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.