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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.

Personal reflections on books and gender

This post has been inspired by an entry in Juliet McKenna‘s LiveJournal asking whether publishing is sexist. It may turn out to be more a series of fragments than a properly coherent argument, and I doubt that I’ll offer any original insights; but I’ve never written about this topic before, so we’ll see how it goes.

To start with my own experiences as a reader: yes, most of the books I have read in my lifetime have been by men, and most of the books I have reveiwed have been by men. Yes, I was surprised by the ending of The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler when we read it at school; and no, I didn’t read ‘books for girls’. But then, I didn’t read many ‘books for boys’ either — the closest I got were all the adventure gamebooks I read (the vast majority of which were written by men; and which had, I would surmise, a largely male readership). Mostly, though, I just read books — the gender of the author was genuinely never a concern to me. As an adult, I notice an author’s gender more; and, if I see that I’ve read a few books in a row by male authors, I do often think, perhaps it’s time I read a female author or two. I’m not entirely sure whether that’s a good way of looking at it; I think there’s something to be said for the free-spirited way I read as a child, picking up anything and everything with no regard for any criteria other than that it sounded good.

There has been quite a pause between my writing the last paragraph and this one, as I’ve confronted the fact that I probably do have a real gender bias in my choice of reading matter. It’s quite hypothetical, but it’s there. I would never reject a book on the basis of its author’s gender (gender might affect the order in which I read a group of books, but that’s different); I would reject it on the basis of whether I thought I’d like it. Now, I don’t tend to read books that have been explicitly written for a particular gender, of any sort — chick-lit, lad-lit, whatever, they generally don’t appeal to me (though I’m sure I could find exceptions if I looked); but if I had to choose one (and I’m talking about the really hackneyed, stereotyped stuff here), I’d go for a book written for my own gender. Hopefully there’s enough out there to read that I’ll never have to resort to making such a choice, but there it is.

So, I can understand (as I previously thought I couldn’t) how readers might prefer authors of one gender over another.  But I think the issue is also tied up with other factors. One of the commenters on Juliet’s post, Maura McHugh, says that, in the fantastic genres, we still have some people viewing some kinds of fiction  as more ‘suitable’ for women to write than others (i.e. fantasy rather than hard SF or horror), and cites as an example ‘paranormal romance’ being excluded from definitions of horror. Now, I think she conflates two different issues here. Yes, some people do think that women can’t or shouldn’t write particular kinds of fiction (in my view, all such opinions are wrong). The thing is, though, I wouldn’t classify ‘paranormal romance’ as ‘horror’. But I wouldn’t classify ‘paranormal detections’ (which are often written by men as well as women) as horror, either. And I would exclude these kinds of fiction not because of their authors’ gender, or because I think they’re intrinsically inferior (which, by the way, I don’t); but for the same reason I wouldn’t call Count Duckula horror — because I think (broadly speaking — of course there’s some overlap) they try to do different things and work in different ways.

Finally, to answer Juliet’s question: is publishing sexist? I have nothing to do with the industry, so I can do no more than speculate. I don’t think it is, not conciously anyway; but I do think there is a bias towards male writers — yet the majority of readers are female. Perhaps it is not so much one gender being favoured deliberately over another as the industry seeking to maintain a preconceived pattern of gender. A few years ago, Mark Morris wrote Fiddleback (known as The Lonely Places in the US), a psychological thriller with a female lead. It was published under a gender-neutral name to make it more appealing to women. That doesn’t excuse any biases against female writers, but it does demonstrate that ‘gender expectations’ can work both ways. Perhaps it’s that the publishing industry likes it when one set of books appeals to one gender, and another set of books appeals to another gender, and doesn’t like to rock that particular boat.

Over to you — yes, for once I’m going to explicitly invite comments (which are always welcome in any case). Do you prefer to read authors of one gender over another? What’s your take on the whole issue?

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