Coverage of women authors - some thoughts

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Bastard at Bastard Books wrote a very interesting article about a study concerning the coverage of women authors by the SFF reviewers, an analysis by statistics posted on ladybusiness Dreamwidth.   The principal topic of his post was an exploration of the question of K.J. Parker's gender and, in an introductory explanation, he shared his thoughts on the subject and the way the stats were handled, his perceptions.  Many of the comments posted by the readers and bloggers resulted in a compelling read.

His conclusion about K.J. Parker's shrouded sex identity is more complex than simply stating that he/she is actually a male or a female. What he brings to the table is some correlations deduced by further exploring the particular case of the author in conjunction with the study by ladybusiness. I'm not here to comment on his post aside from recommending you to take the time to read it.

However, I wanted to share some thoughts on the subject myself. More so since the exploration of Parker's gender and the fact that it's not the only case of pen name created voluntarily to be gender unspecific gave me the motive to further develop on the topic and do some introspection.

First of all, let me clear up my current situation. I have read several times that women in Fantasy are usually (but not always justly) associated with Urban Fantasy and YA books which are often targeted toward a younger audience or a more feminine one.  In my specific case, judging by my reading pedigree, I tend to somewhat prove the point unintentionally.  When I was a teenager, I read many books by Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne Rice or Anne McCaffrey, all of whom I have since deserted. And then, when I look at my reviews and the authors I chose to read in the past few years, aside from N.K. Jemisin and Robin Hobb, I can't say that I can find many female authors that caught my eye. Am I wandering?

Still, as I mentioned, this is in no way intentional. I think that it happened through a combination of circumstances, the most obvious one coming to mind being the really strong presence of male authors in Epic Fantasy, especially the popular ones. In that regard, I reciprocate with one of Bastard's statement.

If you follow the blog regularly, you know that I'm mostly into that specific niche of the broader genre. Hopefully, taking a look at the list of authors categorized into Epic Fantasy, I find big names like Jacqueline Carey, Trudi Canavan, Kate Elliot, Jennifer Fallon, N.K. Jemisin, Robin Hobb, Ursula K. Le Guin, Anne McCaffrey, Elizabeth Moon, Melanie Rawn or Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman. I know there are many names missing from that list but even if the male authors are much more numerous, the female authors are not outnumbered in a frightening proportion. Although, simply by enumerating that list, I think I ought to take care to read a bit more from women authors. At least, the next audiobook I will pick up is The Song of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper.

But then, my point here is not to judge whether I should read from more female authors (I don't feel ashamed but it will still be something to consider) but why is the situation as it is. So, I also started analyzing some of the numbers supporting the ladybusiness study but as Bastard mentioned, they have to be moderated a bit or explored in different lights or distinct genre. I didn't find more answers there.  There was an article on the subject last year posted on The Guardian and they concluded that it's mainly because of the fanbase. I'm not so certain about that point, it seems to me that there is a considerable crowd of female readers/reviewers roaming the web. Maybe that's slowly growing or they still don't have a strong enough voice in the 'business'.

Let's bet back to some authors dubious identity. In relation with that, one thing came to my mind when I read about Bastard's topic. I remember reading that Robin Hobb specifically chose the first name Robin as her pen name for Fantasy because it is gender neutral. The same can be said for J.K. Rowling whose first Potter book was published with the name Joanne Rowling but was switched to J.K. in fear that the young boy's audience would avoid the book because it was written by a woman. Some more examples? C.S Friedman? J.V. Jones? io9 also posted on this matter.

I know that names 'a la' J.R.R are popular, even for men, but for so many female Fantasy authors to pick up pen names that are not gender specific, there ought to be some problem. We, the readers, created that situation trough the years and since Tolkien himself, the majority of Epic Fantasy authors were men.  We got used to it.  Moreover, when you look at the protagonists filling the books of both female and male authors, I'm pretty sure that a significant majority of male will be present. Are we, the Epic Fantasy readers, sexists to a certain degree? I hope not and I tend to think that it's not the case.

In conclusion, I don't think that it's the fault of a specific element but I think that all this talk shed some light on the fact that women coverage in Epic Fantasy is indeed slightly insufficient.  The future will probably set things right or I should say balance things out and it's already doing so.

What do you think?  Should the SFF (or explicitly Epic Fantasy) reviewer crowd read/review more female authors? Is all that coverage thing really a concern?


Bastard said...

Hey Phil, thanks for the link-up.

You say some interesting things there, from my post I think it's important to understand that I did some amateurish, rushed look-a-round and really didn't try to draw up any conclusions, but was more interested in asking questions.

