Back in July, with the help of generous folk willing to spare their time surveying display tables, and analysing the promotional emails to loyalty card holders, I looked at the gender balance in the books Waterstones was promoting. As the last national chain bookseller in the UK, the picture they present to readers of what’s available and who’s writing it really matters.
Since then? The monthly ‘Books To Read’ email to loyalty card holders – Aug/Sep/Oct – has featured a total of twenty four books, sixteen by men and eight by women, so a two to one ratio. Books of the Month? Four by men, two by women, so once again, a two to one ratio. Backlist promotions? Two men to, er none. No women at all.
Well, that’s only a three month sample, so let’s really, really hope things improve over the rest of the year. Though I’m not hopeful unless and until the ‘Staff Picks’ and ‘What We’re Reading’ sections are restored to these emails. Those always used to help redress the balance but are currently suspended as part of a website/online presence redesign.
Other promotional emails? Two flagged up the latest half price offers on new titles, highlighting a total of eight titles by men and five by women plus a book by/with/about the pop group One Direction. One highlighted the Booker Prize shortlist – with four men and two women. Anne Rice got an email all to herself, flagging up her new novel for pre-order.
One flagged up Super Thursday when the publishing trade pushes its hoped-for Christmas bestsellers and featured nine books by men against three by women. Those by women were two focused on romance and relationships and one children’s book. Of the twelve in total, four were autobiographies, two of sportsmen, one comedian, one rock star, so that’s quite a skew in itself.
Add those numbers up and the overall ratio remains two to one in favour of men over women.
Any good news? Well, I was in my local branch and saw this display featuring five new SF&F titles by women writers, so that was cheering.
Mind you, Cheryl Morgan was at the Cheltenham Literature Festival and saw their SF&F table which featured one, count her, one female writer out of twenty two titles – at least until Margaret Atwood had done her signing and doubled the total. Sigh.
The thing is though, Waterstones can’t be held solely responsible. Not if they’re picking titles to tie in with the festival’s programme as is standard practise for such events. The Lit Fest had what sounds like an excellent panel on dystopias (do read Cheryl Morgan’s report here) with Jane Rogers, Ken Macleod and Christopher Priest (so maintaining that two to one ratio…). However the Celebration of Sci Fi and Fantasy event featured Ben Aaronovitch, Joe Abercrombie, Mitch Benn and David Barnett alongside Sarah Pinborough. Fine writers all and interesting, entertaining talkers as I can personally attest. But that’s really not going to do much to counter the prevailing – and incorrect – idea that SF&F writers are predominately men. Especially if neither Jane nor Sarah’s books were actually offered for sale.
Of course, that’s not just an issue for bookshops and literature festivals. In our local Cineworld cinema this past weekend, I picked up a leaflet and saw they’re now promoting forthcoming films as ‘girls’ night out’, ‘boys’ night out’, ‘date night’, ‘fun for the family’ selections rather than by genre. Yes, SF is firmly tagged for the boys. Sigh.
Here’s something else that’s new. When it comes to local bookselling, Waterstones are now the only game in town as far as West Oxfordshire is concerned. Redesign in our local WHSmith has seen their selection of paperbacks drop from two hundred titles to seventy five while Sainsbury’s locally seem to be getting out of books in any meaningful fashion. They’ve reorganised their layout and are now carrying a total of twenty paperbacks, compared to the seventy five they used to offer.
I’ve been saying for a while that one way for bookstores to compete with the supermarkets would be to offer a more diverse range of titles. If the supermarkets are getting out of bookselling now, what are the chances of that happening? While we wait to see, I’ll be very interested in reports of any other supermarkets cutting back on their range of books, if you’d care to take a look while you’re buying your groceries?
This is splendid! A loyalty cardholder’s email has landed in my inbox, centered on SF & Fantasy. It flags up Robin Hobb’s forthcoming appearance at Loncon3 and offers a chance to win a drink with Joe Abercrombie, as well as highlighting the upcoming Gollancz Festival at Waterstones, Piccadilly.
It also promotes a good range of books – and each selection of new, recent, reviewed and established favourites features two male and two female authors.
Specifically – Terry Brooks, Erika Johansen, Deborah Harkness and Brent Weeks. Then Tom Holt, Scott Lynch, Sherrilyn Kenyon and Elizabeth May. Followed by Octavia Butler, Robin Hobb, Max Barry and Mitch Benn. Favourites are Terry Pratchett, Trudi Canavan, Neil Gaiman and Liani Taylor.
