Friday, July 12, 2013

Sexism and the Female SciFi Author

So there's been noise around the internet about this article by Tor UK editor Julie Crisp. The basic gist of the post is that the low number of SciFi books by women on the shelves isn't because publishers are locking the door on women, it's because they just don't get a lot of SciFi submissions by women, and they can't publish what they don't receive.

Now, there have been some thoughtful posts decrying this as buck passing: "Oh, it's not our fault the vast majority of genre books coming out are written by dudes. Lady authors just aren't writing the stuff. Step it up and solve sexism, women!" And while I don't entirely agree that's what's going on here, (okay, that's exactly what's going on here, but I don't think it's being done mean spiritedly), the truth is that sexism everywhere, but specifically sexism in genre fiction, is far far FAR more insidious and deeply rooted than this sort of "the numbers don't lie, boss" reductionism would imply, especially when it comes to Science Fiction...

...Annnnnnd since, (SHAMELESS PLUG) I have a SciFi novel coming out in November that is not only written by a woman, but has a female main character (DOUBLE RAINBOW!), I thought I'd take a moment to explore why many women aren't drawn to space in books.

The lack of women in SciFi fiction is really strange and striking when you consider the overwhelming female fanbase for SciFi in other media franchises. Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, Babylon 5, and (everyone's favorite) Firefly all boast impressive female viewership and fandom (and fanfic writing). Clearly, women are capable of understanding and enjoying the hell out of space stories, so why aren't more women writing/publishing Science Fiction novels?

Well, first off, women ARE writing Science Fiction. I actually grew up reading SciFi written by Anne McCaffrey and Ursula Le Guin. I also read Dune and a metric ton of David Brin, and of course all the Hitchhiker's books. Today, I read Anne Aguire and Elizabeth Moon and Elizabeth Bear. But while there are lots of women telling successful Science Fiction stories, the undeniable truth is that they are the vast minority of the Science Fiction out there.

I think a big part of the blame for this discrepancy can be placed squarely on the shoulders of Science Fiction's rep as a "man's game." For example, all those female authored SciFi books in the last paragraph that I grew up with? They were from my mom's shelf. I read them in the classic tradition of teenage reading: because they were what I had. And I loved them, don't get me wrong, but when I grew up and started buying my own books, I went almost exclusively into Fantasy (UF and Epic) and all but ignored Science Fiction. Looking back, I did this because subconsciously I knew that SciFi was "for guys," and even though a specific book might look interesting, it would probably just be a bunch of dudes doing manly, dude stuff with no female characters of note. So I didn't buy.

Was this dismissive of me? Sure. Did I miss a bunch of awesome books because of my own preconceptions? Almost certainly. But I got those preconceptions--that space stories aren't for me, that I wouldn't understand, that I'm not welcome in this genre--from Science Fiction itself. From the way it is marketed and discussed, from the covers, from the truly sexist SciFi dudes who make it their mission in life to keep girls and their girl cooties away from their hallowed spaceship tomes. True, no one ever stood in front of a bookshelf and told me I couldn't buy Science Fiction, but there was definitely push back, and as a woman in a book market where I had so many choices about how to spend my reading time, I simply didn't see the point of putting in the effort to read a genre where they didn't want me around in the first place.

This is the cycle that has ultimately created such an enormous gender disparity in Science Fiction readership and authorship. Stories are written by men and then marketed to men, who read them and become inspired and write their own male-centric stories that get published and then marked again to men, and the whole thing starts over. In general, it's not a mean or vicious "No Girls Allowed" sort of thing (though that does happen). It's just the rut, and ruts are very easy. Sexism, in general, is easy. It's a lazy way of thinking that replaces complicated actual experience (ie: women are people and thus come in every personality imaginable and are often self contradictory) with a label (Women, yeesh! Amirite, guys?!) which is why it's so so so hard to combat.

