Gender and Review Bias – 2012 Edition

Jennifer Weiner retackles the subject of major newspapers such as the New York Times ignoring women writers in their review sections, offering up plenty of data. There’s a shout-out to the New York Times‘s weirdly condescending portrait of Amanda Hocking and Jennifer Weiner correctly notes that the New York Times did not bother to review any of Amanda Hocking’s novels.

Meanwhile, Teddy Wayne replies at Salon that it’s male midlist writers who are truly suffering, because women buy more fiction and women’s fiction, chick lit and romance (because we know that women write exclusively in those genres) outsell most male writers except for the lucky few superstar literary writers. In short, it’s another “Oh no, why won’t someone think of the poor oppressed straight white men” whine. Unlike Jennifer Weiner, Teddy Wayne offers no data at all. The comments quickly degenerate into a gender war.

John Scalzi, bless him, calls Wayne’s article out for the idiocy that it is. His commenters largely agree and indeed the comments, at least those that I read, are free of complaints that women are ruining the SF and fantasy genre with their emotions and romance and sex scenes and insistence on female protagonists who can do more than cower. But then I suspect that Scalzi wouldn’t stand for such idiocy.

Meanwhile, there is a sort of mini-war going on between authors and reviewers at the moment with book bloggers and review sites feeling (rightfully) exploited and pressured by publishers, some authors feeling (understandably) upset at what they consider unprofessional reviews (though it is worth pointing out that no author ever complained about a 5-star review, no matter how unprofessional and misspelled it is) and some book bloggers feeling (understandably) upset at being belittled and dismissed by writers and pointing out what should be obvious, namely that reviews are for readers not writers.

In short, it’s business as usual. However, I did come across an really excellent statement with regards to the review wars that I would like to highlight. It can be found in the comment section of this Strange Horizons review of Theft of Swords by Michael J. Sullivan. Now reviewer Liz Bourke really, really did not like the book. In fact, she says that it narrowly missed being the worst book she ever read. She also offers plenty of examples and even quotes regarding what bothered her about the book. So the review is clearly not an unfounded attack on the book in question.

Now I haven’t read the book and frankly I’m not interested in reading it, so I have no idea whether the book is good or bad or something in between. However, plenty of commenters (though not the author, it must be said) show up to tell Liz Bourke that she is wrong, wrong, wrong about Theft of Swords and that she is being mean to the author and jealous and not qualified and whatever. There are also complaints that Strange Horizons hates “core fantasy”, i.e. fairly traditional epic fantasy and sword and sorcery (and who said that those subgenres were the “core” of the genre anyway?), before the comments thread completely degenerates into mudslinging.

Now the complaints that Strange Horizons supposedly hates epic fantasy are just silly, since everybody who has been hanging out in the SFF community for a while knows that Strange Horizons has very particular tastes and that they are not shy about stating their opinions. I rarely agree with their reviews myself (though I don’t post comments calling the mental health of the reviewer into question). And any publisher or author who submits a review copy to Strange Horizons should be well aware of their biases and that certain books probably won’t receive a favourable review there. So if you are likely to disagree with Strange Horizons and their tastes in speculative fiction, don’t read them and don’t submit books for review to them.

But the quote I really want to highlight is this bit by a British writer called E.M. Edwards, buried halfway down in the comment thread:

Sexual bias: female negative reviewers, or female reviewers full stop, get endlessly more vitriol in response to their reviews than male reviewers offering the same or even more acerbic criticism. This is not unique to the community here, but no more praiseworthy.

E.M. Edwards completely hits the nail on the head, because I strongly suspect that the issue is not so much Strange Horizons posting a negative review of a traditional epic fantasy novel but that a woman dared to express her distaste for a certain kind of macho fantasy fiction. Especially considering that Liz Bourke has given measured but negative reviews to other gritty macho fantasy novels before and received a similar reaction (I blogged about this here). We all know that SFF is still very much a boys’ club and that women daring to offer counter opinions on books by male authors, particularly if those books are beloved in the genre, often get slammed for it. Look at the recent dust-up about Mur Lafferty finding that she cannot stand the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Black Gate Theo taking her to task for it (and later me for blogging about it).

Some of the uproar about the negative review of A Theft of Swords seems to originate in the fact that author Michael J. Sullivan started out as an indie writer and was later picked up by a traditional publisher, an indie publishing success story I somehow missed (though I think I have run across the author before, probably on the Kindleboards, since the name seems familiar). Hence, some people accuse Strange Horizons of having an anti-indie bias.

However, consider this: Would there have been a similarly massive uproar if a male reviewer had written a snarkily negative review of the works of the other indie fantasy author gone traditional, namely Amanda Hocking? Nope, because a man slamming fantasy written by a woman would only have been natural.

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6 Responses to Gender and Review Bias – 2012 Edition

  1. Jessica says:

    I disagree with this article, but it's a new perspective on reviews RT @TopsyRT: Gender and Review Bias – 2012 Edition

  2. Estara says:

    Your argument makes a lot of sense to me.

  3. Pingback: More on the Reviews Dust-up | Cora Buhlert

  4. Sugel says:

    For years now, Strange Horizons has endeavored to offer readers some high quality, thought-provoking fare. Many of the issues that are addressed in great works of fantasy and science fiction, like the plight of the individual versus the demands of society, the benefits and consequences of technology, and pagan traditions and ancient beliefs, are all discussed here in some format or another. Each weekly issue includes articles (and/or interviews), a column, fiction, poetry, an art gallery, and a section entitled “This week’s reviews”. In short, nearly anything that is touched by magic or the implications of science and technology is fair game in the world of Strange Horizons.

  5. I have noticed this for some time now (say, thirty years or so) and what is incredibly tiresome (and tiring) is that the reaction doesn’t change. The sheer amount of intellectual bad faith in a community that prides itself on its superiority to those outside the fandom never ceases to stagger me. As a working writer with a day job, I get less reading done than I’d like, so I tend to get ruthless about my choices. So yes, the books I read in the genres I write tend to be by writers of color (parallel debate, same bad-faith excuses offered) and women. My answer to why: I don’t have time to waste on the Usual Story.

    • Cora says:

      I totally agree. There’s only so much time to read and the usual story has been told and published so many times by now that a book has to be truly exceptional to give the umpteenth retelling of the usual story a chance.

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