Women in SF&F Month Banner

As has become a Women in SF&F Month tradition, Renay is the first guest of this year’s series! She’s one of three bloggers who run the excellent site Lady Business, which is a great place for book reviews, discussion of television and movies, and insightful commentary on subjects related to speculative fiction and fandom.  Renay also writes columns for Strange Horizons, is one of the editors of Speculative Fiction 2014, and co-hosts the podcast Fangirl Happy Hour. And she began a wonderful project as part of this annual event—but I’ll let her tell you more about that and the reasons for its existence!

Lady Business

Some Assembly Required: Recommendation Lists for a More Inclusive Fandom

It’s no secret that I love Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy Month. It’s one of my favorite blogging events. It may be safe to say that I am its #1 fan after Kristen. I know this technically makes me the #2 fan, but let me have the #1 spot for the rest of this post; I’ll give it back at the end. It takes a lot of love to run a project this large for this long every year. She does it each time and makes it look like a breeze. Thank you, Kristen! You’re a star. ✭

As a teenager I didn’t have access to a lot of genre fiction by women, much less cool blog projects with women writers as a focus. My choices were limited. I’ve been frank about the lack of women SF writers in my life and have made it a goal to fix it: to go back to the 1990s, and 1980s, the 1970s, and even before, to find the women that helped build the genre I love so much.

The lack of women in my genre literature development has made me sensitive to issues of representation in the community and beyond. It’s the old “once you see the Fed-Ex arrow, you can never unsee it.” problem, where I walk around going, “This erasure is so blatant!” unable to look at anything without evaluating how well it’s doing including women writers. Whether it’s a of lack women in main character roles, background character roles, women over 35 as important to the plot, or actual women writers in genre being brushed aside, I’ve seen it and have trouble not seeing it. I want everyone else to be able to see it, too. But it’s really hard; everyone has wildly different reading pasts.

This was discussed another way in a book I read a few years ago titled Made to Stick and it’s possibly the most useful thing I took away from that text. In the book, the authors described a concept called The Curse of Knowledge. Once you have a piece of knowledge it’s very hard to not imagine having it, and therefore easy to get frustrated with people around you if they don’t have the same pieces. It’s also frustrating when they have the same pieces but they haven’t put them together yet in the way you have, as they’re still learning. This was a book about the persistence of ideas and marketing, but surprisingly I’ve found it applies in tons of different situations, especially in regards to representation and social issues. It’s very common these days. If you google it, you’ll find places talking about the concept and how to apply it to everything from writing books to teaching psychology. The way the authors illustrated the concept stuck with me: imagine if you and a friend are in a room, and your friend is asked to think a common song you would both know. They tap the the beat of the song on the table with a single finger and then it’s your job to guess it.

If you follow this test, it’s actually really hard, if not impossible, to guess the song unless its beat is really distinct (or unless the song is “Cups“, which this concept had no way to predict would take over the world). To you, it only sounds like random taps, but to your friend it’s easy for them to recognize via the taps because the song is already in their head. This is how hard it can be to pass knowledge one person has to another person who doesn’t have it. You can’t unknow something to look at how it would be to not know it again.

(Also, you can stop tapping out “Cups” now.)

So these days, I often spend a lot of time frustrated when I see things that are egregious about women writing SF and their place in genre history. Maybe it’s a list of the Best New SF, and two of the fifteen books are by women. Maybe it’s a list of the best space opera or the best epic fantasy, and there’s a token woman from a recent year, but the other nine books are by men and span decades. Maybe it’s a list of the books coming out in the next six months and the ratio for men and women writers is 2:1 or even, in some cases 5:1, like some lists I saw in late 2014. Maybe it’s listening to an author interview, and when asked for great books, the author throws down man, after man, after man, after man. When asked for influences, it’s the same thing: a long list of men. Maybe it’s a collection of Year’s Best SF novels by SF book bloggers, and no list has more than two or three books by women—and I wonder what their reading ratio looks like and how many books by women they read when what gets the most marketing dollars and word of mouth power is books by men. I see these things, and they’re so frustrating. Why can so few people see them?

