The first guest of this month’s event is Renay from Lady Business! Lady Business is a collaborative blog with two other contributors, Ana from Things Mean a Lot and Jodie from Book Gazing. They write book reviews and commentary, discuss links around the Internet, and write all-around interesting and thoughtful posts.
Lady Business actually came to my attention shortly before last year’s Women in SF&F Month after Renay published some statistics on review coverage of books by women on SFF blogs in 2011. She also compiled some more statistics for coverage of books by women on SFF blogs in 2012, and I was glad to see she did this again since I think it’s important to keep the conversation going about coverage of books written by women. Since discovering this project, I’ve also come to enjoy reading her in-depth reviews.
Please welcome Renay today as she shares some of her experiences with discovering science fiction and fantasy and invites us all to contribute to a new project!
Gatekeeping is the process through which information is filtered for dissemination, whether for publication, broadcasting, the Internet, or some other mode of communication. [...] Gatekeeping occurs at all levels of the media structure — from a reporter deciding which sources are chosen to include in a story to editors deciding which stories are printed or covered, and includes media outlet owners and even advertisers. Individuals can also act as gatekeepers, deciding what information to include in an email or in a blog, for example. (source)
I can’t say I started reading massive amounts of science fiction and fantasy early. I spent quite a bit of my young adulthood bouncing back and forth between genre television/film and romance literature. I couldn’t find a medium between the two I liked. I grew up watching Labyrinth, The Secret World of Alex Mack, and Sliders. I missed The X-Files, Buffy, and most of the various Star Trek shows for reruns of The Outer Limits, Ghostwriter, and Monsters. I had an unhealthy obsession with the Child’s Play films, Enemy Mine, Care Bears and Rainbow Brite movies until my early (okay, fine, late) teens and still regret nothing. Seriously, Rainbow Brite and the Star Stealer was AWESOME science fiction! I loved a scratchy, likely bootleg, video rental copy of The Last Unicorn and checked it out weekend after weekend from the video store inside the laundromat without ever realizing it was also a book. I found a longtime home in Sailor Moon anime, magical-girl fantasy and story about friendship, and eventually Final Fantasy, a gaming fandom I’m still a part of today.
Books were harder to come by; I lived in an extremely small town. Both my school library and public library catered to more mainstream work. My public library, about the size of a one bedroom apartment, had every Stephen King, Dean Koontz, V.C. Andrews, and Nora Roberts book in print. My school library mostly had multiple copies of classical literature that teachers would spend years trying to get me to care about. Outside genre, I read a lot of romance because that’s what was marketed to young girls, so that’s what people got me. I liked and followed the series where the main characters were girls and where they interacted with a wide range of people and had boys who were friends and partners in crime. On my own, I read Sweet Valley, Babysitters Club, and tons of series about girls with horses. The choices were vast, serialized, and looking back, not very challenging. I didn’t often find books that spoke to me or that I would reread. Inside SF/F, the pickings for my age group at both libraries amounted to a ton of R.L. Stine and Christopher Pike and related knockoff series by people cashing in on that craze. It never got much wider. My options as I grew were limited.
When I was younger, the first piece of fantasy literature I can remember reading, if we’re going to discount talking hens who refused to share bread if you didn’t help them plant or harvest the grain, is A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I loved this book. It was a favorite; I checked it out so much that the librarian once told me that I couldn’t have it, because other people wanted a chance to read it. I was fascinated by everything in it (although to be fair, the religious bits went over my burgeoning atheist head). I eventually bought a copy with birthday money, and that’s when I learned about its sequel, A Wind in the Door, a book that surpassed my love for the story before it and which shaped me up until my twenties. I met my partner through a shared love of the Time Quartet (yay ten years in July 2013!); these books did a great job at setting me on the current path of my life. Of course, around the same time I was missing out on other fantastic genre work due to my lack of guidance; I avoided The Giver because of the old man on the cover (I didn’t want to read about old men as I was full up on them in my real life, thanks) and probably tons of other genre books that were fantastic that weren’t packaged that way.
The one time I asked the librarian for books like A Wrinkle in Time she recommended C.S. Lewis and Roald Dahl. She did recommend some women but they were mostly historical novels. I remember trying The Witch of Blackbird Pond and being endlessly disappointed. Even in adulthood, I prefer actual history to fictional, especially in the case of American history. Therefore, L’Engle’s books would be the only pieces of genre fiction I would discover through my public education access, written by a woman, until I graduated high school.
My courses in middle school loved classic authors as defined by a public school system that at the time was focused on the problem of functional illiteracy. That meant everyone had to read more, even kids like me who weren’t struggling. This gave me a lot of opportunity to read, but most things we read were stories about (white) people filled with life lessons we had to answer perplexing questions about afterward. However, we also read an array of genre short stories. I remember two of the authors vividly, because I’ve become unable to escape them since: Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov. The first one we read was “Rain, Rain, Go Away” and I’ll never forget it because the teacher treated us to homemade cotton candy beforehand (devious). We read as many short stories as these men had available in the mid-to-late 90s. Fahrenheit 451 was a potential book for a book report that same semester in a different class; it was the only genre novel available and I skipped it, choosing instead to read Wuthering Heights to my eternal woe and regret (sorry, Brontë). We read Flowers for Algernon and listened to The War of the Worlds. T.H. White’s Once and Future King made tons of reading lists for book reports; it’s the one I saw most often. It bored me to tears, much like all Arthurian legend fiction has except for Susan Cooper, who I wouldn’t discover until 2006.
