Friday 3 June 2011

What is with ALL THE SEXISM?

In the last week I've seen the launch of a new blog, SFF Mistressworks, and an article on the Guardian blog, the incredible shrinking presence of women SF writers, and it got me to thinking: What is with all the sexism?

I'm so totally NOT on board with this focus on women in literature, and I will tell you why.

1) In any other workplace, if people were determined to focus on the specifics between men and women, there would be a good case for a charge of sexism.

2) Women have been fighting for equality for years: why is this suddenly a new story?

3) In chick lit, there is not a fierce desire for there to be a slew of male authors - no one argues that Mike Gayle should be as widely read as Marian Keyes. Authors are enjoyed on their own merits.

4) Last night I was watching the Great British Menu and the commentator described one of the judges as a top female chef - and I felt insulted that she wasn't just considered to be a top chef. The same can be applied to authors: we should be insulted at having to focus on women separately.

For me, this is the height of a storm in a teacup, and I'm so tired of hearing about it now.

Why not consider it this way:

Read the books you like. Enjoy the books you read. Who cares the sex of the authors writing them? I certainly don't! Do you?


  1. 1) In any other workplace, if people were determined to focus on the specifics between men and women, there would be a good case for a charge of sexism.

    Science fiction isn't a workplace and it doesn't make much sense to compare to one. However, people do, in fact, spend a lot of time focusing on the "specifics between men and women" in workplace, notably the massive pay gap between men and women and the under-representation of women at senior levels across all organisations. Many employers boast of their Equal Opportunities status and have targets to increase the number of women they employ.

    2) Women have been fighting for equality for years: why is this suddenly a new story?

    It isn't. It is an old, old story. There really isn't much point in getting onto the specific question of women in science fiction until you educate yourself about what sexism means and how it exists in the world.

  2. I am the same as you Amanda, really tired of hearing it. I read the books I want based on the stories and my enjoyment level. I don't care about the author's gender, age, religion, race, country or birth or anything else about them. I appreciate why it's being done but just as I said after one focused panel at Eastercon which turned out to be an hour long complaint, why not celebrate instead of saying how wrong readers, editors, reviewers, bloggers etc are by not reading more books by women, which is what the panel boiled down to. If, someone had said to me, for example, I saw you enjoyed a Peter F. Hamilton book, have you tried Jaine Fenn? That would make me much more inclined to try it than someone saying to me, and berating me, and trying to make me read a certain book book because I need to be reading more SF books by women in general etc.

  3. You mean, there's no sexism? And the reason sf books by women writers don't appear in all those lists of "classic sf" or "must read sf novels" or "best sf novels" is because... er, why is it they're not there?

  4. I don't care about the author's gender, age, religion, race, country or birth or anything else about them.

    Your ability to not care is a function of your privilege as a man. You've never been marginalised or overlooked by dint of being a man; hence you have no idea how women authors or editors - let alone the women who've wanted to be authors or editors but who were prevented from doing so - feel about this issue. Perhaps the sheer persistence of the issue could be taken as a sign that - just maybe! - there really *is* some deep-seated inequity here?

    Or you could always just write it off as women "complaining, whining or berating" - three verbs that - quite incidentally, I'm sure - appear in pretty much every get-back-in-the-kitchen caricature ever told.

  5. Hang on... Three of the people in this discussion who are arguing most fervently about this are men? What's going on there? Where are all the women fussing about this issue? Maybe they're, y'know, just reading and enjoying their books..... :-p

  6. I wrote a post about sci fi for a female audience, not that I care if it was a man or a woman writing the book, but I find that a lot of sci-fi is lacking in something that appeals to a lot of women readers.

    There are some good books out there that appeal to everyone, we just have to find them under all this macho posing ;)

  7. Maybe they're, y'know, just reading and enjoying their books....

    ... behaving quietly and deferentially, just like women should, right? Or maybe they're tired of repeating the same explanations over and over again, to no avail?

