Guest Post: Checking the Gender Balance

by Cheryl Morgan

Over the past few weeks there have been a lot of discussions around the blogosphere about matters of gender balance, particularly with respect to women science fiction writers. These matters are, of course, not new. One of the reasons for the sudden interest may in fact be the recent sad death of Joanna Russ, whose How to Suppress Women’s Writing deals explicitly with this topic. Previous years have also seen debates about the number of women in anthologies, on award short lists and so on.

Of late some of the news has been good. Anthology editors such as Jonathan Strahan are very much aware of the issue, and the number of women on the Hugo and Nebula ballots appears to be increasing. Lauren Beukes recently became an international sensation after winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award. But in other areas it has been very much the same old story.

The most recent round of controversy has centered around The Guardian, a British newspaper with an internationally read website. The paper has been very proactive in covering SF&F literature, using young bloggers such as Sam Jordison, Alison Flood and Damien G. Walter. But at the same time there is a suggestion of an emphasis on science fiction as “books for boys”. A similar attitude was displayed by Ginia Bellafante in her now notorious New York Times review of the Game of Thrones TV series.

Prompted by the British Library’s wonderful summer exhibition about science fiction, “Out of this World”, The Guardian’s weekend review section devoted an entire issue to SF. This included a number of luminaries writing about their favorite novel. Most of the people asked to contribute were men. Of the men, only Kim Stanley Robinson picked a book by a woman, and many of the women also picked books by men. Later The Guardian asked its readers to pick their all-time favorite SF book. Nicola Griffith did some quick math on the results and found that women writers accounted for only 4% of reader picks.

From there the debate spiraled away with many people, including myself, pontificating on the subject. The Guardian ran an article by David Barnett with the provocative opening line of “Is science fiction sexist?”, illustrated with Chris Foss’s 1975 cover of J.G. Ballard’s Crash which features a near-naked woman. Unsurprisingly the article’s comment thread quickly became dominated by male trolls.

The same British Library exhibition prompted the BBC to take an interest. Gwyneth Jones, Karen Traviss and Farah Mendlesohn were invited onto Radio 4’s venerable Woman’s Hour program to talk about women in SF. Traviss, who writes exclusively for US-based publishers, said that she had experienced no problems because of her gender, despite specializing in military themes. Mendlesohn, on the other hand, noted that, “…the market in the States is far better, the market here is problematic…”. Jones expressed the view that, “the word feminist is poison to many sectors of the science fiction audience.” A transcript of the session is available at Torque Control. In addition The Guardian invited Gwyneth Jones onto a podcast in which she appears to give the impression that hardly any women write SF.

Before I get on to discussion the actual issues, I should comment on the role of The Guardian in all this. Although it is predominantly sympathetic to feminism, the paper still has to earn advertising revenue, and if you are looking for lots of hits on a website then controversy is the way to go. That appears to have informed their SF coverage. John Clute tells me that contributors to the review special issue were given a range of topics to write about, including “a book that influenced you a lot as a child,” which he opted for. He was somewhat surprised to see all of the picks published as the contributors’ view of the “best science fiction novel.”

Ursula K. Le Guin had a similar experience. On her website she comments:

For this article on sf books in the Guardian, I agreed to write about a book or writer that inspired or influenced my writing. I thought it would be useful and refreshing to write about a writer not usually thought of as having written fantasy or sf, who taught me a great deal about writing them. But the headline calls it ‘Best SF,’ which isn’t, I think, really what any of us was asked to write about.

So what appears to have happened here is that someone at The Guardian decided to “sex up” that article in order to generate fan controversy. David Barnett had asked me for input to his article, but while I was writing that up the newspaper insisted on rapid publication and he had to go live  without my help (though he did kindly link to my post in the comments). And Gwyneth Jones has said that on the podcast she was encouraged to speak off the cuff without allowing time for thought. Whether the issue is lack of time, a desire for spontaneity, or the need to generate controversy to drive traffic, the business realities of modern journalism do not always allow for thoughtful, reasoned discussion, and we should be wary of assuming people meant to say what the media quote them as saying.

I note also that The Guardian’s staff appear to have never heard of Nicola Griffith, referring to her in the podcast as simply “a sharp-eyed blogger”. There is considerable irony in people discussing the invisibility of women SF writers being unaware that the woman they were quoting was a Nebula-winning author.

The machinations of journalists aside, there does appear to be something of a trans-Atlantic divide here. On Twitter British writer, Sarah Pinborough, responded to the Nicola Griffith blog post with: “Seen another ‘bias against women in SF’ blog going around. Christ, I’m bored and I’m a girl.” Blogger Amanda Rutter said, “For me, this is the height of a storm in a teacup, and I’m so tired of hearing about it now.”  Over at the Aqueduct Press blog, Timmi Duchamp expressed surprise at some of the things Gwyneth Jones had said, and wondered if they perhaps had different views of what feminism was all about.  A response from Jones appeared to confirm those differences.

