(A slightly different version of this post originally appeared at Hahví.net)
I like to read adventure novels. Science fiction, fantasy, historical: I enjoy them all. The important thing for me is a good, meaningful story, which by definition requires well-drawn, interesting characters. I like to think that it doesn’t matter to me if an author is a man or woman. I choose particular books because people whose opinions I respect have recommended them, or because I want to see an example of an author’s work, or just because I happen to stumble on a book that sounds intriguing.
But it’s always a good idea to pause now and then, and check perceptions against fact. Inspired by discussions around the web about reviewers paying more attention to books written by men than by women, I decided to check my own reading record. So I went over the novels I’ve read throughout the last year. I’m not a fast reader, so the overall numbers are low, but I recorded eleven books written by men, three of them by the same author, and six written by women, again three by the same author. I started a lot more books than this, using downloads of sample chapters, but these are the books I finished. All but two are science fiction or fantasy—and clearly, in this past year, I’ve been reading more books by men.
What does it mean? I don’t know that it means anything. If I’d done this assessment in a year when I was catching up on Kate Elliott’s books for example, I’m sure the breakdown would have been very different.
But here’s another interesting statistic. (Interesting to me, anyway.) Of these seventeen books, only three had female lead characters. I find that … startling. Several of the books had strong and prominent female characters, but they were nevertheless secondary to the main male character.
At this point, I couldn’t help going back and taking a look at my own novels. Out of nine, three have male lead characters, three have female leads, and three have shared leads—though these last three are probably weighted toward the male side.
Why do I choose the characters I choose? I’m not entirely sure. I choose characters I like. I choose characters that take up residence in my head. Sometimes I debate with myself on what gender a proposed character should be.
My novel Memory was written in first person, from a female point of view. I wanted to do a first-person novel, and I have a vague recollection of being put-off by the idea of writing an entire novel as male first-person. Fast-forward to today: the current novel-in-progress happens to be first person from a male point of view. I’ve recently discovered there’s a term for this: “cross-gender narration.” I’ve committed cross-gender narration before, though only in short stories. I suspect that with a novel, cross-gender narration is a mistake from a marketing perspective, but it is what it is.
Over the coming year I’ll continue to sample books from a spectrum of authors and genres. It’ll be interesting to see how the tally changes.
Linda Nagata is the Locus and Nebula award winning author of The Bohr Maker, Vast, and Memory, all available at Book View Cafe. Her latest book Hepen the Watcher, is the second in a fast-paced mythic fantasy series featuring the antihero demon, Smoke.