Brief thoughts on women writers being erased from SFF – again

Another day, another article* supposedly assessing the cutting edge of Science Fiction written over the decades. Citing twenty five authors. All men. No, I’m not going to link. You can find it for yourself at SF Signal if you really want to. Or whatever particular piece has prompted me to repost this.

Like every other such article, it hands women writers a poisonous choice. We can object, with all the hassles and loss of our own working time which that will entail, as the usual counter-objections come straight back at us. That’s best case. Worst case? The full gamut of ugly insults and threats.

Or we can let the erasure stand, damaging women in SF&F, present and future.

Either way, we lose out.

I can easily predict the ways an objection to this particular piece will be dismissed. “It’s taking the long view and since men have dominated historically, the list will inevitably skew male. There’s nothing to be done about that.”

Yes, there is. Research. Start with Octavia Butler – and while you’re there, make a note that erasing writers of colour and those of differing sexuality is equally damaging and yes, just as dishonest.

Then there will be the expressions of concern – some even genuinely meant. “It’s just one article. Does it really matter?”

No, it isn’t just one article. Stuff like this crosses my radar if not weekly, at least once a fortnight. And that’s without me making any effort to find it.

As an epic fantasy writer, I’m just waiting for the first instance of that now well-established harbinger of Spring. The article saying “Game of Thrones will be back on the telly soon. Here’s a list of other authors you might like (who just happen to all be men).”

And if I object to those? “Oh, don’t take it so personally.”

No, women SFF writers don’t take these best-of lists, these recommended-for-award-nominations and shortlists, these articles and review columns erasing us ‘personally’.

We object because they damage us all professionally.

More than that, erasing women authors impoverishes SF&Fantasy for everyone by limiting readers’ awareness and choices today and by discouraging potential future writers

Which is why this matters.

Every

Single

Time

Right, I have work to do, so I will go and do that. If you want read further thoughts on all this, check out Equality in SF&F – Collected Writing

*I did start adding the dates and reasons every time I reposted this but I’ve had to stop as the list was pushing the actual article off the bottom of the screen… which tells its own tale really.

37 comments

  1. “Stuff like this crosses my radar if not weekly, at least once a fortnight. And that’s without me making any effort to find it”
    Agreed. Thanks for this. It just gets so tiring to have to fight to just be there (I frequently liken it to fighting for the right to breathe. We shouldn’t have to).

  2. I honestly thought we (as a community) were getting better at this! We set up Strange Charm to focus on writing by women, as a counterpoint… hopefully one day it won’t be needed, but today is not that day, apparently.

    1. I think things are getting better, however slowly and imperfectly. But it still seems the price of equality is eternal vigilance – to paraphrase something assorted old white men never actually said, apparently, according to a quick google 🙂

  3. I see something like this almost every week as well. It’s frustrating to know some gentlemen still won’t take female writers seriously. The first in my epic fantasy trilogy came out three months ago and I’ve had reviews saying they were pleasantly surprised the books didn’t focus on romance. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with romance. It just doesn’t happen to be what I write. But so interesting to see there’s a bias that a woman writer would rely on it.

  4. Well, this piece certainly seems to have struck a resounding chord which gives me a warm glow of hope 🙂

    Some very pertinent observations are being made, and discussions had, over on Twitter.

    Elizabeth Bear underlines the point about damage done with a reminder that it’s still word of mouth that sells books.

    As I – and many others – have said, When women are erased from the conversation, our work doesn’t reach readers and we don’t get the sales to sustain careers.

    Simon Spanton says “”Us” in this context being the whole genre, creators and fans, whatever gender.”

    I absolutely agree, and I’d add editors and publishers. An outdated perception of SFF as a boys club does them no favours either.

    Prince Justin – as per the pingback on ‘Representation and Advocacy’ – raises the thorny question of men getting involved. Specifically the accusation of ‘white knighting’. That’s something I always take with a grain or two of salt. I’ve seen it used more than once to shut down men honestly trying to support women – in which case it becomes another tool of erasure.

    Of course, sometimes support is clumsily expressed at best and worst case, yes, sometimes people latch onto a ’cause’ for their own advantage.

