Strange Horizons is once again fighting the good fight and has broken down book reviews in major SFF venues by gender of the author and reviewer. The results are still largely discouraging. At Salon, Alex Heimbach also reports on the Strange Horizons gender breakdown study.
At Radish Reviews, Natalie points out that both Strange Horizons and VIDA, who regularly does a similar gender breakdown for general review outlets, omitted RT Book Reviews (because RT used to focus mainly on romance readers and romance has girl cooties even in the eyes of many otherwise enlightened people in the SFF community) and undertakes to do the gender breakdown for RT’s SF and general fantasy section herself. The result looks far more balanced than the gender balance at the publications surveyed by Strange Horizons. By the way, Strange Horizons have announced that they will include RT Book Reviews in future gender breakdowns.
At The World in the Satin Bag, Shaun Duke also goes into the recent discussions of the still skewed gender balance in SFF reviews, the all-male Clarke Award shortlist and the regularly recurring discussions of sexism in SFF. The culprit that Shaun Duke fingers for the fact that we seem to be having the same discussion about women in SFF year after year is that outdated gender role stereotypes classify subjects such as science, technology, exploration and war, i.e. the core subjects of much of SF, as stereotypically male.
The Fantasy Book Café continues its “Women in SF&F” month with a great post by Vera Nazarian about writing warrior women.
German journalist Antje Schrupp wonders about the current resurgence of stories and imagery glorifying patriarchical structures in the media. One of the examples Ms. Schrupp gives for the patriarchical resurgence (alongside problematic ads and sexist reality shows) is George R.R. Martin’s Game of Thrones which she recently read. During a latest reiteration of the debate about grimdark fantasy, a lot of women explicitly gave the amount of sexual violence and the sheer misogyny of many works of “grimdark” epic fantasy as reasons for disliking the whole grimdark subgenre. George R.R. Martin isn’t even the worst culprit – yes, there is rampant rape in Westeros, but he also has plenty of female POV characters and Danaerys Tagaryen, Arya Stark and Brienne of Tarrth are all pretty damn awesome. Come on, who did not cheer in the most recent episode of the TV show, when Danaerys turned the table on the slavers? IMO, works like Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns or the output of R. Scott Bakker or the founding text of the genre, Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, are far worse in that and any other regard. Besides, there is plenty of epic fantasy with varied and interesting women characters and far more egalitarian gender relations, as evidenced by the works of Kate Elliott, Tamora Pierce, Sherwood Smith, N.K. Jemisin, Kameron Hurley, Elizabeth Bear, Lois McMaster Bujold’s fantasy (and of course the Vorkosigan series for a case study in how smart women and new reproductive technologies can turn a society upside down).
What also struck me about Antje Schrupp’s post was that she wondered why people were still writing fantasy with medieval settings and heavily patriarchical social structures in the 21st century, when speculative fiction offers its authors the freedom to write about how the world could be different. Now I’m as bothered by the pervasive sexism featured in many SFF worlds as the next girl, especially when that pervasive sexism is never even questioned. It’s not just pseudo-medieval epic fantasy that’s to blame here, many of the Hunger Games inspired YA dystopias are even worse. However, peaceful and egalitarian utopias still make bad SFF settings, because fiction requires conflict and egalitarian utopias don’t really provide a whole lot of that, unless there is something seriously rotten at the heart of the egalitarian utopia (which is the plot of half the dystopian novels out there). As for why so much epic fantasy has medieval settings, blame the twin forces of Tolkien setting the precedent and Americans, who make up the majority of epic fantasy readers and writers, thinking that castles and medieval settings are really cool and romantic.
In spite of those caveats, I actually agree with Antje Schrupp that the renewed popularity of works with patriarchical gender structures is hugely problematic. However, I find the rampant worldwide popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey and its ilk (which – unlike most grimdark fantasy – are actually written and consumed by women) and the trend towards retro sexist and nostalgia laden TV shows such as Mad Men a lot more troubling in that regard than Game of Thrones.
