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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!

‘Genre Fiction is no different from Literary Fiction’ – Discuss, here and at the Oxford Literary Festival

I’ll be taking part in this debate, at 2.00 pm on Saturday 29th March, at the Oxford Literary Festival. This will be part of the St Hilda’s College stream of programming, now in its fifth year as a distinctive element of the Literary festival, and one which incidentally markedly raises the female author quotient over the entire programme.

The other authors debating this will be Orange Prize longlisted Gaynor Arnold (The Girl in the Blue Dress, After Such Kindness), Elizabeth Edmondson, who writes historical mysteries and romances under her own name and as Elizabeth Aston (Devil’s Sonata, the Darcy novels) and Booker-shortlisted Anita Mason (The Illusionist, The Right Hand of the Sun), all of us St Hilda’s alumnae – merely a few of the great many of us now working in all areas of the media.

We will be considering the value or pointlessness of labelling and compartmentalising fiction, in a debate chaired by Claire Armitstead, literary editor of The Guardian.

If you’re within striking distance of Oxford on the 29th, do come along if you can. Tickets are £11, click here to book.

Meantime, what do you think? I’ve already got my thoughts in order and made my notes but I’m curious to see if someone comes up with something that hasn’t occurred to me.

The St Hilda’s stream has other fascinating events – at 10 am, I’ll be chairing a discussion on literary influences on modern dance, from Isadora Duncan to Fred Astaire and Martha Graham, between Dr Susan Jones, former soloist with the Scottish Ballet, now a fellow of St Hilda’s and author of Literature, Modernism and Dance, and classicist Dr Fiona Macintosh, fellow of St Hilda’s, director of the University of Oxford’s Archive of Performances of Greek and Roman Drama, and editor of The Ancient Dancer in the Modern World.

Another of St Hilda’s annual literary events is the Crime & Mystery Conference held each August since 1994. At 12.00 noon this year Nicolette Jones, critic and chair of the St Hilda’s College Media Network, will be interviewing one of the event’s most long-standing speakers and attendees, Andrew Taylor, acclaimed crime writer and historical novelist, winner of the Cartier Diamond Dagger and of the 2013 CWA Historical Dagger Award. They’ll discuss his latest crime thriller, The Scent of Death, and much more besides, I’m sure of that.

We’re rounding off the day with opera! Specifically, Glamour and Grubbiness, the Inside Story, as revealed by Wasfi Kani telling the story of the Grange Park Opera, in Hampshire. There will be singing and afterwards, a glass of sparkling wine. How can you resist?

What Do Female Villains Do That Bad Guys Don’t?

Following on from last week’s post, interesting points cropped up in various conversations. One caught my eye – though I cannot recall who said it or where, so if it was you, please raise a hand in comments. Essentially the question was what distinguishes a Female Villain from a Male? Let’s think about that, and broaden out the question. Is there any point in choosing to have your evil protagonist a woman rather than a man, if there’s no meaningful difference beyond gender?

This rang a chord with me, as I recall a related conversation we had at the last World Fantasy Convention about strong women in epic tales; the Female Hero I’ve already referred to. One thing all of us on the ‘Broads with Swords’ panel really like is the way strong women in fantasy fiction no longer have to be ‘fauxmales’.

Which is to say, we’ve gone beyond stories where the only possible way for a woman to be strong is to pick up a sword, don implausible boobplate armour, and go off to play Joan of Arc. Nowadays in epic fantasy, Female Heroes and Heroines alike can be politicians, scholars, and yes, wives and mothers, while still playing a central, defining role in the plot.

So what about Female Villains? How are they not just Evil Overlord in a dress? A few things have occurred to me as I’ve thought about that in spare moments this week.

Female Villains are often not the figurehead. They’re in the background, often working within the Evil Overlord’s support system. Dolores Umbridge didn’t want to be Lord Voldemort. She wanted to establish her own, much less obvious power base and used existing systems to change things little by little, rather than shattering the old order from the outset. She was a much more subtle, longer term threat as she distorted the education of the next generation of wizardry. And her goal was achievable.

Initially at least, Dolores Umbridge used what management jargoneers call ‘soft’ skills very effectively – not confrontation but manipulation, building consensus and convincing her victims and onlookers alike that this was all for their own good and in the service of broader, longer-term benefits. And isn’t that notion of ‘soft skills’ interesting from a gendered-language point of view?