    I think Joanne Hall has the right litmus test here. “Reading, supporting and encouraging women’s writing is not “white knighting” IMO. It’s doing the right thing.”

  5. When I started reading SF &F, I hunted for Andre Norton. I jumped onto Pern when there were only two books, with Anne McCaffrey. Katherine Kurtz, Deryni at book 3. Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover with Spellsword and shortly Heritage of Hastur. Hell yes Butler, and Le Guin, and Cherryh … and ok , enough rant. BTW I’m a man.

  6. I think that we as women have to have each other’s backs. Those of us with a forum have to make sure we promote writing by women and people of colour, talking about those books, reviewing them, discussing them within the fandom.

    The issue is one of erasure at every level that creates positive feedback at each stage. Publishers are less likely to buy the books so there are less on the shelf to be seen, reviewers are less likely to review the few that get through so they receive less publicity so bloggers are less likely to know about them so they are less likely to choose them to review, people know less about them so booksellers (as I used to be) are less likely to buy them so there are even fewer on the shelf and – the killer – the general public seem thoroughly disinclined to buy them so they make less money and that feeds back to the publisher.

    I do believe this is something we have to fight for. It won’t happen organically, it has to be an engineered change.

  7. So I may get attacked here since I’m a guy, but let me throw in my two cents.

    I’ll start by saying that if I had to guess about 75% of the stuff I read (which is all Sci-fi, Fantasy, and Urban Fantasy) is written by female authors.

    We no longer live in an age where it matters what books are put up front in B&N. I can’t remember the last time I went inside a bookstore (besides a used one) in the past decade. If you go to amazon right now and look at the best sellers in Fantasy ebooks you have to get to number 19 before you see a male. Overall Sci-Fi and Fantasy best sellers… Only 7 of the top twenty are male. If we specifically look at Urban/Paranormal Fantasy, my preferred genre, only 6 of the top 60 are male. That’s a measly 10%. The media is trying to push an agenda that may exist in tradition publishing, but not on amazon sales charts. The readers are speaking with the almighty dollar to tell us what they like, and clearly it’s female writers. Eventually publishing companies will recognize that.

    Second, sure writing posts like this does some good, eventually it may help the system change, but probably not. If you don’t like the system buck it. I’d say over half of the stuff I read these days is self-published because that’s where the good stories are coming from. They don’t have to worry about fitting in with what some publisher wants. They can do whatever the heck they feel like doing. Yes there are crappy self-published authors out there, but there are plenty of crappy traditionally published authors too.

    So self-publish stop supporting the large publishing companies. Let your actions convince the companies that they have to change, not just your words.

    1. Good morning (UK time), James, since I saw your comment late last night, I opted to wait till I had the time to offer a fully considered response.

      If you click on a few of the links on the left scroll bar, you’ll see that I am currently independently ebooking my own backlist in partnership with Wizards Tower Press, a specialist online publisher. We’ve also published some original fiction written by me direct to ebook. So you may rest assured that I am very well aware of the changing nature of publishing and the book trade, something I’ve explored in any number of other blog posts.

      But this post isn’t about the book trade’s evolution and whether authors should go indie or stay trad. It’s about erasure, which is to say, the loss of visibility. And visibility – leading to discoverability – is the principle challenge for all authors, whether their books are out in pixels, paperback or hand-illuminated parchment. If readers cannot find them, they cannot read them, and authors won’t be able to afford to keep writing.

      Top ten lists, Amazon charts etc are one route to visibility – that’s a valid point. However those lists are reactive, not proactive. Those lists tell readers what’s already popular, not what’s new and interesting, maybe the next break out book. Reviews, recommendations, SF fan site articles, eligibility and nomination lists – there are all sorts of other venues for the wider conversation about books and that’s where a great many readers find new authors to try. So when authors who are not straight white men are excluded from that conversation – almost always by carelessness, very occasionally by design – that’s a big problem for readers and writers alike. That’s what I am talking about here.

      And while high volume, high engagement fans like yourself may well no longer visit bookshops because their reading is driven by online sources, visibility in B&N, or in Waterstones here in the UK, is still important, right here, right now, wherever the book trade may go in the future. It remains a solid fact that anyone hoping for a sustainable writing career does still need to reach the buying 6-10 books a year reader who is still using bookshops as their first and frequently only point of contact with what’s on offer.

