Is it time for a Women’s Speculative Fiction Prize?

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.

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

22 thoughts on “Is it time for a Women’s Speculative Fiction Prize?

  1. Yes, I said, with earnest, wide-eyed seriousness, but who are we going to name it after? Andre Norton? Ursula LeGuin? Anne McCaffrey? Mary Shelley?

    (Ow. God. Ow. Stop hurting me. I’m sorry. I’m sorry!)

    In all actual seriousness, I think this might be a really good idea. It may lend somewhat to the “Authors” vs “Women Authors” thing, but I’m more inclined to regard it as affirmative action, which I think continues to be a good and necessary thing.

    *stares at you*

    No. I do not have time to get involved in launching something like this.

    I do not.


    *stares at you*

  2. Hi Juliet.

    Yes, I think this is a good idea. I point out, though, that definitions of gender, pseudonyms, and the like could muddy the waters of eligibility.

    Is someone who is biologically male but identifies as female eligible for this prize? What about authors of unccertain gender (e.g. initialed pseudonyms) eligible?

    My preference would be a Juried shortlist but popularly voted on award. It is a “boat-car” approach, but it does avoid a lot of idiocy from Sad Puppies.

    1. If someone identifies as a woman, they’re a woman and eligible. Personally, I’d like to see non-binary (etc etc) identified authors eligible as they are likely to be not only suffering from the same hurdles as women, but more so.

      I like the idea of a front-of-store display disqualifying authors…

        1. Yes indeed, these issues would need careful consideration. The line between affirmative action and discrimination is a fine one and often hard to find.

    2. I’d say a writer who identifies as and presents herself as female should be considered female for the purposes of such a prize. It gets more complex with people who are gender fluid, however.

      Are there very many women out there who publish under pseudonyms or their initials and actually hide their gender these days? How do they manage it in the era when a web presence and appearances at cons are pretty mandatory? Hire male friends or relatives to sit on panels or do book signings for them?

  3. It’s a terrific idea… and I am also not volunteering to run it. Which I feel bad about, but…
    What we might do is start a discussion or a working group, though.

  4. Great idea. There’s already a Norton Award (for YA – a non-gendered award), but any of the others… Maybe ‘in association with’ I dunno, BSFA/BFA?

    *Stares at Juliet and Kari* who are much more tuned into who-might-play-nice-with-whom than I am.

  5. Even as a reader fairly tuned into the infinite joys of recommendation by friends and authors at cons, on social media and the like, I find that it’s often too easy to find yourself copping out and reading Macho McHacknslay’s new (discounted) book rather than going out and finding that interesting but illusive book by P. D. Kickassgirl, especially when reading time and resources to buy books is limited.

    And that unfortunately goes more than double should Ms. Kickassgirl be non-white or non-anglophone. (Or, even to some extent, just non-American. *sigh*)

    Anything that can raise the awareness of these other voices has got to be a win for everyone. (Even while I totally agree with C. E. Murphy’s point about it playing to the ‘authors’ and ‘women authors’ thing.)

  6. I might be a fool for saying this, but, uh… would not a simple online popular vote, a la the Gemmells but minus the impressive award ceremony (at least at first), be relatively simple to administrate? And as soon as a one-year proof of concept is established funding could be sought to have the ceremony, possibly even backdated, and to publicise it more, and so on?

    Not that I’m suggesting others do this work, just thinking through practicalities!

    1. Thinking aloud is welcome and indeed encouraged hereabouts.

      Proof of concept online could assuredly be one way to go initially – but if the aim is to raise women writers’ visibility in the mainstream press, rather than within genre circles where such good work is already being done, that does mean playing by mainstream press rules – which does mean ceremony, free drinks and other such stuff to attract newshounds. Which costs money…

    1. Ooh, that’s interesting and not something I’ve come across before – thanks for flagging it up.

      And yes, a Feminist award would definitely not exclude men as some of them are writing some of the most positive and thought-provoking characters in SF&F. Ken Macleod is the first name that springs to mind for me, there are a good few others.