I’m able to look back to my young adulthood and see the lack of women, and see all these lists that erase women’s contributions to the field. It’s a curse because so many people still can’t see. They don’t see the issue, the systemic problems, the institutionalized sexism, or the cultural biases against women writers. Whether their reasoning is “I don’t see gender.” to “The gender of the author doesn’t matter to the story.”, it’s always frustrating. It’s even more frustrating knowing that you might have thought that once upon a time, but can’t figure out how to make what’s become obvious to you obvious to anyone else. It’s constant, never-ending work.

But sometimes the work is really worthwhile. This month-long project has been so important to me and my genre reading experience, because it has slowly, each year, brought more and more women into my sphere of knowledge. That’s so valuable to me, because now I can’t imagine not knowing them, and I can’t imagine a genre where they’re not integral to where science fiction and fantasy currently are, and the scope of what I have to discover is still infinite. I’ll never get to it all in my whole lifetime. That’s sad in some ways, but it’s also very, very exciting in others. So even if I do have to work on showing how women writers are marginalized over and over, the benefits of my continuing education about women in genre is irreplaceable.

Probably also not a secret is that I love lists and recommendations for how they can address these problems even if only in small ways. Combine these into a recommendation list and for me, that’s a party. So, take a moment to do a quick exercise with me. Without looking at your shelves (physical or digital) or browsing around the internet, think of five of your favorite women writers. SF writers, romance writers, nonfiction writers, fan writers—whoever they may be, because some of you may be new to SF. Bring five of them to mind and tell me who they are in the comments. If you have time, link me to their blog, or your favorite book by them, or an essay they wrote that you loved. Share their names to put them into the public consciousness, share their names so they’re remembered for what they write, share their names so the people who haven’t discovered them yet can find a new perspective, or even maybe another favorite author.

While you’re doing this remember that readers are powerful and influential — that’s us, with that power and influence. We read and we recommend and we have a voice. Because the hard truth is that there probably isn’t an endgame. Once one of us sees the problem, it becomes clear how many people still don’t, and we have to continue pushing back against the erasure of women writers as part of being well-read individuals. We have to work for ongoing representation because there are so many others who don’t see it; we’re tapping out that tune they don’t yet recognize when we talk about it. Here are some other things you can do to keep bringing women’s voices and contributions into the conversation:

1. The next time that you’re asked for recommendations by someone, make a point to pause and recommend a woman for every man you recommend, too. Perhaps keep a short list on your phone or in your wallet—maybe two or three for different genres you’re often asked to recommend books in. Make recommending women as natural as recommending men in as many genres as possible, if it’s not already.

2. When you make a list of books for whatever reason—a recommendation post, a best of list, a reading list—look at the gender breakdown and see what you find.

3. Pay attention to lists you read recommending books: blogger lists (whether they’re looking forward to books or reccing their favorites), Best SF To Read Before You Die, Very Important SF Classics, BuzzFeed articles, bestseller lists, online awards like the GoodReads award campaign that happens at the end of each year, etc. See what perspective that list is telling you to read from. Who’s telling you the story?

4. Point out the lack of representation around you when you see it and its safe for you to do so without retribution (take care of yourselves in discussions of sexism online and off, friends!).

5. And last, but certainly not least: The Big Giant List of Fantasy and Science Fiction Books by Women has been updated with all the recommendations from last year, with all the times those books were recced. This list is a way to show, year to year, the women writers we love and the stories from them we value. If you have a moment, you can help us keep building it up by recommending ten of your favorite individual books by women writers. Every contribution helps us keep pushing back against the erasure of women writers, and gives us all a place to point people who want to explore the history of women in the genre.

Now I’m handing the #1 fan sign back to Kristen. Thank you so much, Kristen, for hosting this huge recommendation list and for going along with my wild idea, for your dedication to women in genre, and for organizing and running this month long series of writing from excellent bloggers, authors, reviewers, and critics that will keep this conversation going for weeks to come, so we don’t forget to keep doing the work of representation in genre spaces.

Here’s to a great month, friends. Let’s roll. ♥