    Women have been fighting for equality for years: why is this suddenly a new story?

    As Martin pointed out, it isn't a new story, and the reason women have continued to fight for equality for years - and are doing so right now, as part of the debate/discussion/campaign in question - is because equality has not yet been achieved. And until people - of whatever sex, gender or political orientation - stop telling people arguing for equality to shut up, that battle will remain unwon.

  8. @Paul - you're making a straw man argument there.

    My point here is that, with all the energy expended right now on shouting about the fact that people should be reading more women, you are losing time to do that reading.

    You know something - if someone tells me to read women authors because I *have* to in order to support them, I'm going to entirely disregard them. If they suggest a book by a particular female author that they have read and enjoyed and tell me WHY I might enjoy it, then I will find it relevant and interesting.

    Stop applying such a blanket position to the whole thing...

  9. You're reading things into the debate that aren't always there, and it's dangerous to lump things together like that.

    The whole 'SF Mistresses' thing? I am against it. For defo. That's separating us out and saying that we get special treatment, as well as excusing 'boys lists' (that were previously SF lists that were predominated by boys, and were hence a target for change) for not reflecting us.

    But I didn't detect that onesided separatism in the Guardian article, or many others. Frankly, I'm over the moon that people are finally agitating about this and I no longer feel like I'm a very, very tired, depressed voice in a vacuum.

    No, I don't want special treatment or to have a 'Mistresses' list any more than I want to be called an 'authoress'. But there are prevalent and MASSIVELY under-challenged sexist tendencies that it's nice to hear people actually TALKING about.

    As always, the biggest danger is lumping 'feminisms' together and rejecting all expression, discussion, protest, and activism together.

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  11. I may be wrong, but I think Amanda's point is that you shouldn't just read authors BECAUSE they're women. Just as you shouldn't read authors BECAUSE they're men. Much of the problem in this debate seems to be phrased in a "you should read more work by these authors because they're female", when really what people want to hear is "read this it's really good".

    Steve is right - people who happen to only read male authors (for whatever reason - in no way do I think a majority of people are consciously excluding female authors from their shelves and reading) are more likely to be willing to try others if they're just told that the stories/novels are enjoyable, rather than being accused of being a sexist. By insisting that people read novels based just on the gender of the author will do little for equality in the genre.

    Also, from my experience with and dealings with publishers, an awful lot (I would say a rather clear and comfortable majority) of people I've been in contact with are female - from editors to publicists. Are we saying that they are making a conscious effort to exclude female authors from their rosters, or from putting as much effort into publicising their work as male authors? I don't think so (and that certainly hasn't been in evidence to me).

  12. The more I try to argue in favour of feminist ideas, the more I understand why everyone thinks feminists are angry.

  13. Did anyone answer my question earlier? Maybe I missed the answer, maybe there's a perfectly good reason why why so few sf books by women get onto lists of classics or best or must-read sf. Maybe someone can tell me one that reason is. Or is it just because you're so busy not recognising the gender of the author of the book you're reading that you don't notice they're always male?

  14. You ask where all the women are, suggesting its mostly men like Ian, Paul & Martin raising a fuss. May I suggest you read Cheryl Morgan, Kari Sperring, Nicola Griffith, Maura McHugh, Oursin, Yonmei, Farah Mendlesohn, and the hundreds of women commenting on #FeministSF etc. You may learn a few things.
    Even more than that you really, really need to read Joanna Russ' How To Suppress Women's Writing before making a fool of yourself further blogging about things you clearly haven't a clue about.

  15. In my opinion, for it to be sexism not to read women authors you have to avoid their books because they are written by women. There could be a lot of other reasons for not reading female authors that have nothing to do with their gender.

    For me personally, choosing which books to buy is always a money issue. So I tend to go with books by authors I have read, and enjoyed before, or that come highly recommended by people I trust. For instance I plan to buy, and read, all of Stephen King's books by the end of next year. And I have "only" seventeen of his books in English right now. So that means I have to not buy a lot of other books to make that happen.

