There’s been a lot of debate recently following an online survey asking readers for their “must read” SF list, the issue being that less that 10% of the suggested books were by women. Why, it was asked, the overwhelming bias?
Various explanations – and solutions – to this woeful state of affairs were put forward. Many pointed out that there is no lack of women working in the genre. From the writers themselves, through the often female-dominated corridors of the publishing industry, to the many women readers, we are everywhere. The problem is not absence but invisibility. Women’s writing is, by and large, being published, but apparently not reviewed, reprinted or talked about.
To me it all seems to come down to the same issue. Women are brought up to be mild-mannered and self-effacing. Girls do less well in mixed schools because their male classmates hog the teachers’ attention. Women have a cliched reputation for being talkative, but scientific observation has proved time and time again that in a mixed group, men do more of the talking and are far more likely to dominate the conversation. This is the real obstacle we are facing as women SFF writers – not active sexism or bias, but something entrenched deep in our culture, a potent mix of nature and nurture that drowns the female voice everywhere. Even we women are guilty of buying into this silencing, every time we worry that by standing up for women we are sticking our heads above the parapet and asking to be labeled as harridans or, perish the thought, feminists.
The fact that women’s voices can make themselves heard, without any apparent fuss, is proved by one writer currently in the limelight. Last month Lauren Beukes won the prestigious Arthur C Clarke award for her novel “Zoo City”. Now I haven’t read it yet, though a copy is sitting on my iPad waiting patiently, but I have a feeling that what attracted the nominations was not simply the quality of the book but the visibility of the author. Beukes is a South African journalist, a career that certainly isn’t for shrinking violets, so it’s hardly surprising that she is outgoing and fearless in the face of male domination of her genre. However she goes about it with such canny charm: stuffed toys based on elements from her books accompany on her public appearances, simultaneously disarming and attracting everyone she meets. She talks to everyone, and soon has them eating out of the palm of her hand.
Of course not everyone can follow her example – we’re not all that brave and extroverted. But it does show that, as the old saying goes, you attract more flies with honey than with vinegar. If there’s going to be any positive discrimination going on, it needs to be just that: positive. No whining, no apologies for making a fuss; simply tell the world about all the damned good SF and fantasy that just happens to be written by women.
Postscript: on checking my own blog, I have realised to my shame that, of the six books I have reviewed, only one is by a woman. Part of that is because I have been researching the competition, and my corner of the genre is dominated by men. Currently on my TBR pile are Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard and Romanitas by Sophia McDougall. However I would very much like to find more women writers to review, so if you know of anything suitable, please give your suggestions in the comments! I’m looking for recently* published fantasy with a strong historical flavour, either real-world or secondary-world – but preferably no dragons, which bore the pants off me
* I have read – and loved – The Curse of Chalion, and will probably review it some time, but it’s several years old and I’d like to focus on new works.