The trouble is, this sexist rut is hurting everyone. Even as popular culture at large becomes nerdier and nerdier with big SciFi movies like Star Trek and Pacific Rim coming out as the huge summer blockbusters, Science Fiction as a written genre continues to be small and stagnate. It's not for lack of quality, amazing books are coming out, but so long as SciFi continues to allow itself to be perceived as old, sexist, white guy reading, that will be its audience.

It's almost laughable that a genre built on big new ideas and pushing boundaries has let itself be pigeonholed into such a small box. But if it wants to break out, then everyone involved in the genre--marketing, publishers, writers, and fans--needs to work together to break down the harmful stereotype that Science Fiction is a boys club. How you ask? Any number of ways! How about covers that feature female characters doing badass things? How about marketing Science Fiction book that also feature strong romantic plots to Romance readers? How about writing more interesting and rounded female characters into your stories? How about making sure Science Fiction conventions are places where women can feel safe rather than excluded and/or preyed upon? How about having a main cast that is something other than overwhelmingly white and male?

There are any number of ways to open up the Science Fiction genre to a wider audience, and we should be scrambling to do them. These stories deserve a wider readership, and, in turn, a wider authorship. Because writers tend to write what they read, and until the SciFi readership is balanced between men and women (and people of color) we're never going to see a true parity of male/female authorship in the genre or a wider range of non-white authors, and that's just sad for everyone, especially people who want to keep reading new and amazing SciFi stories.

To be clear, I'm not hating on or attacking Science Fiction itself. Hell, I wrote three freaking books about a powered armor user who shoots aliens and flies through known space on a trade freighter. I love me some Science Fiction, and I want to write a lot more of it, which is why I'm writing this post. Because Science Fiction as a whole is never going to escape the low sales numbers corner it's painted itself into by catering only to white men until it starts reaching out and welcoming a wider readership.

So let's stop digging in our heels and passing the buck on sexism and start working to change things. Because this genre deserves more than this. We deserve more, and we can have it if only we have the will to reach.


Paul Weimer said...

We need to be the change that we'd like to see--and that goes for readers and writers of ALL stripes.

David Wagner said...

I try. I try to like Sci-Fi, regardless of the author. I mean, I love reading Fantasy books, and Sci-Fi is Fantasy's twin sister, right? But for some reason, Sci-Fi just does not click with me. I'm good with wizards and knights, magic and dragons, swords and arrows... but space and advanced tech, planet-hopping and aliens, light sabers and warp drives? It seems ridiculous to me! Isn't that weird? I feel like a walking contradiction... if I like one, I should automatically like the other, right?

In any case, I know that probably seems off-topic, apologies. I suppose it stems from the idea of why a person would or would not read/write Sci-Fi. For me, I don't really know why...

Best of luck with your new series, though! Thanks for the post.

Rachel Aaron said...

@Paul yep!

@David hey, different strokes for different folks. I don't like detective novels, never have and probably never will despite many many tries. This is why we need a wide and diverse writer base for all genres, because everything isn't for everyone!

Unknown said...

First off, I love your books. I just started The Spirit Eater. They helped me pass time in between ambulance runs. I must admit, I liked Nico's concept so much I totally made a D&D character (loosely) based on her concept. Nobody in the game (not even the GM) knows but me. It's my own little nerdy secret. :)

My mother & father have always encouraged reading in out household. My mother would rock me to sleep while reading The Belgariad to me. I grew up on David Eddings, Andre Norton, Dean Knootz, Anne McCaffrey, Stephen King, Tanya Huff, Heinlein, Anne Rice, & Michael Crichton. I loved science fiction, horror, & fantasy. (A little romance here & there too.) As a child I really never thought about whether the author was male or female. I just wanted a good story.

I also wish there were more female authors & protagonists. (Not that there is anything wrong with male authors & protagonists.) in this particular genre. Every now & then I find a gem.

If you're looking for a good scifi story with a strong female lead, try Tanya Huff's Valor series. Hands down, Torin Kerr is a bad ass.

