Andrew Marr’s Paperback Heroes – a masculine view of epic fantasy entrenching bias.

Two things happened on Monday 24th October. News of Sheri S Tepper’s death spread – and a lot of people on social media wondered why isn’t her brilliant, innovative and challenging science fiction and fantasy writing better known?

Then the BBC broadcast the second episode of Andrew Marr’s series on popular fiction, looking at epic fantasy.

The programme featured discussion of the work of seven, perhaps eight, major writers – six men and one, perhaps two women if you include the very passing reference to J K Rowling .

Four male writers were interviewed and one woman. Please note that the woman was interviewed solely in the context of fantasy written for children.

If you total up all the writers included, adding in cover shots or single-sentence name checks, eleven men get a look-in, compared to six women. Of those women, three got no more than a name check and one got no more than a screenshot of a single book.

It was an interesting programme, if simplistic in its view, to my mind. There’s a lot of fantasy written nowadays that goes beyond the old Hero’s Journey template. There’s a great deal to the genre today that isn’t the male-dominated grimdarkery which this programme implied is currently the be-all and end-all of the genre.

But of course, I can hear the justifications already. A general interest programme like this one isn’t for the dedicated fans, still less working writers like me. For mass appeal it must feature authors whom people outside genre circles have heard of, and whose books they’ll see in the shops. If these books just happen to be mostly written by men, well, that’s just the way it is.

Am I saying these aren’t good books which have a well-deserved place in the genre’s origins and evolution? No, of course I’m not. All these featured and interviewed writers are deservedly popular, their books widely read, and their work is illustrative of points well worth making about fantasy.

But those same points could have been made just as effectively while featuring a more balanced selection of writers, from the genre’s origins to the present day. So what if that means including less familiar names? Do you honestly think readers interested enough to watch a programme like this will object to discovering a new author to enjoy?

When such a programme has a marked gender skew, it matters. This selection guarantees these are the books that’ll get a sales boost from this high-level exposure. So when the next programme maker comes along to see what’s popular, maybe with a view to a dramatisation or to feature in a documentary, he’ll see that same male-dominated landscape. So that’s the selection of books that will get the next chance of mainstream exposure. Thus the self-fulfilling prophecy of promoting what sells, thereby guaranteeing that’s what sells best, continues to entrench gender bias.

If you’re wondering how the work of writers like Sheri S Tepper and so many other ground-breaking women writers is so persistently overlooked, you need look no further than programmes likes this.

(For more – lots more – on equality issues within SF&F, click here)

6 comments

  1. Thank you for this explanation! I was wondering how I could word my own dissatisfaction at Mr Marr’s analysis and his (almost) complete avoidance of the female author.

    But you did it so well 🙂

  2. I know the producer of the fantasy episode (same BBC site, different department). He wanted to do a fantasy literature series, but to quote his words back when they were in the planning stage: “We have an hour to do all of fantasy from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Game of Thrones… and we only have 3 filming days.” I’m also willing to bet a hefty amount of money that there was incredible pressure from commissioner to make it about authors THEY had heard of.

    It doesn’t excuse everything, but at least the BBC is part of Project Diamond which will also be recording the lack of gender parity, lack of ethnic diversity, etc.

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