      And that’s why the persistent failure of bookshops to reflect what readers are demonstrably happy to enjoy – books by women and anyone else who can write a good story, regardless of origin or gender, as you rightly show with those Amazon lists – is an ongoing problem. Again, something I’ve explored in depth via my posts on Waterstones. Which got direct response from their Head Office, so I’d say that was worth the effort 🙂

      One last thought. Starting your comment with “So I may get attacked here since I’m a guy” isn’t the best way to indicate you’re looking for constructive dialogue. If there’s something you’ve found on this blog that makes you think I will attack someone, sight unseen, purely on the basis of gender, do flag it up. Otherwise, maybe take a bit of time to get to know someone online before starting a conversation with that sort of combative assertion?

      thanks for your contribution 🙂

      1. I’m sorry for my starting comment, but I’ve gotten used to being attacked for being a white straight male who doesn’t believe the drivel the media is trying to sell.

        And here is where we differ in opinion. I don’t think erasure is something we have to worry about when it comes to female authors. I don’t for see that happening because of the ebook movement. Without doing lots of number crunching I just looked at Mccaffrey’s stuff on amazon, and compared it to Heinlein. Most of her ebooks are ranked higher for sales than Heinlein’s are. Her’s are lower than Arthur C Clarke, but whoever is in charge of his estate is smart and has all his ebooks part of kindle unlimited so I’m guessing that’s why they are doing well.

        There will always be idiots who leave people out of lists like that one, but I don’t think they matter in the long run. Right now society is pushing for more recognition of females and because of that I don’t see erasure as an issue for them. What I do see happening is people with different political views getting shut down left and right. For example CTRL ALT Revolt (Which I think has a ridiculous premise, but if he wants to right it more power to him) but he’s been attacked in the media, because he believes differently then you’re supposed too. Or take Sarah Hoyt. She wrote a great sci-fi yarn with a gay character, but because she is not a liberal her stuff is hardly every mentioned. Also I’ve talked to a few Urban Fantasy authors who are traditionally published who go by pen names or their initials because they are male but write female leads, so they have to disguise their gender for a woman to pick the book up. Anyway, that’s my two cents on the matter, we clearly differ in opinion, and I apologize that my remarks were in poor taste earlier. Like I said, I love female authors, I prefer the way they write, I just see a political agenda here not a real issue.

        I do just have to say one more thing about ebooks vs Barnes and Noble. As I said a lot of what I read is ebooks and none of these authors can get their books into B&N because they’re self-published but the good ones make a very good living off ebook sales. Maybe things are different in the UK but here in the States (and I speak from experience here having a sibling who worked for B&N for quite awhile) if you are a small author male or female you books MIGHT get stocked the month of their release (if they are even stocked at all, more and more they are switching to stocking based on preorders), but much after that they get their cover torn off and sent back to the publisher for a refund. If you are a small author here in the States you cannot live off the people who buy 6-10 books a year in a bookstore, it’s just not possible.

        1. well, you’re not going to convince me, James – our perspectives and experience are simply too different. Regardless, you’re welcome to share your opinions here, as we’ve established we can agree to disagree with goodwill on both sides.

          I will absolutely agree with you in detesting the noisy voices from left or right insisting that particular authors should be shunned, sight unseen, purely for failing some ideology-driven ‘purity test’ that has little or nothing to do with SF&F and still less with the actual writing. As for the outbreaks of name-calling, sneering and manufactured outrage we’ve seen in recent years, well, I have absolutely no patience with that – from anyone, fan, professional, whoever.

          Yes, there are authors whom I personally choose not to read, on account of the racial, gender or other views expressed in their fiction and/or online commentary. That’s my choice, based on what an individual has said and written. And yes, I’ll discuss and defend my point of view as and when the subject might come up. But if other folk choose differently, that’s up to them. I’m only going to fall out with someone over that if they refuse to accept I’m equally entitled to my own opinion.