Another Female Villain very good at this is Zavcka Klist in Stephanie Saulter’s GemSigns. She also highlights another possible trait of Female Villains. Evil Overlords rule from the top down. Female Villains seem more inclined to recruit allies rather than underlings, both directly on their own side and also among their opponents. They are very good at divide and rule and conquering from within. Using those ‘soft skills’ again. All ‘active listening’ and ‘reflective speaking’. ‘I understand your concerns. Let me help you resolve this problem to everyone’s satisfaction.’

Zavcka Klist also understands the value of information and of propaganda and PR. That’s something I see in other Female Villains, up to and including Ma-Ma in Dredd, even if her particular approach is more akin to the brutal South American drug cartel offer of ‘silver or lead?’ Money in your pockets or a bullet in the head? How much necessary evil will a society tolerate, to save itself from something worse? Female Villains seem good at that particular calculation.

Ma-Ma also makes extensive use of technology, to gather information as she plans her next move. Is this something Female Villains do more readily than their Male counterparts? Not sure. But that relates to something else that came out of last week’s discussions. The really scary, truly dangerous Villains – male or Female and as distinct from Evil Antagonists – aren’t psychopaths. On that scale, Dolores Umbridge is far worse than Bellatrix LeStrange.

Once I started thinking about this, I realised something else. I’ve seen a fair bit of this in action for myself. Some years ago, at PCon in Dublin, the ‘How to be an Evil Overlord’ panel was run as a role-playing exercise. For no reason that I can see, I was immediately nominated to be the Empress. Alas, I forget who else took on what other roles, apart from Kim Newman who was my Minister for Public Relations, or as he immediately renamed himself, Minister for Fun!

We fielded assorted questions from the audience, notably from one journalist who wanted to know where the realm’s substantial tax revenues were going, given the hardship of most ordinary folks’ lives. After Kim promptly made her Royal Cake Correspondent, I explained how all that money was being invested in scientific research and preparations for the realm’s wonderful space programme which would soon shower everyone with rewards as we boldly advanced the causes of technology and exploration to win the realm new resources.

Meantime, alas, the secluded space centre behind the high mountains on the far side of the kingdom would have to remain strictly off-limits, to prevent our scientists from being distracted and to avoid biological contamination, so on and so forth.

We kept this up for a good long while, repeatedly recruiting the most persistent and awkward questioners for that wonderful space programme – if we couldn’t distract them with cake. Of course, that meant dispatching them to that top-secret facility beyond the mountains, which oddly, no one ever seemed to return from. As the hour wound up and more and more people were starting to say ‘hang on a minute…’ the Empress sent her handsome, charming, and clueless Consort out onto the palace balcony to face the mob. Travelling companionably though not romantically with her erstwhile Minister for Fun, she swiftly and discreetly departed for another country with no extradition treaty and a banking system of iron-clad secrecy which had profited for years from her substantial deposits.

That panel really was a lot of fun, though I did notice a few people giving me slightly uneasy sideways glances afterwards…

So, once again, what have I missed? What traits do you see as particularly distinguishing Female Villains?

Jim C Hines blog has some eye-opening guest posts exploring representation in SF&F

While we’re considering people we don’t tend to see in SF&F, you should really read the recent series of guest posts on Jim C. Hines blog, where folk who live with the day-to-day reality of issues around race, colour, disability and prejudice talk with eye-opening candour about what they do and don’t see, and what it means to them.

Start here and keep on clicking.

Where are our Female Villains?

Something I’ve spoken and written about since The Thief’s Gamble was first published is the rise of the Female Hero within fantasy fiction. By which I mean a female protagonist whose motives, adventures and ambitions are not first and foremost driven by, and in service of, her relationship with a man and/or by extension, motherhood.

A Female Hero can assuredly have male lovers, maybe even a husband and/or children. She can co-exist with Heroines whose roles in a story and within the world it portrays, are defined by their relationships with men and/or children. This doesn’t mean such women have to be meek or passive. One of SF’s greatest kick-ass Heroines is Sarah Connor from the Terminator mythos. She’s no less awesome because of her heroism is driven by her need to protect her son.