In any case, I think there are some great female run blogs that focus a great deal on epic fantasy/scifi, but maybe just aren't getting noticed. Why that is, I don't know.

Fantasy Book Cafe (which I had mistakenly overlooked initially), Bookworm Blues, Little Red Reviewer for example, at least around my circles, get looked at quite often. There's also The Qwillery, but she does a lot of UF too, but she does a lot of author interviews, particularly for debut authors from all areas.

Anyways, what I've always been curious about is how I visit all these Urban Fantasy blogs run by women and they're huge, popular with a lot following, a lot of dialogue, and really dominate the social media sites like nowhere else. Filled with blog tours, giveaways, reviews, you name it.

I just don't know why this same energy hasn't really penetrated the epic fantasy/scifi areas. Which is why I have to wonder, if what is needed is more female reviewers paying attention to these areas, rather than calling out male reviewers for not paying more attention to female authors.

And let's be clear, when I ask for more female reviewers I'm not saying that they should come to review female authors, I think they should come, unbiased and read and review as it comes natural. But I think the net effect would be better parity. Maybe even change the way publishers think and behave, and maybe even alter male reviewer habits somehow.

I just hate all these studies that complain about how female authors have a tough time in epic fantasy/scifi, then throw the blame at male reviewers, and use data to prove how much female reviewers review female authors, but data that is unrelated to epic fantasy/scifi. All the data shows is more diversity across the genres, if anything.

If there's a problem with women being reviewed in epic fantasy/scifi then there has to be a shared blame, and maybe industry circumstances makes it inevitable that in these genres men are more reviewed.

And to add some other names to consider for you, Daniel Abraham with MLN Hanover in UF. JA Pitts, other male author in Urban Fantasy writing about a lesbian protagonist. Then we have Mazarkis Williams who's remaining gender neutral, someone I had assumed to be a man and have been speaking pretty much daily with through twitter, sometimes extensively, and I've just now realized the neutrality.

Lastly, something I wanted to address in my post, but completely forgot. We need to keep in mind that we're working in the internet microcosm, which is not always representative of the real world and its behavior. If it were so, I don't think Goodkind would be selling as well as he has.

With that said, just because reviewers may not be sexist in the way we go about reviewing (certainly there are some), many readers may be. All you have to do is go to any sort of forum, open up the discussion about female authors and chances are you'll see a wave of people saying how they don't like female authors based on X assumption, or maybe because of a limited experience with which they've have taken upon themselves to judge the rest.

Anyways, thanks again for the link-up and furthering the discussion.

Cursed Armada said...

I think that this is a really engaging topic, however we are forgetting the main question at hand... WHO IS K.J. PARKER??? lol

Unknown said...

It's an interesting discussion, and I have to admit I've always assumed 'female' when coming across authors who hide behind the androgyny of initials.

Having said that, I honestly don't think the question of an author's gender has ever swayed my decision to read a book. Yeah, looking at my shelves, there are probably more male authors there than female authors, but that's less a conscious choice and more a matter of odds - there just seem to be more male authors being published, especially in the SF/Fantasy genre.

Just taking a quick look at my shelves, a few female authors to add to your list are Anne Bishop, Kristen Britain, Sara Douglas, Jude Fisher, Lynn Flewelling, Kate Forsyth, Elizabeth Haydon, Katharine Kerr, and Janny Wurts.

Oh, and just for the record, Tracy Hickman is male (although I assumed for the longest time that he and Margaret Weis were both female). LOL

Doug M. said...

I read what catches my eye... plain and simple. Regardless of how my reading history might actually break down (number-wise) along the Male/Female author demographic.

I find the idea of gender agnosticism preferable to any sort of conscious decision to force the scales into some sort of artificial "balance." Why on earth would personal reading preferences be subject to Affirmative Action-like rules?

Heck, I was under the impression that China Miéville was a woman right up until the second book of his I started.

I realize different rules may apply to book-bloggers and review sites, but I still believe the best approach would be to ignore gender completely, rather than putting all the girls' books on one side of the room and all the boys' books on the other and rigidly alternating between the two piles.

Save the politics for the in-book plots and just read. And tell me if you liked the book you just read. You don't need to tell me anything about the author—I'm usually not interested in any of their personal details anyway.

My interest lies strictly between the first and last pages of any book. Everything else is ancillary.

Anonymous said...

Hope Mirrlees and Susanna Clarke are incredible, not epic or sword/sorcery of cource. Ursula le Guin and Marion Zimmer Bradley are not bad either, may be Bujold too.

