Friday, December 11, 2015

The Quiet Gender Glass Ceiling in Fantasy

I was reading through some discussion groups on Goodreads last week and saw a thread asking for favorite female fantasy/science fiction writers. There were many names there, but that got me thinking. The number of great female fantasy writers debuting lately keeps going up. We have a history of greats from earlier years like Ursula le Guin, Andre Norton, and Anne McCaffrey. But I still see reports of women writing under their initials in my genre so they can possibly be mistaken for men. Uh, J.K. Rowling anyone?

An author at my publisher told me her books sold better when she changed to her initials. And this was recently. 




Then I looked at a different discussion thread. This one asked for people's top five epic fantasy authors. When asked about their "favorite" fantasy/science fiction writers, the lists are full of male writers. There might be one woman included on maybe half the lists. The names that come up over and over are Martin, Butcher, Sanderson, Rothfuss, Tolkien with a scattering of other males like Sullivan and Brooks. The occasional woman does make an individual's list but usually down at the bottom around number five.





This seems to be particular true in my subgenre of epic fantasy. Most of the recent successful women authors are more inclined to appear in lists of urban fantasy. Or else they write for young adult.


When will that change? 


Are women writers not as good with writing fantasy or science fiction? Are we always seen as writing "fluffy" versions of fantasy or science fiction? Books that are all about feelings and love triangles. I can't believe the first and I don't think the second is true by a long shot.





Is it a matter of timing? This genre has been a man's game for so long that women are still trying to keep up. Maybe twenty years ago that could be true, but this argument doesn't hold water anymore. There have been plenty of women writers for plenty of years. So why can't we crack the top five lists?


It wasn't that long ago that hurtful gender comments came out, of all places, the SFWA. That's the organization for science fiction and fantasy writers of America meant to support writers. Some male writers there made disparaging comments about their female colleagues, making it feel more like the SFMWA (science fiction and fantasy male writers of America). If they still feel this way, does the reading public also?


Maybe the problem lies in publishers providing more support for their male authors. Do they get better marketing? Or are male authors just more able to attend major cons and make panels for fantasy and science fiction? More able to leave their families and travel?





Are men just better at speaking up and clawing their way forward? Maybe they are less afraid and feel more entitled to advertise their writing. I bet they don't feel embarrassed they are making a pest of themselves on social media.


Maybe male readers are afraid to try female written books and find them equally good. Or maybe most readers of SFF are still male. I find that unlikely. All the groups of SFF lovers seems equally split between men and women. 


I don't really know the answer. I just feel the invisible discrimination in these top five lists. I'm not saying the male writers should be held back or the female writers should get special treatment. I'm just saying why isn't there parity? Why do males continue to dominate? When will female writers see equal success and head the top five lists?


I admit that as a fantasy writer I have a vested interest in seeing this glass ceiling go away. But I'd still feel this way if I didn't. Yet, I can't help wondering if I'd sell better if I used Michael instead of Michelle.


In the interest of plugging amazing female writers of epic fantasy, I want to mention Kristen Britain and her Green Writer series, Kate Elliott and her many series, including Jaran and Crown of Stars, and Rachel Aaron with her Legend of Eli Monpress series. There are many more, but those are three of my favorites. I want to plug a couple of just starting fantasy writing women in Vicki Weavil and Rena Rocford and Holly Jennings.





Tell me what you think. Do you sense the same problem and who are your favorite female authors? Does that quiet gender discrimination still exist? Do women have a glass ceiling in fantasy or is it my imagination?


And if you're male and reading this, do you read female authors? If not, give one a try, as an experiment if nothing else.
      

21 comments:

  1. Yes. And more now than ever before. As a SFF reader who has been reading the genre for a long, long time, there weren't always as many awesome options as there are today -- you were kind of limited to what was at the book store. But even 'back then' I read Melanie Rawn, Robin Hobb, and Anne McCaffery. My first book that I wrote (which shall never be seen again) was based on the work of Elizabeth Moon.

    Today there are so many great women authors writing SFF that it's impossible to even start to name them all. I feel like a lot of them write (and read) YA, which I don't read often, but two books on my reading list (which I swear I'm going to finish before the end of the year!) are by Anne Leckie and Emily St. John Mandel. Other favorites are NK Jemisin and Kameron Hurley. Jemisin's Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was probably my favorite fantasy book I read this year (though it came out a few years ago)

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    1. I read Hurley and Jemisin also. Really like Hurley's new book.