(If you discount Tolkien who is the the fifth ‘favourite’ and honestly, I’m not going to get bent out of shape about that because, well, Tolkien. Similarly, the top ten best-sellers are all male-authored but when that list includes five individual titles by GRRM and two by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter, that’s hardly a surprise).
No, I’m not patting myself on the back and taking any sort of credit. Various voices besides mine have been making the case for equality of visibility, both publicly and more privately.
No, I’m not leaning back and thinking phew, our work here is done. If we do another bookshop survey in six months time or so, and see marked improvement there, then it’ll be time to raise a celebratory glass.
For the time being though, this is most assuredly a positive development.
First, some context. Over the past year or more, I’ve repeatedly highlighted instances of all or majority male bookshop displays for SF&Fantasy. Back in May, I flagged up the monthly promotional email from Waterstones which featured the Everyday Sexism book. It was the first readily identifiable book by a woman in that email, half way down the page, and one of only five titles by women compared to eight featured men. That post prompted a lively exchange on Twitter and in comments on the blog with Jon Howell, PR chap for Waterstones. Check back here if you missed that or wish to refresh your memory.
In discussions elsewhere on this issue with concerned writers and readers, we soon realised that we need more data. Especially if Waterstones don’t keep records of how many women they promote compared to men, as was stated at the time. So I went away and searched my Gmail archive and managed to retrieve 23 of those monthly emails, from March 2012 to June 2014, while pals around the country went to do a promotional table count in their local branches of Waterstones. I got 20 surveys in all. Given Waterstones has 275 branches, that’s less than 10% so this cannot be considered definitive data. However I consider it strongly indicative and certainly a sound basis for discussion.
Because as Managing Director James Daunt has been saying, offering discoverability to readers will be the key to Waterstones’ survival. What all this flags up to me is key areas where that discoverability is seriously lacking and where Waterstones could improve, to offer customers something they will not get from Amazon whose ‘if you like, try..’ algorithm pretty much only offers clones, or from WHSmiths or the supermarkets who only offer a narrow choice of already high-selling titles.
One last note. I don’t propose to identify the branches, since the object of this exercise is absolutely not to name and shame, especially since quite a few booksellers expressed their own exasperation at the narrow and narrowing range of books they’ve been told to promote. I also won’t identify those who sent me data, since quite a few are either involved in the book trade or related to writers (except to say thanks, Mum!) and I don’t want to cause inadvertent hassles for anyone. I am, needless to say, hugely grateful to everyone who took the time and trouble to send me their findings.
So what do the numbers tell us? Firstly, those monthly Book Shelf emails, sent to loyalty card holders. As Jon Howell indicated back in May, Book of the Month choices are equally shared between male and female authors – with the proviso that women are over represented in children’s and romance choices, where men dominate other areas. In the emails I received personally, every single non-fiction History choice was by a man. That’s no reflection on some excellent books but an early warning that statistics don’t tell you everything.
Jon Howell pointed out that I would be seeing more titles by women if I’d ticked the Romance, and Children’s selections for the system to tailor my emails, whereas I have opted for SFF and Popular Fiction, along with History in non-fiction preferences. Well, all that offers me is further proof of the increasingly narrow assumptions about what women authors are being expected/encouraged to write.
The monthly email format is fairly consistent. Some sections come and go and I’ll indicate those. The sections that always appear are the New Books and the Books You Love. 75% of New Book titles appearing at the top of these emails are written by men. Of the Backlist promotions beginning in January 2013, 70% are for male authors. Once again, this section is at the top of the page, as are the promotional banner adverts beginning in January 2013 which offer 60% books by men.
However looking at the Books You Love section which is right at the bottom of the email, thus far less prominent, I find 48% by men, 46% by women and 6% gender neutral by virtue of initials or an unusual name. Click through on any of those titles to the main Waterstones site and you’ll find yourself on the Bestsellers page. This strongly suggests to me that Books You Love is driven by actual sales. So people are going to buy books in roughly equal numbers by male and female authors alike. So why aren’t they offered headline choices that reflect that rather than such a strongly skewed selection?