Are British publishers and fans more sexist than their US counterparts? Farah Mendlesohn did some quick counts of winners of science fiction awards and found that the (fan-voted) British Science Fiction Association Awards had a very low number of women winners (2 Best Novel wins in 41 years) compared to other well-known awards, although the (juried) Arthur C. Clarke Award seemed fairly well-disposed towards women. The matter was even discussed at the BSFA’s recent Annual General Meeting, which lead to a long discussion on Juliet E. McKenna’s LiveJournal.

The discussion between Duchamp and Jones suggests a genuine difference in attitudes, with Jones seeing feminism as purely about “The Battle of the Sexes” and Duchamp taking a more diverse civil rights approach. I addressed these issues on my own blog.  It isn’t clear whether this is a real cultural difference, or simply an artifact of limited data.

What, however, of the issue that started the recent discussions? Why is it that, when several hundred presumed fans were asked to name their favorite SF book, only 4% picked a book by a woman? Why also did a recent Gollancz poll looking for the top 5 SF books of all time  feature only 2 women in a field of 25? Why does Forbidden Planet’s recent “50 SF Books You Must Read”  include only 4 by women?

This being the Internet, I should start by addressing the obvious strawman argument. No one is expecting a 50:50 split. But 96:4? Really?

Many of the responses to the discussion have focused on the fact that The Guardian’s readers were asked to pick their all time favorite. The explanation given was that, back in the old days, SF really was a boys own preserve, so if you look back over time the vast majority of books will be by men. Gwyneth Jones appears to echo this idea, suggesting that women only came to the fore during the 1970s. Recent academic research, however, suggests that this is not true. There were many women writing SF back then, and they were not all C.L. Moore. Books such as Daughters of Earth: Feminist Science Fiction in the Twentieth Century, edited by Justine Larbalestier, and Galactic Suburbia: Recovering Women’s Science Fiction by Lisa Yaszek have shone a torch into the dark recesses of early SF, and found many women writers to be admired.

Why have we forgotten these women? Partly feminism is to blame. The eager young feminists of the 1970s were keen to throw off the perceived shackles of their mothers, and rejected many of their predecessors as too “domestic” in their subject matter. But also we would have remembered these women more had their work been discussed more at the time, and had they won awards. Recent studies of mainstream literary reviewing have shown that men tend to dominate in reviewing roles, and they tend to review mainly books by men. At Strange Horizons Niall Harrison has shown that the SF&F community exhibits similar habits. Equally men have dominated the major awards of our field.

What is happening here is the creation of what we might call “his-story”. If the only books talked about, the only books that find their way into the historical record, are books by men, then anyone looking back over time will get the impression that the only important people involved in the field, perhaps the only people involved in the field, were men. The only way to break out of this cycle is to make sure we talk about women SF writers, and remember them when it comes to awards. The SF Mistressworks blog, started by British fan Ian Sales, is one such initiative.

The root causes of the problem, however, doubtless run deeper. Gwyneth Jones blames British fans. If they had bought more books by women, she says, then publishers would sign up more women to write such books. I have some sympathy with this. In the past I have championed the cause of fine British writers such as Liz Williams and Karen Traviss, and have been disappointed at how the UK SF community has treated them. But publishers also may be at fault. In a recent blog at Book View Café, Ursula K. Le Guin vented about how marketing departments at publishers (whom we are led to believe call all the shots these days) tend to get tunnel vision when it comes to looking at new writers. Want to sell YA fantasy? Well it has to look like the next Harry Potter, because “that’s what kids want”. By the same logic, if the most successful science fiction books are by men, the over-focused marketing executive can easily turn that into “science fiction by women doesn’t sell well enough, we won’t buy any.” Of course if every publisher thought like that then no one would have bought The Hunger Games, but it only takes a proportion of them to think that way to make life harder for the female SF writer.

Look deeper still and the issues are cultural. Boys are still generally brought up to believe that being “girly” is something to be ashamed of. Consequently they avoid female things for fear of catching “girl cooties”. That means that they tend to grow up mostly reading books by men. I’ve met many men who claim that they never read books by women, but I can’t think of any woman I know who never reads books by men. If that is the case, it is no wonder that, if you ask a man to name his favorite book, it will probably have been written by a man. And it is a self-perpetuating cycle, because if fathers say they never read books by women, their sons will grow up thinking that is the right thing to do. While such cultural attitudes exist, no amount of pointing fingers at fans, publishers, bookstores or whatever will change things much.


Cheryl Morgan is the non-fiction editor of Clarkesworld Magazine. She blogs at Cheryl’s Mewsings and Science Fiction Awards Watch. She owns Wizard’s Tower Press, which operates an ebook store. Cheryl is also a director of the parent organization for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Translation Awards. Her writing and editing have won her three Hugo Awards. She lives near Bath in England.