"It's not for lack of quality, amazing books are coming out, but so long as SciFi continues to allow itself to be perceived as old, sexist, white guy reading, that will be its audience."

You almost lost me there. Anytime I read "old, sexist, white guy" my eyes glaze over a little. It comes off as ageist, sexist, & racist all at once. I'm sure you were just joking & not meaning it to sound like that. I've been seeing it pop up in feminist circles & it's driving me crazy. It makes us sound like the crazy, radical MRA guys. Nobody wants that.

I do think there is still a lingering belief that scifi is a boys club. (I think we're mostly seeing the sexism in the publishers.) However, that's changing rapidly. Star Trek, Firefly, Doctor Who, & Star Wars all have just as many women fans as men. Even video games (also stereotypically male) has more women playing than there were 10 years ago. Female gamers now take up about half of the population of gamers.

I honestly believe that as the next generation takes over, we'll see a lot more talented female authors in science fiction. The seed has been planted. In time it will grow. Until then, we should continue to encourage our kids to experience all forms of storytelling & genres.

Tealah said...

You know, I hear all the time now that Sci Fi is supposed to be sexist and a boy thing, but growing up and reading, I never got that impression. It may be because I grew up in a small town and all of us sci-fi nerds male or female had to stick together or be eaten alive so there was no pressure against me. Just relief that there was another person to share the burden of being weird. Could also be that all the other sci-fi readers around were related to me, too, so were more encouraging of things we had in common. I also didn't buy any books until I was an adult - all my books were handed down to me from my uncles or cousins, who were sci-fi readers.

Long story short, by the time I was informed by the internet that sci-fi and gaming was supposed to be a boy's domain, I was already addicted and didn't care what anyone else thought. So I've never thought much about the "sexism" of the sci-fi genre.

On the other hand, I'd also never considered writing a sci-fi novel. Now I'm intrigued by the idea. Hmm.

Leah said...

This is such an excellent post. Thanks for writing it.

I'm a female nerd who LOVES sci-fi. More accurately: I love the idea of sci-fi. I love spaceships, planetary exploration, high technology, the deep dark of space, red dwarfs and black holes and power armor and plasma rifles and aliens--all of it.

Unfortunately, I don't read modern SF because there is a huge dearth of female MCs, and I'm tired of reading about Men in Space. So many modern SF novels could easily be told from a female perspective instead of male. Male just feels like the default, and I'm weary of female representation being relegated to the token love interest/damsel-in-distress/other type of plot token used to motivate male characters.

I absolutely don't mind SF/romance hybrid novels, but it's disappointing that romance seems to be one of the few ways we can appeal to women to read SF. Won't women read about women in space without a novel needing to focus so heavily on romance?

(Which isn't to say I don't want romance in my novels--I definitely do. I want to see realistic human--and non-human--relationships of all types. I just cringe at the idea that romance is the default way to appeal to female readers. Girls like romance and boys like violence, right? Sigh.)

Anyway, GREAT point about how insidious and fluid the sexism in SF is. You can't just point to manuscript submissions and say, "This is the reason." MS subs from women in the SF genre are low for a reason. Women love SF in other media (film, TV, games--Mass Effect is hugely popular with female gamers) for a reason.

I'd love to see a rigorous comparison of female representation in SF novels vs. SF TV, film, and games. I think we'd find that rather telling. I generally don't see relatable female characters in most modern SF novels, but I find plenty of relatable women in modern SF movies and TV and games. And I think that has a lot to do with the way those projects are written. An author is one person, and in SF that person is often a white male. But all other types of SF media are written by groups of people which include women, people of color, people with disabilities, and all sorts of awesome diversity.

Busy Woman said...

Ok, I'm a wanna be writer and I've written sci-fi fanfic and fantasy and I'm a reader of both. I get what your saying Rachel, and you know the industry is changing. As a professional digital marketer I know that people are looking for what they like and they will seek it out whether the publishing industry wants to produce it. If someone is looking for a sci-fi story written by women they are going around the publishing industry.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a well-written response. It really leads me to reflect on what pulled or repelled me from fantasy and sci-fi. I think the covers of mostly males or bikini clad women were a major deterrent. Now I am trying to make up for last time; thanks for all the authors you sprinkled in!

