Women in SF&F Month Banner

Now that Women in SF&F Month is over, I wanted to reflect some on why I think reading and supporting women who write science fiction and fantasy is important. I talked about this a little before the start of the month, but I wanted to elaborate on the subject some more.

In case you did miss the introductory post, I had observed before that it seemed like female authors were reviewed less frequently than men. At one point, I saw something mentioned about women who wrote science fiction and fantasy and realized I couldn’t actually think of that many of them. Most of the books that I read that came highly recommended were written by men, although one or two people occasionally recommended that I read a book by a woman. I had to wonder, does that mean there are not many women writing these genres? I found that hard to believe when I’d always known about as many women who were interested in them as men. So I started looking into it and trying to read and review more books by women since it seemed like a gap that needed to be filled.

This was all based on observations, though, and it was not until recently that I saw some stats. Ladybusiness recently did a study looking at a few science fiction and fantasy blogs that found women were reviewed less overall and composed only about 20% of reviews on blogs run by men. (I do want to note that this is a study of a small sampling compared to the number of blogs out there, though; I’m not even sure how one would begin running a study for all the blogs.) Strange Horizons has also done some similar stats, including stats for both 2010 and 2011. These also include a general idea of gender breakdown by looking at books received for review by Locus, although they do mention a couple of ways in which this breakdown may not be perfect (for example, this included reprints not just books published for the first time in 2011, the same author may have had more than one book sent out for review that year, and some authors may be using pseudonyms that are not the same as their actual gender). In 2011, 47% of books received from US publishers were written or edited by a woman, but only about 1/3 of books received from UK publishers were. Yet many places review an overwhelmingly large percentage of books written by men (and one site dedicated to getting work by women noticed also reviewed mainly women).

VIDA also composed statistics for several major publications such the New York Times and The Atlantic that showed most book reviewers were male and most books reviewed were by men. This is particularly interesting since, in general, more women read than men.

But… What Subgenres of Fantasy and Science Fiction Do Women Write?

Some people seem to default to thinking science fiction and fantasy are “male” genres despite the fact that Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is considered to be the first science fiction book. Whenever the subject of SFF books by women receiving less reviews comes up, many start asking if women actually write that many books in these genres. I’ve seen claims that women don’t write that much speculative fiction unless it is young adult or urban fantasy. I’ve also seen claims that men write more science fiction and women write more fantasy. What is the truth?

The percentage of women writing fantasy and science fiction seems to vary from country to country, but I haven’t seen a detailed breakdown other than this one for Australia. It shows that women write more science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels for adults, young adults, and children with adult and children’s books fairly close to equal between genders (53% and 55% women, respectively). For adult books, 62% of fantasy books are written by women, 43% of science fiction is written by women, and only 18% of horror is written by women. (Horror was also the one of these three that had the least amount of books published overall.)

American stats seem less easily defined. Nancy Kress mentioned in her post that about 40% of the SFWA is made up of women and discussed the difficulty of breaking down subgenres of speculative fiction by gender when there’s so much disagreement over genre definitions. The percentage of women in the SFWA does not necessarily equal the percentage of books by women that come out each year, which I’ve seen ranging from 40% in 2007 on the stats page for Broad Universe to closer to %50 when books received for review were analyzed for the aforementioned 2011 count at Strange Horizons. Both of these sites were using counts from Locus, so the number of books by women in these genres may just be rapidly increasing since the stats from 2000 on Broad Horizons showed 31% of books were written by women.

From what I’ve heard the UK has fewer speculative fiction books by women than either Australia or the US, and this fits with the Strange Horizons stats.

My personal experience as a reader of speculative fiction in the US leads me to believe women writing speculative fiction are not actually difficult to find, even aside from young adult and urban fantasy. When this topic first came up again, I sat down and made a list of women who write science fiction and fantasy that is not young adult or urban fantasy (not, should I note, because I think those categories should not be considered part of speculative fiction but because I saw some comments about women not writing SFF outside of those). Without too much trouble, I came up with a list of over 100 authors. These were all authors I had read or wanted to read; I didn’t go out of my way to find names that I was unfamiliar with, although this past month has shown me there are many of those as well. Since I’ve shifted to reviewing more SFF by women, I have not had trouble finding books to review at all and there are more books by women than I can read and review.