When I entered high school, there was more variety as we moved away from the short story. But I remember examining a shelf in my high school library on a rainy Wednesday, desperately looking for an interesting book to read during the required reading period our school had created. That day I didn’t choose Bradbury, Huxley, Anthony, Orwell, Heinlein, King, Clarke, Beagle, and Brooks. Instead, I would, as a young girl, pick up a copy of Speaker for the Dead by Orson Scott Card on that random, stormy Wednesday, and fall in love again, hard, with Ender and Jane. I would plow through it during the required reading, and then continue reading on the sly through the rest of my classes. I would, like a terrible book thief, keep the book for two years, and continue on to reread Speaker every year for six years, until I finally got access to Ender’s Game — probably too late for it to matter to me as much.
This experience made me wonder: how many other titles would I have fallen in love with like that if my access to science fiction and fantasy had been more robust? How often did I get derailed from genre when so often faced with male authors whose books just sounded boring because I wasn’t yet at that reading level, and had no one to introduce me to easier or more accessible work aligned with my interests? I had no other genre fans around me to direct me to female authors. At this point in my life they could have been my gateway into genre because I trusted women writers more due to all the romance I read. My high school library didn’t contain Bujold or McCaffrey or Le Guin, and it certainly didn’t contain Butler — I’m not sure I read any black authors in fiction until college. Forget about me finding Andre Norton and James Tiptree, Jr. — I thought these women were men up until at the latest 2002, far past when I should have known better. I kept running into the same problems: Bradbury, Huxley, Orwell, Heinlein, King, Clarke, Card, Beagle, and Brooks. Now it was with additional bonus Gibson, Goodkind, Stephenson, Pullman, Burroughs, Niven, Robinson, Dick, Vinge, Wolfe, Pratchett, Gaiman, Tolkien, Martin, Haldeman, and Herbert. The Internet was so young in comparison to now (life without Google and Wikipedia?), and it wasn’t always easy to find diverse recommendation lists. I would discover William Goldman’s The Princess Bride and find out that the movie I adored was based on a book and that S. Morgenstern didn’t exist (shocking to the younger me who felt stupid and ashamed for not getting it). I would read Snow Crash and be mostly confused because I was skipping so much context (sorry, cyberpunk, I was really too young and not political enough yet). I would discover that Orson Scott Card didn’t deserve my unreserved respect and love, especially as a young girl questioning her heterosexuality (ugh). I would be recommended Robin Hobb but would almost immediately be unable to separate the artist from her vicious indictment of my fannish identity and community, which had taught me so much about storytelling and myself. I would run up against walls of unavailability for Bujold and McCaffrey given the scope of their work. I would struggle with availability of women writing genre in general in all the libraries I had access to as a young woman in the rural American South.
I did eventually find lists with tons of recommendations as the Internet aged, but with a recurring theme: men were more valued, as writers and as heroes. There were always more men. The same handful of women were always present and often unavailable to me. I didn’t realize it at that time, but I would see this theme repeat over and over and over in SF/F culture.
As a baby genre literature fan I had nothing to guide me but what librarians and educators shared with me. I had more access once the internet came around for me in 1994, but even then finding things was difficult and being able to purchase them was often beyond me. I was limited to what adults around me felt were the most important, relevant titles — and so often, those titles were by men. They were the award winners, the notable works. But for the most part, women in genre literature were absent in my life until the mid-aughts, when I had disposable income, discovered book blogging and book culture online, and it started to get really organized. They were absent until I realized just how heavy my to-read list was with men when I compared it to my fannish community, where the majority of us were women writers writing genre fanfiction. It was stark, and ultimately, depressing, and it was at this point I started looking past what was offered on the surface of the adult SF/F community, the major awards, and began following more women writing about genre wherever I could.
This is why I now make it a point to talk about the genre fiction by women I love. We’re never going to go back to the 1990s where the Internet is an AOL log in screen and limited access; where animated backgrounds are all the rage and mailing lists are centralized and popular places of discourse which are hard to find and interface with for people new to the medium. There’s never going to be a kid exactly like me, raised by a father and later herself, surrounded by that father’s male friends and aching for voices like hers who cared about feelings and relationships that weren’t made of the strife she witnessed in the relationships around her. There’s never going to be a kid like me cut off from what genre has to offer by lack of options, only given access to lists likely made by men and featuring men, a shelf full of books by men their only choice. At the very least, genre YA is powerful and wonderful now and prevents that from happening to kids. But keeping in mind what gets passed the gate and beyond to populate culture still matters, especially: best of lists, featured lists, lists for librarians and professors and booksellers, recommendation lists, nomination lists, finalist lists.
To that end, and to complement this month-long adventure Kristen has invited us to, I have asked and received permission to help us build our own list full of our favorite women writers. Although it’s possible to find plenty of lists now, for me there’s always a certain thrill in asking people what their favorite books are. Perhaps because I grew up unable to do it or maybe it’s because if something sounds awesome I can go get it immediately. Building recommendation lists like this feels like a way my adult self is carving out a space for the baby genre fan that she could have been had she only had the resources; it’s a statement and a reclamation. Maybe the list will be for that baby genre fan in our lives who wants to know which way to go and isn’t sure; for the curious friend who wants to learn more; or as a resource to let us know what genre fiction by women is celebrated and loved at this moment in time.
To contribute, simply fill out this form or leave a comment with your ten favorite science fiction and fantasy books by women writers. At the beginning of May, we’ll release the final list, curated and organized, as a resource for everyone here at Fantasy Cafe.