Today’s guest is renowned fantasy author Jacqueline Carey! She’s probably best-known for her epic fantasy series, Kushiel’s Legacy, but she’s also written several other books, some of which fall under other speculative fiction subgenres. I love her books and think she does a fantastic job writing characters with a diverse range of abilities and personalities, particularly her unique and wonderful leading ladies. Today, though, she’s here to talk about epic fantasy and why it seems to be the last bastion of male-dominated sales and authors. Since she is one of the women who has managed to storm that particular castle, I was thrilled that she decided to contribute this month and couldn’t wait to read what she has to say. I was not disappointed!
When I was invited to write a guest post on women in fantasy, one issue leaped to mind. Across the multifaceted map of fantasy literature, from Hogwarts to Forks to Panem, female writers have been kicking butt and racking up massive sales almost everywhere in the genre for the past decade.
There’s one bastion that remains a stronghold of male authors. When it comes to epic fantasy aimed at an adult readership, the top echelon remains exclusively male; at least according to my highly unscientific analysis. To be sure, there are women who’ve enjoyed considerable success writing epic fantasy—I’m fortunate enough to count myself among them—but there are none who have found the staggeringly large audiences of, say, George R.R. Martin and Robert Jordan.
As of this writing, Martin, Jordan, and the granddaddy of them all, J.R.R. Tolkien, top the list of Amazon.com’s fantasy author rankings. A glance at the first fifty listings on the Popular Epic Fantasy bookshelf on GoodReads.com reveals forty-seven titles by thirteen male authors, ranging from long-established Big Names to more recent arrivals like Brent Weeks and Patrick Rothfuss. Exactly three books by female authors made the list: The first two titles in Robin Hobb’s Farseer trilogy and my own Kushiel’s Dart.
Obviously, a wildly successful movie franchise and a hit series on HBO factor into a couple instances—but what gives with the overall disparity? Is it simply a matter of statistics? It does appear that there are more men than women writing epic fantasy. (Sidebar: Like I said, highly unscientific analysis. Feel free to conduct your own more rigorous research!) Is it that the audience is disproportionately male and suffers from a lingering fear of girl cooties? Or is it that publishers target a male readership? And why would that be a desirable marketing ploy when surveys have found that across the board, women read more than men in all categories except history and biography?
Or is it—gulp!—that by and large, men write epic fantasy better than women?
I don’t think so, but I do think there are some unconscious biases at work. When I polled my readers on Facebook—Yes! Another highly unscientific technique!—many cited a perception that male writers are more focused on plot and action, while female writers focus on character development and interpersonal dynamics. Call me crazy, but as a reader, I think the best books contain a balance of both.
A female interviewer recently asked me if I considered Kushiel’s Legacy to be fantasy with romantic elements or romance with fantastic elements. It surprised me. Sure, there are strong threads of romance woven throughout the books, but it seemed obvious to me that in terms of genre, they fall into epic fantasy. There are vast, sweeping plots; quests to unravel webs of intrigue, to save a nation from conquest, to thwart treachery, to undo curses, to find the Name of God, to avenge the death of a loved one, to save a missing heir—all the stuff of epic fantasy, or so I thought. And I couldn’t help but wonder, was my point of view too subjective, or would her perception have been different if I were a dude?
By the same token, a male reader once told me that when he recommends the Kushiel books to male friends, he assures them that I “give good war.” Good to know! Except that it’s unfortunate that such assurances are necessary. When I think about the most realistic depiction of medieval warfare I can remember reading in the genre, Mary Gentle’s Book of Ash series gets my vote.
If male epic fantasy aficionados have an unconscious tendency to gravitate toward authors they believe will deliver the goods they crave, I’d hazard a guess that’s not equally true of female fans of the genre. That’s not to say there aren’t millions of female readers jonesing for strong female characters—there are, I hear it all the time—but they don’t have as many options to choose from, not in epic fantasy. If you’re a voracious female reader and you want to get your epic on and hole up with a sprawling, satisfying multivolume saga, you might have to overlook the fact that it doesn’t pass the Bechdel test:
1) It has to have at least two women in it, 2) who talk to each other, 3) about something besides a man.
Correct me if I’m wrong (after all, that’s what comments are for), but I’m pretty sure The Lord of the Rings doesn’t pass, and I can think of a few more recent books in the genre, too.
Then, too, what about cover art? If we’re talking about unconscious bias, what role does cover art play? Tom Doherty, the founder of Tor Books, once said that while a cover doesn’t have to offer an accurate literal depiction of its contents (and dozens of authors sighed softly in dismay), it functions as a billboard to advertise the kind of experience readers can expect. Are the covers of male writers designed to appeal to male readers? It’s a subjective matter, but at a glance, I’d say yeah, kinda. Is the reverse true of female writers? At a glance, I’d call it a mixed bag.
Or maybe, just maybe, us women writers are just too damned efficient! Have any of us kept our readers twisting in the wind as long as George R.R. Martin and the late Robert Jordan? No. No, we have not. Instead of generating the buzz created by thousands upon thousands of fans clamoring for the next installment, we wrap up our plots and finish our series in a timely fashion, so fans can thank us and go back to clamoring for more from those who’ve left them hanging.
It’s probably our own damn fault. Though I’m not ruling out girl cooties.
About Jacqueline Carey:
New York Times bestseller Jacqueline Carey is the author of the Kushiel’s Legacy series of historical fantasy novels, The Sundering epic fantasy duology, postmodern fables Santa Olivia and Saints Astray. Her most recent release, Dark Currents, is the first volume in the Agent of Hel contemporary fantasy series. Jacqueline enjoys doing research on a wide variety of arcane topics, and an affinity for travel has taken her from Finland to China to date. She currently lives in west Michigan.