Women writers, international writers, marginalized writers

Today, for the first time since the whole Strunk and White madness erupted (chronicled here for anybody who hasn’t read it yet), my top search string for the day is something other than some combination of Strunk, White and fanfiction.

Instead, the top search string for today is “woman tired of being pigeon holed”

Short answer (I usually tend to interpret search terms as questions): Yeah, hell right, we are.

Longer answer: I’m not sure I have one. Nonetheless, this is as good an excuse as any for another women and speculative fiction post. Yeah, I know, because you’re all not tired of that subject already.

Anyway, let’s take a look at a few links I gathered in a draft post and then never got around to posting due to the whole Strunk and White thing and launching Pegasus Pulp:

The women in SF discussion is still going strong (when is it ever not?) with contributions by Tricia Sullivan, Liz Williams, Cheryl Morgan who also offers some actual data here, Aliette de Bodard and Jeff Vandermeer. Meanwhile, Gustavo Bondoni thinks the whole discussion isn’t worth having. Which isn’t anything new, because he has been thinking that at least since last year.

However, the post that struck me as the most interesting in this discussion is this post from the World SF blog by Singaporean writer Joyce Chng who points out that if women writers from the US and UK have problems, try being a female (or indeed any, cause it’s not necessarily easier for men) SFF writer from a country that is not the US/UK/Canada/Australia.

There is also a follow-up roundtable discussion of international women in SF at the World SF blog with women writers from Barbados, France, Hungary, Russia, Singapore and the US.

When I read those two post, my initial reaction was a hearty: “Yes, this.” Because my own experiences as an English language writer not based in the US/UK mirror the experiences of the writers in the article.

There are the subtle and not so subtle assumptions that your grasp of the English language will be flawed, because you are not a native speaker (Read what Juliette Wade has to say about that here). This must be even more painful if English actually is your first language, because you come from one of the many countries around the world where English is an official language due to the legacy of British imperialism. The assumption that you are a bad writer because you don’t adhere to random (American) taboos regarding the use of adverbs, the passive voice, complicated syntax or anything else that is considered “bad writing” by the edict of Messrs Strunk and White. The assumption that your characters and setting will be either too exotic for Anglo-American audiences or conversely not exotic enough. The assumption that you are only supposed to write a certain kind of story, because that’s the sort of story expected from someone of your ethnic and national background (I would probably have no problems selling an urban fantasy about evil Nazi werewolves in Berlin – provided I would actually want to write one). The feeling that all the discussions about diversity within the SFF genre, while valuable and important, are still largely US-centric and don’t address your situation at all.

When I first started submitting, I was always very open about my nationality. In those days of postal submissions, I figured editors could tell where I was from anyway just by looking at the colourful stamps on the envelope. And besides, I naively thought “As long as the story is good, what does it matter where the writer is from?” In those days, a few of my stories were set in Germany (I never wrote very many German set stories, because Germany isn’t all that interesting to me). Others were set in Belgium or the Netherlands (I wrote urban fantasy set in Antwerp before I even knew the term “urban fantasy”). I wrote SF featuring Germans, Poles, Dutchmen, Finns, Danes, Greeks, Turks, etc… in space. And none of them sold.

Of course, it’s likely that those stories didn’t sell because they simply weren’t very good. In fact, it’s very likely. However, over time I also began to suspect that my nationality and the unconventional settings were an additional strike against me. Because why would anybody want to buy an urban fantasy set in the secret underground world of Antwerp or a fantasy about river spirits in the Ardennes, when some ninety percent of the readership wouldn’t even be able to locate those places on a map. Of course, as an international reader I was always expected to be interested in urban fantasies set in Milwaukee or Cleveland – cities I can locate on a map but don’t know anything about otherwise. But the reverse obviously wasn’t true.

The fact is that the English language publishing industry – both SFF and in general – is mainly concentrated in and focused on the US with the UK in a distant second place and Canada and Australia in a far off third. Anybody else, regardless where we’re from and whether English is our first language or not, is “other” in the eyes of the English language publishing industry. And even Australians report feeling discriminated against by the US publishing industry. Even British writers have spellings and words changed to suit the American market.

