On SFF, Gender, and Expanding Boundaries

Recently there was big news in SFF when author Victoria Schwab signed a million dollar deal with Tor books. This was one of the largest book deals in science fiction and fantasy for a female author, possibly ever? (Please do correct me if not). And the fact that it was, especially when it was held up against multi-million dollar deals for male genre authors by means of comparison, caused a few conversations about the degree to which sci-fi and fantasy are, or at least seem to be male dominated.

I feel like I read a lot. Maybe not by the standards of other people who read a lot, but I do alright. As a book reviewer, one of the things I do is keep a list of every book I’ve ever read. Some years they are ranked, others are chronological, but I have a complete list of every novel I’ve read for the past 8 full years (2010 through 2017) and in that time, I’ve read 489 novels. That’s an average of just over 61 novels per year. So I decided that it would be interesting and perhaps educational to look back over 8 years of reading and see how I did on the “White dude only reads other white dudes” scale. The results were…not encouraging. From January 2010 through December 2016 I read 461 novels. Of those, 78.5% of them were written by men. 2.6% were written by multiple authors that included both men and women, and only the remainder, 18.8% were written by women.

It’s obvious by even a superficial look at lists of SFF that way more than 18.8% of SFF is written by women, so why was I reading so little of it? I can trot out a lot of excuses or explanations as easily as the next person. A lot of what I read is continuations of existing series, new books by authors I already read and enjoy. I can talk about how even reading 100 novels in a year like I did in 2013, there may only have been 15 or 20 spots for “new” authors. I can talk about how it makes sense to stick to things I “know” I’ll like, instead of branching out. And it’s that last one that really sticks in my craw any time I think about how I used to believe that made sense.

The quality of a book is not remotely contingent on the sex or gender of the author. I’ve read a lot of very good and very bad books by all kinds of people. There’s really not a correlation at all. But for a number of reasons, some combination of implicit bias towards reading male-written fiction, increased marketing and space on shelves for male authors, other men in a similar state being my main source of new book suggestions, it all combined to give me some pretty bad years in terms of even basic diversity. In the seven years accounted for there, my breakdown was as follows:

2010: 84.7% male
2011: 84.6% male
2012: 76.0% male
2013: 73.0% male
2014: 73.9% male
2015: 82.1% male
2016: 82.8% male

It’s interesting to me that the years with the largest percentage of diversity (2012-2014) are also the years where I read among the most novels (92, 100, and 69). It also dovetails with my expectations for why. In years where I read fewer books, I did less ‘branching out’ and less expanding my boundaries to read things outside my previous experience. I read more of the same stuff I always read, and it was the same stuff I always read.

So in 2017, I made an effort. I went out of my way to read more SFF by women. In 2017 my percentage of books written by men fell from the 82.5% of 2016 to 42.8% in 2017. More than half of what I read was written by women. And do you know what happened?

Not much, really. There was no huge epiphany of suddenly discovering vastly superior novels to make me curse my shortsightedness in the past. I didn’t suddenly get taken in by novels focused on romance or relationships, or whatever else men tend to assume is what SFF written by women is all about. By the end of the year, 4 of my top 10 novels were written by women, and so were 2 of my bottom 5. Turns out women can write great novels and also crappy novels, just like everybody else. It was not a fundamentally life-changing experience. And honestly I think that is the single best argument for why you should all do it too.

Because it -did- do some things. It raised my awareness of how bad the average male-written SFF novel is at capturing difficult emotion. It raised my awareness of how bad the average male-written SFF novel is at capturing empathy, and letting characters grow, and experience trauma and process trauma, and become stronger for it. This isn’t about women writing romance, or men being bad at emotion, it’s about decades of trope building, and expectation building, and gatekeepers who insist on maintaining the status quo actively trying to push out anything that changes that status quo. It makes you a better reader, and a better person to fight against that.

N.K. Jemisin has won the best novel Hugo two years in a row. Anne Leckie won in 2014, making women winners of three of the last four. Jo Walton won in 2012 for four of the last six. Connie Willis in 2011, five of the last seven. And there are people in the world who claim this is some new horrible agenda at play where women and people of colour are being pushed above “superior” or “traditional” or whatever, science fiction and fantasy. And to actually say that with a straight face is so absurd. Ursula K Le Guin won the best novel Hugo in 1970, and 1975. Kate Wilhelm in 1977, Vonda McIntyre in 1979, 40% through that decade. Three wins in the 1980s, C.J Cherryh twice, and Joan Vinge. Five in the 1990s, Lois McMaster Bujold three times, Connie Willis twice. This is not new, this is not news. And if you want to call yourself well-versed in SFF and your list comes to us courtesy of Ernest Cline’s strange and mysterious inability to think of a single woman who did anything in the entire subculture for 30 years, boy have you got some work to do.

By putting in the conscious effort to branch out, to read more women, I learned how to be a better and more well-rounded reader, writer, reviewer and person. This is a truth of what occurs any time you expand your horizons. You can see further, you can see more clearly. I also helped, even if just a little, to fund and support a wider range of authors writing more diverse kinds of work by buying books I might not have otherwise. That is only a benefit to the genre.

So this year, I’m going to broaden my horizons even further. I used to write for a review site called The Ranting Dragon, and once many moons ago, we published an article/review series called ‘The Great Fantasy Novel’ where each of the staff writers, and several guests who were themselves reviewers or bloggers or authors, each talked about the one novel, if we had to choose, that we would hold up as best represents the genre to somebody new. Our pick for an SFF novel to go on the Pioneer 10, to think of it another way. At the time, I nominated Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay. I think now, looking back, I shift over to The Lions of Al-Rassan also by Kay, but it was a solid and remains a solid choice on my part.

After we finished publishing everybody’s suggestions, and ran a poll to pick the winner (Which was The Hobbit, probably unsurprisingly) in addition to the usual comments of ‘Why didn’t you include X?’ or ‘How dare you include Y?’ a point was raised that we had managed to include not a single solitary non-English writer in the list, in addition to the mostly unremarked fact that only 3 of the 18 on the final list were women, and only 1 was a person of colour. (N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Kingdoms accounting for a full 50% of the “non-white non-English non-men” representation).

Therefore, having found nothing but good results as a reader and reviewer by pushing myself to read more women in 2017, I am going to use 2018 to push myself to read more authors of colour, especially where possible, women of colour. I also want to try and find a good representation of novels that weren’t originally written in English to read in translation. I recently read Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem as translated by Ken Liu, and loved it. Us North Americans already do or should feel enough shame at our rampant monolingualism to force ourselves to branch out, even if it is in translation, and so that is exactly what I’m going to do.

As I write this I’m itching to get back to Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor. My reading queue at this point includes also N.K. Jemisin (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), Susan Power (The Grass Dancer), Yangsze Choo (The Ghost Bride) and Larissa Lai (When Fox is A Thousand) and I would love some other suggestions and recommendations either in the comments here, or on Twitter.

It makes me sad to consider that some people might consider this laudable even admirable because it really really really shouldn’t be. There is so much beyond our little echo chamber box where we all idolize the cavalcade of English white dudes that are so consistently pushed to dominate this genre. I’ve been a SFF reader my entire literate life. I was reading Stephen King in the third grade, I grew up on the Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance. I would be shocked to discover I’ve read any less than 2000 novels in my life, more if you count repeats when, as a kid, I’d read faster than the library or my bookstore allowance could keep up with. And it’s only now, nearly 30 years on from when I started, that I am finally FINALLY starting to feel like I might be a real part of everything this genre has to offer.

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Author: Dan Ruffolo

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