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  2. Forgot to click the box to notify me of new comments. Oops.

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  3. I'm a male, and I read female writers. But Fantasy isn't my main genre that I read. Also, I write. I think being in the community, following women and all of that, disqualifies me from what I think this question actually asks: Does a random male, browsing through titles and authors select the title of a female author?

    My guess would be no. I don't know why.

    Drawing from my experience, when I was growing up, I read a few female authors trying to write an authentic male MC, and I felt they failed, and for a while, I refused to read a female author who wrote a male MC. But since then, I've read female authors who succeeded.

    I wouldn't think that this small blip would affect sales. In my personal life, I see more women reading fiction than men. So if women are the majority, are women buying women authors?

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    1. Good point. A few years ago I didn't read as many female authors. Now my reading is more diverse. I think sometimes you find favorite authors and stick with those. All my favorites used to be by male authors.

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  4. I think part of the problem is that as YAs in Junior High and High school primarily male writers are assigned in classes. Women get used to reading a book from the male viewpoint - but men do not get used to reading from a female viewpoint. This lingers in adulthood - women don't discriminate as much between male and female POVs, but men go almost exclusively for a male POV. Early adulthood also trained both men and women that since only men are assigned as literature - women must not be as good a writers. We need to have equality in what our kids read, so that equality stays when they become adults.

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    1. In recent years schools are very conscience of including women and minorities in textbooks. I'm not sure if they do the same for their reading lists now. Maybe this will make future generations feel differently about authors.

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    2. I'm not sure. For me, growing up, there were school books and there were fun books, and they didn't really touch. If anything, some of those books I got assigned made me loathe male writers rather than adore them.

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  5. I don't wonder if the gender bias is deeper than that. As you know, I had a book that featured a mother with kids, and the feedback I got when the mother went off to save the world was "but who will watch the kids?" It is the only book for which I have received active harassment, and it hasn't been published. All those trolls came out just for writing events--contests mostly.

    And the one thing everyone had in common was Who is watching the kids. This came from people who were well meaning but had a hard time accepting that a mother could be the one who needed to save the day. No one ever asked Superman or Batman who was watching the kids. It was upsetting because we have so many women in the armed forces being sent away from their children, into harm's way, and all we can ask is "Who is watching the kids?" Our reality isn't one where mothers and women have the luxury of filling these gender roles that are basically lies.

    I wonder if the "who's watching the kids?" notion is what's happened to the fantasy writers. Instead of writing books, we get asked "who's watching the kids" so many times it becomes too hard to defend our writing time in the face of being a perfect mother/wife/woman. In my first interview long ago, I was asked how I balance family and writing life. Do you see men getting asked this question? Not nearly as often, and it's sort of assumed that their family is behind them, but when a woman does something like write, it's assumed that she's still the one running the errands, cooking and cleaning, and, of course, watching the kids.

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    1. Too true, Rena. These sort of responses still linger.

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    2. 'Who's watching the kids?" Oh, dear god, are they living in the 50s? One of the two female leads in the urban fantasy I just took through Pitchwars is deliberately written as a soccer-mom type, she's also a career cop, and disabled. Yes, there should be friction here, but over her disability (BTDT), not her sex. As the other lead, the werewolf, remarks, people keep mistaking her for the dangerous one, when they should be watching the witch in the wheelchair (guess which one of them gets to knife the bad guy).

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  7. Great post!
    While I certainly don't think there is anything wrong with "fluffy" fantasy (sorry- but I dig it. As long as a book is entertaining...) I don't- by no stretch of the imagination- think that this is all women can write, and anyone who does think this needs to be slapped with a gigantic epic fantasy tome (by a female writer, of course).
    Sometimes I wonder if it is not only gender bias in publishing (or even in reading) but if it is like you said- that we, women authors, are more apt to worry about "bugging" people when trying to advertise our books. Men truly don't seem to have that insecurity. We women are ingrained with worrying about what people think. (Hello- we EXPECT to be judged in all areas of our lives. Im looking at you beauty industry). I feel that we need to throw this aside and not be afraid to say, "Hey, my book is awesome! It is just as good- even better- than xyz by qrs!"
    Maybe if enough of us do this- we can slowly cause a change. We shouldn't have to hide behind initials to sell books.
    The best sci/fi (with fantasy elements) book I ever read was by a woman. It is weird, creepy, imaginative and wonderful.