Nothing I’ve seen makes me think there are so few women writing science fiction and fantasy that some review outlets can’t find more books by women to review than are being reviewed in the Ladybusiness study. As far as the reason for so many fewer reviews for women on some sites goes, I’m not sure what it is. Is it just that women have smaller marketing budgets than men and fewer of their books are sent out for review? Is it assumed that male reviewers won’t read as many books by women and publicists don’t send them as many books by women for review in the first place so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy? Is it because many still think of these as male genres and don’t give much consideration to the books by women? I couldn’t say, but I do think looking at stats like these and realizing this is going on is the first step toward improvement.

Why Is It Important to Support Women Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction?

First of all, I want to say it’s not that I think people shouldn’t read books by men, that books by women are “superior” to those written by men, or that women should be reading books by women because they will appeal to them more than books written by men. I don’t think anyone needs to meet a strict 50/50 gender quota when they read or worry about reading the “right” number of books by women. The reason I think reading books by women is important is not that an author’s gender should matter – but that what I’ve seen makes me think that it does matter, at least to some. There are a lot of great writers who happen to be female writing science fiction and fantasy, and I think it’s sad if people aren’t reading them for any reason.

My personal opinion is that there are two issues working together here when it comes to recommendations for science fiction and fantasy books often being so male-dominated:

1. Actual prejudice against women’s writing, or at least the assumption that women write “girly” things not applicable to certain readers.

The first time I saw someone state they actually specifically had a problem with female authors, I was shocked. I really had never thought people thought this way in the 21st century. But apparently some of them do.

It’s not just men who think this way, either, as we learned this month from both N. K. Jemisin and Sarah from Bookworm Blues. I was glad to see them both address this just because I was recently a bit horrified to discover what was lurking in the back of my own psyche when I really questioned my own assumptions about specific types of books. I’ve always thought of myself as someone who didn’t think gender mattered. When I first started noticing that women writing science fiction and fantasy didn’t seem to be talked about as much as male authors, I looked into it and started reading more books by women. I read tons of books by women and tried my best to get more of their names out there.

Yet when I really evaluated what I really thought about urban fantasy written by women as opposed to that written by men, I found that while it isn’t a factor in which I would choose to read, my initial reaction is that urban fantasy written by men is somehow more respectable. I think that’s both because it’s more likely to be read and approved by men as well as by women and because I think of it as less likely to be paranormal romance.

It has the reputation of being fluff, a genre with mystery and adventure – and maybe romance. While mystery and adventure are often considered fluff that I can read and hold my head up high for reading, romance is not. Romance has an “ick” factor. It’s sappy and so girly. But why is what is considered “women’s entertainment” given this stigma? Why should I feel that a story about two people falling in love – an experience most people, both male and female, have – is somehow a) for women b) less respectable than reading a book with magic and wizards (aka, proper male-respected entertainment)? It’s kind of ridiculous, especially that I have found myself surprised to hear about men reading or enjoying romance. Why shouldn’t they? Why is something they also experience in life considered “for women”?

Also, why should I assume a woman in a specific genre is going to write about romance? Some women don’t. Some women aren’t that interested in romance, and whether they are or not, either is perfectly fine. Our tastes do not have to be dictated by what is expected of our gender.

So I definitely think some people have ideas about books that are “for women” and books that are “for men” with the “for men” category being something people are less ashamed of reading, regardless of gender. But if even some women are ashamed of reading books “for women” or have an idea that women write “girly” things, how much harder must it be for some men to get past these ideas? (However, I do believe some men have less of an issue with this than some women, and there are also some women who think books by men aren’t for them, either.)

2. Lack of knowledge about the variety of women writing science fiction and fantasy.

This is really the part I hoped to combat this past April since I experienced it myself. Often when looking for book recommendations the names you hear over and over again are male authors – Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, Scott Lynch, Patrick Rothfuss, Joe Abercrombie, Brandon Sanderson, etc., etc. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy books by many of these authors, but my own experience has been that women’s names do not come up as often when looking for book recommendations on the Internet (although, I do think this has been getting better than it used to be more recently, especially as more people have become aware of this issue). And this makes me sad when there are so many female authors writing great science fiction and fantasy who also deserve to be read and recommended.

It could also be in part that so many of the well-known older authors of fantasy and science fiction are men, and there’s this whole cycle of the same names being recommended over and over again. Yet it seems that I also see newer male authors discussed a lot more than newer female authors.

In any case, I do think it is both important to get their names out there and show that science fiction and fantasy are not just for men. Different people have different tastes. Some men will like these genres, and some will not. Some women will like these genres, and some will not. It’s not an equation determined by gender, although there are certain factors that may apply (such as women thinking these genres aren’t the type of thing they would like because they’re supposed to be “for men” or women not enjoying some fantasy due to the way female characters are often left out or given minor roles while all the men do stuff).