    Another thing is that the best way to get me to not do something is to go on and on about it.
    I decided earlier this year that I want to read more Science Fiction, and was lucky enough to find a Norwegian translation of Shikasta by Doris Lessing in a second hand shop (,it was one of two Science Fiction books there, I've read the other one -Ender's Game- Also in Norwegian). And I was actually planning to read that pretty soon, but all the talk of "you have to read science fiction by women, or else you are sexist" has actually made me put reading it back a bit.

    That being said, I am buying Mercedes Lackey and Diana Wynne Jones on the recommendations of people I know online without having read anything of them before. And I'm getting Moxyland and Zoo City as soon as I can afford them.

    I'm not saying that there is not sexism in science fiction, or in literature in general. But instead of going around accusing everyone of being sexist for not reading female authors, it would be better if people concentrated on recommending good books that happen to be written by women, and for some reason has been somewhat overlooked. -And I actually think Ian Sales' SF Mistressworks is an example of highlighting good books, without necessarily making allegations of men being sexist for not reading them.

    Lastly, I find it a bit strange that if you want to champion equality in SFF you focus on Science Fiction. Surely the SFF subgenre most dominated by one gender is UF/PR. I haven't even heard of any male authors there. (To clarify, I separate UF(/PR) and Urban Fantasy.)

  16. To begin, I disagree with you, pretty much across the board on this subject even if I like your blog.

    And despite you, our gentle hostess, being a woman, I find it hardly surprising that a large number of your readers/posters are male.

    Males unfortunately, dominate the genre. Books by male authors, heroes who are male heroes, publishers who direct their marketing, artwork, and sales strategies at the male end of the species - these symptoms as already noted, are not new - just depressing that very little traction in these areas have been made.

    Considering this comes on the same day as this: VS Naipaul Takes On Women Writers

    Nothing new, indeed. I think I'll go sulk and read some Angela Carter to get the unpleasant sensation out of my brain.

  17. Re: sexism.

    You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

  18. The women are around. We're just exhausted, and really tired of having to educate people practically from scratch over and over again. The basic, 101 stuff, is already freely available for reading and thinking about on the internet, but if you refuse to do that I'm glad men like Paul, Ian and Kev are willing to do what I no longer have the energy for.

  19. Where are all the women fussing about this issue?

    Here, here, here and here, for starters.

    Read the books you like. Enjoy the books you read. Who cares the sex of the authors writing them? I certainly don't! Do you?

    I think there are very few readers out there who are consciously not reading female authors. I think there are lots of readers who don't care about the sex of the authors they read, or think they don't care, but who are unconsciously reading and recommending books by male authors more often than female. And so we get recommended reading lists which are 95% books by men, and anthologies which list only the male contributors on the front, and conventions which have 40 guests and all of them are male, and venues which review books by men out of proportion to the actual gender breakdown of the field. I think that's worth discussing, and I don't plan to stop talking about it.

  20. An author I've always thought was unfairly overlooked (well, since her debut was published) is Rachel Aaron - her novels are great fun, but I've NEVER seen one in a bookstore. It's possible that this is because stockists or whoever don't really know how to classify or shelve her work - she's writing about a comic fantasy thief and his heists.

    At the same time, the interview I did with her on my website is the 4th most popular article up there, ever. So maybe it is just up to bloggers to meet the short-fall of publicity or awareness. I don't know. Anyway, I think her stuff's fun, funny, but doesn't skimp on action. If you get a chance, check out her series (starts with "The Spirit Thief"), especially if you're getting a bit overwhelmed by the more "gritty" fantasies out there.

  21. Sorry Amanda but I think you have missed the point of the whole debate. Personally I think you should read Joanna Russ' book How to Suppress Women's Writing.
    The whole issue of women authors being 'invisible' is not just within SF. Only last week Joanne Harris was saying pretty much the same thing in relation to literary fiction on The Culture Show.
    You ask where the women are within this debate? Well, we are here but getting tired of being misunderstood, misinterpreted or accused of whining. Maybe you should make the effort to read SF books written by women pre-2000... if you can find any. They tend to be out of print.

