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Today’s guest is Sarah from one of my must-read blogs, Bookworm Blues! Sarah reads and reviews a lot of fantasy and science fiction books, and she has an enthusiasm for reading that shines through her great, well-written reviews. Last year, she also hosted an amazing series on her blog in which she gathered some guest posts by authors and bloggers to discuss disabilities in science fiction and fantasy, and she is planning to do the same this year. Right now, she’s discussing sexism—and claims of sexism—in genre fiction!

Bookworm Blues

If someone asked me who my favorite female author was, I wouldn’t hesitate to say Elizabeth Bear and I’d have no problems discussing why she is such an important author. I could go on and on about her creativity, unique worlds, excellent cultures, well-rounded characters, stunning prose, and the list goes on. In fact, passion for the genre and the authors in it is the thing that fuels my website and keeps my reviews flowing.

Recently I got into a discussion with an author about sexism in fantasy. This was interesting because it’s not something I’ve really thought about before. There will always be discussions about how female authors are different from male authors, and those discussions will always aggravate me. While I’m sure sexism does exist in literature, I don’t actually think much of what people consider to be sexist is actually sexist.

Let me elaborate. I love Elizabeth Bear as an author. She’s in my top five and I get all fangirl excited every time she retweets something I said on Twitter. I read everything she writes and I tend to enjoy her books so much that I can’t actually review them. I just foam at the mouth about how wonderful she is and put that on my website. I’m that big of an Elizabeth Bear fan.

I have never really analyzed my enjoyment of Elizabeth Bear in terms of the fact that she’s a female author. I have never sat back and thought, “Well, since she’s a woman, her writing is different than a man’s because (insert reasons here).” That’s why I had such a hard time thinking of something to write for this event. I don’t think of authors as male and female in more than an observational way. The gender of an author doesn’t matter to me in the least. It has zero impact on the quality of their writing. Monet was a man who painted more water lilies than any other human being who has ever lived. Being a man had absolutely no impact on his ability to paint them.

After I had the discussion about sexism in SFF with that author, I became a lot more aware of people accusing authors of being sexist, or saying an author couldn’t write some character properly because the author was of the opposite gender. It actually shocked me how much of that sort of dialogue is floating around that I’ve never really been aware of before. Then I got aggravated and I’ve spent a while silently simmering in my aggravation and trying to figure out a way to put it into a blog post.

I think people are a little mixed up. That’s the crux of it. It seems to be a common belief that women are more emotional and character driven than men and men are more obsessed with action and adventure. Then there is a common belief that because an author is male/female they can’t properly write a character of the opposite gender because they aren’t of that gender and thus, just don’t get it.

Perhaps that is all true, or maybe it’s not (I tend to fall into the second camp). What bothers me about these conversations is that they seem to divide people more than unite them. When we focus on how genders affect an author’s ability to write, we highlight differences more than similarities, and we help cement old, often unnoticed habits of categorizing authors based on the kind of underwear they wear. For example, I don’t think I’ve ever cared what gender an author is, or noticed if being a male/female makes their writing more emotional or whatever. However, after this discussion about sexism, I spent days thinking about all the books I’ve read recently, and wondering if the female authored books were more emotional and character driven than the male authored books.

And the thing about it is that thought patterns like that are so incredibly subtle. They just sneak in on a whisper and a prayer and before you know it, you’re thinking about the female authored books in a different way than you think about the male authored books. For a few days, every time I picked up a male authored book, I focused more on the action and adventure more than anything else, and I hadn’t even realized it. In reality, some of the most emotionally raw books I’ve ever read have been written by men, and some of the most active and gory have been written by women. Then you can throw in the mysterious fish like K.J. Parker, who is whatever gender you want him/her to be and what do you have? A mess. You can insinuate anything about anyone, but that doesn’t mean it’s true.

And that’s where I get aggravated. I think there’s a lot less sexism in literature there than people think. Just because authors write different ways, and their books all have different tones, doesn’t mean anything. We are all different people. We think differently, live differently, love differently, read differently and write differently. There’s strength in that. It causes a lot of diversity and differentiation. It’s the reason why libraries and bookstores are filled full of books that are all so incredibly unique. I asked Stina Leicht a question in an interview that is applicable here:

Q: A lot of reviewers and readers think that authors have a hard time writing realistic characters of the opposite sex. Your character Liam is (obviously) male, and he is incredibly realistic, well rounded and beautifully created. Was it hard for you to write a male protagonist? Do you have any tips for individuals writing opposite sex protagonists?

A: It’s a genre writer’s job to write about Other, if you ask me. Monsters, aliens, fantasy creatures… they’re a huge part of what makes Science Fiction and Fantasy Science Fiction and Fantasy. If writing about the opposite sex is too overwhelming for you — a large group of people who are easily accessible — then I don’t know how you’ll ever make a believable alien. Always start with the mundane and then move into the unreal. People are people. Men do have unique characteristics that are different from women, but it’s really not that hard to find out what they are. Talk to men. Talk to women. Be observant. Above all, listen don’t talk.

If an author portrays a female character as physically weaker than their male counterpart, they aren’t being sexist; they are probably being realistic. I will use myself as an example. I can’t lift more than twenty pounds on a good day. That doesn’t make me weak, nor does it mean that I’m weak because I’m a woman. I’m weak because I have a joint disorder that has forced me through six surgeries and will force me through a lot more before I journey into the great beyond. If an author were writing me into a book, they’d have to accurately portray my strengths and weaknesses. I’m physically weak but I’m strong in many other ways and the fact that I’m a woman has nothing to do with it. There are plenty of men out there with the same disorder I have, and they are just as physically limited as I am. Portraying a character with certain limitations and other strengths doesn’t make an author sexist, as so many are fond of exclaiming. It makes them realistic.

I can round out this incredibly long diatribe by saying that just because people (characters and authors) are different, doesn’t mean that sexism is everywhere. Nor does it mean that an author’s gender is impacting their writing in any huge way. Yeah, I’m sure gender does play some role in things, but so does the fact that the writer woke up in a bad mood and drank really crappy coffee the morning before he/she wrote (insert scene here). By picking out genders and focusing so much on them, we are attributing differences to writing styles and books that just aren’t there, or aren’t that important. When we strip away the genders we really see what the author is capable of, and what the book is offering us. Sure, I’ve read some books with some sexist characters and scenarios in them, but that doesn’t mean the author is a sexist. The fact that Elizabeth Bear is one of my all time favorite authors doesn’t mean that I prefer swoony, emotion filled, character driven fantasy. It means I enjoy a damn good story and I like it when an author can sit down and tell a damn good story perfectly.

Sexism? Yeah, it exists, but I think the way to truly overcome any gender bias is to get rid of these gender-focused discussions. We need to focus on quality, rather than plumbing.