      That said, defining Feminism offers potential complexity and wrangling that would make defining ‘female’ so as not exclude trans, genderfluid etc writers look like a simple task.

      I am reminded of reading reviews somewhere about my fourth or fifth book, where in two clicks of a mouse, you could go from me being denounced as a ball-breaking, man-hating feminist to a disgraceful enabler of the patriarchy and betrayer of the sisterhood…

      The stuff is tricky 🙂

      1. Tricky indeed. A feminist award will be, naturally, an award for books *about* gender relations and other aspects of “formal feminism.” It will exclude books by women which are not specifically about that–and there are women writers who consider themselves feminist, but whose works’ central issues are not those of feminism.

        If there is to be a separate award for women’s writing, I would prefer to see all women’s writing included (including trans-identifying-as-female) in the eligibility, with no formal limitation of it to a particular viewpoint.

  7. Macho McHackenslay here – I won this year’s Gemmell Legend Award.

    Your idea may well be a good one, I certainly don’t find fault with it.

    I would like to pop of the bubbles blown above though.

    I’ve never been in a bookshop and seen my work anywhere but in the SFF section at the back of the shop. My memory of my debut was of walking past the 7 foot high shelf stocked from floor to top ONLY with copies of Erin Morgenstern’s fantasy debut The Night Circus, to where my book sat in the SFF section, at the back, spine out.

    The Gemmell Legend Award was presented by the editor of the what is described as “world’s leading sci-fi, horror and fantasy magazine” … that magazine hadn’t reviewed my winning book Emperor of Thorns, nor its predecessors in the trilogy, Prince of Thorns and King of Thorns. They did, however, review fellow newcomer Ann Leckie, also Kelley Armstrong, Mur Lafferty, Karen Lord…

    And that first year, when my debut made the Gemmell Morningstar Award shortlist? Two of the other four books on the shortlist were written by women, and one of them won.

    So yes, there are issues to be addressed, but please don’t paint us Macho McHackenslays into a paradise where we just roll downhill to victory. No such place.

    Mark Lawrence

    1. Hi Mark, and firstly, in the interests of clarity, since I have no way of knowing what related writings of mine you may have read on this topic – and since online interaction is notoriously prone to misunderstanding –

      Macho McHackenslay is a coinage for the purposes of discussion and absolutely not a dig at you, or Joe Abercrombie, or Paul Brett, or Brandon Sanderson or any of the other hardworking and professional writers who happen to be of the male persuasion.

      Secondly, and much more importantly, hearty and sincere congratulations on your Gemmell win. It was hugely popular in the room – not least because an audience of publishers, agents, writers, keenly informed fans and bloggers is very well aware just how much hard work goes into any level of success in writing these days.

      You’re entirely correct that no male writer can expect to lie back and wait for the kudos and cash to roll in. Just as no single female writer I know has seen her work ignored or dismissed in an unrelenting and overly destructive fashion.

      However, the fact remains that the cumulative effect of the demonstrable inequalities in visibility for women writers in key areas of the genre – to adopt and adapt John Scalzi’s useful analogy – ratchets up the difficulty setting for female authors – in a game that’s already very challenging.

      This isn’t something male writers should feel guilty about – it’s none of their doing. And we women very much appreciate those of our male colleagues who see this inequity and do what they can to redress the balance, be that inviting female guest posts on their blogs, checking to see they recommend women writers as well as other men if they’re asked for a top ten list, so on and so forth. We are all in this together, after all.

      You’re also correct to point out that this year’s Gemmell list is an anomaly in this award’s history. Women have been shortlisted and have won in the past – and let’s sincerely hope that they do so again. One way to help that happen is to flag up the current gender skew on the retail side, so prompt folk to take that extra moment to look beyond the latest McHackenslay (which I have no doubt is an excellent book).

      Once again, congratulations,

  8. I neither have time, nor probably expertise in books, to organise such. But in other areas? Yup!

    So I’ll throw my hat into the ring to aid/support/do so. Because.

    Well, because.

    Who else?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.