  8. Thank you for this post. I write in a few different genres, but the one I find draws the main comments is when I write Thriller Suspense. Sure it’s heavy duty stuff. Yet I can’t help but sigh when I receive a remark like “Wow, You’re a woman? You write like a man!” Seriously? Is that meant to be a compliment?

    1. oh, yes, that sort of thing is infuriating.

      Even when it’s ridiculous. Like the rumour that was going around by my fourth book that I didn’t exist… That Juliet E McKenna was a publisher’s construct because this Tales of Einarinn series was being written by a husband and wife team.

      Because, hey, that was the *only* possible explanation for a series with books alternating between female first person narrative and male first person narrative. No woman could write the male viewpoint *that* convincingly…

      Goodness me, didn’t the people who latched onto that one end up looking very foolish indeed 🙂

      1. People used to assume Lee Killough had to be a guy because she wrote SF police procedurals, and procedurals are clearly a man’s game….

        (New edition of The Doppleganger Gambit came out last year, which I still have not read…)

        1. As a bookseller, I used to choose my answer very carefully when someone enthused about Robin Hobb’s books – ‘Isn’t he a great writer?’ etc.

          Some customers – I’d say, well, actually, Robin’s a she – and how about you try this other great female author?

          Others? ‘Oh yes, they’re great books. By the way, here’s another author I think you might like – and don’t let the fact it’s a woman deter you…’

  9. Honestly – I prefer Robin Hobb’s Assassin series, and the twelve or so after that, to GoT. Read them both several times, as have many others… So why doesn’t her series get mentioned when people suggest other GoT-like books? They ARE right there in the bookstore, too!

  10. I just want to add my support, erasure does matter. James most people will not actively look at sales lists in Amazon, word of mouth is huge in all lines and where people get their information is usually in recommendations from articles online & magazines.

    Also culture and so all things including literature, is built on tradition. If you are seen as not being part of that tradition then it makes what you do harder to be seen, let alone to sell. Having to keep opening the door is time consuming when it should already be open.

    If you want a touchstone SF novel (the article in question mentioned a number of hard SF before going onto AI theme.)then the blindingly obvious one to mention would be Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, a novel that investigated the possible consequences of that science and it’s pursuit, using cutting edge science of the time. Compare it’s treatment to the mad doctor tales of H G Wells, the Invisible Man is considered SF still (despite it’s inclusion in the Universal film cycle.) but Frankenstein is referred to as a romance or worse horror. Why? If you think of Frankenstein as hard SF, you think about the novel differently and the foundations of SF differently too, so to it’s present state.

    Finally I don’t prefer writing from one type of person to the other, whether gender, race, class, sexuality, whatever. I choose author’s I like, things that interest me and things recommended to me. And I get those recommendations from friends and articles and by strolling through my local bookshop, the recommendations on my kindle don’t cut it as they are either mainstream, which I don’t read much of, or based on what I have bought, which I already know and the genres that surround them. Trying to find those books between these two areas is made even more difficult by tired articles putting up the same authors with a similar background.

    Sorry Juliet I’ve rather rambled.

  11. I can see the SF Signal thread went downhill. My observation would be is that erasure happens to 99%* of writers regardless of gender.

    * A figure that’s a wild ass guess and open to evidence to the contrary.

    1. Lack of visibility/erasure is assuredly a problem for male and female writers in the midlist alike. Times are tough all round in the book trade.

      However, when (around) 70% of reviews, media mentions, online references etc etc etc are for white male authors – as any number of surveys consistently show – the dice are loaded more against some than others…

        1. Useful and illustrative, thanks.

          And no, I have no clue how to embed links in comments. If anyone with more WordPress skills cares to enlighten me, feel free!

  12. I’ve written in a variety of genres and the one interesting bit of feedback I’ve had is that some readers couldn’t tell from the work if I was a woman or not. I long for the day when stuff like this doesn’t matter. I just imagine that in a few years time another Dale Spender type will have to write a new updated version of Mothers of the Novel, this time for SFF.

  13. after reading this i had to go look at my list of favorite authors and surprise surprise they are mainly female authors. Are they saying alot more people are into works by male authors or is it just what they want to push towards the audience either way something just isnt right.