Also, it does bother me when I see statements about women not writing science fiction and fantasy other than young adult and urban fantasy for two reasons:

1. It’s lumping all women into the same category and reinforcing the stereotype that women tend to write certain things. Women write all kinds of different types of books, just like women enjoy all kinds of different books. Yes, some of these are young adult or urban fantasy. Absolutely, some of these are fantasy or science fiction with romantic elements. And some of it is not. If claims that women don’t write certain types of fantasy and science fiction continue, the women who are doing something different will continue to be ignored because many will dismiss it since, you know, women don’t write that stuff. The ones who do will be seen as exceptions, not the norm.

2. It’s lumping all women in the same category and dismissing these categories as less important. This may not be the intention of some who say this, but it’s the impression it gives me, especially when I do often see men who write in these categories not as readily dismissed (Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow, Jim Butcher, to name a few – perhaps this is just because they are respected authors but in any case it still stands that there’s no reason to dismiss entire categories of books). Furthermore, young adult is just a category. A book is not less fantasy or science fiction just because it is marketed for a younger audience, nor is it necessarily “bad” just because it is marketed for a non-adult audience. It is still speculative fiction, and it even has been nominated for or even won genre awards like the Hugo when written by big names like Neil Gaiman, Cory Doctorow, and J. K. Rowling. Some young adult books I’ve read are actually better written and smarter than some adult books I’ve read. It depends on the book, not the category.

I do want to make it clear that I’m not saying just read women for the sake of reading books by women either. Chances are, you won’t like every book by a woman you read. I know I haven’t, just like I don’t like every book by a man I’ve read. I don’t think you need to recommend books by women you thought were bad just to try to get people reading more women. There’s enough of a variety of women writers out there that I do think everyone should be able to find some speculative fiction books by women they enjoy, though.

Why Is It Important to Recognize Female Fans of Science Fiction and Fantasy?

Much of the same can be applied to women who blog about science fiction and fantasy. When people started talking about favorite bloggers who cover fantasy and science fiction and not one woman came up, it concerned me because I don’t want to see the same pattern with female bloggers that I see with female authors. I have no idea how you’d even begin to measure the percentage of female vs. male SFF bloggers since I’m sure there are plenty of them out there I don’t even know about and perhaps a few different communities. But there’s not a shortage of women interested in science fiction and fantasy despite what some people seem to think, and these women have opinions and recommendations worth listening to. It may be harder to find some female bloggers who just cover science fiction and fantasy, but there’s also quite a few female bloggers I wasn’t aware of until recently who are more focused on SFF so perhaps many of them have been less visible to me as well. And even if someone does blog about other genres, it doesn’t mean what they have to say about the science fiction and fantasy books they read is any less worthwhile. They still have good recommendations, and there’s still a lot that can be learned from them.

Continuing to say “There aren’t many women out there who blog about science fiction and fantasy” just causes people to see what they think they know – all the men who do blog about these genres and none of the women. Or, if they do see a woman blogging about it, she’s an exception to the rule.

Feedback and What’s Next

Many of the questions I’ve brought up here can’t be answered effectively without a lot more thought and data. Getting a book written, published, reviewed, and into a reader’s hands requires a long process with a lot of different gatekeepers – editors, PR staff, bloggers, and the readers themselves. If there’s even just a little bit of bias at any of these levels, it can affect the whole process. Whether or not a book sells often has very little to do with the book itself, and belief may be a big part of it. If a significant number of people don’t believe women write worthwhile SFF, or they don’t believe there are that many female authors in those genres, it can potentially affect how a book is marketed or reviewed. That is why I wanted to spend April focusing on getting the names of some female authors out there and hearing what they had to say instead of trying to say a specific part of the process is to blame. If readers’ attitudes change, then that’s enough.

I’m not promising anything since this took up just about all of my time this last month that wasn’t spent at the day job and now I feel ridiculously behind on reviews, but I am considering doing something like this again next year. What I would like to know is if you think this would be worth doing again next year, and if so, what would you like to see? I didn’t have as much time to plan ahead for this as I would have liked since I wanted to do this while people were still thinking about the various review studies, but if I were to do this again next year I’d like to start thinking about it earlier.

I would like to say thank you to every single person who took the time to write a guest post for April. As mentioned above, it was somewhat short notice, and I appreciate the many people who took the time to participate. I truly enjoyed reading everyone’s post and had a great time with the event. Regardless of different opinions on the issue of women writing science fiction and fantasy, I hope that some of you found some new authors and blogs that you enjoy – because that was the main goal.