gemmell Awards are a popular vote and as such, these shortlists reflect the entirety of fantasy readers, the majority of whose tastes and purchases are driven by what they see in the shops, what they see reviewed in genre magazines and blogs, and such like. Where male writers dominate. I’ve written repeatedly about the gender skew in Waterstones (and a full blog post on that is forthcoming) and just this week, I got a ‘Top Fantasy Titles’ email from Amazon, offering me fifteen books by men and just one by a woman writer. Female authors are still consistently under-represented in genre reviews and blogs.

Why? Because of conniving hard-core sexists upholding the patriarchy? Er, no. Because retail is a numbers game and that means it skews towards repeating successes rather than promoting innovation. To revisit an example I’ve offered before –

When a non-fan bookseller, eager to capitalise on Game of Thrones, is making key decisions about what’s for sale, and all the review coverage and online discussion indicates a majority-male readership for grimdark books about blokes in cloaks written by authors like Macho McHackenslay – that’s what goes in display, often at discount, at the front of the store. So that’s what people see first and so that’s what sells most copies.

Six months down the line, the accountants at head office look at the sales figures and think excellent, Macho McHackenslay is one of our bestsellers – and the order goes out to ask publishers for more of the same. Now, chances are, some editor will be dead keen to promote the second or third novel by P.D.Kickassgrrl. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her book’s on sale at full price in the SFF section at the back of the shop or upstairs, where retail footfall studies have proved people just don’t go to browse any more, especially now that booksellers don’t routine carry authors’ backlists.

When it’s a numbers game like retail, that passionate editor will struggle to get a hearing, however much he insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent book will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans – especially when that bookseller won’t have seen any reviews of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s work to prompt him to stock it at the front of the shop – because genre magazines and blogs have the same skew towards conservatism, on the grounds that ‘we have to review the books people are actually buying, because those are the ones they’re clearly interested in.’

And so the self-referential and self-reinforcing circle is complete. Which how we end up with all male shortlists for the 2014 Gemmell Awards.

And it is absolutely no answer to say ‘oh well, look, there are plenty of women coming in at the debut stage now, so we just have to wait for them to rise through the ranks.’ Because we have decades of evidence to show that this simply isn’t going to work. It hasn’t worked in the law, in medicine, in academia, in any number of other professions. If it did, these arguments wouldn’t keep recurring.

So how do we break this cycle of self-fulfilling prophecy? What would get women writers in SF&F noticed outside genre circles, which is what needs to happen if female authors are to have any chance of the sustained writing careers which their male peers can achieve.

How about a Women’s Speculative Fiction Prize? Because prizes garner press coverage and column inches outside the genre in the mainstream press. Just google any of those awards I listed earlier to see that. Prizes get the attention of publicists and booksellers who aren’t specifically interested in genre – any genre. The same’s true for crime, romance, etc. Shortlisted books get reviews because a magazine or newspaper that might not have otherwise noticed them now has a specific reason to take a look.

No, I’m not volunteering to set this up. I know full well how much hard work goes into administering and fund-raising to support an award, year round. As a judge for the Arthur C Clarke Award, I got a good look at the busy team behind the curtain and I’ve been a supporter of the Gemmell Awards since the first discussions about how to go about setting that up and whether it should be a juried or popular vote. Establishing a new award like this would not be an easy undertaking, even with the active support of genre publishers willing to supply yet more free copies of books, if this was a juried award rather than a popular vote. And that’s just one of the complex issues that would need discussing, alongside eligibility and other criteria.

This idea is still worth discussing though. And if you don’t think it’s a good idea, feel free to come up with some other solutions, to offer female authors of epic fantasy some reason to keep on writing in the current hostile retail climate.

Waterstones & Everyday Sexism – the book & the problem in action

So, I got the Waterstones ‘Books to Read in May’ email this morning.

Laura Bates’ book, Everyday Sexism was the first featured title by a woman writer, below books by six men, including three of William Boyd’s backlist, so below a total of nine featured titles, three of which are not even new books.

Of the five titles by women writers, three were in the last four at the very bottom of the email – and one of those is going by initials only so I had to google to establish if this was a male or female author.

