Must be a day with a Y in it. Yes, well-informed readers are pushing back against this particular dated, limited and male-dominated list, and no, I’m not going to link to it and argue the toss over every title. There’s a wider point to be made.
Women SF&F writers don’t take these best-of lists, these recommended-for-award-nominations and shortlists, these articles and review columns that erase us ‘personally’. We object because they damage us professionally. The same is true for every under-represented group excluded from these lists. And yes, the male authors writing the progressive, informed and thought-provoking SF&F which is being ignored have a right to feel aggrieved as well.
When newcomers to fantasy fiction see the most easily-found review coverage and online discussion is all about grimdark books from big publishers, with stories about blokes in cloaks, written by authors like Macho McHackenslay, that’s what they will buy. Or they will be completely put off and go elsewhere in search of fiction where they see themselves and their concerns represented. They will never know what they’re looking for can be found in SF&F.
Either way, six months down the line, the big publisher’s accountants at head office look at the sales figures and see Macho McHackenslay is one of their bestsellers. The order goes out to ask literary agents for more of the same. Because big publishing is a numbers game, and it skews towards repeating successes rather than promoting innovation.
Meantime, an editor will be arguing the case to give another contract to P.D.Kickassgrrl. He insists the body count and hardcore ethics of P.D.Kickassgrrl’s excellent work will surely appeal to Macho McHackenslay fans, as well as whole lot of other readers. Unfortunately her sales aren’t nearly as good, because her books get far fewer reviews and other mentions. Genre magazines and blogs can have a similar skew towards established successes, arguing they have to review the books people are actually buying, because those are the writers readers are clearly interested in. The self-referential and self-reinforcing circle is complete.
It is absolutely no answer to say ‘but there are plenty of women, writers of colour, non-binary, gay, disabled authors (etc.) coming into the genre with debut novels. We just have to wait for them to rise through the ranks.’ 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. If it did, you would see far more female and other routinely excluded authors enjoying the same sustained writing careers as their male peers.
More than that, erasing women and other excluded 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.
If that’s the problem, what’s the solution? What can we do to push back more generally? We can boost the signal on our social media for those smaller presses who are publishing innovative books. We can do the same for the websites, podcasts, reviewers and blogs which offer a balanced and nuanced view of the amazing breadth and depth of current SF&F. There are so many wonderful books out there to be read!