Alice M. Roelke said...

Hi! I am a woman who sometimes writes science fiction. I grew up reading and writing it, and I've been published in a small way (small presses & magazines), but I almost never read modern science fiction. I'm trying to think WHY? I know I stopped trying to read modern stuff when I was depressed, because the more modern stories seemed to have sad endings and focus on dark stuff I didn't want to read, as opposed to old science fiction that I generally found cheerful and hopeful. But I'm not depressed now, and I still can't think of the last modern science fiction I attempted to read, by a man or a woman.

A short story of mine will be out soon in an anthology published by Bryan Thomas Schmidt. Another story of mine was published by a place that would've allowed me to apply for a nominal SFWA membership application. But I couldn't justify paying the money even if they'd let me join: I just am not involved enough in science fiction lately.

I will probably be self-publishing my sci-fi private eye novel later this year or early next, because I love those characters and want to see it "out there," but I just am not involved in science fiction in my daily life in any meaningful way any more. It's kind of a shame, actually, because it's given me a lot of joy.

Oh, I guess I am involved in sci fi, if you can count watching Doctor Who. Doctor Who is sci fi that has a huge female audience. I don't think it's the romance, because there isn't always romance in Doctor Who: I just like watching a show that gives me wonder and excitement and female characters who don't feel like they're all just a male fantasy, or only one body type, or just there to be rescued/hurt, etc. I love that the female characters on Doctor Who feel like real people to me (not all of them, but more than in many shows), and that's become important to me as I've grown older.

I used to be fine with reading just about men, and I often am still: but I do long for more female character I can relate to and enjoy. :)

For me sci fi has never felt like a boy's club, but I've been lucky to steer clear of the places that would be bad for me, and lucky to be involved with some great people like the Ray Gun Revival crew. But at the same time, I know what you mean, because when I am looking through bookshelves, online or in person, and I see a shelf of science fiction titles written by men I've not read before, or that show pictures of sexy women, I am more likely to move on past than look closer. That's a shame, because I'm probably missing some great stories. I just don't want to read anything too dark or grim lately, or anything with female characters who make me uncomfortable and don't feel real to me. That's so subjective, I know--but I really am not very brave lately in my reading tastes, I suppose! I'd much rather curl up with a cozy mystery than try a new science fiction author I'm not sure I can trust that I'll enjoy.

Sorry for going on and on. I didn't realize I had so much to say! :)

Bal said...

Excellent blog post... Some thoughts...

The story writing business is first and foremost a business, regardless of genre. The most talented people can write the most fascinating stories about the most intriguing ideas and come up a commercial failure.

There is a place for pushing at the boundaries, but the fact is that until the mainstream of science fiction readers change, writers will have to either write for the broadest appeal (at the sacrifice of some artistic integrity) or settle for being true to their life force in smaller niches and hoping for a broader reach.

Personally, I think that latter is the better tack. It is a way of doing both: pushing at the boundaries while getting unfamiliar, anxiety-producing ideas into the idea market so they can become increasingly accepted. Slowly, if the small niche memes are good, a bleed-thru will make it increasingly easy to write the new ideas for the broader market.

It isn't so much sexism or racism as such for most readers. Most of us are simply unconscious of the idea-ruts we live in. It is the responsibility of the authors (especially in the scifi genre) to open minds and hearts to new possibilities so that small niche ideas eventually become massive commercial successes.

Imagine, for instance, the protagonist of the next epic series, akin to Asimov's Foundation series, is an agnostic Asian Jehovah's Witness soccer mom forced to do extraordinary, heroic things that PROVE her religion to be correct, when beings from Flatland start turning the entire universe into a 2D world. (Proving her religion to be mistaken in 2013 America would be about as edgy as a marshmallow on an open campfire.)

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