Breaking It Down

I try to steer clear of politics on this blog. Religion. Anything people are going to get up in arms about and forget why I’m here – just to Make Shit Up.

Lately there has been a lot of buzz in the air about sexism and gender bias in genre fiction. If you aren’t aware, February is Women in Horror Month and my crit group president, Annie Neugebauer has a thought provoking post of awesomeness on the topic over at her blog (follow, like, comment, find my comments and tell me what a nutter I am.) At the other end of the scale, SFWA has found itself dealing with yet another controversy. (A timeline is here.)

This month’s controversy is about excerpts of a discussion at SFF.NET between some well-known (and not-so-well-known) authors. The discussion devolved into your typical internet rant which in turn included personal attacks and offensive, sexist remarks. Even “professional” writers it turns out out aren’t immune to the temptations of the internet to draw out the most thoughtless, inane things and hit “send” before revision.

This mess appears to stem from last year when members were shocked by OTHER extremely careless, sexist comments made in the organization’s trade pub. The anniversary issue also included a bikini-armored heroine on the front cover. The then editor of the publication (Jean Rabe), resigned, the debate spiraled out of control, fractured the SFWA membership, and the organization went into crisis mode.

Now, lead up to this year, where a petition was circulated challenging some of the changes to the organization’s publication – changes intended to ensure fair representation in their in-house magazine. This new train wreck piled on with the old baggage, seems to have inspired the trolling.

Alright, history lesson over.  Read the links as you will. Familiarize. Form your own opinion.

I honestly don’t know what to think. The things said in last year’s controversial article were idiotic and offensive. A terrible Barbie analogy ended with a comment that came across as “women should know their place”. I don’t know how it got published and the editor needed to step down.

The cover? I grew up with Jeff Easley’s art and similar chainmail bikinis plastered on my Dungeons and Dragons modules and rulebooks. Cheesy? Absolutely. Offensive? Not any moreso than the shirtless men on however many millions of romance covers. Sex sells stuff. While it gets tiresome, and the style is perhaps something best left in the “old school”, I don’t think I would want to live in a neutered world that ignores this simple human instinct.

But the real question – does this expose an undercurrent of sexism in SFWA? In genre fiction as a whole?

Past SFWA vice-president Mary Robinette-Kowal seems to indicate that a loud, vocal, obnoxious minority were the main contributors. She doesn’t name anyone, but if I had to guess, many of their names would appear as signatories to the petition mentioned above. In some respects, that is good news. It seems like an isolated group of aging codgers, set in their ways.

But I wasn’t fully satisfied with that answer. There’s plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest women are underrepresented  in scifi and fantasy. Why?

A few years back, the NYT was called out for reviewing mostly men’s books. However, follow up reviews concluded that they were reviewing in line with the number of male / female authored books submitted to them for review. Stepping further back, the numbers were roughly in line with female authored books being published. These were literary houses naturally, so I wondered if the same held true for genre fiction.

What I found wasn’t necessarily that women are getting rejected out of hand for science fiction and fantasy.  In some cases, like according to Tor UK, they simply aren’t submitting it. Though that is an oversimplification. There is another likely possibility.  When you look at YA / romance and urban fantasy for this same publisher (Tor UK), women have the lead in those areas. My guess, a lot of women’s horror, sci-fi and fantasy gets filed under those catch-alls.

All of this is based on in house “rules” which pretty much all publishers maintain. We’ve all heard the nuggets of wisdom – they don’t want to put out a sci-fi title with a woman’s name as the author because it won’t sell (to men or women). If half-naked women (or men) on a book cover sells it, so be it. If a guys name on a sci-fi book sells it better than a girls, do it. In short, it is all about the money.  There’s some bean counter out there with all the numbers, calculating all the stats and figuring out what works best based on whatever labels and assumptions they want to apply to things.

Publishers like to put people in their labeled places so their year end numbers add up. For big businesses, I completely understand that. You need to have a pretty good feel for what will sell. And fiction is a fickle, personal preference sort of thing. Printing ten thousand books and not having an idea how many you might be stuck with is a big deal. However, the end result of all these assumptions is less than equitable. You spiral down the label trap and pretty soon, you’ve alienated people or even trained consumers to accept the landscape you created as a sort of immutable truth.

But to get back to my main quest, my hero’s journey, I think this is another place where the digital revolution and self-publishing shines. I’ll define my market and sink or swim on my own accord. Cover design? It will be all under my direction. I don’t even have to accept the risk of printing tens of thousands of copies and sweat about not selling them. I take my product straight to the reader and find out who will buy it.

Does that mean I ignore traditional marketing advice? No, I’d be a fool too. Take what works and ditch the rest. If it turns out something reprehensible “works”, bust my ass and prove it wrong.

And since I’m a white hetero male, this is supposed to be “easy”. In many respects, the gatekeepers have established a playing field where people are used to seeing guys like me on the backcover of the types of books I write. However, self-publishing also means any author is as free of those manuscript stereotypes as I want to be. I can have a bit of romance in my fantasy, a touch of fantasy in my sci-fi. I pick the shelf where it ends up.