A. Lee Martinez offers a belated entry in this year’s grimdark debate and argues that worlds where everything inevitably ends badly are no more realistic than worlds where there are only happy endings. I think this is a very important post, because a lot of the proponents of “realistic” grimdark fiction live comparatively comfortable that are anything but bad. Though I disagree that people tend to crave more darkness as they grow older. In my experience, the taste for grimdarkness truly is something of a goth phase and usually starts sometimes during one’s teens. By the time they hit thirty, most people grow out of it, though some never do. So the taste for grimdark fare is not a symptom of age but of some perpetual adolescence.
C.P.D. Harris also takes on the grimdark debate again and links the rise of grimdark fantasy to the popularity of tabloidesque 24-hour news channels in the US. He certainly makes an interesting point there and coincidentally also explains why grimdark fantasy is mainly a US/UK phenomenon so far, for our own TV news aren’t quite so bad yet (and though Germany has so-called news channels, they mainly broadcast documentaries), although the media frenzy about the Ulli Hoeneß case is a new lowpoint. And I say this as a lifelong Werder Bremen fan who can’t stand Hoeneß.
At All About Romance, Dabney wonders why abortion is never even mentioned is an option, when romance heroines find themselves faced with an unplanned pregnancy, and why romance heroines always decide to have the baby, even if the characters have been previously portrayed as the sort of people who would at least consider other options. Now I suspect that a contemporary romance where the heroine has an abortion on page (i.e. not something that happened ten years ago, when she was sixteen and in highschool) would never be published by a traditional publisher, particularly if the baby is the hero’s. However, it is a bit strange that no romance heroine considers other options, even if she decides to have the baby in the end. But then the romance genre still is rather conservative, as attitudes towards non-virgin heroines, beta heroes and condom use during sex scenes show.
Not exactly new, but still interesting: Die Welt has profiled the bestselling German historical fiction writer Iny Lorentz, which is a pen name for the husband and wife team Elmar and Iny Lorentz. Before finding success with historical adventure fiction, the Lorentzes wrote fantasy and SF under a different pen name. They’re also longtime gamers, got their start writing fanfiction and their wedding ring is a replica of Tolkien’s One Ring. All of which is pretty cool and gave me more appreciation for a writer (or two) whose works aren’t really my thing. Of course, the overall tone of the article is still terribly condescending – Die Welt being one of those papers which consider themselves quality publications. And just in case you’re interested in what the Lorentzes are writing, here is their most famous work, the historical adventure novel Die Wanderhure (The wandering whore) and here is the TV adaption starring Alexandra Neldel. Warning: There’s lots of violence towards women, rape and general nastiness in both movie and novel.
Meanwhile, regular commenter Daniela pointed me to this article from the Tagespiegel about another unsung hero of German literature, Helmut Rellergerd who has been writing the John Sinclair series of horror pulp novelettes for the past forty years and whose alter ego Jason Dark is one of Germany’s most prolific authors with one of the highest total print runs (over one billion). I wrote an article about Rellergerd’s creation John Sinclair a couple of years ago, which will probably be reprinted in a collection of my pulp fiction criticism some day. As with the Welt article about Iny Lorentz, this one is dripping with condescension as well. Would any journalist have made those comments about the author’s age (Rellergerd is 68) and how difficult it is for him to mount the stairs to his office every morning in an article about Martin Walser or Günther Grass, both of whom are over eighty and still writing? Of course not. But condescension towards writers of popular fiction is still rampant in Germany, if those writers are noticed at all.
Finally, here is a writer to whom no one will condescend any time soon: The New York Times has a surprisingly enjoyable interview with Jonathan Franzen, wherein he gives a shout-out to German writer Thomas Brussig among other things. I’ve also found that I share a (probably unfounded) prejudice against The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera because of its god-awful title.