The first guest of the final week is science fiction, fantasy, and horror author Karina Sumner-Smith! While she’s written a number of short stories, her first novel was just released last year. Radiant, set in the same world as her Nebula-nominated short story “An End to All Things,” is an impressive and unique debut with excellent worldbuilding and prose. The second book in the trilogy, Defiant, will be released on May 12. Towers Fall, the final book, is scheduled for release in October.
I Don’t Read Books by Women
Looking back, I can’t really tell you what he looked like. White man in his thirties perhaps; I’d say dark hair, but that could just be imagination. Not that it matters. It wasn’t his appearance but his words that stayed with me, even after all these years.
“I don’t read books by women.”
Just like that.
I don’t think he meant to be insulting; it was only his reason why my recommendation of a novel by Lois McMaster Bujold was not even slightly of interest. Never mind that he was looking for a fun, fast-paced space opera.
These days, I’m more confident in my recommendations. I’m even known to jump into a conversation between someone looking for a good science fiction or fantasy novel book and a clueless chain bookstore employee—but then? I was a snail of a girl, mostly pulled into her protective shell, just trying to have a quiet talk with a fellow fan in the science fiction section of the bookstore. His reaction caught me off guard.
I remember staring, at a loss for words. “Why?” I managed to ask.
“Oh,” he said. “I just don’t like romance.”
The idea that women only write romance—and, by extension, do not write real science fiction or fantasy—was (and remains) ridiculous.
Perhaps some of that was my upbringing. While both of my parents read and enjoy science fiction and fantasy, of the two my mother is the biggest reader and SFF fan. I don’t have stories about discovering amazing science fictional tales at my local library; instead, I had my mother’s collection and my mother’s recommendations. It was my mother’s heavy hardcovers that I dragged to school in my knapsack all through high school, and my mother’s battered paperbacks that I re-read until the pages began falling out.
Isaac Asimov. Ursula K. Le Guin. Raymond E. Feist. Anne McCaffrey. C.J. Cherryh. Larry Niven. Mercedes Lackey. Arthur C. Clarke. Jennifer Roberson. David Eddings. The list goes on and on.
I understood not liking particular works or particular authors—but not reading any books by women? It was an entirely foreign concept.
Yet I could not entirely dismiss his opinion as being that of one random and misguided guy, for I began to see it reflected in other places. In jokes or passing comments in online communities that I frequented. In the assumptions made by men who heard that I write. And while it was not the predominant opinion held by the male writers and fans that I knew—and thank goodness for that—it was one that certainly existed, and that crept into conversations in strange and off-putting ways.
Worse, I was a writer—or was trying to be. And suddenly I couldn’t help but think: what if I achieved my dream—what if I wrote a book and had it published—only to find that no one would read it just because it was my name on the cover? A female name.
Would potential readers see that name, turn up their nose, and say, “No thanks. I read science fiction and fantasy, not romance.”
Let’s set aside the power and financial impact of the publishing juggernaut that is the romance genre. Let’s set aside, too, any concerns about who reads or writes romance, or why, or whether romance is read by people of all genders (though of course it is).
Instead, I have to ask: why, for certain readers, is a female byline synonymous with a romantic plotline? Because there are so many excellent books by women within our genre that focus on other things: adventure and magic, culture and politics, economics and war and friendship.
There’s V.E. Schwab’s excellent Vicious, a near-future novel about best friends turned foes, revenge, and superpowers. Or, in YA, how about Nicole Kornher-Stace’s forthcoming Archivist Wasp, a sharp and wholly unique novel about an Archivist in a dangerous post-apocalyptic world who tries to rescue a ghost from the afterlife.
Anyone who thinks women can’t write dark or gritty realism have yet to try Mary Gentle’s alternate history/fantasy, Ash: A Secret History (bizarrely published as four full volumes in the US), about a female mercenary captain in 13th century Burgundy.
There are even fabulous series like Michelle Sagara’s Chronicles of Elantra, which—despite a setup that seems bound for a love triangle, and a fun, fast pace—has ten books in print without the development of a romance (to some readers’ evident dismay).
Yet it seems disingenuous to point to such works as if saying, “See, ladies don’t just write about kissing and sexytimes!” Especially given that romance is a key part of so many male-authored fantasy novels as well.
I went and stared at my bookshelf, and it’s true. Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastards series, Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer novels, Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle (and the list goes on), all have romantic subplots. Neither is male-authored SF a genre without romantic entanglements.
So what’s the difference? Is it the gender of the main character that makes a romantic subplot more interesting (or perhaps more palatable), rather than the author’s gender? Do some female authors write their romantic plots or subplots differently than their male peers, perhaps drawing more heavily on tropes from the romance genre? Do some straight male readers feel uncomfortable viewing a male character through a lens of romantic or sexual desire, even if the point of view character is female?
Or is this only a case of certain readers experiencing a book written by a woman that is very much not to their taste, and instead of thinking, “I don’t like this story/novel/subgenre/genre” they leap all the way to, “I don’t like books by women”?
I don’t know; I really wish I did.
Yet for now, as a new author trying to reach a readership, I still sometimes feel that it’s a struggle to connect with male readers, even if that struggle is only in my own mind. To work around the name on the cover, I feel that I need to explain: “I wrote a fantasy novel, and yes, the main characters are young women—but the book has no romance in it at all.” (Neither, for the record, do the sequels.)
That man I was talking to in the bookstore? He never did pick up the Bujold. I try to tell myself that in the end it was the Baen cover that scared him away.
And when our talk turned to fantasy, I managed to push the first book of C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy into his hands, praising its villain—and encouraging him to just read the prologue to see if it might be his sort of thing. (And yes, it still bothers me that for a moment I almost pretended that, shielded by those initials, C.S. Friedman wasn’t a woman at all.)
Yet now, when I think of that man, it is not with anger, not with anxiety, but hope. I hope that he’s tried to expand his reading horizons a little—and not for the sake of female authors like me, but for his own enjoyment. Because choosing not to read science fiction or fantasy books by women, not any at all? Just think of how many amazing stories he’ll miss.
Karina Sumner-Smith is the author of the Towers Trilogy: Radiant (Sept 2014), Defiant (May 2015), and Towers Fall (Oct 2015). In addition to novel-length work, Karina has published a range of science fiction, fantasy, and horror short stories that have been nominated for the Nebula Award, reprinted in several Year’s Best anthologies, and translated into Spanish and Czech. She lives in Ontario near the shores of Lake Huron with her husband, a very small dog, and a very large cat. Visit her online at karinasumnersmith.com.