Of course, things have gotten better in recent years. The snail mail submission with all its attendant problems and high postage costs is increasingly a thing of the past with more and more markets accepting e-mail submissions (and a market would have to be exceptionally good for me to bother with snail mail submissions these days). More and more writers who are not from the US/UK/Canada/Australia are breaking into the Anglo-American market. In the SFF genre, we have Lauren Beukes, Aliette de Bodard, Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, Nalini Singh, Karen Lord, Ann Aguirre, Lavie Tidhar, Gustavo Bondoni, K.S. Augustin, Joyce Chng, all of whom hail from outside the US/UK. If we include writers who live in the US/UK, but are either immigrants themselves or the children of immigrants, we can also add Nnedi Okorafor, Nalo Hopkinson, Tobias Buckell, Ekaterina Sedia, Ilona Andrews, Vera Nazarian, Alma Alexander, Cornelia Funke, Helen Oyeyemi, Gennita Low, Shweta Narayan, Amal El-Mohtar and probably a whole bunch of others I have forgotten right now. Apologies if I accidentally put someone in the wrong category. Not to mention that there also seem to be more translations available in the US/UK in recent years, though the translation quota is still extremely low compared to say Germany.

Not that other genres are necessarily better off, as evidenced in the post by crime writer Tess Gerritsen on the Murderati blog: Tess Gerritsen is Asian American and describes how she was told point blank as a beginning writer that non-white heroes don’t sell and are the kiss of death in the marketplace. But now as the author of multiple bestsellers, some of which inspired a network TV show, she is finally free to write about Asian characters.

This is another, little discussed advantage of indie publishing, namely that it allows all of those non-mainstream voices, whether members of a marginalized group in the US/UK or international writers, to be heard and that it allows books to get published which probably wouldn’t have had a chance in traditional publishing.

Of course, indie publishing isn’t always friendly to the international writer either. Barnes and Noble still isn’t open to international indie-publishers. Amazon is but there are still disadvantages, e.g. I can’t get the royalties for my US sales transferred electronically, even though I have a US-dollar account with a German bank (Since I’m a translator, I sometimes have customers paying in US-dollars), which means that I have to accumulate 100 US-dollar of royalties before I get a cheque and then have to pay processing fees to my bank. I’m lucky that I still have a UK bank account from my student days or I would have the same problem there as well.

So yes, things are definitely getting better for international writers, but there’s still a long way to go.

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46 Responses to Women writers, international writers, marginalized writers

  1. Women writers, international writers, marginalized writers | Cora Buhlert http://bit.ly/oe745u

  2. Charles Tan says:

    RT @aliettedb: Women writers, international writers, marginalized writers | Cora Buhlert http://bit.ly/oe745u

  3. Women writers, international writers, marginalized writers | Cora Buhlert http://bit.ly/oe745u

  4. Tony Lane says:

    Women writers, international writers, marginalized writers | Cora Buhlert http://bit.ly/oe745u

  5. Women writers, international writers, marginalized writers | Cora Buhlert http://bit.ly/oe745u

  6. Sherwood says:

    Going to link this–thank you! (And I hope this changes . . . not that my tiny problem is at all commensurate, but I’m collecting small Amazon UK checks because my bank refuses to cash them.)

    • Cora says:

      Oh yes, I had forgotten that US banks really don’t like foreign currencies and tend to freak out at common world currencies like pound or euro the way my rural bank once reacted to Malaysian ringits. I’ve also had a US bank try to cheat me when changing money by mixing in Canadian coins among the US currency and figuring I’d be too stupid to notice. Though in a city as big as LA, you might have luck cashing those checks at the central branch of your bank or maybe even at an exchange office for tourists.

      Though it’s a general problem with banks that they still seem to be stuck in an era when the only people who showed up with foreign checks were either big ticket investors or large companies who could afford to be charged an arm and a leg for cashing a check or depositing it into their accounts. I’ve actually had a bank clerk tell me when complaining about the high fees for depositing a US-dollar check to my US-dollar currency account that those foreign currency accounts are mostly for investors and companies with checks of four, five or more figures, for whom paying 15 euros for depositing the check is “peanuts”.

      Thanks for the link BTW. I got lots of traffic today from you as well as Aliette de Bodard and Charles Tan.

