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Saturday, May 28, 2011

A shocking UK sf 'favourites' score: men 500, women 18

Yesterday, in the Guardian , Damien G. Walter asked readers to list their favourite sf. And they did. In a follow-up blog piece, Walter estimates that more than 500 books were mentioned. I scanned the Guardian comments--yes, all of them--and counted only 18 women's names. Eighteen. Out of more than five hundred.

I admit, I could have missed one or two. For the sake of argument, let's say there were exactly 500 novels mentioned. Let's say 20 of them were by women. (Yes, some respondents mentioned titles, some author names. Apples and oranges. Sue me. Or, better, take the time to parse the comments yourself and then share.)

The ratio of women to men is 1:24. About 4%. I'm quite aware of gender bias in literature (see, for example "Hard Takes Soft" and "Girl Cooties") but this ratio, frankly, shocked me.

In a subsequent Twitter conversation, Walter ventured that this ratio reflects a reader bias towards naming Classic SF, that he believes a similar US-centric poll would reflect the same boy-bias. I disagree. That is, I don't think the bias would be as strong. I think the US is closer (though still not very close) to gender parity than the UK. But I'm guessing; I don't have numbers.

In the Twitter discussion, others (Cara Murphy, Kevin McVeigh, Karen Newton) suggested that women didn't write much sf in the classic days. Also that the recent British Library sf show included few women. That in a BBC Culture piece about that show, no women at all were mentioned. Bias in action.

Or, as Joanna Russ might have put it:

"She didn't write it."
"She wrote it but she wrote only one of it."
"She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist (sf writer), and it isn't really art (sf)."
"She wrote it, but she's an anomaly."

These are just a few of the classic arguments, so beautifully exposed by Russ, used by critics to suppress women's writing. (If you haven't read How to Suppress Women's Writing, your education awaits.)

Clearly, women's sf is being suppressed in the UK. Oh, not intentionally. But that's how bias works: it's unconscious. And of course sometimes it's beyond a reader's power to change: you can't buy a book that's not on the shelf. You can't shelve something the publisher hasn't printed. You can't publish something an agent doesn't send you. You can't represent something a writer doesn't submit. Etc.

But, whether this bias is active or passive, it's time to attack it on several fronts:

  • reexamine and rewrite Best Of lists to take into account women who have been relegated to also-rans (this will involve public discussion and reevaluation)
  • rexamine and republish Classics to include those women who, through the process Russ delineates, have slipped down the rankings (ditto)
  • revive the old-style Women's Press list of sf, historic and contemporary, by women writers
  • acknowledge, in media pieces, likely inherent bias
  • writers, stop self-censoring
  • agents, stop narrowing the funnel
  • editors, consider balancing your list
  • booksellers, pay attention to your readers and categories
  • readers, give books and writers a chance
  • etc.

And always, always name the behaviour around you: we can't change behaviour until it's named.

Once this bias against women in sf was named in the Twitter conversation we were able to move on to the beginnings of what I hope will become a fruitful discussion of how to mitigate said bias. I want to continue that positive discussion here. To begin with, we need numbers: ratios of women/men being published as sf in UK, US, Canada, India, New Zealand, Australia, and other English-speaking territories. Ratios of historical publication of same. Reviews of same. Of book format. Of cover design. Of sales. Of awards. And so on. Anyone got any of that to hand? Anyone got a platform through which they can put out a call for same?

FYI the women writers mentioned by Guardian readers were:

  • Ursula K. le Guin
  • Joanna Russ
  • Julian May
  • Gwyneth Jones
  • Doris Lessing
  • Virginia Woolf
  • Anna Kavan
  • Marge Piercy
  • C.J. Cherryh
  • Mary Gentle
  • Anne McCaffrey
  • Mary Russell
  • Lois McMaster Bujold
  • James Tiptree Jr.
  • Karen Joy Fowler
  • Zenna Henderson
  • Margaret Atwood
  • Diana Wynne Jones

I've read them all. Every. Single. One. (I was delighted to see Anna Kavan. Her Ice completely turned my head.) Some I like, some not so much. But none of the names are new to me. Which, I think, speaks volumes.

ETA: Follow-up post, "Taking the Russ Pledge"

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