Gender Balance in Speculative Fiction – and a farewell to Mother Drombusch

Apparently, the hot topic du jour is gender balance or rather imbalance in speculative fiction, inspired by this Strange Horizons post about gender imbalance in reviews of speculative fiction. Sherwood Smith, Kari Sperring and Juliet E. McKenna all weigh in. Some very good discussions going on in the comments at all three posts.

I wish any of this were surprising or shocking, but sadly it isn’t. Because in speculative fiction as in society in general, female writers are marginalized. Ditto for writers of colour and gay writers.

I have been analyzing the New York Times and USA Today bestseller lists for the PhD thesis for almost two years now. And guess what? The biggest selling genre authors in the US are all women. Charlaine Harris had all nine books in the Southern Vampire series on the New York Times bestseller list at the same time. J.D. Robb, Patricia Briggs, Kim Harrison, Kresley Cole, J.R. Ward, Karen Marie Moning, Jeaniene Frost, etc… hit the New York Times list with every single book they publish. J.K. Rowling, Stephenie Meyer, Suzanne Collins, P.C. and Kristen Cast are so firmly entrenched on the list that their works are listed as series rather than individual books. Yet looking at the genre awards shortlists, the Locus recommended reading list, what is reviewed at the various genre outlets, you won’t find those names, because the women in question write in female dominated subgenres such as urban fantasy, paranormal romance, futuristic romance, YA fiction, etc… and are therefore invisible.

And even if those women writers are not invisible, the (overwhelmingly but not exclusively male) gatekeepers are always very quick to agree that subgenres such as urban fantasy, paranormal romance, futuristic and SF romance as well as the entire field of YA fantasy, all of which are female dominated, are not really speculative fiction, but romance, bubblegum fiction, commercial crap and any other number of unfavorable things. Of course, the people who say that sort of thing have not actually read any examples of the subgenres they’re dissing, they just know that those genres are crap.

If you call one of those male gatekeepers on their blanket dismissal of entire subgenres and dare to point out that maybe, just maybe there is a tad of misogynism involved in the blanket dismissal of female-dominated subgenres, they freak out and declare that they are not misogynists, because they have a wife/daughter/girlfriend/sister (one guy was poly and had several female partners, which he quoted as evidence that he was not misogynist) and love women and and besides, they do like female writers. Good female writers. And then they list the female writers they read. And it’s always the same five or seven names that show up on those lists. Ursula K. LeGuin is usually mentioned. If they have read even one woman writer it’s her. Other common names on these lists are Andre Norton, James Tiptree Jr, Connie Willis, Nancy Kress, Kelly Link, Catherynne M. Valente. You’d think Lois McMaster Bujold would be mentioned more frequently, but apparently she has girl cooties. But anybody else? Nope. Of all the women who write speculative fiction, only ten or so regularly show up on lists of “female writers men read”. It’s similar to how every speculative fiction reader can name exactly two writers of colour and they are inevitably Samuel R. Delany and Octavia Butler. In recent times, Nalo Hopkinson and N.K. Jemisin are sometimes mentioned as well, which counts as progress, I guess.

It’s also very telling what happens when those who hang out at the various speculative fiction outlets on the Internet start recommending urban fantasy – good urban fantasy, not that icky vampire porn stuff that’s crawling with girl cooties. And the names mentioned in those discussions are – guess what? – names of male urban fantasy writers. Even though urban fantasy is maybe 80 percent female to 20 percent male writers, only men are mentioned when it comes to recommendations. Bonus points if one or more of those men are actually women with ambiguous names. Rob Thurman is sometimes mentioned in these contexts as a good urban fantasy writer. Now I absolutely agree on the good part, Thurman is one of the best writers whose work I discovered for the PhD research. But Rob Thurman also happens to be a women.

There is even more. Several times I have come across a stunning speculative fiction novel that should have and would have been on the Hugo and Nebula shortlists, if it had been published by a speculative fiction rather than a romance imprint and had been written by a man rather than a woman. The most recent example is The Iron Duke by Meljean Brook. If it had been published by, say, Tor rather than Berkley Sensation, which is a romance imprint, and didn’t have a bare-chested man on the cover, I’m certain The Iron Duke would have been on this year’s awards shortlists. As it is, the speculative fiction community barely seems to know the novel exists.


And now for something largely, if not completely different:

German actress Witta Pohl died yesterday aged 73. Witta Pohl had only recently been diagnosed with leukaemia.