  7. As I am mentioned by name… http://t.co/kxdMta3 (and I can attest to the difficulty of selling a non-trad-western-rooted fantasy novel…)

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  9. "Women writers, international writers, marginalized writers" http://t.co/HeX0jC4 at Cora Buhlert's blog, via Sherwood Smith

  10. Danny Adams says:

    >>Even British writers have spellings and words changed to suit the American market.<<

    Or titles, as J.K. Rowling found out with the first Harry Potter book–after, of course, hiding her first name with initials because she was told that nobody would buy a YA fantasy book written by a woman.

    • Cora says:

      Oh definitely. And it’s not just J.K. Rowling either. British writer Kit Whitfield had the title of her werewolf novel changed from Bareback in the UK to Benighted in the US, because the original title was considered too rude. Harlequin/Mills and Boon also routinely publish the same book under different titles in the North America and the UK (and presumably elsewhere).

      Being forced to use initials or gender neutral bylines is of course a well known issue in speculative fiction, as C.L. Moore, Andre Norton and James Tiptree Jr. can attest, though I was initially stunned (naive, I know) that that sort of thing was still going on in the 1990s. Though nowadays, men writing in female dominated genres like urban fantasy are sometimes forced to use initials as well.

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  12. Women writers, international writers, marginalized writers – http://goo.gl/EBpQk via @Shareaholic

  13. Women writers, international writers, marginalized writers – http://goo.gl/EBpQk via @Shareaholic

  14. Ian Sales says:

    SF Mistressworks is a site devoted to reviewing sf written by women (although it focuses on books published before 2001).

    My sister moved from the US to Denmark a couple of years ago, and her US bank refused to transfer her money across to Europe. They would only do it if she went into the branch and collected a cheque by hand. Which would mean, of course, paying for a flight back to California…

    Also, if you write hard sf- or are willing to try – you might consider submitting to Rocket Science when submissions open on 1 August. I welcome submissions by women writers and non-Anglophone writers. Diversity is good, and anyone who thinks it isn’t is plainly an idiot.

    • Cora says:

      The behaviour of banks can really be unbelievable at times. For such a global business, banks certainly are very provincial with regard to their customers. And based on my limited experience, US banks seem to be even more provincial than most.

      Your SF Mistressworks site is a great project and definitely a step in the right direction. Also thanks for the plug regarding Rocket Science. I’m not a hard SF writer per se, but I occasionally write something in that direction. For my next hard SF story, I’ll certainly keep Rocket Science in mind.

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  16. Kaz Augustin says:

    Thanks for the mention (again), Cora. I’m also caught in another quandry. Not being in the US/UK/Anglo sphere means that a writer’s voice has to travel that much more to be heard. We have to “sing and dance” a little louder than everybody else because there are no local chapters to attend, no workshops we can give, no booksignings we can organise and thus raise our profile…unless we all stump out some major cash. And then, too, we think, “oh gods, is someone going to call me ‘hysterical’ because I’m trying to shill myself so much? (The favourite word for a non-compliant woman.) Followed closely by, I’m setting this story in [insert appropriate non-Anglo country/region here]. What will the readers think? Will they say, ‘oh here we go again, not another damned story set in [place]! Can’t she think of any other location?'”

    There’s that knee-jerk bit of self-censoring we do whenever we sit down to write a story, right? And yet someone like Stephen King can set most of his novels in Maine and all it gets is a little chuckle. “Ha ha, who’s going to die in Bangor this time?”

    I’m done with changing UK English to US. The differences are more than just dropping the odd “u” or “s” here and there and I feel terribly false trying to shoehorn myself into a mould that doesn’t fit, either grammatically or stylistically. There are US houses out there that are okay with UK spelling, so I think authors have a bit of a choice nowadays, especially if they go with one of the smaller or digital presses.

    • Cora says:

      The fact that workshops, conventions, writers groups, store signings, etc… are often inaccessible to international writers is another problem. All of the advice to go to cons, join RWA or SFWA, attend Clarion or Viable Paradise or any other workshop is pretty much moot when those activities take place on another continent. And I am privileged, because I am a white woman from a visa waiver EU country, so at least I don’t have to beg for a visa.

      And I agree that the self-censoring is a problem. Because we shouldn’t be thinking of who will buy this, is there even a market for this, will someone be offended because I accidentally violated a taboo that doesn’t even exist here, when we sit down to write. Yet we do. There is a novel I have had in mind for several years now, a sort of Tim Powers type secret history set in my hometown involving evil aliens, robotic mayors and actual events of local history. I will probably never write it, because there is no market.