With the most generous analysis that’s eight men being promoted against five women. Before we consider the relative prominence of their promotion and the fact that one woman is (understandably) presenting as gender neutral.

Bu does this stuff really matter?

Consider the all male-and-pale Gemmell Award shortlists this year. No one will convince me this doesn’t stem from the last few years of almost invariably all male-and-pale promotions of epic fantasy on the ‘If you like Game of Thrones, try this’ model.

Because that’s a fan voted award. And if all the reading-5-to-10-books-a-year fans (who are a significant sector of the market) ever see promoted is books by men, that’s going to seriously skew their reading. Lists like the 2014 Gemmells are a direct result.

This was a particular slap in the face for me this morning, after attending the Women in SFF event at Blackwell’s Charing Cross Road yesterday evening. Professor Edward James (a stalwart ally of good writers who happen to be women for decades) chaired the discussion between Karen Lord, Stephanie Saulter, Naomi Foyle, Janet Edwards and Jaine Fenn. All excellent writers by the way, highly recommended, and who have first hand experience of the issues and are intent on finding solutions rather than just sitting there wringing their hands.

All in all, it was an excellent event, with all seats taken as well as folk standing at the back – men and women and encouragingly diverse in ethnicity and origin. And one of the issues that came up several times was the cumulative effect of the little things – like not being promoted as often or as visibly…

Well, Blackwell’s Charing Cross Road were assuredly doing their bit with this event (sponsored by Jo Fletcher Books) and with a nicely prominent table of women SFF writers in the main selling floor. Though when I asked if other Blackwell’s branches round the country would be running the same promotion, the bookseller I spoke to didn’t think so. Perhaps if there’s a Blackwell’s close to you, you could see the next time you’re in there? If not, perhaps you mention the possibility of contacting their Charing Cross branch for information and suggestions?

Anyway. I came away from the event with pages of notes. Looking at them this morning, I don’t think there’s material for a single blog post – but for a series of posts highlighting and debating different aspects of this ongoing issue. Watch this space.

Invisible: essay collection edited by Jim Hines. See Why Diversity & Inclusion Matter in SF&F

I’m all in favour of diversity and inclusion. It matters to me personally and professionally. I have felt that bafflement at being excluded just for being female. I have felt that bitterness at being expected to ask permission to be included when men are not. I have felt bloody angry over things too numerous to mention; like being labelled arrogant and pushy where a male author doing far more self-promotion than me is congratulated for his initiative.

So I understand that the inclusion which I’m entitled to should extend to those of different race, sexuality, and mental or physical make-up to me as a matter of natural justice. The thing is though, I understand that by way of reason and logic. On an intellectual level if you like. I can sympathise with those who suffer the same or worse exclusions, for reasons different to me. I can stand beside them as an ally. But I struggle to truly empathise. I have never walked a mile in their shoes.

This collection of essays relates first-hand experience told with clarity and bravery, from the points of view of children, parents, those in the world of work and those with the life experience to see how things have changed. It really, really helps me see what those other paths are like. Not just for folk who I’d think of, if someone asked me to list excluded groups, like gay, lesbian and trans* or wheelchair users. You’ll find insights into living with mental illness in reality and as it’s portrayed on screen. I’d never noticed how gendered such portrayals are, in addition to their other flaws. Personally I dislike The Big Bang Theory TV show but discussion in another essay of what Sheldon means to those living on the autistic spectrum rocked me back on my heels. Then there’s the Evil Albino trope which I’d never considered until now and is truly chilling.

The ebook is $2.99 and all proceeds are going to the Carl Brandon Society, for Con or Bust – helping folk of colour/non-white people get to SFF Conventions.

You can find links to the book on all the usual ebook outlets – and if you’re not already reading Jim Hines blog (and books) I heartily recommend you start.

Meantime I will be continuing to do all I can for diversity and inclusion in SF&F. These essays have reminded me that for some, finding folk like themselves in fiction is literally a lifeline. So it’s not just enough for the books to be written. We have to make them visible both to those who need them, and to those who who will benefit in ways they never expected, when they look outside their own experience and broaden their mental horizons.