    1. It can be either/both of those things. Also, sheer laziness – not looking beyond the ‘obvious suspects’. And the ‘obvious suspects’ are predominately men because of the self fulfilling prophecy of promoting/reviewing what sells best which guarantees what sells is what is promoted/reviewed.

  14. Hi Juliet, here in Australia women dominate the Fantasy field. The inaugural Sara Douglas Fantasy Series Award was launched this year. Five of the six finalists were women. The judges read 55 fantasy series (very dedicated). The winner was Glenda Larke.
    Cheers Rowena

    1. Hurrah!
      It never used to be this bad in the UK/US. Hard to fathom what went wrong… Other than the persistent and ongoing lack visibility for female authors from mainstream reviews, media, bookstore promotions…

  15. I think part of the trouble is that we’re reaping what’s been sown years before in many readers’ formative years. Every time we get a listicle of “The Best 10/15/25 Books of the Past X Years” it’s almost invariably the author’s “These are my absolute personal favorites and here’s why.”

    For boys and by “boys” I mean “males 18 or under who have to interact with peers whether they want to or not” the choice of what book to read is not just what book appeals to them but what book can they be seen reading that won’t get them bullied. And by “bullied” I don’t mean just sneered at/beaten up by other boys, but sneered at/giggled at/whispered about by girls who may even take it on themselves to declare/demand “That’s a girl book–why are you reading it?” Not to mention getting concern trolled by teachers and/or librarians who’ve taken to gender policing boys’ reading habits.

    As for what will get a boy bullied, a female byline is mostly a nonissue at this point. Maybe not completely but really far down the list. What’s more important is the book’s title and even more so the book’s cover art.

    Andrew Lang’s The Blue Fairy Book? Given the title and the cover, having a male author did not stop this from being a bully magnet. Slamming bullies in the head with four-inch-thick tome of fairytales, however, did get them to go away.

    To give another example of one of my all-time favorite books that scores a 10 out of 10 on all scales of the “Will this get you bullied?” meter: Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s A Little Princess.

    My teacher in third grade had read us The Secret Garden the year before, which I loved, so I bought A Little Princess myself, but I was not fool enough to be seen reading it anywhere near school.

    But seriously: girliest title ever and the cover had a girl with a doll and was done up all in pink. But I wanted to read it because it was about a kid who was a storyteller who actually told stories, as opposed to all the other kids books about kids who were pathological liars who claimed to be storytellers.

    Where was I going? Yes, well, the covers and the titles. I’d decided in childhood that I (mostly) didn’t give a damn what people thought about what I read–though I wasn’t going to go chumming the waters for sharks by bringing A Little Princess to school–but this also gave me YEARS to survey what covers would get me bullied and which would make the bullies shrug.

    So turn the clock forward to junior high. Anne McCaffery’s Dragonsinger with the pretty but florid cover with Menolly and her fire lizards? Bully bait. Dragonrider with the Rowena Morrill cover with Lessa as the bad-ass dragonrider? Not a peep.

    I should probably add that while I was a geeky boy, I was also a BIG geeky boy, so if the bullies wanted to beat me up, they’d have to gang up, and after I kicked one of them in the head, they mostly gave up except for taunts.

    But for boys who were not so willful and physically imposing? What choices do you think they made?

    If you put a girly/gay title and cover on a book, you sink your chances of a boy picking it up and you thereby sink your chances that ten or twenty years later, when that boy is a man writing his listicle of “Best X Books Ever,” that your book is going to be on it.

    But around to the covers again. In the early 80s when I was really getting into adult F&SF and still in school where I had to be concerned about what other people thought, there was a good bit of cheesecake art.

    Later, there was a push to get the cheesecake off the covers, but removing it also raises a book’s “Will this get you beat up?” rating. If you’ve got a book with gender neutral cover art and a gender neutral cover, the only thing to tilt the gender meter one way or the other is the author’s name.

    If you want to up boys’ readership and later men’s promotion of books, you need to skew the covers not to gender neutral but actively masculine. Yes, men should be strong and resist bullying and so on and so forth, but it’s a lot harder when you’re fourteen, especially when the easiest choice then is to not be seen with the book with the frilly cover or even the book with the assiduously plain cover but a woman’s name on the byline.

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