SFF Readership Data Challenges

I had a really satisfying conversation with my sister earlier this week. She told me she’d been on a real dystopian literature kick in the last year, that her favorite books currently include The Hunger Games, Never Let Me Go, and The Handmaid’s Tale.

I told her she was a science fiction reader. “Really? Just because they’re set in the future?” It’s more complicated than that, but the brief version is that I explained dystopias were just her preferred subgenre within sf.

That my sister has never thought of herself as a science fiction reader, and yet clearly – to me – is one exemplifies one of the many problems in trying to survey just what kinds of humans are reading genre. Farah Mendlesohn, in The Intergalactic Playground, made her readership survey feasible by focusing on those who 1. Self-identify as science fiction readers and 2. Filled out her survey.

We really do need more data about who reads genre fiction, because so many central discussion of how to present it center around just who it is who’s reading it. Who the market is. How large a percentage of readers are women.

D.H. Rowan is adding to that data through a survey  posted today, on “Female:Male Readership of SF/F, UF, PNR”. You can see some of the problems with it already just in the title. The subgenres it focuses on – Urban Fantasy, Paranormal Romance – are those known to have a larger female readership than most of, say, science fiction. There are more methodological problems with the survey itself: it only allows for a binary choice between male and female, for example. It assumes that Urban Fantasy and PNR are subgenres which have been around for decades, long enough that it would have been possible to start and stop reading one or both decades ago. It focuses on age ranges rather than how long ago a given interaction with genre occurred.

And yet – I still think you should go fill it out. It’s a short poll. It won’t take long. And so long as any analysis of the resulting dataset is conscious of these limitations, it’ll still add to the data we have about what kinds of people read what kinds of SFF – and whether or not those people are being adequately represented at conventions*, among other places.

* See also Sophia McDougall on the SFX Weekender and the Nudes in the Metropolitan Gallery.

Posted in Reading. Tags: . 7 Comments »

7 Responses to “SFF Readership Data Challenges”

  1. DH Rowan Says:

    Thank you so much for the linkage.

    I honestly considered very long about the binary gender choice. I really struggled with how to ask the question in a way that I could somehow analyze the data from readers who grew up identifying as one gender and *being identified* as another. I decided, in the end, that data would be best acquired and analyzed separately. Perhaps the better way to address it would have been “Do you self-identify as male, female or ‘other'”, however I hate the use of the word “other” there. Gender-neutral, perhaps? Maybe it was a case of overthinking the problem, and I’m very sorry to anyone who might be offended by that decision.

    As for PNR/UF – I’d agree that the readership is likely to be female, but…I was told growing up that readership of fantasy was exclusively male, so I felt that while including them was maybe a no-brainer, it allowed for the possibility of an upset if many men weighed in saying they read a lot of both. (I also have some ideas about the movement of female readers of epic fantasy (in their teens) to the more female-centric UF and PNR in their twenties/thirties, so perhaps there’s some research-bias showing up.)

    Finally, since, for me, UF began in the 80’s, I didn’t see a problem with assuming it could be decades since someone had interacted with UF (particularly when some people identify Frankenstein as UF, and I left genre definitions up to the readers themselves (which might or might not have been a good decision.)

    I hope I’m not sounding too combative or argumentative in my responses – I’m really so thrilled and overwhelmed by the response to this survey.

    I guess my defense of what is, admittedly, a simplistic survey is that I would like this to START the conversation, not BE the conversation in its entirety.

  2. Shana Says:

    I guess my defense of what is, admittedly, a simplistic survey is that I would like this to START the conversation, not BE the conversation in its entirety.

    Absolutely! Which is why I thought that the survey was worth linking to and promoting.

    Pointing out flaws in it isn’t just meant in the hope that you take them into account when making sense of your results, and to pre-empt objections on the part of other people, but – hopefully – as where opportunities for more nuanced data gathering lie for you or anyone else who in the future do more polls to sample parts of the readership of these genre clusters. The more data on this, the better, so far as I’m concerned.

  3. Shana Says:

    Also, fair enough on leaving respondents to define their own terms. It’s easier than trying to pigeonhole genres!

    Although category ambiguity leads to interesting complications, such as Sherlock Holmes being called Steampunk at the SFX Weekender this last weekend, or Lavinia being classified as science fiction.

  4. DH Rowan Says:

    Absolutely – more data! Yes, yes, PLEASE! More people investigating the genre and the readers (viewers! I didn’t even address film or television!)

    And I just wanted to say again, thank you. I wasn’t prepared for the response I’ve had to this, and I appreciate every link, and absolutely the commentary because I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen. I kept thinking it WAS happening and I just hadn’t found it.

  5. Duncan Lawie Says:

    It’s a bit off the cuff, but could an additional gender category be “it’s not that simple”.
    My main concern is the self-amused who would pick any additional category and skew the data.

  6. James Davis Nicoll Says:

    When I began doing the f/m posts, I found a binary system often fell well short of properly documenting the variation found in actual humans. More often with some publishers than others, though.

  7. Andy Sawyer Says:

    It would certainly be useful to see the results of this, though it would be interesting to see what people *think* the genre categories are — I approached my response to “urban fantasy” exactly according to the comment above: “Finally, since, for me, UF began in the 80′s”. But it’s struck me that my response to “paranormal romance” is skewed by the fact that I don’t read what’s currently given that tag, BUT I certainly remember lists of “paranormal romance” novels which include authors such as Anne Rice, Audrey Niffenegger (THE TIME TRAVELLER’S WIFE), or Anne Mccaffrey. Is Miranda Miller’s NINA IN UTOPIA a “paranormal romance”? None of these conform to the stereotype romance structure, but Catherine Asaro (who I’d also put in that list) has an interesting piece (quite a few years old now) at http://www.likesbooks.com/quick16.html . Should I have rethought my answer? I certainly would not call myself a reader of “romance”, though I have read and enjoyed many more Mills and Boon and Catherine Cookson than the average male, I suspect. But do I, and many guys, read romance without noticing it?


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