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.

3 comments

  1. Agree on all counts. Books by men benefit by being reviewed by women, and books by women benefit from being reviewed by men. I think, in fact, it would be beneficial to both writers and readers to have one book a quarter reviewed by both a man and a woman, to make clear how the reading position affects interpretation.

    Any entity doing reviews needs to make clear to publishers that they are committed to reviewing books by women and will give that publisher’s books consideration. The goal should be parity, with a minimum of 35% to 40% and a plan for reaching parity within a set period. This would reassure publishers and encourage them to send more women-written books for review. Getting women-written books reviewed more equably would also encourage publishers still reluctant to publish many women to do so. Review goals should also be aimed at seeking and reviewing books by women in those sub-genres where it’s common knowledge (ignorance) that women don’t write that kind of thing. Epic fantasy, hard SF, military SF, anything where the claim is that women can’t/don’t write it. Because it’s there, and it needs to be recognized.

  2. E Moon wrote: “in fact, it would be beneficial to both writers and readers to have one book a quarter reviewed by both a man and a woman, to make clear how the reading position affects interpretation.”

    I really like this idea. Lots.

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