This is, obviously, incomplete, reconstructed from notes I didn’t think I was going to have to rely on. Corrections, attributions, and/or expansions from others who attended the panel are welcomed.
Is UK SF publishing overly masculine?
Sunday 8 April, 11:00–12:00
“I hear that a number of women writers have felt that the atmosphere in the UK is very hard science, hard men at present — not that all the editors are male or whatever, but that the culture seems to be for quite macho-type books.” True?
Jaine Fenn, Jo Fletcher, Gareth Lyn Powell, Graham Sleight, Liz Williams, John Richards (M)
- Jo Fletcher — more male writers than female writers are published in sf, but more male writers than female writers are published in general. How bad sf is, relatively speaking, depends on how you define “sf” — is it just “science fiction”? Or does it include fantasy as well, in which case women are a lot better represented? When it comes to the Gollancz list specifically, would love to have more women writers, but haven’t seen good enough submissions.
- Graham Sleight — we can look at this through statistics, which I don’t have, or anecdotally. I feel that male writers get a better deal than female writers. The question of definition is important. Do we tend to frame our definitions in a way that effaces women writers from our thinking or from the lists we produce?
- Liz Williams — had originally planned to write under her initials, not from fear of prejudice but because she felt “Liz Williams” was quite a dull name; David Pringle and Gardner Dozois persuaded her that visibility of women writers was important.
- Gareth Lyn Powell — on the question of definitions and perception, how far does sf’s reputation as a literature for boys have an impact? Does it create an unconscious supply and demand?
- Liz Williams — sometimes women are still made to feel like they’re trespassing; Catherine Asaro gets nasty letters from male readers for daring to pollute science with romance.
- Jaine Fenn — on definitions again; is it that men and women are equally good at doing different things equally well? Do we need to pay more attention to women writing what they choose to write?
- Audience — more men may be published, but more women are readers, and women dominate in local writing groups. Is the barrier confidence?
- Farah Mendlesohn/Zara Baxter — some numbers from Farah’s survey of reading habits; the demographic split in sf readers is about 55-45 in favour of men overall but in the under-30 group the split is 60-40 in favour of women (and the under-30s read more fantasy).
- Jetse de Vries — looking at email submissions to Interzone, which are primarily from outside the UK, there were 70 women/280 men in the first batch, and 100 women/300 men in the second. Men are more likely to send repeat submissions.
- Liz Williams — Gordon van Gelder reports similar ratios for F&SF.
- Zara — Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine has a blind submission process and gets about a 2 men : 1 woman submission ratio.
[Jed Hartman has SH’s stats, which I got slightly wrong, here; the gist is that female authors make up about a third of submissions but two-thirds of the published stories.]
- Audience — society still has very strong gender roles, which limit women’s writing time; also, there’s a class issue, where better-off people have more time to write.
- Jo Fletcher — this is to some extent a red herring — writers write despite themselves. If you are a writer, you will find the time.
- Liz Williams — but often women’s writing is a private thing. Do we need to question the cultural assumption that publication is the goal?
- Farah Mendlesohn — why are the eight books in the “Future Masters” series all by men?
- Jo Fletcher — “Future Masters” is a promotion designed for bookshops (specifically Waterstone’s), and designed to get new people to read sf. The selection of books is based entirely on past sales. (The “SF4U” promotion last year was also based on sales, the best-selling Masterworks.) If there had been ten titles, Gwyneth Jones’ White Queen would have been included.
[This is where John Richards attempted to redirect the conversation. See Kev McVeigh’s report on this section of the panel here.]
- Kev McVeigh — but it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy — next time the ten best-selling titles are selected, these will have a head start.
- Jo Fletcher — There was debate in Gollancz about the makeup of the list. But sales was felt to be the right criteria for this promotion — different authors need to be promoted to different audiences in different ways. Gollancz is constantly looking for ways to boost its backlist — they’re looking for a hook for a more female-focused promotion for next summer.
- Liz Williams — being in thrall to sales is probably the biggest limiting factor in publishing. Small press (or “independent press”) can get away with it, but sales are more of a factor than gender when it comes to getting published more than once.
Relatedly, see this, this, this, this, and this post by Ellen Kushner, and the letter from Geoff Ryman that it contains, on the subject of the gender imbalance in this year’s Hugos. Actually, I’m going to quote a chunk of the letter:
SF is driven by an underlying dream, and part of that dream is profoundly hostile to domesticity, which is traditionally assigned to women. It is hostile to staying at home on Earth. It dreams, Peter Pan-like, of magic flights to a Neverneverland in the stars, full of pirates and mermaids and Indians. It is largely a land of and for Boys. Women love it too, perhaps because they also want to escape domesticity.
These days women’s place in fantasy is not as Wendy. Women get to be guys now. They have a place in the SF dream, most usually toting guns or swords. I guess it’s fun for women to shoot people, and men certainly feel more at home with women who act like the rest of their buddies. I would say that the dream is hostile to the traditional place of women’s power: home. Home is what you escape and Mother is who you hate. Can our stories only glance at child rearing, washing the dishes, building everyday relationships, and earning a living and not exclude women, at least to an extent?
There was a time in the 70s when it suddenly seemed that women writers were calling the shots, getting the attention and winning the awards. Le Guin, McIntyre… the list seemed endless at the time. The fiction was a series of telling subversions of that underlying dream. It was a bit like moving overworked muscles in a new direction, a relief.
We seem to have reverted to type. It’s time at least to ask the question: is there something fundamental to the SF tradition that excludes many things women live through and write about? Or which tolerates those writers and their works while delivering an essentially masculine dream? Maybe in ORDER to deliver that masculine dream. Is this dream so deep and enduring that no amount of conscious political correctness can undo it? Is it the case that men find SF easier to write? Or do fine writers like Liz Williams, Gwyneth Jones, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Suzy McKee Charnas simply write material that is regarded as fantasy or slipstream and so doesn’t make the cut?
The answers will not fit onto the back of a postcard.