If you’re a German of a certain age and hear Witta Pohl’s name, you will probably groan. Because even though Witta Pohl had a long and distinguished career as a stage actress, she was best known for playing Vera “Mutter” Drombusch in the German TV series Diese Drombuschs, which ran from 1983 to 1994.

If you were a child or teenager in the 1980s, you will probably remember Diese Drombuschs with a faint shudder. Because Diese Drombuschs was parent television, a dull and deadly earnest show about the travails of an ordinary middle class family, which did not even have the pizzazz of American soap operas like Dallas or Dynasty which broadcast during the same period. The Drombusch family actually did have children, the youngest must have been about my age, but they were rarely the focal point of the show. No, the children only existed to generate drama and be scolded, while the focal point was Witta Pohl’s Vera Drombusch, she of the reproachful look. Vera Drombusch was enough to put you off marriage and children and a house in the suburb for life, because she always looked as if she never ever had a moment of fun in her life. An added problem in those pre-private-television days of only three TV stations was that while Diese Drombuschs had very short seasons and only managed 39 episodes in eleven years, when it was on, it was on every single bloody evening of the week. It’s no wonder that some fifty percent of all German TV viewers watched the show in its heyday, because there was nothing else you could watch. Vera Drombusch and her clan literally took us all hostage and forced us to follow her dull life.

Perhaps it’s Stockholm syndrome that I was shocked to hear that Witta Pohl had died. Or perhaps it was that part of me was aware that even though Witta Pohl only played godawful roles on TV (the shows she did after Diese Drombuschs was not much better, though at least I no longer had to watch it), she actually was a good actress with a distinguished stage career. And, reproachful looks notwithstanding, Witta Pohl appears to have been a genuinely good person. She did a lot of charity work, helping disadvantaged children all over the world. And though my teenaged self never thought that I’d ever say this, she will be missed.

PS: Looking at the cast list of Diese Drombuschs, it’s shocking how many of the actors are no longer with us.

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8 Responses to Gender Balance in Speculative Fiction – and a farewell to Mother Drombusch

  1. Estara says:

    I agree about The Iron Duke – hmmm, or maybe I actually want to say that her short story Here There Be Monsters would have been nominated. I have the impression there was a bit too much turgid sex in The Iron Duke (even if it had been released by Brandon Sanderson or George Martin or Terry Goodkind).

    • Cora says:

      Yeah, several sex scenes could have been cut from The Iron Duke without losing anything. But with regards to the worldbuilding, characterisation, etc… The Iron Duke and Here There Be Monsters (which would have made a great Hugo or Nebula nominee as well) are better IMO than some of the Steampunk novels that get much more attention in the SFF community.

  2. Sherwood says:

    I haven’t seen Valente mentioned except in her own (tremendously extensive and successful) self-promotion, but I have seen Bujold listed, fwiw.

    • Cora says:

      I’m pretty sure Jeff Vandermeer mentioned Catherynne Valente in the context of one of those discussions. Damien Walter, too.

      As for Lois McMaster Bujold, I’ve encountered several male SFF fans who flat out refused to read Bujold, because the covers were so bad (well, they are). I’ve also seen some people call the Vorkosigan novels Harlequin romances in space, which suggests that they have neither read a Harlequin romance nor a Vorkosigan novel in their life. Though those men that do read Bujold generally like her.

      Though it’s not just male fans. There are some women as well who are very eager to distance themselves from anything that might be considered girly.

  3. Pingback: Epic and Urban Fantasy Linkdump | Cora Buhlert

  4. Duncan says:

    As a male writer of contemporary and somewwhat speculativeYA fiction (no SFF, however – more related to issues) I have absolutely no problem reading a female author as long as her protagonists are male. Conversely, if the author is male and they feature a female protagonist, I’ll take a pass on them. So it’s not th author but the protagonist that draws me to the story.

    • Cora says:

      That’s interesting. Do you see any differences in the way male and female writers handle male protagonists with regards to e.g. believability? I find that female POV characters written by some male writers tend to ring not quite right at times. Though there are plenty of male writers who write good and believable women such as Peter O’Donnell or John Irving for example.

      I don’t really have any preferences regarding protagonist gender, I like reading about both male and female characters. When I have issues, they are more with specific characters then with gender.

      Though particularly in YA it is getting difficult to find books with male protagonists, because these days it’s almost all girls and usually with a romantic subplots. It’s becoming a problem when selecting texts for my students to read (I’m a teacher and try to select reading material to interest both boys and girls) or also when buying books for male teenagers, particularly when they have already read all of the usual suspects.

      Sorry for the belated reply BTW, but I was away for a few days and your comment sort of fell through the cracks.

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