      The insistence of some (not all) publishers on US spellings, styles, word choice reminds me of one of my old English teachers who would always mark up US spellings or any English words that the school edition of the OED did not know as a mistake. When I pointed out to him that a word or spelling was indeed correct English in the US and even came armed with examples, he dismissed me with “That’s American English. It’s not proper English.” English teaching in Germany is still very UK focused and RP focused at that, but grossly dismissing students for using the “wrong” variety of English is luckily a thing of the past.

      In my writing, I try to be consistent and use whichever variety of English is appropriate to the characters and setting. But I would never go as far as some self-publishers have gone and offer UK and US editions.

  17. Laran says:

    Thanks, Cora, for this enlightening post. It certainly had an impact on my awareness towards the books I read. I suppose many people don’t like the alienating effect close contact with different cultural patterns have – much more demanding. But more interesting.
    In literature class, I once heard the hypothesis that English literature has been heavily dependent on “outsiders” bringing new ideas and approaches to English literature; first women, then Irishmen (Joyce springs to mind), then writers from former colonies (e.g. Rushdie). I thought that very interesting, even so it might say more about the frame of mind of the people who suggested it. But everybody knows that innovation isn’t exactly a bonus for popular selling figures. Maybe more the reverse.

    I had to laugh out loud at your wonderful nazi werewolves example. I wonder if there are any Germans around who write that sort of stuff. Sounds to me like a typical example of imperialising imagined countries. In the end, these imaginations are stronger than any voice originating in the region itself.

    • Cora says:

      Well, the debate was initially sparked by the gross underrepresentation of women writers in UK science fiction and fantasy publishing. Literary fiction in the UK seems fairly diverse and the shortlists of major literary awards generally include writers from all sorts of backgrounds. But literary fiction is not exactly defined by high sales and popular genre fiction, i.e. where the sales are, seems to be much more conservative in the UK.

      I don’t know if anybody is actually writing nazi werewolves in Berlin, but I know that there is at least one urban fantasy by a German author set in Berlin. And of course, it is also telling that German films only gain recognition abroad and get nominated for the foreign language Oscar if they are either about the Third Reich or maybe East Germany, because those are the stories Germans are supposed to tell. And of course, they must conform to existing prejudices. This is why Life of Others won an Oscar and Good-bye Lenin wasn’t even nominated. Or why something like Aimee and Jaguar was ignored abroad, even though it was a film about the Holocaust (but lesbians? Much too shocking). I also read an infuriating article some time ago, where an American film critic claimed that British filmmakers should only make costume dramas like The King’s Speech, because those are the stories American audiences wanted to see, and not waste their time on dramas about working class gangsters, since American audiences don’t care about those.

      • Ian Sales says:

        That may be true if you take the audience for Hollywood blockbusters to be characteristic of the whole audience, but there are those of us who watch non-Anglophone languages irrespective of their subject. So I’ve enjoyed German-language films such as Atomised, The Educators, Goodbye Lenin, the Lives of Others, The Silent Stars (and the other DEFA films) – not to mention the films of Werner Herzog, Wim Wenders, (early) Tom Tykwer, Michael Haneke, and all the great silents such as Lang, Murnau and Pabst…

        • Cora says:

          Of course the commercial blockbuster audience is not all there is. And of course, the Oscars – even the foreign language Oscars – are the award of the commercial film industry. But it’s still notable that the German films that do best abroad are mostly films which deal with our sorry history, particularly with the Third Reich, the Holocaust and the history of Communist East Germany. They are almost universally serious drama. Meanwhile, films that deal with contemporary concerns and comedies rarely make the jump outside the German borders, even if they are successful and critically acclaimed. For example, Alles auf Zucker, a comedy about a culture clash between the assimilated and orthodox branches of a German Jewish family, outperformed Downfall at the box office and did a clean sweep at the German film awards. Yet Downfall is well known outside Germany and has spawned a hundred YouTube parodies, while Alles auf Zucker is virtually unknown. Recent award winners such as Yella, Schultze gets the Blues, Halbe Treppe, Gegen die Wand or Requiem never made it outside Germany, though Schultze gets the Blues and Requiem apparently had foreign releases.

          And that’s not even counting films that are so culturally specific that they don’t translate at all. The highest grossing German film of all time is a comedy called The Shoe of Manitou that you most likely have never heard of.

