News Flash: We Still Haven’t Come a Long Way, Baby

This just in: Books by men get reviewed much more often than books by women. Why? Well, one research project suggests that it’s because women read books by both men and women, while men mostly read books by men. And an admittedly less-than-scientific analysis says it could be because publishers put out more books by men than women.

Surprised? Me, neither.

It seems like something comes along on a regular basis to remind us that women get shortchanged. A little over a year ago I wrote about a Publishers Weekly Top Ten books list that didn’t have a single woman author on it, pointing out that it was mathematically improbable, given the number of women writers, that not one of them had written a book worthy of Top Ten status.

And here we are again. No, I’m not surprised. But I am mad.

The review statistics were gathered by the organization Vida, which “seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women.” Their report put the issue in perspective:

We know women write. We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.

I can think of several reasons. For one, there are still far too many people — not just men, but women, too — who really don’t believe women can do anything important as well as men, not to mention doing anything better than men. And, conversely, these same people believe that if women excel in any given field, it’s really not that important.

As a rule these days, people pretend they don’t think that way. Instead they say things like “‘The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books,'” which comes from a comment by Times Literary Supplement editor Peter Stothard in the Guardian’s article on the Vida study. And the subtext is, of course, that women don’t write — or even read — the important books.

Now I know that the situation is better than it used to be. Right now I’m going through the first season of Mad Men on DVD, and, just as I feared, the sexism it depicts is painful to watch. But it’s accurate. I may have been a little kid during those years, but I watched my mother put up with all that kind of crap. No wonder she was often angry.

We have come a long way from the world of Mad Men. But that doesn’t mean it’s time to stop paying attention.

The key problem with women writers is not that they don’t write important books or have big ideas. The problem is they don’t get noticed.

As the psychiatrist Anna Fels pointed out in her brilliant book, Necessary Dreams:

A deep and pervasive cultural prejudice leads to the reflex bestowing of recognition on males and a largely unconscious withholding of recognition from females in all but the sexual sphere—where it is complementary to male needs.

I keep coming back to Fels’s book, which I reviewed here, to understand why we must pay attention to these studies of gender imbalance if we ever hope to have a society that is truly egalitarian.

Those of you who assume this is only a problem in the literary genre might want to peruse the statistics Broad Universe has put together about science fiction, fantasy, and horror publishing.

So what do we do? Well, for starters we follow Laura Miller’s advice: We “encourage our friends to try to broaden their horizons.”

And we keep talking about the disparities, even if a lot of people (some of whom may show up in the comments) are tired of hearing about them.

Update: I just saw Percival Everett’s essay on the Vida statistics and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, and wanted to make sure everyone else saw it, too. He skewers those who don’t see the problem so deftly and gently that maybe — maybe — they’ll start paying attention. Perhaps the NY Times Book Review and The New Yorker and some other pubs will have the sense to ask for permission to reprint it.

ChangelingMy novella Changeling is now available as an ebook through Book View Cafe. It’s a coming of age story. And it’s not about faeries.

My story “New Lives” is in the lastest Book View Cafe ebook anthology, The Shadow Conspiracy II.

My 51 flash fictions and a few other stories are still available for free on Nancy Jane’s Bookshelf, and anthologies containing some of my stories are available through Powell’s.



News Flash: We Still Haven’t Come a Long Way, Baby — 8 Comments

  1. The numbers haven’t budged in the last few decades, especially in the pro markets and only women editors/reviewers showcase women’s work to any extent. As for the “arguments” that have replaced obvious knuckle-dragging, the litany goes as follows:

    1. We can’t have population quota representation, because this is all about superior quality/qualifications that non-males and non-whites simply lack.
    2. Would you rather we included token women and minorities?
    3. My wife/girlfriend/mistress/concubine is a feminist and/or non-white and she agrees with me.
    4. Your humorless PC hysteria alienates those who would support you if only you were polite.

    Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

  2. I’m not surprised either, neither by the general numbers nor by those for the SFFH field.

    It’s not just male only TOCs or “best of” lists, either, it goes deeper than that. A lot of women write speculative fiction in some form, but only a handful of women writers are discussed and reviewed and nominated for awards. The others might as well not exist as far as the genre press and internet fora are concerned. I have discovered more female SFFH writers via romance sites than via speculative fiction sites.

    What is more, urban fantasy, paranormal romance and speculative YA fiction, all of which are dominated by women writers, are either ignored or derided on speculative fiction sites, even though they sell better than pretty much anything else in speculative fiction that isn’t a Star Wars tie-in and wasn’t written by Robert Jordan. Yes, there is a lot of dross in those subgenres, but then there is a lot of dross in the more masculine dominated subgenres, too.