Reviews, Reviewing, Reviewers and Gender

I got the latest British Science Fiction Association mailing this week and flipped through their critical journal Vector to see what books were being reviewed. Then I went back and checked the listing – which confirmed my initial impression, which I’d told myself surely must be wrong.

But no. Of the nineteen authors featured in this issue, seventeen are men. There’s one non-fiction title by a woman writer discussed and one piece of fiction. That fiction review is not a positive one. Now, just to be clear, I have no quarrel with that review per se; I haven’t read the book but the review reads as a fair assessment of a book that really did not work for that particular reviewer.

But I do question the editorial decision to include only one review of fiction by a woman when that assessment is a negative one. Would readers not be better served by using that limited space to recommend something worth reading?

As I said on Twitter “really @BSFA? Really? Of 19 authors reviewed in the latest Vector, only 2 are women? REALLY?” Unsurprisingly a good number of folk picked up on that, which prompted some things I’d like to flag up.

Firstly, representatives of the BSFA pointed out that overall, the gender balance in Vector reviews is around 35% for female authors, 65% for male authors annually. Not ideal but better than some and this is something they are aware of. So that’s good to know. Mind you, this particular issue’s going to put a hell of dent in this year’s figures unless there’s some concerted effort to redress the balance.

Secondly, the BFSA folk pointed out they have fewer female reviewers in proportion to their membership – and are looking to address this, having put out a call for more women reviewers recently. Once again, good to know.

Thirdly, apparently, they get sent fewer books by women writers from publishers. An issue they intend to address. Okay.

But someone, or several someones, still thought it would be okay for this particular issue to go out, with such a dreadfully unrepresentative selection of reviews. I really do hope that’s discussed between the BSFA and its membership. I very definitely want to see positive action from the top down to make sure this doesn’t happen again.

For the moment, let’s look at the wider issues all this raises.

How easily will the BSFA – or any badly gender-skewed publication – be able to break the all too familiar Catch-22 situation I’m seeing there? How willing will female reviewers be to step forward, to contribute to a magazine or website that on the face of it, simply does not cover either the authors or the style of writing that they’re interested in?

How willing will publicists be to spend hard cash sending out hard copy books when the odds of them getting reviewed seem so slim? Yes, ebooks help with the costs issue but publishers still have to know who to send them to…

This is where positive editorial action to overcome the cultural inertia of the status quo is essential if anything is going to change. Anything approaching a shrug and ‘well if women don’t like it, it’s up to them to fix it,’ is not acceptable.

To return to that issue of Vector, folk asked about the gender balance of reviewers overall. In related comments, a couple of genuinely concerned chaps raised their own doubts about offering to review, wondering if more male voices would merely make the problem of women’s opinions being drowned out even worse? That’s a valid point for discussion, for reasons beyond the obvious.

There are a handful of women reviewing titles by men in this particular magazine and indeed the female non-fiction title was thoughtfully reviewed by a man. This is both positive and important because we absolutely need books by women writers reviewed by men and books by male writers reviewed by women. The issues around gender equality of visibility aren’t helped in the least if we end up with a situation where there’s an equal number of male and female reviewers covering an equal number of books by men and women writers – but where the chaps are all discussing epic fantasy written by chaps, while the girls are all focused on urban fantasy written by other girls.

This was brought home to me personally very forcefully when I was mocking up bookshop displays a few weeks ago. I had the books to hand to compose two different photos of books by women writers – but when I wanted to do a table of recent SF&F by men who are not the Usual Suspects on any GRRM-alike table, I found I couldn’t. Oh, the books assuredly exist, by the likes of Stephen Deas, Tom Lloyd, MD Lachlan, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Aiden Harte, Mark Charan Newton, and more besides – but I don’t have copies of them here. Because my reaction to the bookshop focus on blokes in cloaks written by blokes has been to specifically seek out epic fantasy written by women and to promote that. So I’m actually badly under-read in recent fantasy fiction by men. That’s something I’ll aim to rectify but there are only so many hours in the week I can devote to reading…

This matters because while, yes, overall, every reader and reviewer will be different, irrespective of gender, there are definitely some things which male and female readers will notice differently. Two of the titles reviewed in this edition of Vector are SF novels I have read, where the female characters play into long-standing and unhelpful stereotypes and those women all lack agency to a greater or lesser extent. Neither male reviewer mentioned this aspect, either because they didn’t notice or because they didn’t consider it significant. It’s significant to me, particularly when there are fine SF writers out there, male and female, who manage to write convincingly independent women characters who initiate action and avoid such dated roles within a story. So any review of either novel which I wrote would be very different.