    I also agree with an above comment. We get used to reading from a male viewpoint in certain genres. When I was a kid ( a young kid...pre YA) The books I read by female author's tended to be about crushes and babysitting, etc. (I enjoyed those books as a kid- so I am in NO WAY bashing them). The books I read that were fantasy and "horror" were by male authors. All I can say is thank Jeebus for Madeline L'engle. She was the first author who made me want to write bc she was a woman who wrote books about smart kids who weren't concerned with being liked and who had amazing adventures.

    Sorry- This response has gone on all kind of tangents, lol. I just really enjoyed your post!

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    1. I forgot about Madeline L'engle! I loved her books too as a kid.

      I know I have a hard time promoting my books. We also learn not to push ourselves forward and boast. And promoting seems like boasting and demanding attention.

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    2. (Got here via a link from Aliette de Bodard's Twitter feed) "The best sci/fi (with fantasy elements) book I ever read was by a woman. It is weird, creepy, imaginative and wonderful."

      I'd love to read that one! Could you supply the title/author?

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  8. I do find it interesting that so many women authors have been able to find traction in YA. I think it's great, but also... well, YA is on an upward trend, but I don't know if it will last. I hope it does; it's engaging young readers who were alienated by fiction that took no account of their lives. If there's a general trend to encourage young people to read, I'm all for it. However, I worry that YA will have trouble establishing its bona fides as literature by its very subject nature. Women authors get saddled with a slow road.

    Of the four genres of fiction I read (SF, fantasy, mystery, espionage), only in mystery are women on a fairly even playing field. Espionage... well, Libby Hellman (who writes thrillers, and espionage falls under that category, but I don't know why) remarks on only a couple (and a few men who write good women characters, not just f*** t**s):
    http://www.libbyhellmann.com/espionage-thrillers-women/
    Espionage and westerns are probably tied for worst.

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  9. What Mike said! I truly don't understand why people undervalue women fantasy authors. CJ Cherryh's often thought of as an SF author, but she wrote some fantastic fantasies back in the 80s that made a lasting impression on my preferences in the genre. Another name not mentioned so far is Barbara Hambly, who had a bunch of high-profile epic fantasy series around the same time, before segueing across into period detective stuff. All my favourite contemporary UF authors are female. I think if I had to list my top five fantasy writers I'd likely end up with four female authors and Terry Pratchett. So for me this idea that female authors aren't as good just doesn't make sense.

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  10. I liked Britain's books, and like you, I don't know why they don't get remembered more often but fans of classic epic fantasy.

    I think it's worse than it used to be, actually. When I was younger, there were a number of well-regarded women writing SF and epic F: Cherryh, Kurtz, Bujold, Hobb, Butler, Elliot, McCaffrey, Lackey, LeGuin (of course), Moon, Bear, McIntyre, Russ, Berg, Clayton and countless others. Most of them are still writing today, yet relatively few get tossed up on those lists of great and influential writers of SF and F. Even with UF, an area that's said to be dominated by women, Jim Butcher always seems to get mentioned first. Only with children's and YA fantasy do women (maybe) seem to dominate.

    I've heard a number of possible explanations, and of course, it's possible that they could all play a role to varying extents. It's frustrating for women who are trying to break into print in these genres, and for women who have been at it a while generating the same sales as their male peers.

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  11. Mark Lawrence did some interesting polling and thinking about this question - specifically, would people read his work if it was by "Mary Lawrence" instead? (On his blog.) I find his numbers really interested, especially considering unconscious versus conscious - i.e. people might say "of course it makes no difference" when asked outright, but may still find that their reading skews one way or the other unconsciously. Of course, a lot of that might have to do with the other factors he identifies regarding the emphasising of romance and other "soft" elements in female-authored fantasy.

    I'm reminded also of Tansy Rayner Roberts' guest of honour speech from this year's Continuum, wherein she talked about how there have always been significant and highly influential female authors in the genre, but they don't seem to get referenced or remembered like their male counterparts - and that's just because people don't reference or remember them; they don't get included on lists and in mentions of influences, unless it's as a token female inclusion. It rang quite true for me (sitting in the audience).

    For my own reading, a story with a female protagonist, or significant female cast, tends to get more of my attention than a same-old all-male adventure, and often female-led stories are also female-authored - but I'm happy that that's not always the case.

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    1. Thanks for the links, Beth. I had a book blogger say yesterday in a review that they were pleasantly surprised my book wasn't full of romance. I doubt that would have entered their mind if I was Michael.

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  12. These books always are the perfect choice for me whenever I have free time.

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