Today’s guest is science fiction/fantasy author and Tea and Jeopardy podcaster Emma Newman! Her science fiction novel Planetfall was released last year to much acclaim, and the first book in her Split Worlds series, Between Two Thorns, was a finalist in both the Best Fantasy and Best Newcomer categories of the 2014 British Fantasy Awards. She also won the 2015 British Fantasy Award for Best Short Story with “A Woman’s Place,” and Tea and Jeopardy has been nominated for a Hugo Award for Best Fancast twice. Her next novel and the fourth book in the Split Worlds series, A Little Knowledge, will be published in August.
Back in 2011, I started writing Between Two Thorns (Book 1 of the Split Worlds series). It features a young woman who has managed to escape a secret mirror world where life for women is closer to that of Georgian England, but she is dragged back into it. She chafes against that life, and over the first three novels she tries to find a way to survive, having had a taste of the modern world and the freedom women can enjoy. Another character, a man, enabled me to explore the pressures and toxicity of the patriarchy for men, and between the two of them, I was merrily exploring feminism and toxic masculinity.
There’s a lot of other stuff that happens in those books. Sorcerers, kidnapping, feuding dynastic families—it’s not just the feminism—but it was an important theme to explore for me as I’ve been increasingly angry with the world and the way it treats women. All the time I wrote those novels, there was a part of me that really believed that the awful things a small number of the characters say were so much less likely to be said in 21st century England. It was just writ large in my novels, I thought; having men with 18th century attitudes towards women helped to show how far we’ve come and how hard it is for the heroine to handle after a taste of modern life.
Spool forward to 2013. The books have been published and I’m in a bookshop in Bath, where Between Two Thorns is set, signing a second batch of stock. It’s not an author event—I am literally there in the middle of a normal day, quietly signing books in a little nook.
A man goes to the till, book in hand to pay for it, when the (female) shop assistant shows him a copy of one of my books and suggests he takes a look at it, based on what he is buying. “Oh, no,” he says, refusing to even touch it. “I don’t read books written by women.”
“But it’s really good,” says the assistant. “It’s in the same genre as that one you have there. And it’s set in Bath.”
“No. I suppose I sound like a bit of a bigot, don’t I?” he replies. “But I never read books written by a woman.” The assistant puts the book down, rings the transaction for his chosen book through and nothing more is said.
I’m ashamed to say that I pretended I didn’t hear. I didn’t want to embarrass the shop assistant. I didn’t want to cause a scene, not when I was there in a professional capacity, signing stock. Now, looking back, I wish I had done.
I would have asked him why. I would have asked if he believed that I was incapable of writing a good plot, or realistic male characters. I would have asked if he’s ever tried reading a book written by a woman and if he did, why he thinks that experience should dictate his opinion of all female writers. Surely he’s read books he hasn’t liked, written by men? It certainly hasn’t put him off reading more. I would have asked him if he thought my biological differences rendered my ability to write somehow lesser than that of a man.
But I didn’t.
I remember leaving that shop in shock. I remember telling myself it was just one bigot. Right? One closed-minded man, and it was his loss. So many amazing books have been written by women. Perhaps he had been reading Robin Hobb for years, thinking those novels were written by a man. And more fool him; he would never read The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. The best I could hope for is that he’s picked up a book by N.K. Jemisin and believed it was written by a man. I wished I could open up a door to an alternate reality where I could have had my book published under initials or a gender neutral pseudonym and persuaded him to read it. Where I could have seen whether he would have enjoyed it once that barrier of my name on the cover was removed. I know a lot of men have read the Split Worlds novels and loved them. Maybe he would have been one of them. Hell, maybe reading about the patriarchy and how it damages men as well as women would have been useful for him. Maybe reading about how men with attitudes like him can be so hurtful, so destructive, might have opened his eyes. I don’t know. I never will.
The majority of the endemic problems caused by misogyny and sexism are rarely so stark. I realised that when it became clear how authors who happen to be women are frequently left out of various list posts, annual summaries and “best of” lists—even though the reviews for their work when it first came out have been amazing. Somehow, female authors are forgotten faster than male authors. So easily overlooked it is heartbreaking. Around the same time, I and several other authors noticed the paltry number of books by female authors displayed on SFF tables and featured promotions in many branches of Waterstones on the UK high street. Our polite letters to them about this issue were brushed off. I wonder if my complaint would have been taken more seriously had I signed my letters with initials or a gender neutral pseudonym.
Many of the negative modifiers, to steal an RPG term, that female authors have to endure are far more insidious than one openly bigoted man in a bookshop. It’s an entire society and culture that is so used to the male gaze and the constant belittling of women that it’s considered the default, the norm. It manifests for us as a constant threat to our careers as authors, as our work is less visible and when discoverability is all, that can have a direct impact on our sales which in turn affects how likely our careers are to last over time. I consider myself lucky though. For many women it manifests as sexual assault, as domestic violence, as murder. I can see the threats to my career but I still have a blessed, privileged life. There are millions of women all over the world, suffering far, far worse.
Returning to purely the book world, how do we tackle this problem? How many times does the SFF community have to decry a predominantly male list of books/authors? How many times do we have to write and signal boost posts about all the amazing women out there—who have been writing SFF just as long as the men—and urge people not to overlook them?
What will it take to change an entire culture that perpetuates the insidious, toxic idea that women are lesser?
That very question is being explored in the rest of the Split Worlds series. In August of this year, the 4th Split Worlds novel, A Little Knowledge, is being published. The heroine is discovering just how hard it is—and how dangerous it can be—to try to push against the patriarchy. It was interesting writing that book several years after Between Two Thorns. I didn’t have the pleasure of naively thinking that I was writing male characters still trapped in the past. They are still here, in the real world, the modern day. It is we who are still trapped with them.
Photo Credit: Joby Sessions for SFX Magazine
|Emma Newman writes dark short stories and science fiction and urban fantasy novels. She won the British Fantasy Society Best Short Story Award 2015 and ‘Between Two Thorns’, the first book in Emma’s Split Worlds urban fantasy series, was shortlisted for the BFS Best Novel and Best Newcomer 2014 awards. Emma is an audiobook narrator and also co-writes and hosts the Hugo-nominated podcast ‘Tea and Jeopardy’ which involves tea, cake, mild peril and singing chickens. Her hobbies include dressmaking and playing RPGs. She blogs at www.enewman.co.uk and can be found as @emapocalyptic on Twitter.|