Talking about female writers

There’s been an extensive discussion at Torque Control over the last week about the paucity of women currently being published in British science fiction. I want to do my bit to continue that conversation, and I’ll take as my starting point the magazine that popped through my letterbox a couple of days ago.

Black Static is a horror magazine rather than a science fiction one, but the issues of under-representation/lack of visibility of female writers in the genre are much the same. Black Static can usually be relied upon to highlight the work of female writers; indeed, in its last couple of issues, the magazine has published the twenty short-shorts selected by Christopher Fowler and Maura McHugh for their Campaign for Real Fear, and thirteen of those stories were by women.

In that context, it’s particularly disappointing to note that the current issue contains five stories, all of which are by men. Now, I used to think this didn’t matter with individual issues of magazines (see, for example, my review of Jupiter XXIV, where I don’t mention the all-male line-up) – anthologies, yes, because they make an individual statement; but I was less concerned when it came to issues of magazine, because they could be viewed in the wider context of the magazine’s complete run.

These days, however, I am inclined to think differently: any list of writers or stories makes a statement; to exclude women from a list is to imply that they don’t write that sort of fiction – which is an impression I would never want to encourage. It’s vital for readers, authors, editors, and publishers alike to keep an eye out for things like this, to prevent them from happening, and not let them go unremarked when they do slip through the net.

Going back to the current issue of Black Static, there’s an interview with horror editor Stephen Jones which touches on the subject of female writers in the genre. One of Jones’s comments is another sentiment with which I would have agreed readily at one time, though now I have reservations –  that the quality of the story is of paramount importance, rather than its author’s gender (or what-have-you).

I could agree with this wholeheartedly if the playing-field were level, but the playing-field is not level. Historically, more men have been published than women, and the effects of that filter down. I’ve never selected books on the basis of an author’s gender, but my book collection is still weighted heavily towards male authors, and that’s because there have always been proportionately more books by men around from which I could choose.

I’m well aware that the coverage on this blog is also weighted towards male writers, a situation with which I’m not happy. Whilst I may not be able to remove that bias entirely, what I can do is to make sure that I’m looking for and drawing attention to the work of female writers, of whatever genre. I’d urge others to do the same.

11 Comments

  1. One of the thirteen ladies from the Campaign for Real Fear was me! I mention it only because I am inordinately proud of the tiny wee story and its inclusion in Black Static, and well, I’ll mention it wherever I can, quite honestly…

    But yes, it’s a question I’ve come to ponder more and more recently; where are my fellow female horror writers? If you go by current publications, we can seem a little thin on the ground.

  2. Hi Jennifer, and thanks for your comment. You raise an important question, and I wish I knew the answer. The Campaign for Real Fear alone suggests that there are plenty of women out there writing horror, yet somehow this seems not to filter down into the usual publication venues — I really don’t know why that is.

  3. Interestingly, I think a case can be made that, while Black Static may under-represent women (I haven’t checked — my only impression is that they have a marked tendency to publish people that they have published before suggesting that it is quite difficult to get one’s foot in the door), it is largely concerned with a mode of Horror that was pioneered by women.

    Black Static stories (and to a certain extent Interzone stories actually) are frequently about the gentle encroachment of insanity and nastiness into lives that are suffocatingly mundane. They rarely do beastie or gruey stories despite the fact that those modes are still very much part of the mainstream of the genre.

  4. I spent the weekend working on a Black Static fiction index, so am in a position to provide some figures.
    Over nineteen issues Black Static has published 110 stories (I’m excluding the Campaign for Real Fear stories, as they weren’t selected by Andy), of which 28 were by women, so roughly 25%.
    Of the ten writers who have appeared most frequently, three are women – Nina Allan, Lynda Rucker and Carole Johnstone. There have been two all male issues, including #19, and one in which there were more female writers (but that was including the Campaign writers – otherwise 50/50).
    It’s very hard to say how many women are being published in horror, particularly given that there is some overlap with other genres, such as paranormal romance and crime fiction, and impossible to say how many are writing horror but not being published, for whatever reason. Best I can do on that score is look at the titles I’m being sent for review, and last time I checked something like 20% were written (or edited) by women, so Black Static appears to be above the curve, and even if the occasional all male issue slips out I’d hope the magazine is perceived as female friendly and receptive to work from women writers.
    Personally I’d argue that ‘under-representation’ of women is a slight red herring. Yes, we should expect the total number of writers to have a 50/50 gender divide, and perhaps even a female bias if education statistics are reliable, but that doesn’t have to interpret as a 50/50 divide across all genres.
    What’s important to me is not under-representation, some desiderate gender divide that we should be aiming for, but that women are getting the same opportunities for publication as men, a level playing field, and the same recognition when they are published. If those conditions are assured (and I’d argue that with Black Static they are) then women will be represented in the genre at whatever level their skills and ambitions merit, by right and not to fill a female quota.
    And if it doesn’t happen then the danger is that women who wish to write horror may feel it’s not worth the effort and take their literary skills elsewhere, which would be a loss to all of us who enjoy work in this genre. And that’s why incidents like the all male interview book released by the BFS and the male oriented SFX issue were backward steps for the genre, failures to recognise the female contribution.
    I’ve written about this before:-
    http://ttapress.com/802/women-in-black-static/4/5/

