Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Why Women in Scifi is like Horton Hears a Who

Last week I got to attend my first ever author event. Not to take part or speak (curls up in the corner at the thought), but I went up to London to hear five female SF authors talk about Women In Scifi - the problems with it and what possible solutions there might be. It was awesome! Not just because it was my first author event. But because I'm also a girl who writes SF, who grew up reading, writing and watching SF, and who never realized there was any kind of gender exclusion until the whole SFWA debacle last year. I guess I've been lucky. I've never run into it personally. Not even when I went to conventions in my teens (BristolCon and ArmadaCon. Good times).

But I was also excited about it because two authors I know and chat to on Twitter were part of it. One is a lovely lady called Janet Edwards, who writes YA scifi. The other is my all time favourite author of space opera (Jaine Fenn), so I was literally bouncing over the chance to hear her speak, and maybe even meet her in person. And because my daughter is now an aspiring author in the dystopia/fantasy/horror genres, I thought this would be a great experience for her, and an early introduction to a life I've only just become part of myself.

The guest authors were all women who are published in the SF genre - Stephanie SaulterKaren LordNaomi FoyleJaine Fenn and Janet EdwardsThe discussion was moderated by award-winning critic Edward James. You can find out more about them and the panel by visiting the BSFA site HERE. Suffice to say these are talented and experienced authors, and I had a huge dose of 'I'm not worthy'. >.<

It began with introductions, then dealt with the perception that if you say SF author to most people, the automatic visualization is old white dude. The second that somehow you have to be a scientific genius to read SF. Of the five authors, four do have scientific qualifications, but that's not true of all SF authors (I studied to 'A' level, but I know SF authors who haven't even done that.) That all SF is hard SF, and that soft SF is somehow less impressive because it deals with social issues rather than technology. That scifi written with real relationships in it is somehow inferior to that which is all action/adventure, and blowing things up (I'd like to add here that as well as real relationships, Jaine also has action/adventure, and lots of blowing things up.) So a misconception about SF itself, and about what female SF authors actually write are both issues, for those who know they exist at all. 

But mostly it boiled down to a fact that affects most authors in any genre - visibility. I don't think I've met many authors where that isn't an issue, but if you're writing in what is already a niche genre where the perception is the genre is dominated by men, it becomes an even bigger issue. Even if you're published by one of the big publishers that has the budget to promote your work. It was mentioned that when it comes to promotion even with the big publishers it works something like this - the majority goes on the male authors, oh look, we have a bit left over, let's spend that on the female authors. As the budget gets squeezed, guess what happens to that small amount of budget? It gets cut. I was gutted to hear that after five books published through Gollanz, Jaine's contract hadn't been renewed. Boo!

Women are reviewed less (the stats for that were published not that long ago, although I'll be damned if I can find the article now). Publishers says women submit less. I've heard female authors say they submit but get told female authored SF is a hard sell. I know of authors told to use their initials as their pen name rather than openly display the fact that a book is written by a woman by using their real name. Apparently men will only pick up a book written by a man, while women tend to be gender blind, or at least treat it as irrelevant when buying a book. One of the authors mentioned that she saw a book shop display where it was dominated by Game of Thrones, then underneath a 'if you enjoyed these, you might like these'. Every book in the display was written by a man. Not one fantasy book by a woman. 

Covers were also mentioned as a factor. One of the authors had had a printed first chapter of her upcoming book left out for us all to take, with the cover on the front of the booklet. A member of the audience pointed out that the cover was rather 'girly', and I take her point. It had a star field, but in a shade of pink, and a swan. Now, I love SF, but I would hesitate to pick up a book with that cover myself (sorry. I felt really bad for the author that someone had said it to her face, but on the other hand if this is part of the issue then it needs discussing). I showed it to my husband, and he was undecided on whether he'd pick it up. I'm fairly sure a man wouldn't, personally. By contrast, I adore Jaine's covers which have a simple but very clean and classy SF look - floating cityscapes and striking colours. Janet's covers fall in between the two for me - I like them and would pick them up, but I'm not sure I'd see a guy do so.

Now, I don't pretend to understand everything that was said or discussed on the panel, or if I'm interpreting it 100%, but sadly it didn't really reveal anything new that I hadn't already come across as both an author of SF and as one who writes science fiction romance. It was hard to hear big name authors with big publishers saying the same things though. It reminded me a lot of Horton hears a Who. We're all Whos shouting out our existence, but hardly anybody is hearing us, or we're dismissed as some kind of figment of the imagination. And it's frustrating. The powers that be don't care because they're doing well enough without us, so why should they try to hear us? Why should they try to help us be heard? They don't see anything in it for them, but it might cost them to help us out. A social media event was suggested, but without everyone chipping in to help and support, it's never going to work. It was suggested that another all woman press should be launched, but really that's just segregating ourselves. Do we really want to say 'oh, I'm published by *name of all woman press*. Response, 'so you're only published because you're a woman?' I want to play in the main field, not my own little playpen.

So what can *I* do personally to improve the situation?