And this is absolutely not about Feminism Smiting the Evil Patriarchy. This all works both ways. From my own experience, looking at comments on my Hadrumal Crisis trilogy, I’ve seen male readers offer thoughtful analysis of one particular female character’s role, where a lot of women readers don’t go beyond exasperation at her inability to cope with her circumstances. Now, all those interpretations and reactions to that character are equally valid. I have no quarrel as the author with either viewpoint, not least because I know that reaction will be informed by the reader’s own life experiences. What matters to me is that folk reading reviews of that series have a chance to see a range of viewpoints that might make them stop and think about their own likely response to the books.

And this absolutely matters in the broader sense because the ongoing inequality of review coverage and other opportunities for visibility directly affects the income, career-longevity and morale of women writers.

For my previous pieces on gender balance in reviewing and on inequalities in visibility for women writers, see

Fantasy Cafe 2013 – Inequality in Visibility for Women Writers

SFX Magazine 2011 – Everyone can promote Equality in Genre Writing

Yes, I wrote that SFX piece in 2011. Yet in 2014 we see a publication that purports to be engaged with contemporary SF&F fandom as badly skewed as this latest issue of Vector. It may be explicable but it remains indefensible.

What I did with my Saturday, explaining the lack of a blogpost yesterday

Had an excellent day at the Oxford Literary Festival today. I chaired a conversation between/with Dr Susan Jones and Dr Fiona Macintosh on ancient and modern dance which was absolutely fascinating, and touched on all sorts of things we could have discussed for hours, such as the ways in which all arts reflect the era in which they are performed, and are subject to use and abuse by both sides on then-current socio-political debates. Also the ways that an open minded and inter/cross disciplinary approach can contribute all manner of new understanding to a field.

And afterwards, in our bit of interdisciplinary conversations, Susan and I had a quick chat about the common approach to using core strength in ballet (she’s a former principle dancer) and in aikido. Incidentally, I have met a good handful of male dancers who also do aikido over the years.

Then I had the pleasure – as always – of listening to Andrew Taylor talking about his own writing and crime and historical writing in general. If you ever get the chance to hear him speak, do take it. Meantime, if you’re not reading his books, do start.

My last event for the day was the debate – ‘Genre fiction is no different from literary fiction’, with Elizabeth Edmondson and Gaynor Arnold for the proposal and myself and Anita Mason against. That really went with a swing – and with any luck, our respective arguments will get posted online somewhere. Naturally excellent points were made on both sides and overall, I’d say the debate concluded what really matters is books that offer richness of experience & respect for readers.

On a purely personal level, I’m extremely pleased to know I nailed a fair bit of unthinking anti-SFness among the audience, judging by the folk who came up to me afterwards to say I’d made them rethink their belief that SF and fantasy weren’t for them.

And now, I have a very good friend’s 50th birthday party to go to, so that’ll conclude an insanely busy day in a really fun way.

And preparing for all this, as well as going to Birmingham yesterday evening to see a friend performing in a show (which was excellent – Oliver! by the Coleshill Opera Society in Solihull) is the reason why I had no time or indeed brain for a blogpost yesterday.

And I shall think on the question from the audience respectfully, even tentatively asking whether it’s possible to enjoy SF without being immersed in all its traditions and classics of the genre for a future blogpost…

Equality of Visibility – Progress with Waterstones

Further to various of us highlighting the current inequalities in visibility in bookselling, Emma Newman has been tackling Waterstones and got a commitment to improve things. Details in her blog post – please read it and share it.

This concerted effort is great – one lone voice can be ignored. The more folk who speak up, the more the trade will listen, as Sophia McDougall’s interaction with Foyles has already shown us.

So this is where you come in, dear readers. Where you see a decently diverse display and have a moment to spare to tell the staff you’re pleased. Where you see the same limited range of male names (excellent writers though they are) and have a moment to query staff about this lack of choice.

Also, yay!