  22. A couple of points:

    1) Others (shockingly, women) have pointed out that fantasy authors should be discussed as well, and Kari Sperring has a conversation going at her LJ about this, creating an impressive list of "mistressworks" by women who write fantasy: . It's got great historical depth and ranges across the various subgenres quite well, and all are books that are considered good not because of the author's gender, but because of their inherent qualities.

    2) I disagree with Amanda, partly because I think her analogy is not apt. For the workplace analogy to work, you need to not look at specifics of gender, but a pattern. That pattern is that all workers, men and women, do equally good work, but the bosses and the clients disproportionately favor and reward the men, even when some of those men promote their female co-workers and there is a demonstrated history of women contributing to the success of the business.

    3)Finally, my own understanding of this discussion is that some WOMEN, like Nicola Griffith, pointed out that men seemed disproportionately represented given the actual participation of women authors in the field, and wondered why that might be. When the Guardian article about it became inundated with perplexing assertions such the notion that men write better, some folks responded that such a notion was hogwash, and decided to compile lists of great fantastika to make their point sharply.

  23. I'd really recommend Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, Amanda. It's not about attacking readers for choosing to read the "wrong" books, it's about the confluence of factors that lead to women and their writing tending to be sidelined.

  24. If we have blindspots and they are pointed out shouldn’t we at least consider looking at them even if we end up saying:

    Read the books you like. Enjoy the books you read. Who cares the sex of the authors writing them? I certainly don’t! Do you?

  25. To all the people who have told me I'm misunderstanding the point you're making... I'm not misunderstanding - I'm just telling you my own point of view. As far as I'm concerned, I read books because I like to read. Politics has no place. For me, Zoo City was a brilliant book. It wasn't a brilliant book *because* a woman wrote it.

    Also, I would like to point out that this year, out of 36 books, I've read 22 by women. A lot of those have been of a speculative nature. It cannot be said that I'm ignoring female authors, or ignoring the point you're all making.

    I just like reading. I LOVE it. I'm tired of all the extras added to reading - Internet spats, blogger envy, sexual politics. When it comes down to it, I read for pleasure and to get away from the daily grind. Which is why I made this blog post: I read books by whoever, because I love reading.

  26. No one's denying that love, Amanda; and we respect you for it. But that wasn't what your post was about. It was asking why the need to champion sf novels by women, and why the need to do it now. The answer is: the playing field is not level, and leaving it be will not result in it levelling on its own.

  27. Basic logic says that if readers really are gender blind, then lists like the Guardian one would approximately match the proportion of women published. Review columns would cover a more accurate spread of books published. The Gollancz Masterworks wouldn't have more Dick than women.
    Unfortunately that doesn't happen. Some of us think that this isn't deliberate sexism by individuals but a generalized culture of forgetting wome n that brings a broad subconscious sexism into play.

    So read lists on Ian's blog, Kari, Oursin blogs, Torque Control etc and ask this:
    Why have I never heard of these people?
    Where are their books in Waterstones?
    Why do the publishers not hype women to eager bloggers grasping at new shiny freebies like they do some male authors?
    And how do we change this?

  28. Ah, if only it were as simple as "just read what books you want to, regardless of gender". Unfortunately there is a genuine disparity here, and closing our eyes to it will not help- discussion, hopefully, will bring us closer to equality eventually.

  29. It is easy to gang up on someone in a discussion of this sort - but I'm sure you can handle it, provided people are clear that what we're arguing here is a point of view, not you as a person.

    First, I think you do books, the very thing you profess to love, a disservice. Of course they can entertain, and divert, but good books are so much more than just this. They can change the world, break down barriers, and even, be worth dying for. Banned books, books written in places where to write what is true to you, may well be a death sentence - these are not small things. Nor to be taken lightly.

