The debate over gender imbalances in speculative fiction reviewing rages on across the internet with several interesting posts. There are some links as well as lengthy ruminations by me behind the cut.
Aliette de Bodard weighs in on the issue of gender imbalances in speculative fiction and how traditionally male concerns are still taken more seriously than traditionally female concerns.
The dichotomy that traditionally male concerns are considered worthy and important, while traditionally female concerns are considered unimportant, trivial and domestic is of course well known. Virginia Woolf described this very mechanism in A Room of One’s Own back in 1929 and Joanna Russ described it again in How To Suppress Women’s Writing in 1983. And today, 29 years after Joanna Russ and 82 years after Virginia Woolf we are still having the same bloody discussion.
By the way, I urge anyone interested gender issues, feminism and women’s writing to read both A Room of One’s Own and How To Suppress Women’s Writing, if you haven’t already. The Virginia Woolf essay is well known and regularly shows up on university reading lists (that’s where I first encountered it), but How To Suppress Women’s Writing is sadly not nearly as well known outside SFF circles, at least not in Germany. At any rate, none of the resident gender and feminism scholars at my university seemed to know it and a fellow academic once thanked me for recommending How To Suppress Women’s Writing with “Oh my God, what a great text! Why didn’t I hear of it sooner?” If I ever find myself in the position of teaching a literature and feminism class, both texts will go on the reading list.
More on the current debate about the gender imbalance among genre reviewers: Timmi Duchamp has a fantastic post at the Aqueduct Press blog about gender, taste, reviews and how the types of works most highly praised by the SFF establishment often made her feel alienated from the genre community.
This post really struck a chord with me, because my experience has been similar. I came to science fiction and fantasy as a teenager via my love for filmic and televised SF (Star Wars, Star Trek, Raumpatrouille Orion, the original Battlestar Galactica, Alien, V, whatever was available at the time), once I realized that there were books just like the films and TV shows I loved.
And yes, I was very aware at the time that being interested in such things was not appropriate for a girl, so I did my best to hide those inappropriate interests. My very first SF novels were bought with my own pocket money, squirreled away from unfriendly eyes and read in secret. My favourite hiding place for contraband SF novels was my stash of sewing fabrics, because I could be certain that both my parents and my friends would leave my fabric stash alone. While clearing out my room years later, I found no less than three SF books among the fabric stash, carefully wrapped in fabric and then stuffed in plastic bags. One had never been read, because I had been saving it for a special occasion. Of course, by the time I rediscovered the book, I no longer had any desire to read it, TV-novelizations from the 1980s not being very high on my reading agenda. I still have the book, though. It’s this one by the way.
After a while, my SF novels migrated from the fabric stash to my bookshelves (except those I forgot), once I discovered the foreign language trick. At the time, there wasn’t a whole lot of SF available in German, at least not the sort I wanted, so I bought the books in English. At around the same time, I also discovered (via comic books, my other inappropriate reading interest) that books that others would disapprove of when reading them in German were suddenly mightily impressive when read in a foreign language. Because reading in foreign languages, regardless of what I was reading, was by default educational.
At the time, I had zero contact to the larger SFF community. I did not know which books were considered good and which were considered trash. I picked my books by going to the one bookstore in town that carried English language books, browsing the spinner rack with the SFF novels, pulling out whatever looked interesting (usually going by the cover), reading the blurb and then finally buying what sounded the most interesting. The trial and error method brought me many books I loved (I discovered Isaac Asimov, Leigh Brackett, Arthur C. Clarke and Anne McCaffrey that way) and some I didn’t (Piers Anthony – ugh).
My SF exploration period coincided with the peak popularity of Cyberpunk, but I never read any nor was I even aware of the subgenre at the time. Either my local bookstore did not stock Cyberpunk or more likely, it did not pass the cover or backcover blurb test. I was mainly into space opera and planetary romance at the time, with some epic fantasy mixed in (it was on the same spinner rack after all). Cyberpunk wouldn’t have appealed.
Somehow, I must have picked up some genre knowledge along the way, because I was faintly aware that “Hugo” or “Nebula Award Winner” emblazoned on the cover was a good thing. I also must have picked up the term “New Wave” somewhere with the vaguest idea of what it was, because after bouncing hard off two novels originally published in the 1960s I decided that I did not like New Wave, though only one of the novels in question actually was New Wave (and I was definitely too young to appreciate it at the time). I read Starlog magazine, when I could find it, but Starlog was more focused on films than books.
I became more aware of the wider world of SF, when I picked up John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in the early 1990s. I used the encyclopedia much as I used the coffee table books on SF film I had acquired earlier, as a guide to seek out new works. I found Lois McMaster Bujold that way. A few years later, as an exchange student at the University of Westminster in London, I came across a very early issue of SFX at the W.H. Smith shop in Victoria station, became a regular reader and discovered several new-to-me British authors, including Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin. I still had no real life contact to other SFF readers, though, beyond the occasional chat with the people behind the counter at Forbidden Planet.