    And if you call some prominent male writer, reviewer, editor or blogger on his “urban fantasy is trash” remarks and politely suggest that his aversion may be at least partly due to the fact that the writers and protagonists are overwhelmingly female, you’ll get a variation of the arguments Athena listed. “But I like women. After all, I have a wife/daughter/mother/girlfriend. Besides, those books are cheap commercial trash. And I do read books by women, good books by women.” Then the writer/blogger mentions the two or three women writers whose books he happens to own or whose names he happens to have heard. It’s usually the same five or six names cropping up on those lists, too, similarly to how Samuel Delany and Octavia Butler (and no one else) are always mentioned when writers of colour are discussed.

    And if the discussion turns to example of “good” urban fantasy, those examples all turn out to be by male writers and feature male protagonists. Bonus points if some of those supposedly male writers are actually women with ambiguous names.

  3. So the question is, how to win at the game? Is an ambiguous pseudonym the way to hardback contemporary fantasy publication? Do we keep producing quality and aim for money, and let history sort it out? Jane Austin and Charles Dickens are still read where so many of the “literary” writers of the day are forgotten by most everyone, including people who study the various periods of history.

    I’m musing over the physical ramifications, of course, as I want to write and be well paid for it. Awards are nice, but at this point I’ve lost interest. Even women getting nominated for awards now have mostly male protagonists.

    Perhaps only men nominate? No — they only nominate male writers. Necessary Dreams sums up so much.

    Thank you, Nancy Jane. Everett’s essay is brilliant. I hope it is reprinted a lot of places, and will put a notation in my journal.

  4. By “win at the game”, do you mean “achieve popular sales with male audiences and gain critical praise from a male-weighted critical establishment”?

    Because if you do, it occurs to me that — short of founding your own critics’ magazines and publishing houses — one very simple approach might be to, well, er… write stuff that men like to read.

    Which means:

    1) Don’t have your main female characters constantly griping about men, or write stories whose themes or situations are meant to depict/drive home how oppressed women have been by men, or how much better things would be if women were in charge. We don’t respond to misandry any better than you do to misogyny, and we *really* don’t respond well to messages (however justified you may consider them) that we should feel guilty for injustices most of us have, and had, very little to do with personally.

    2) Show a little interest in things men like for their own sake — machines, gadgets, puzzles, sports, games, fights, politics, philosophy (the non- or pre-feminist kind, that is), war, weapons, systems, and all the fiddly bits. I’ve noticed very few posts like this one, for all their desire for egalitarianism, ever include calls to find and exalt “the female Tom Clancy,” or “the female Vince Flynn.” And who was the last female SF&F author who put anywhere near the worldbuilding effort into her universe as J.R.R. Tolkien, or Frank Herbert, or Alistair Reynolds? Not coincidentally, it was J.K. Rowling, now the richest woman in the world.

    3) Don’t put too much focus on the things that bore us. We like relationships and character study as much as you do, but we don’t need nearly so much narrative time and introspection spent on it, and we much prefer seeing protagonists who deal with their emotional pain by *acting* rather than brooding or talking.

    Note that none of this has anything to do with *superiority*. In terms of literary quality, thematic depth, philosophical meaning and human insight, any given female author’s work is as likely as not to exceed any given man’s. What you are griping about is *popularity* — that you have not yet “won the crowd”, as Proximo urges Maximus to do in GLADIATOR; the “crowd” being in this case not only the audience but the critics and the publishers. And just as Maximus had to learn to play to what the crowd wanted, so too does any given artist have to bend to her desired audience, at least at first, before she can preach to them.

    The plain and simple truth is: You will never win the crowd as long as you keep arguing for what “should” be the case out of moral indignation. You cannot change the tastes of your audience by trying to force things they “should” like down their throat, no matter how good for them it may be. You will never encourage people to broaden their horizons if you do so by trying to make them ashamed of where they are, without giving them reason to hope for something much better — if anything, that will only engender resentment, and aggravate the division rather than bridging it.

    Some injustices can be addressed by laws and rules; some can only be addressed by salesmanship. And right now, your sales technique needs work.

  5. Gosh, Stephen, you really take me back. When I was just starting to date, the common advice to young women was just what you’re saying: “Talk about what interests him.”

    Get a grip, son. I’m not seeking advice on what women writers should do if we want to be “accepted” by men. That ship sailed long ago.

    I’m pointing out that there are lots of women writers out there, many of them are very good indeed and some qualify as the finest writers of the time, and they’re being overlooked or ignored by publishers and reviewers. It’s time for that to change, and no, I’m not going to shut up about it or publish under a male name or write male fantasy fiction.

    Grow up and learn to live in a world in which women are real people.