Science fiction and fantasy                                            



A Traitor To The Sisterhood

26th April 2011





   

Musings and rants

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Jen McGowan and Jaine Fenn  

Jen McGowan and Jaine Fenn

Lauren Beukes  

Lauren Beukes and me

At the 2011 Illustrious Eastercon there were a few panels about women in science fiction and fantasy. Jen McGowan and Jaine Fenn spoke on one of these, (although that picture is from a reading the day before). The issue of the relatively low level of coverage of women in the genre literature came up. Fantasy is often thought of as more female-dominated, but after an all male shortlist was announced for the David Gemmell Legend Award it's clear women have a way to go in this area. This award is voted on by fans, so it's not a case of a small panel of men deciding to exclude women.

The idea that books written by men are more likely to get reviewed made me curious, so I decided to dig into my own statistics and and find out what kind of bias I have. I'm only going to be looking at books, and carefully ignoring the absurd lack of oestrogen in movie directing. Prospective female film directors have to finish the Ironman challenge carrying a toddler in a backpack and a baby strapped to each leg to qualify for the third assistant director's job. Fact.

Most Praised

My list of most praised authors is compiled by awarding points on a sliding scale for good reviews and subtracting them for negative ones. So it's a reflection of who I've been raving about consistently over the years. With six women and four men, it seems reasonably fair. So far so good. After all, I don't choose novels based on the sex of the author. Why would I?

I could pause here to bask in the glow of right-on egalitarian self-satisfaction. Here's a picture of me looking smug next to half of the female nominees for the Arthur C. Clarke Award this year, Lauren Beukes.

But sadly the full statistics tell a different story. For every 2 books I've covered by female authors, I've covered over 3 by men. Of my reviews to date 153 were books by men, 95 by women, and 11 had both male and female contributors. There's no escaping it: I'm a traitor to the sisterhood.

Past Masters and Mistresses

The question is, why? I certainly haven't made a conscious decision to cut out half of the human race from my reading. I read what catches my eye, and I like to think I make my choices without prejudice. Of course we're all influenced by book marketing, availability, cover design, and indeed the society we live in, and I'm no different.

One clue is in the past. So far I haven't reviewed any women's novels at all from the 1950s or 1960s, and it's not until Anne Rice in the 1970s that a woman gets a look in. My reading choices from that era largely depend on what I find when browsing second-hand stores, so I'm relying on the books that sold well in the past to determine what I will read today. It's a cycle of inequality.

I could try to foist blame on publishers for promoting male-dominating lists. After all, anything's better than accepting personal responsibility, and conspiracy theories are fun. But the thought of the female-dominated genre publishing industry deliberately setting out to gag women and ensure they don't play any significant part in our cultural discourse doesn't exactly ring true.

It was interesting for me to look back at my own reading, and to realise that it's not as balanced as I thought it was. I hope this will prompt others to do the same. I'm not in favour of imposing gender quotas on the books I read, it seems forced and somehow icky. However some of the overlooked female fantasy and science fiction writers of the past are overdue a reassessment.



© Ros Jackson