What distinguishes a Female Hero, whatever her quest or her story might be, is that she is free from controlling male/family influence, whether she’s seeking political power, magic, or something else, whether she seeks it for herself or to benefit others.

No, I don’t mean a ball-breaking man-hater who scorns all males. And I definitely don’t mean the Red-Sonja-I-will-kill-my-rapist swordswoman as interpolated into Conan the Barbarian’s mythos. That notion might have been ground-breaking in 1973 but has become a very tired, exploitative and often misogynistic stereotype in subsequent decades. Though please note, I’m not familiar with the latest comic book incarnation as written by Gail Simone, and I’ll be very interested in comments from anyone who is currently reading it.

These days you can find plenty of Female Heroes across science fiction and epic fantasy. I’ve written a good few myself. Feel free to suggest your own favourites in comments. How is the comic world doing for Female Heroes at present?

The thing is though, where are our Female Villains? We have plenty of Female Villainesses; strong, capable women with agency and ability, whose actions drive stories, whose motivation centres on lovers and children. Cersei Lannister in A Game of Thrones is one of the first who springs to mind.

Female Villains? The only recent one I’ve been able to think of while writing this is ‘Ma-Ma’ in the 2012 Dredd movie. Gang leader, drug dealer, all-round terrifying, viciously intelligent and ambitious and incidentally, a woman.

And yes, I have noticed that I’ve just cited three examplar characters who have all been portrayed on screen by Lena Headey. Not sure what that signifies…

Before Ma-Ma? Casting my mind way back, I can think of Servalan, in the late 70s TV series, Blake’s 7, who was quite ready to use sexual wiles but whose ultimate goal was always power. Possibly The Rani, a ruthlessly scientific female Time Lord (Lady?) in the late 80s Doctor Who? Given I’ve seen neither series since first broadcast, I’m open to correction by anyone who’s watched them more recently.

Since then? Where are the Female Villains? Who have I missed seeing out there, in books, TV, movies or comics?

A memorable meal – my guest post for Lawrence M Schoen’s blog

It’s time for something fun. So here’s my guest post for Lawrence M Schoen’s blog, specifically his ‘Eating Authors’ series.

In which I recall an Easter Sunday lunch in France when I was around nine years old, visiting a family whose European ties and history were so very different to anything I’d ever encountered in 1970s UK.

Links to some gender in genre thoughts (and book recommendations) from other folk

Good Monday morning. Well, that was a busy weekend, and not just on the Internet. It’s great to see such vigorous conversation about the perception, the reality and what that tells us about the current unconsidered biases in the presentation of epic fantasy (and other areas of speculative fiction).

If you haven’t already, do check out The Guardian’s article on women’s fantasy fiction. And do look through the comments thread for a great list of recommended reads.

More books and authors are recommended by Speculating on SpecFic where books are grouped according to the different things which might appeal to readers – politics, females with agency, dragons! – and more besides.

Find more recommendations and more thoughtful consideration over at The Geek Agenda discussing women in historical fantasy where this refers to historically-inspired fantasy rather than books set in recognisable historical settings. Don’t get bogged down in definitions, just read the piece.

Adrian Tchaikovsky addresses a slightly different set of assumptions about women’s writing specifically the ‘women write romance, romance is yucky, therefore women’s writing is yucky’ syllogism. Good piece.

Expanding the conversation –

Emma Newman gives an impassioned author’s response demanding a level playing field.

Fit and Feminist has a good post on why Pop Culture needs more women like Brienne of Tarth

Former French teacher, worldwide best-selling novelist and fantasy writer herself, Joanne Harris discusses the differences between Feminine and female.

Oh and if there was still any doubt about unreasoning bias against SF&F in some bookshops, as revealed on Twitter last week, a potential buyer went into a London bookshop and asked for a copy of Joanne Harris’s new novel, The Gospel according to Loki – only to be told they weren’t stocking it ‘as we don’t have a science fiction following’.

Yes, really.

The Guardian gets the idea! Women do write and read epic fantasy!

Following on from my previous post – and a good few others around the general issue of sexism/gender in genre this week, The Guardian is running a piece on women epic fantasy authors, actively soliciting recommendations. Do click on over and have your say!

Alison Flood’s article is here, illustrated with a great picture of Arya Stark.

Sincerest thanks to all who boosted the signal(s)