  5. David Hebblethwaite

    18th October 2010 at 10:18 pm

    Jonathan: That’s a very interesting way of looking at it. I think you’re right about the typical Black Static ‘style’ (I guess that comes from the magazine’s roots as The Third Alternative, which had a similar focus).

  6. David Hebblethwaite

    18th October 2010 at 10:41 pm

    Pete: Thanks very much for your contribution; it’s good to have some actual data on the issue (my comment on ‘under-representation’ was largely impressionistic — and, I should add, not intended to be specifically about Black Static; I apologise if that wasn’t clear).

    I wouldn’t expect there to be gender parity in the genre, though I’d have hoped the proportion of published female writers would be higher than the 20% you suggest from the review copies you’re sent. But that figure raises an interesting question for me: what was it about the Campaign for Real Fear that resulted in a gender split so different from the publication norm?

  7. As far as I understood, the Campaign was as much about showcasing horror from under-represented groups as moving away from traditional horror tropes- so perhaps that is why more women than would be usual ended up in the final 20. It still doesn’t really answer the question though of why there appear to be fewer female horror writers being published.

  8. It’s cool David, and I realise you were only using Black Static as a hook for a piece about wider concerns. My point about ‘under-representation’ remains though. At the moment all we can say with any certainty is that significantly fewer female writers than male are being published in horror, but it may be simply that fewer women wish to write horror. If we’re going to talk about under-representation we need to determine roughly what the level of representation should be (i.e. if 400 out of 1000 people writing horror are women, but out of the 100 who get published only 10 are women, then yes, there is under-representation, and we need to ask why that is). I’m unsure though how we can gauge that level.
    The Campaign had 31% of its submissions from women, but that translated into 65% of the published stories. Maura and Chris read blind, so we can’t accuse them of any gender bias (but Des Lewis reads blind for Nemonymous, and in Null Immortalis, from memory, only three of the contributors are female).
    Ab initio though, the Campaign was about broadening the genre’s boundaries, both as regards who writes horror and its subject matter, with Chris posing the question on his blog ‘Horror: Something for the Boys?’, so one would expect submissions from people who don’t usually write work perceived as horror.
    I also suspect, though I have only circumstantial and anecdotal evidence, that given this slant many of ‘the boys’ avoided the Campaign. I recall little, if any, discussion of the Campaign on horror-centric message boards such as the RCMB or Shocklines, and out of those accepted for publication or who went public with their rejections, the only ‘profile’ names I recognised were all female. There was nothing heard from any of the ‘usual suspects’, male writers you inevitably find propping up the ToCs in magazines and anthologies. Of course it is only a suspicion, and those writers could simply have been rejected and kept quiet about it.
    One Campaign statistic that I found especially interesting, was that 6% of the submissions came from Australia, which translated into 15% of the acceptances. My impression (on little evidence, admittedly) is that Australia has a much higher percentage of female published writers in the genre. The only issue of the Angela Challis edited “Australian Best Horror and Dark Fantasy” had a 50/50 gender divide. With Tasmaniac Publications “Festive Fear” anthology, the first Australian writers only volume had 7 women out of 15 contributors. For the second editor Steve Clark went global for submissions, and the figure dropped to 2 out of 15. Food for thought.

  9. Last para, I should have said, ‘The only issue of the Angela Challis edited “Australian Best Horror and Dark Fantasy” that I’ve seen had a 50/50 gender divide.’

  10. I’ve just done another post on this subject that might be of interest:-

    http://ttapress.com/942/women-in-horror-anthologies/0/5/

    On checking, the Australian figures I quoted above from memory, weren’t quite accurate.

  11. David Hebblethwaite

    31st October 2010 at 8:13 pm

    Thanks, Pete, for such a thorough survey. Interesting point about the correlation between female editors and anthologies having higher proportions of female contributors; I’ve just received this anthology, which has 12 stories by women out of a total of 22, and is edited by a woman.

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