Writers can finally simply write. True, for good and bad – gatekeepers can serve a valuable purpose. But if the gatekeepers give you a hard time, if they want to pigeon-hole your work, gender assign you, make you write for a “market” they’ve created or imagined, then you can always crash through the back freaking door.  No guarantee it will work, but we now have that option.

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9 replies

  1. Do you remember a couple-few years ago (I’m estimating) when NPR did a piece on a female sci-fi or fantasy author author who was African-American? I wish I could remember the details of her name and her book, etc.; I can’t even find it in a quick search in their archives. But it was an interesting interview — this, I remember. She commented on how difficult it was to get her “genre” book represented because she was not only a woman but also a woman of color.

    • That almost sounds familiar – I used to listen to NPR quite a bit, but haven’t much lately. Honestly, that doesn’t surprise me. Whether racism, or as I tend to believe, simple corporate greed (they only sell a “proven” image to the biggest market) people get ground under big corporate wheels focused solely on profit. I mean, if you can get on board, awesome, but if not, you’ve been a castaway until recently. Even though it is crazy right now, I think self-pub will ultimately be a positive change to the landscape and maybe help people that were sort of victimized by a tunnel-visioned system.

      • That’s exactly how I feel about it.

        Things would move along much more quickly, too, if more people who are self-publishing went through the professional editing process. The more high quality mss get turned out, the better the self-pubbing industry will be — and the better it will be received.

        It’s so demoralizing to see all the book reviewers who refuse to review anything self-pubbed, because they’ve been burned by bad writing so many times. I mean, I understand where they’re coming from, for sure, but still. It’s rough to see it.

      • And I should note that by “bad” writing I really mean “not ready yet.” At least in most cases. 🙂

  2. You know, it’s funny you brought up the chainmail bikini thing. The scantily-clad men/women type cover has never bothered me. Humans like sex, sex sells, great. Who cares? Using sexuality as an attention-getting tool doesn’t seem sexist to me (except maybe in some specific situations). But there is still a huge imbalance in cover types and designs for female vs. male authors — covers that exclude an entire gender even if the book itself doesn’t — and that does bother me. To me, having control over your own cover is definitely the most appealing advantage of self-pub!

    • The link on your blog to the cover flip was great btw! Advertising -to- a gender doesn’t bother me that much either, but doing so without regard to story or simply based on author gender does. I do think some stories call for masculine or feminine themes to help tell the reader what they’ll find inside, though plenty would do fine with simple good design and universal sort of appeal.

      • Yes, agreed! I’m fine with gender-specific if that suits the book. Nothing wrong with successfully targeting any audience. It’s just too often used when the book isn’t gender-specific, and that turns off a lot of potential readers. I see that often in serious, literary works getting “girly” covers and dubbed “women’s fiction” just b/c they’re written by women, when the same book by a man would get a cool graphic cover and be called “literary.” Blech!

  3. Octavia Butler. She was a sweet, big black woman who you could find at conventions hiding somewhere in a corner. I love all her work, but I don’t know if I’d classify it as typical science fiction. It’s more of a bio-engineering mythos but is incredibly awesome.

    My daughter reads science fiction as well as two of my sons. We’re all hooked on Lois McMaster Bujold who seems to be able to attract male readers with her military science fiction and female readers with her strong female protagonists in fantasy. I want to write just like her when I grow up.

    Having lived through many decades of science fiction, I can honestly say I think it’s changing for the better. There are more female heroes, more female writers, and it’s improved the genre considerably. I do wish it was happening a little faster, but I have seen changes. I read a lot of anthologies and the older ones (pre90s) are almost exclusively male writers. I just finished 2041, an anthology of the future, and 8 of the 12 stories were written by women. The times they are a changing.

    On the other side of this, there’s the audience we write for. Who do I write for? I guess I write for me, probably the pre-teen me who started with Asimov, L’Engle, and Clarke. I try not to insult anyone’s minority, gender, or sexuality, but as you said, as a white male, my perceptions of what may be “acceptable” are skewed.

    Our goal as writers is to be aware of our own limitations and hope we overcome them in our writing.

    I’m working on it as I’m sure we all are,

    Tom Howard

    • Thanks for the thoughtful reply, Tom and also the name for Angelique and I. (Adding to neverending reading list…) I suppose my weakness is exactly what you describe – being pretty blind to my limitations but also the perceived limitations of others. I always think of people as individuals first and feel all the labeling is more damaging and divisive than helpful, even when employed in an empowering sort of way. I talked with Annie about this but, I feel when we liberally apply these labels, they take on a life of their own (like setting ridiculous market rules for books) and sow more division than community. But whatever, I support my friends, don’t pick and choose them based on preconceived notions (I don’t think) and support them as much as I can. We’ll all get to some level of parity someday soon I hope!

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