As for epic fantasy, there is russian autor Vera Kamsha (born in Ukraine), i haven't read her stuff, but it is not very bad, the best epic fantasy by russian autor by its reviews.

Phil said...

@Bastard: Nice of you to add more elements to the discussion. I think my goal was also to raise question rather than drawing up conclusions.

I admit that I didn't clearly grasp at first that you were talking more about female reviewers than female authors reviews. I also follow a couple of female reviewers and when looking at the list in comparison with the male reviewers (here again mostly so in the Epic sub-genre of Fantasy) the same kind of ratio as is seen with female authors reviews is observable.

It seems there's even more aspects to consider and no study will ever reveal the whole picture for all the specific genres in Fantasy. Anyway, with the help of some numbers you can draw up so many different conclusions.

You know, I really assumed that Mazarkis Williams was a man. In my review of The Emperor's Knife, I actually stated that it was clearly a book written by a man. :) As Doug mentioned with his China Mieville example, in the end, the sex of the author really doesn't matter but it's always fun to speculate!

@Cursed: Is it you?

@Bob: As I said in my post, the fact that my shelves are full of male authors is also a matter of odds. It's probably also the case for many Fantasy readers. And... Tracy is a man? My bad :)

@Doug: I understand your point and it's very legitimate.

To extend on the topic, I don't think that the balance that I talked about refer to a perfect equilibrium imposed just to make everyone happy. That balance is more in term of having a meaningful or representative share of female authors reviewed when taking into account the proportion of women writing interesting Fantasy novels. As Bastard put it, the blame may be put on the industry and I don't think (like you said) that the readers should make a conscious
decision of choosing the gender when picking up a book but I think that the SFF bloggers/reviewers should be considering that aspect somewhere down the line. It ought not to become an undue pressure but a small concern.

In addition, more female bloggers reviewing in the Epic Fantasy field would certainly be a good thing, it brings up distinctive points of view. That is something everyone will agree on! :)

Antoine said...

I thought Kj parker was a woman. On the blurbs of french book, she is identified as a woman and a lawyer. So i'm not sure what to make of it.

Unknown said...

Very interesting. I agree with Anonymous about Susanna Clarke. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is probably one of the best fantasy novels I have recently read, although it certainly is not a sword and sorcery style story (great alliteration, no?). I find that the sex of the writer does cause me to look at the story differently. This is mostly because of the challenge of writing for characters who are not of your own sex (my wife was ranting about how silly it was that many male authors will depict female characters making frequent reference to their breasts and female authors writing male characters who repair quite a bit on their feelings and how things feel under their feet, etc.), so I'm automatically interested to see how well the author handles the challenge. In the case of Susanna Clarke, she tackled the challenge marvelously: she depicts 19th century men (spot on), women (spot on?), and then her fairy king was extremely ... different. She gave him a certain androgyny, where he exhibits both very male and very female traits. Okay, maybe it was just the fact that she is a fantastic writer, but I was fascinated with her depiction of fairies.

Point is, I would never have heard of Susanna Clarke if I hadn't been recommended her book by a professor.

Truth be told, I do look for interesting names when I choose a book to read. I tend to gloss over Kevins and Brandons (maybe I shouldn’t!), but my interest is perked when I see a sci-fi/fantasy book with a female name on its spine, just because I don’t see very many.

Anonymous said...

The fact is fantasy readers are like every other demographic, we choose what appeals to us. You can over think it as much as you like in the end Jon and Jane Doe will choose a book they enjoy and not one gender specific or politicaly correct.
The answer as far as i'm concerned is simple. I am a male fantasy reader i like reading books that appeal to my sense of escapism which should not come as a surprise is mostly male characters written by other men.
I have read and enjoyed several female authors Robin Hobb, Elizabeth Moon,Trudi Canavan, Heather Brewer and of course J.K Rowling. There are a few more but the point i'm trying to make is the story is what compells me to read not the gender of the author or characters although i find myself biased towards male characters.
I'm not bashing her work merely trying to give an example of a good female writer who's books i dont like. An example of brilliant writing and beautiful prose but simplistic storytelling and poor character building would be Jacqueline carrey in my opinion. It truly grieved me that i couldn't enjoy Kushiels Legacy.
Before i buy a book i make a point of reading the first four pages if it doesn't interest me i dont buy it. It doesn't matter if the author is male or female. If you realy wan't to find out why female authors need to hide their gender consider looking at the problem as a marketing exersise. I'm pretty sure the answer will be more accurate than examining the minutia of the gender issues.

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