Similar skew is apparent in the ‘Coming Soon’ selection, appearing below New Books from September 2013 – 65% male – and before than in the Books in the Media – 76% male – and Reviewed in the Newspapers – 70% male – selections, running up to July 2013. This incidentally offers further proof of the established gender bias in the wider media, thus making the ‘but we’re promoting the books people are interested in, just look at the papers’ defence meaningless.
However looking at the Staff Picks and What We’re Reading selections, where I’m assuming staff have some input, those choices are 53% male, 47% female. Once again, this would indicate a lack of gender bias among actual book lovers, as bookstore staff invariably are.
So setting aside issues of natural justice between the genders, the significant thing here from a business point of view is surely the disconnect between what people actually choose to read and what they’re being offered. So where is the possible downside in offering readers a more balanced choice – and with women writers being more visible at the top of these emails rather than being relegated to the bottom?
Now to the promotional tables in the shops. Given the variation in size and layout of different branches, this data can only offer a broad brush survey but as I say, I still think these findings are strongly indicative of areas for improvement.
On the general Buy One Get One Half Price tables, in all but one instance the gender balance ranged from 45% male/55% female to 65% male/35% female and was evenly spread across that range, so for all intents and purposes, we can consider that a 50/50 split. This is very good news. More than that, my impression as a reader and customer is there’s a fair degree of rotation in titles in these choices, offering new books a chance in the sun alongside the guaranteed bestsellers.
The 50/50 split was even clearer in the Summer Reading promotional tables, in stores offering those. Though individual tables might be seriously skewed in larger branches, with one offering chick-lit and romance by exclusively female authors alongside another offering thrillers all by men. But that’s at least as much a reflection of what’s written and published as it is of marketing choices.
However different pictures emerge when we look at books by genre. Any preconception that Childrens and Young Adult reading is dominated by women doesn’t hold up. The gender spread is pretty equal over all though there were more individual instances of markedly skewed displays. One bookshop had a table with 85% male authors while another had one with 60% women writers.
Crime showed an even greater range of variation. There were as many tables with more than 50% female authors as there were with more than 50% men overall but these varied from 100% male (Euro Crime) to one with below 40% male authors.
No such luck in SF&Fantasy. There were no tables with less than 55% male authors with the single exception of one SF&F Buy One Get One Half Price table in a large, city centre branch with an established reputation for its excellent genre range. Of the 21 SF&F promotional tables counted, 17 were 75% male authors or more. 5 were 95-100% male, including one all-male Future Noir offering. Where stores are large enough to separate out SF from Fantasy, the bias against women in SF was even more marked than that in fantasy.
In most shops, Horror is folded into SF&F but in three instances where Horror got its own table (not included in that total of 21), those were all 95% male authors.
There were three instances, not included in the count of 21, of all-female SF&F tables in large, city centre branches. This is a mixed blessing. While it’s welcome visibility, it also makes women writers much easier to ignore and risks perpetuating the notion that female authors are somehow different and not integrated into the mainstream of the genre.
Overall, once again, there’s more to this than simply the numbers. As one respondent said, ‘I don’t actually bother looking at the SF&F table these days. It’ll just be this year’s books by men I don’t read anyway.’ Looking back at my own photos of displays over the past few years bears this out. The same names recur time and again – as is the case in crime fiction, though not quite to the same extent. This does as much disservice to those other male authors who rarely, if ever, benefit from this level of promotion as it does to the women writers who are so routinely ignored.
More than that, these invariably include the (few) SF&F guaranteed-bestseller titles that the supermarkets will routinely offer, and at higher discount than bookstores can afford. So the bookshop is competing for that trade at a disadvantage from the outset. Whereas the pattern used to be a best-seller would emerge from the bookshops as they offered a wide selection of midlist and WHSmith and the supermarkets would scramble to catch up.
Whereas the evidence elsewhere is that SF&F writers have no problem reading and rewarding books written by women. Just look at the recent tally of genre awards and prizes. Once again, there’s a serious disconnect between what the readership wants and what is offered in Waterstones.
