2013 is not even three weeks old and we’re already having the first gender balance in speculative fiction debate of the year.
The debate was inadvertedly kicked off by Aidan Moher, when he posted about his reading goals for 2013 at A Dribble of Ink. Among other things, Aidan Moher also aims for a 50/50 author gender balance among the books that he reads.
Now you wouldn’t think that there was anything controversial about someone formulating a personal reading goal. After all, it isn’t as if Aidan Moher was trying to get anybody else to join him in his quest for gender balance. Still, things got quite heated in the comments, because some people who never look at the gender of an author and are instead only looking for “good books”, ninety percent of which happen to be written by men for some reason, vehemently disagreed.
John H. Stevens weighs in on his own blog and explains that he deliberately decided to broaden his reading horizons to include writers from more diverse backgrounds after sticking mainly to straight white men in his youth.
What always amuses me about these regular gender balance debates in the SFF community is that it is inevitably assumed that the imbalance will be in favour of male writers. Because that’s not at all given, particularly if you read outside the SFF genre, but also if you stick to certain subgenres within SFF.
A couple of years ago during one of those discussions, I shocked a whole bunch of commenters at the blog of a popular (male) writer by stating that I strove to make sure to read at least four books by male writers per year, including two new to me male writers, because otherwise I’d read almost exclusively women. The reaction I got was very much “Does not compute”, because the (male) commenters quite literally could not imagine reading more male than female writers and many probably couldn’t name more than five female writers at all.
Last year I was talking to a new acquaintance and he wanted to know some favorite writers and recommendations where fantasy was concerned. I had one male in that list, all the rest were female writers. His list though (more focus on SF than Fantasy) was more male-oriented. I don’t recall that he had one female writer in his list. The same holds true for a number of my female friends. If you look at their book-shelves male writers are rare and the majority of the fantasy they read is by female writers. So yeah, I share your amusement.
When I look at my to-read-stack most of the books again most books are by female writers with only a few males in there. And most of the books by male writers are non-fiction.
Same with the books my mom reads (she mostly reads crime-novels and historical romance). The majority of the books she reads are written by women. All of her favorite writers, the ones where she preorders the new book the moment she gets the notice are all female.
I too have an aim for more diversity this year but my aim goes more in the direction of ‘less anglo-saxon-traditon/background writers’.
I have come across a few women who prefer male over female writers. Mostly, they tend to be a certain type of female SFF fan desperate to fit in and be “one of the boys” who make very sure to avoid anything that might smell of girl cooties. But otherwise, my experience is similar to yours. Men tend to read almost exclusively male writers, while women go for predominantly female writers with a few men mixed in.
Interestingly, I also find that this pattern applies to other genres as well. When I read thrillers or crime fiction, I mostly read female writers as well. As for my Mom, she likes some male Scandinavian authors like Henning Mankell or Jussi Adler Olsen (and both are about as unmacho as male writers of crime fiction can be), but she prefers female writers. Mostly it’s female crime and thriller writers I introduced her to, because going by her old bookshelves she was big time into Johannes Mario Simmel, Konsalik and other 1960s/1970s bestsellers when younger. Lots of Harold Robbins, Louis Bromfield and Frank Yerby (well, he was black, so he counts for diversity), too, i.e. what the Bertelsmann book club offered.
Having had not much choice in reading more male writers than females in the 80s, if I wanted to read any sf or fantasy at all, when I switched to reading in English and was able to visit specialised sf&f bookstores in the UK, I started looking for female written sf&f particularly – not because I had hated the male written ones as such (I still really like reading David Eddings occasionally, probably because his wife had input into his female characters), but because the female roles used to be so narrow. Why would I want that in my reading?
Nowadays, with women writers writing in all areas in great numbers – well… I hardly ever read male writers, unless numerous female writers and trusted book reviewers have endorsed a particular book. I don’t mind downloading a freebie ebook which might work for me from a male writer, but it’s highly unlikely it’ll show up on my TBR pile in any prominent position.
The one book I have bought intentionally on purpose at full price by a male writer in the genre in the last… five or ten years? … has been Rivers of London.
And I don’t really fear that I develop an opposite slant – because the female writers I read have no problem with having male heroes or mail main characters as well. It’s just that the women get more to do and are equally important, and of course often they are the hero of the book.
I do work on reading more cultural diversity.
My own situation is similar, because back in the 1980s the English language SFF I could get at the local bookstore was mostly by male writers. But even then I read quite whatever female writers I could find (Anne McCaffrey, C.J. Cherryh, Mercedes Lackey, Barbara Hambly, Leigh Brackett, Jenny Wurts) in the local bookstore and often preferred them. I also preferred male writers with better female characters to those with narrow or nigh non-existent female characters. Once I managed to get books directly from the US or UK and later from Amazon, it became even easier to find female SFF writers. I did go through something of an SFF slump in the late 1990s/early 2000s, after I got on the internet and fell in with a bunch of people whose tastes in SFF tended towards the grim and the gritty (coupled with tedious philosophizing) and whose recommendations were predictably dreadful. I also read what passed for new space opera – Charles Stross, Peter Hamilton, Ken McLeod and so on and mostly hated it. The only good writers I found via that crowd was Kage Baker and Elizabeth Bear, coincidentally also the only women. Then I found urban fantasy and paranormal romance and plenty of SFF by female writers that worked for me. In fact, the few male writers whose new work I read these days are mostly male urban fantasy writers such as Jim Butcher, Simon Green (like his space opera, too), Ben Aaronowitch, Neil Gaiman and the occasional male Steampunk writer (though I generally prefer female written Steampunk).
To be honest, I did say the thing about making sure to read at least a few male writers per year largely to rile up that crowd, because I found it annoying that a certain kind of (male) SFF fan tended to assume that there was no/very little worthwhile SFF by women writers and that they would have to make a conscious effort to seek it out, when the opposite was true.
Totally agree with you on including more cultural diversity in ones reading.
I was highly entertained during one of these debates by the guy saying basically: “I have no problem with female writers. C J Cherryh is one of my favourite writers! Of course, I had no idea she was a woman when I first picked her books up…”
I got something similar once when a male poster vehemently complained about the popularity of urban fantasy, which was all about sex and women and romance and grissly commercial lowest common denominator stuff in his exalted opinion. And the few urban fantasy writers he could stomach were of course all male. Alas, his list of acceptable (male) urban fantasy writers included Rob Thurman, who is actually a woman with an ambiguous name.