Dispatches from the Crone Wars

545px-pictures_of_english_history_plate_iv_-_boadicea_and_her_army_200The Horseblog is taking a break this week, because I have this irresistible desire to get ranty, and where better to rant on this subject than right here at Crone Central?

Yes, Book View Cafe was founded by older women writers who, in 2008, saw the writing on the wall of publishing, and knew it was time to explore new ways to get their words out there. And yes, early on, there was, here and there, a mutter of dismissal: “Oh, it’s just a bunch of women who couldn’t make it any more so they got together to try to help each other out.”

Never mind who some of the names on the masthead were and are. “It’s just a bunch of women.”

Now it’s 2014 and a lot has changed, including the gender mix at BVC. But then again, a lot hasn’t. The proximate cause of my riff here is a killer blog post by the indomitable Kari Sperring. The post is here. Go. Read it. Read the comments, too.

This is a war we’ve been fighting for a long, long time. Centuries. Millennia. Our very young world of commercial publishing with its market-derived genres concentrates it to a notable degree, and points up, sometimes painfully, exactly where our culture draws its lines and determines its hierarchies. The idea of literary importance being the province of straight white males is under serious siege. Women, non-whites, non-straights of all genders, are speaking out, loudly, and sometimes even being heard.

And yet, there’s still so very far to go. As a white American woman I carry a good number of privilege points in publishing–race privilege, nation privilege–but I lose points for gender, disability, and now age.

This conversation happened a few years ago:

ME: I have this space opera I’m writing, I’d really like to sell it. Here’s the proposal! Isn’t it a gas?

AGENT: I love it! (beat) But I can’t sell it. If it were twenty years ago, or if you were a twentysomething guy…

Translation:

The book would have been a lot easier to sell in 1992 or thereabouts. Much better market, much more friendly to space opera.

(The market in 1992 was better, period. So, fair enough.)

I might be able to sell it now, but you’re too old and too female to have your name attached to it.

(HULK. SMASH.)

I put up a timeline a while back, describing my trajectory through the genre. The individual events didn’t hit particularly hard–especially in the earlier years, that was just how things were–but taken together, they form an all too familiar pattern.

I have not actually tried the androgynous pseudonym. Mostly because I’ve been busy Kickstarting the YA rejected by one publisher as “too ‘girl-friendly’ for science fiction,” and the above-mentioned space opera, plus working with and for BVC and bringing out my backlist and running a horse farm and a lot of other things. I’ve been busy.

I’ve been watching the genre fight its fights, and participating as I can and will. The gender fight is particularly fierce this year, with some particularly notable victories–the all-female Nebula winners list, for example. This is progress, and it’s wonderful.

And yet.

I have a superpower. I’m invisible. I only show up on general lists of Great Fantasists of the Eighties if one of my devoted fans (who are awesome) speaks up. I have never shown up on major awards lists, except for World Fantasy. “She might as well write in invisible ink,” one of my publishers once said. I can’t count the number of times someone has said, “Oh. Yeah. Wow. She’s great. How did we manage to forget her?”

It’s not just the books, either. I can post on internet mailing lists to resounding silence, until someone else says the same thing; then suddenly it’s visible. I’ve got so I don’t even try, because when I do…crickets.

That’s always been a thing. What’s changed in recent years is that now I have an actual demographic of fellow invisibles.

Our culture makes a cult of youth. Both genders. But males as they age manage to stay visible, and even manage to keep matinee-idol status–and if they’re writers, they become literary lions. Females simply drop off the radar.

“But!” the commenters on the blogs exclaim. “There are older women in media! Helen Mirren Meryl Streep Barbara Walters one or two others in regular rotation!” And for our genre, “Le Guin Willis Bujold one or two others in regular rotation!”

You see what they did there?

It’s called tokenism. The arbiters of importance choose one or two representatives of whatever group is making too much noise to be completely ignored–or maybe three or even four if they’re pushed hard enough. Whenever it’s pointed out that there is a gap in their coverage, they cite this very short list to prove that there is, in fact, no gap. “See? We do too include these people! Now we can all go home.”

Never mind that “these people” also include people who are not white or American or… They are presumed to include their entire subset of Other, and to preclude any need for further consideration of that Other. However multitudinous the precluded may actually be.

This is changing. Oh yes. And I’m delighted to see it.

What I am not seeing is all too many of the older women writers who were disappeared by life, markets, and cultural blindness. They are still alive. Still, in many cases, writing–though many have been so discouraged by the lack of interest in their writing that they can barely scrape out the words. Even those who are still getting contracts and still being published just are not seeing the success of their male counterparts.

It’s insidious. Even where there is success–by far the biggest current market for books is category romance, and that genre is dominated by women at all levels. And yet, where are the adulatory reviews in Serious Publications? Where are the major films and television series? Where is the plain and simple respect for the genre that is, to a large extent, supporting the rest of publishing?

A man can write a completely conventional romance and become a household word. Horse Whisperer, anyone? A man can bring out a piece of Jane Austen fanfic and start a landslide of a trend–after women with the same idea have been rejected for years as “It’s just fanfic, there’s no market for that.” If a man writes a big fat fantasy epic that hits all the checkboxes for the genre, it’s “original” and “brilliant” and “bestselling.” The woman who does the exact same thing and breaks new ground (backwards, in heels) is told to her face, “Oh, but his book is original.”