    They can represent a cross section of time and place. They can help or hinder, the freer expression of ideas and rights.

    So - even in genre, bloggers *actively* supporting a diversity of writers and perspectives is crucial to the well being of all those who love the written word. I know you point out that you've read quite a few women authors. I do not doubt this. But the fact remains that the industry as a whole, is still far from representatively balanced when it comes to gender.

    This simply put, is Not A Good Thing.

    If you are questioning why we should care, when many of us just want to read a "good book," that is exactly why. Because good books just get better when everyone who has the talent to do so, gets a chance to write one.

  30. There have been so many great arguments put forth here (and I'll be following several of you as a result) but may I offer one more. You're right, the gender shouldn't matter. But when various news sources keep on harping on about how women can't write worth toffee and how the top x hundred novels are written by men, then some of it sticks. Especially the financials. Let's take SF. We see, let's say, that the top 100 SF novels ever written are represented by, for example, 95 men and 5 women. You or I have various takes on that statistic, but so do publishers.

    Indeed, they say? 95% most popular by men, they say? And then two submissions get passed to the Acquisitions panel for a single available slot. Both are brilliant, but one's written by a man and one's written by a woman. If the prevailing, unspoken, subconscious wisdom (or lack thereof) tells the publisher that books by men are remembered better and sell better, then which book do you think is going to get picked up? You see, the decisions are getting made before they're even presented to you. That's what part of the hullabaloo is about.

    Self-publishing to one side, the books you are being presented with are the books that the publisher has DECIDED you should read. And the ratio of those books is skewed--badly--towards male writers. Therefore, we read mostly male writers. Therefore, we rate mostly male writers as influential. The women howl and we smack them down. Don't you know cream rises to the top?, we tell them. Except, that's a bogus argument. Cream rising in the presence of gravity is an immutable scientific fact. Publishing decisions are neither scientific nor always logical. And they're being made--ALWAYS--to the detriment of women writers.

  31. I have a few points to add, as a female reader of both SF and fantasy and a writer of the latter:

    1. I agree that the problem isn't the lack of women in the field, it's the lack of _visibility_ of the women who are there. I don't think we're ever likely to get a 50/50 split in SF, any more than we're going to get it in, say, engineering, because the typical male mindset is just more drawn to the subject matter. And I have no problem with that. But there _are_ women writing SF, and I suspect at least some of them are writing the kind of SF that female readers are more likely to enjoy. As I said on another blog, I've read SF by both sexes, but the books currently on my shelves are actually mostly by women: Le Guin, Arnason, Scott, etc. It certainly wasn't a conscious choice, but they are notably mostly writing about soft sciences and gender issues - dare I say it, SF for girls? However of all those writers, only Le Guin is well-known. Invisibility, that's the problem.

    2. I think the tide _is_ turning, albeit very slowely. My debut novel has just been picked up by Angry Robot, which started out as a HarperCollins imprint aimed specifically at young men, so unsurprisingly most of their existing stable of authors are male. Now they are independent, they're expanding their remit and consciously looking for genre fiction that appeals to a female audience as well - which was lucky for me, because that's how I pitched my book! Ironically, it's now Angry Robot's female authors (Lauren Beukes, Aliette de Bodard) who are getting all the awards and the publicity, not the men.

    Re the latter point, it helps that Lauren Beukes is a journalist and a very savvy self-publicist. I think maybe the real problem is that women are not good at putting themselves forward, and the ones that do have historically focused on the negatives. We should stop talking (or should that be whining? :) ) about sexism and, as has been suggested, just get out there and tell people about all these great books that just happen to be by women.

  32. A couple of months ago, following the question of a book-loving friend, I surveyed my 'books read so far' and discovered, to my surprise, a proponderance of female authors.
    Common wisdom would say that with my new found love of military sci-fi and the fact that my favourite female character is written by a male author this wouldn't be the case but then I have also been on a fantasy spree.
    Personally as I struggle with two rather 'meh' books I don't really care who writes them as long as they are good.