1. Keep writing. Keep trying. Keep pushing. Keep promoting.

2. Encourage my children - a girl and two boys - to read widely. My older two already do this - they both read a wide range and voraciously, and they read two or three levels ABOVE their age group. I think this is helped by the fact that both hubs and I also read, and in a range of genres, and we always have. I don't think it has a huge amount of influence from me also being an author. But while my daughter reads and loves books authored by men and women, my son has only read books by male authors. This hasn't been a deliberate or conscious thing (until now) but it bothers me. I originally wrote my YA SF Gethyon because both of them wanted to read something I wrote, but they aren't old enough for my adult stuff. Gethyon is an action/adventure story in space opera style. Both still have yet to read it. After attending the panel, my daughter instantly fell in love with Janet Edward's books and recommended them all to her friends. I'm hoping I can encourage my son to give them a try. Perhaps if I can get him reading male and female authored books like his sister, it'll be a small step to changing the perceptions of male readers to female authored books. But I won't force him. I'm grateful that he has an appetite for books that matches his sister and his parents. In fact, I asked him if he would read a book written by a woman. He said, "Yes, what difference does that make?" His tone suggested that I was weird for thinking that it mattered who wrote it (so where and how does it become an issue?). Also on that note, I have to add that my husband doesn't care if a book is written by a man or a women. He judges on the cover, then the blurb. He might notice after that fact if it's written by one or the other, but it's irrelevant (and I checked out his library. He really doesn't show a bias. But is this unusual? The panel discussion indicated it was, despite several guys in the audience - obviously the gender of the author isn't an issue for all readers. So is it a minority? A majority? Be great to see some actual figures on that). 

3. Get out there. I'll admit it - I'm a coward. The internet has been wonderful and given me a way to reach out yet be safe and secure behind my computer screen, but it isn't enough. So I'm definitely off to BristolCon this year, and next year I intend to go to a lot more conventions and writing festivals. I have to. 

4. Entice the paranormal readers to the science fiction romance genre. Here I do think those of us who write SFR might actually have an advantage. Romance readers are a damn sight more tolerant and welcoming to our work than some of the SF crowd. And I repeatedly run into the thing of 'I don't read scifi but...' Scifi romance could also be the way to draw non-SF readers into the genre. 

5. Keep promoting and reviewing books. Also, I'm not just going to switch to reading books by women. Then I'll just look biased. I grew up reading SF by Asimov, Clarke and Simak, and by Anne McCaffrey and Octavia Butler. I love Neal Asher's books as much as I love Jaine Fenn's. So gender won't decide what I read and review (never did, but I'm a little more conscious of it now). 

6. Never give up - never surrender!

(And as a side note, I'd like to add that I did get to meet Jaine and speak to her. I made a bit of an idiot of myself, but at least now she can put a face to her Twitter stalker and avoid me at the SF conventions. :P She's lovely. Go read her books! And pick up Janet's too while you're at it. She's just become my daughter's most favourite author ever over Veronica Roth and Suzanne Collins, despite being a die-hard Hunger Games fan for the past year.)

(and we're not going to go away).


  1. My influences are reprobate Heinlein, trans-something LeGuin, and surprise Norton. There is something in each to bring forward the SFR message. Heinlein, in his later years, struggled with the issue of gender, and tried, hard to understand what gender had to do with SciFi. LeGuin hit it head on, with both openly and subliminally trans themes. Norton, the most subtle, wrote to the male adolescent, teaching that there was more to life than male-testosterone existence.

    Yes, the female is not assumed to be SciFi, but you can go back 40 years to see that she has always been with us.

  2. >Publishers says women submit less.

    Another factor that obscures the true numbers is that women are writing spec fic in other genres (e.g., romance) or in other genres altogether because the main SF doors are mostly shut to them.

    >I'm not just going to switch to reading books by women.

    One thought: it might help, in the long run, to *buy* the women-authored books we intend to read even if it means adjusting our budgets by borrowing the male-authored books on our lists.

    And great point about focusing on the one thing we have control over--ourselves.

  3. Love the Horton analogy! (And sadly we get a bit of "boil that dust speck" too.) Thanks for sharing your experience at the panel!

  4. I've been aiming at paranormal readers from the very beginning. Romance readers are some of the most voracious out there and PNR is past the point of saturation where they're starting to look for the next big thing. Those of us who write softer SFR are uniquely poised to capture this market.

    If we can snag those readers, there's no limit to how popular we can make SFR.

  5. Hi Sarah,

    yes, we've always been here, and yet 40 years on we're still considered an anomaly. Why?!

    Heather -
    >Another factor that obscures the true numbers is that women are writing spec fic in other genres (e.g., romance) or in other genres altogether because the main SF doors are mostly shut to them.


    >One thought: it might help, in the long run, to *buy* the women-authored books we intend to read even if it means adjusting our budgets by borrowing the male-authored books on our lists.

    I already buy way more books authored by women than men (I'm trying to read my way through all the Brigaders books!). :)

    >And great point about focusing on the one thing we have control over--ourselves.

    I would love to see a social media campaign on this, but I'm not sure that's within my power. But if I can at least change a few small things in my own life, hopefully that will contribute in the grand scheme.

    Sharon - boil that speck! Hmm, maybe we need a big figure in the SF world to be our Horton?

    Rachel, I am finding PNR readers picking up my SFR. It's figuring out how to stop the SF label scaring them off before they try it.


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