Then I got on the internet and – lo and behold – there were plenty of people who also read science fiction and fantasy and comics. I jumped into the respective communities, only to realize that I had been reading all wrong, that my taste in reading material was awful. Still, it was great to have found people who liked the same things and so I started seeking out the books and authors my new friends recommended. And suddenly something strange started happening. I gradually stopped enjoying SF and fantasy. Oh, I did like some of the books recommended to me, but there were more and more that I didn’t like. At first, I assumed it was just a fluke that I had come across a book that just didn’t work for me. But as book after book didn’t work for me and I gradually lost my love for speculative fiction, I began to get worried.
The conclusion I should have come to is: Boy, my new friends and I have really different tastes in SF and fantasy. Maybe I should go elsewhere for recommendations.
However, the conclusion I came to was: I read all those books that are highly recommended and found on the various awards short list and yet I end up hating most of them. Clearly I am an awful reader with no taste and I never was a real SFF fan at all, I just liked some media properties and fancied myself an SFF fan. I am also obviously a dreadful writer, because I cannot produce the sort of SFF that is popular and highly acclaimed, since I can’t even read that stuff.
So I gradually drifted away from SF and fantasy. I read mysteries, I read thrillers, I read literary fiction, I read vintage pulp fiction, I started reading romance again (I stopped after a few bad experiences with bodiceripper style romances early on), because SFF no longer satisfied me. Nonetheless, I did my MA thesis on science fiction, with the result that once I had handed in the MA thesis I had completely overdosed not just on SF but on SF criticism.
Shortly after completing my MA degree, I left all of my old online hangouts behind because of a disagreement about a piece of SFF (not a book but a TV show) that I enjoyed and which I refused to stop enjoying or defending, because my online pals had decided it was trash*. I stared at my computer screen, where I had just been insulted (not for the first time either) by someone I considered a sort of friend, and thought, “Why am I doing this again? I don’t even read or like the same books as those people, I don’t watch the same films and TV shows, so why am I hanging out with them? And why do I let some third rate fantasy writer insult me? For the networking opportunities? I no more like his books than he would like mine.”
So I started following my instincts in selecting reading material again. I found myself drawn to hybrid genres, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, SF romance, supernatural crime fiction, romantic suspense, etc… I found new authors and books, enjoyed what I read and used the internet to find more books along the same vein. And I stumbled straight into a wide field of speculative fiction, mostly written by women, that did not even exist as far as the mainstream genre community was concerned.
When I sought out books on my own, both as a teenager and as an adult, I gravitated towards female authors (not exclusively though, I loved Isaac Asimov** and Arthur C. Clarke, after all), strong characters and relationships, some humour and stories that mixed a bit of domestic stuff and even romance in among all of those shiny big ideas. Meanwhile, my online friends had been mostly (though not exclusively) male. They favoured dark and gritty works about war and death and torture (I occasionally recommended books by female authors to them by praising the explicit torture scenes) and lengthy discussions full of tedious philosophizing. It’s pretty obvious that there was very little connection. The fact that many of them were also rude about expressing their dislike for things didn’t help either.*** There actually were quite a few women on that particular forum in the beginning, but most of them quietly vanished or publicly walked out long before I did. In the end, even the big blowup was about the importance of relationships, characterisation and domestic details, as applied to speculative TV shows. The one they favoured was about big important things, while the one I favoured was about little important things.
So what’s the moral of all this? The stuff that ends up on year’s best and recommendation lists and is nominated for awards as well as the stuff that gets great reviews and that other people recommend to you does not necessarily encompass the whole the SFF genre has to offer. And if you don’t like that stuff and instead like this stuff that is widely derided, more power to you. We can all be SFF fans, even if we don’t think that certain types of hard SF and New Weird and gritty epic fantasy are the be all and end all.
*In an ironic twist of fate that particular show turned out not to be worth defending.
**I know that Asimov is largely slammed for his workmanlike writing and weak characterisation these days, but his books blew my mind at 15 and unlike some others I loved at the time, I can still read Asimov. My teenaged self adored Susan Calvin who was strong and intelligent and had no use for poopy boyfriends and was so much cooler (as cool as liquid nitrogen) than the shallow girls in my class. As for the Asimov’s characters, many of them are still vivid in my mind twenty years later, though I suspect my own brain supplied many of the characterisation details.
***For the record, if you know me from those days, I’m not talking about you, okay? I know that some people I know from those days are sometimes reading this blog and no, I am not talking about you. There were only a handful of people on that forum who were arseholes and chances are you are not one of them.