          • Maggie Slater says:

            As an avid movie viewer (and movie goer!) in the US, it does drive me nuts when I can’t access non-US-made films without really having to bend over backward to navigate what the US film industry has decided to release over here.

            There are so many good movies out there which never get released to the average viewer. I was excited to see the growing list of non-English film on Netflix (and it likely has a long way to go), because I’ve got a soft spot for Mandarin/Cantonese/and Hong Kong film–and I know that is largely because the college I attended had film studies classes on Hong Kong and Chinese directors, and made me more aware of the international film scene. Even then, there are some films I saw in those classes that I can’t find or can’t access now that I’m out of school.

            I can only speak as one American, of course, and–other than as a consumer–as one without much swing in the commercial film industry, but I know I’d love to see more non-English films brought to the US audience. It seems the US film industry here has a very backward perspective on “what will sell,” and that makes it challenging even for those of us who would like to break away from that particular perspective. 🙁

            • Cora says:

              I suspect that because the US film industry dominates much of the global market, there is even less incentive to make room for films from other countries and cultures. And those foreign films that make it to the screen are shunted into art house cinemas and therefore usually arty and serious films, while a lot of films that are commercially successful in their own countries never make it to US screens. For example, of the top twenty highest grossing German films since 1968, international viewers may have heard of two or three.

              Though other countries are not necessarily better. For many years, Chinese, Hong Kong and Japanese films only appeared in European cinemas if they confirmed some stereotype. Korean film did not exist at all until a few years ago. And the only Indian films we ever saw in Germany were serious dramas about poverty and gender issues, which are not exactly representative of Indian filmmaking. In the 1990s I had to go to a cinema in an immigrant suburb of London to see a Bollywood film, because such films were never shown in Germany at all, until a small cable channel bought the rights to some Bollywood blockbusters and had a huge ratings success.

              Luckily the world is getting smaller due to the internet. Though I’m always surprised how comparatively limited the selection of foreign films available at Netflix often is. When suggesting good German films to US friends, it often turns out that the films aren’t available at netflix, especially if they were made before 2000.

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  20. Chera says:

    I just wanted to say I would love to read urban fantasy set in Antwerp or SF featuring Germans, Poles, Dutchmen, Finns, Danes, Greeks, Turks, etc. in space… I’ve been trying to read more non-US/UK authors (SFF when I can find them) for a while now. Thanks for providing a list of other authors to try.

    • Cora says:

      It seems that plenty of readers are open for more diverse settings and characters, so let’s hope the publishers are listening and follow suit.

      Since you’re in the UK, Angry Robot Books is pretty good about publishing non-US/UK writers and novels with diverse settings and protagonists. In the US there’s also Haikasoru, an imprint that publishes Japanese SF in translation.

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  24. Milena says:

    Does it count if the werewolves are actually fighting Nazis in Berlin? Because I have recently sold a story like that, to an American indie antho. And I’m Croatian, so I don’t think that nationality played a role.

    But your post got me thinking, because the stories I had the least problem selling internationally were either nationality-neutral (as in, fantasy settings with no direct connections to Earth) or else featuring anglophone-sounding protagonists.

    • Cora says:

      I initially made the Nazi werewolves in Berlin remark as a sort of joke, i.e. this is the sort of story people would expect me to write, because I’m German. But since then I have found out that there actually are stories involving Nazis and werewolves. There’s yours, obviously, and I also came across a self-published book by a German author about an escapee from a concentration camp who is hunted by both Nazis and werewolves.

      Congrats on the sale by the way. That’s great.

      Otherwise my experience has been similar to yours. Stories with anglophone protagonists or with settings completely disconnected from Earth sell easier than those set on Earth in a place that is not the US or UK. Though I did sell one German set story and another set in Spain during the Napoleonic wars. Both have anglophone protagonists though.

      Still writers from beyond the US/UK/Canada/Australia are getting more exposure and that’s a good thing for us all.

      • Milena says:

        To a certain extent, I may have it easier than you, simply because there is no such “typical” expectation for a Croatian writer. I can write werewolves in Berlin, or warlocks in New York, and nobody’s going to bat an eyelid, because, mostly, people just don’t know what a “typical Croatian” element would look like. (Well, not counting the one very uninformed person who wondered why I don’t use my country’s African heritage. But that was a long time ago.)

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