Add the stigma of age to this and she might as well just shut up and go away. Stop taking up space. Let someone younger and prettier and newer and “fresher” have the slot. Because when you’re Other, there are only those few slots, and even those might be begrudged.

It’s hard to be the heir of the 100% in a world in which you only get at least 65% of the money, the sales, the reviews, the attention. If you’re also having to compete with the old bats who aren’t even cute any more, O the pain!

There’s a whole culture to push against here. A world that may be giving women and Others the right to exist, but still refuses to see the ones who aren’t young and pretty and suitably marketable. That doesn’t respect their names or hear their voices or see their faces.

I’m pushing, damn it. So are my age-sisters. It’s long past time.

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Dispatches from the Crone Wars — 35 Comments

      • Our male gaze, let us show you it.

        Horse Whisperer is a man’s fantasy about girls and horses. He knows nothing about either of them, but that doesn’t even slow him down.

        If a woman had written it, it would be much truer–and completely obscure.

      • And a hole in the plot the size of a Subaru Forester. (You had hot sex with him and then he left. You still love him. Your husband finally dies. WHAT DO YOU DO? You lay around for another ump years and then die yourself in unrequited misery. You never Google on his name; hire a private detective to find him; contact National Geo, NOTHING. You just lay there like a sock and take it.)

        • Ah yes. That thing about female agency.

          Huge gusty dog sigh.

          I was watching a reality competition last night in which every single female contestant stood back and let the males dominate the teams. To be fair, one male who led his team sank back out of sight during the challenge, but ALL the women deferred. Every single one.

          And where the male sank back, it was the female on the team who went home. (I observe this often. If it’s an equal decision, it almost always favors the male.)

    • Maybe not, though it is a tougher road. (It was very, very heartening to see the Locus post of the recent Nebula winners, all women, and all of them of generous size. Yay!)

      • Fat is the last frontier of allowable prejudice. If you’re a proper liberal, you include everybody and allow for everybody and celebrate diversity, and of course racist or sexist remarks are absolutely not to be tolerated.

        But people who would never dream of doing such a thing to any other non-normative group won’t even think before making a fat joke, or judging someone for being fat. Even if “fat” means there’s something other than skin on the victim’s bones.

        Humans are prone to Othering. Even when they try not to be.

        • Exactly. And this whole obesity scare has been manufactured by diet companies. I am not saying that we shouldn’t eat healthier and/or be physically active but when the only measure of health is how much you weigh, that is wrong. Particularly as the definition of what is acceptable keeps changing or is based on something as off as BMI.

          Sorry for the rant!

    • I’m a very large older woman and write under a couple different pseudonyms. I’ve never been what one could be described as “pretty”. I use this pseudonym (Anna Rose) to write vampire fiction and my other – male – persona to write…um…erotic horror.

      I must say that the erotic horror sells much better than the vampire fiction (nope, no sparkling or romances), and I often wonder how much of that has to do with the false perception that the author of the latter is the 30 year old single athletic male with a dog I pretend to be for those short stories.

  1. Thank you, Judy for sharing this!! I was feeling alone. I actually toyed with the idea of starting an Invisible Woman blog … but decided it would be too much trouble and people wouldn’t read it anyway. I have such amazing invisible woman stories to share! As for books … I haven’t written in months, even though some really good stories are in my brain fighting to get out. But now I’m encouraged that there are other woman out there like me. Crones Unite! Maybe I’ll stop feeling sorry for myself and just write the damned things …

  2. Light a candle to Skuld the Crone and go forth to conquer new worlds.

    The old world they promised me never worked.

    So I’ll keep making up new ones.

    Thank you, as always, Judy!

  3. “Still, in many cases, writing–though many have been so discouraged by the lack of interest in their writing that they can barely scrape out the words. Even those who are still getting contracts and still being published just are not seeing the success of their male counterparts.” – I feel this, Judith. I get great reviews but no one buys the darn books! 30-year career and I’m still invisible. I always thought it was just me, that my writing was neither IMPORTANT enough nor COMMERCIAL enough. These days, I’m not so sure…

    • Think about what has been deemed important in literature over the past century or two. It has pretty much always boiled down to “What men think,” and “What men see.”

      Take two of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century (though I know that distinction is debatable.) Middlemarch, written by a woman (one of those few exceptions that is always named), and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters.

      The first, written under a male name (though most critics knew it for a pseud), is heavily concerned with male affairs–politics, the moral spectrum of the medical field, men’s affairs as well as women’s. Eliot claimed she was influenced by Gaskell, whose novel is right up front about how the women deal with the man’s world.

      Granted, we are denied the very last chapter of the Gaskell, but we know how it ends. Does it get listed even among “pretty good books” of the nineteenth century by critics, who have been largely male. No. Completely overlooked. At the time, Dickens even dumped her as a protege, angrily scolding her for writing about men’s concerns when she ought to confine herself to domestic tales of hearth and home.

    • Freda, it’s probably too female to live.

      Which means it’s plenty important and has readers who love it. Something I have to keep reminding myself, too. We all do.

  4. The thing that bothers me most is not so much the fact that I’m invisible, but that I’m invisible to other women even more than I am to men. Too often the people I feel ought to be most supportive are the ones pushing me down, covering me up, shoving me away while they crowd forward with white bright smiles to coo at the men. That only validates the male gaze, because they’re so eager to share it.

    • I’ve seen a sad lot of that, too. With any form of oppression, the oppressed who try to get by through currying favor with the oppressors are often their fellows’ worst enemies.