Why does this matter, when serious fans can get what they want from Amazon anyway? For two reasons. If you’ve been following the current negotiations between Amazon and various publishers, you should be seriously concerned at the implications of ending up with a single retailer intent on securing a monopoly and more than that, by their increasing desire to dictate terms to both suppliers and customers, up to and including attempting to force Hachette to renegotiate contractual terms with their authors (even if only as a PR stunt). (Links to sound analysis on this in this previous post)
No, Amazon isn’t Evil and they’re not The Enemy. It’s a commercial company and this is capitalism. But capitalism only works in everyone’s interests if there is competition. We need bookshops to keep the system working. Does anyone with a scintilla of business sense believe Amazon will continue to offer free shipping, if there’s no one else for customers to do business with? Do we believe that they will continue to offer 70% royalties to authors, if there’s nowhere else for them to publish their books? Yes, that’s a worst-case scenario but irreparable damage will done well before we reach that point.
Secondly, in the current harsh economic climate, those high-volume, highly engaged SF&F fans are highly unlikely to prove a sufficiently large market to sustain the current and increasingly interesting and wide-ranging SF&F being written. We’re seeing new voices and new interpretations right across speculative fiction. This is excellent. This may also be a very short-lived flowering, if authors incomes continue to fall – something I can attest to from personal experience as I’ve seen my advances shrink, translation income vanish and backlist sales fall off a cliff in the last ten years. Some writers will be willing and more pertinently, able to continue working more for love than money. More won’t.
A sustained writing career relies on reaching beyond the core fans to the five-to-ten books-a-year reader. Offer those readers something new and bookshop may well increase purchases by such customers, to the benefit of their bottom line. Only ever offer them the same as before and that’s all the store will sell – assuming those readers haven’t already picked up those books along with their groceries at Sainsbury’s or Asda.
Yes, gender equality is a feminist issue. When it comes to bookselling it is also a commercial issue. If Waterstones wants to offer customers the discoverability which they’re not going find elsewhere, surely extending the range and rotation of books promoted in their genre sections, by male and female authors alike, to equal the choices they already offer in general fiction, is simply good business?
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.
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.
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
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.
Ah, Game of Thrones! We’re planning on heading round to some friends who have subscription TV on Monday evening, to catch the opening of Season Four. Meantime I’ve now read the books as far as they correspond (mostly) to the end of Season Three. One of the things I enjoy most about watching the series is I don’t know what’s going to happen! So I read a chunk of the books after each season, to fill in the omissions and alternations necessary when adapting from text to screen. So yes, I am a fan.
However… I see yet again that bookstore fantasy fiction promotions remain focused on Westeros and a narrow selection of fantasy books by pretty much the same few authors as last year and the year before that and the year before that. Don’t get me wrong – these chaps work hard, I’ve met a good number of them in person and they’re excellent company, interesting writers and absolutely deserve their success.
However… there are so many other fine fantasy worlds out there that deserve their share of attention. I’ve just written my Spring review column for Albedo One magazine, and I really was spoiled for choice. The books I picked to review were Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, Drakenfeld by Mark Charan Newton, Irenicon by Aiden Harte and Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper. All well worth seeking out.
I could just have easily reviewed the latest books by Freya Robertson, Helen Lowe, Stephen Deas, Gail Z Martin, Evie Manieri, Tom Lloyd, M.D.Lachlan… and many more besides.
So what are your favourite fantasy worlds you’d like introduce new folk to?
Old or new. For instance I’m delighted to see Barbara Hambly’s back list is now available in ebook. If you’ve never read The Darwath Trilogy do check it out. any other classics of the genre you’d care to recommend?
I have some news! You can now get the US small-format paperback in the UK via The Book Depository!
To recap for more recent readers, the Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution were published in mass-market (small) paperback in the US but the plan in the UK was for a trade (large) paperback edition to be followed by the mass-market edition.
And then stuff happened, like the financial crunch hitting everyone’s non-essential spending and Games Workshop putting the Solaris imprint up for sale just as the first book came out and cutting back the print runs drastically and then Borders failing just as the second book came out – and well, the whole saga is an object lesson in how many things can screw up a writer’s career, which have nothing to do with their books, and which they have no control over.
The first book, Irons in the Fire, eventually came out in mass-market paperback in the UK but the second and third volumes were repeatedly delayed and finally cancelled. Much to the ongoing annoyance of folk who’d been waiting for the cheaper, smaller format, who had purchased the first book and then…?
But now, after discussions about the relevant issues around publishing territories and such, UK readers can now buy the US mass market paperback online.
Spread the word!
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.
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’.