Panel Report: is UK SF publishing overly masculine?

This is, obviously, incomplete, reconstructed from notes I didn’t think I was going to have to rely on. Corrections, attributions, and/or expansions from others who attended the panel are welcomed.

Is UK SF publishing overly masculine?
Sunday 8 April, 11:00–12:00
“I hear that a number of women writers have felt that the atmosphere in the UK is very hard science, hard men at present — not that all the editors are male or whatever, but that the culture seems to be for quite macho-type books.” True?
Jaine Fenn, Jo Fletcher, Gareth Lyn Powell, Graham Sleight, Liz Williams, John Richards (M)

  • Jo Fletcher — more male writers than female writers are published in sf, but more male writers than female writers are published in general. How bad sf is, relatively speaking, depends on how you define “sf” — is it just “science fiction”? Or does it include fantasy as well, in which case women are a lot better represented? When it comes to the Gollancz list specifically, would love to have more women writers, but haven’t seen good enough submissions.
  • Graham Sleight — we can look at this through statistics, which I don’t have, or anecdotally. I feel that male writers get a better deal than female writers. The question of definition is important. Do we tend to frame our definitions in a way that effaces women writers from our thinking or from the lists we produce?
  • Liz Williams — had originally planned to write under her initials, not from fear of prejudice but because she felt “Liz Williams” was quite a dull name; David Pringle and Gardner Dozois persuaded her that visibility of women writers was important.
  • Gareth Lyn Powell — on the question of definitions and perception, how far does sf’s reputation as a literature for boys have an impact? Does it create an unconscious supply and demand?
  • Liz Williams — sometimes women are still made to feel like they’re trespassing; Catherine Asaro gets nasty letters from male readers for daring to pollute science with romance.
  • Jaine Fenn — on definitions again; is it that men and women are equally good at doing different things equally well? Do we need to pay more attention to women writing what they choose to write?
  • Audience — more men may be published, but more women are readers, and women dominate in local writing groups. Is the barrier confidence?
  • Farah Mendlesohn/Zara Baxter — some numbers from Farah’s survey of reading habits; the demographic split in sf readers is about 55-45 in favour of men overall but in the under-30 group the split is 60-40 in favour of women (and the under-30s read more fantasy).
  • Jetse de Vries — looking at email submissions to Interzone, which are primarily from outside the UK, there were 70 women/280 men in the first batch, and 100 women/300 men in the second. Men are more likely to send repeat submissions.
  • Liz Williams — Gordon van Gelder reports similar ratios for F&SF.
  • Zara — Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine has a blind submission process and gets about a 2 men : 1 woman submission ratio.

[Jed Hartman has SH’s stats, which I got slightly wrong, here; the gist is that female authors make up about a third of submissions but two-thirds of the published stories.]

  • Audience — society still has very strong gender roles, which limit women’s writing time; also, there’s a class issue, where better-off people have more time to write.
  • Jo Fletcher — this is to some extent a red herring — writers write despite themselves. If you are a writer, you will find the time.
  • Liz Williams — but often women’s writing is a private thing. Do we need to question the cultural assumption that publication is the goal?
  • Farah Mendlesohn — why are the eight books in the “Future Masters” series all by men?
  • Jo Fletcher — “Future Masters” is a promotion designed for bookshops (specifically Waterstone’s), and designed to get new people to read sf. The selection of books is based entirely on past sales. (The “SF4U” promotion last year was also based on sales, the best-selling Masterworks.) If there had been ten titles, Gwyneth Jones’ White Queen would have been included.

[This is where John Richards attempted to redirect the conversation. See Kev McVeigh’s report on this section of the panel here.]

  • Kev McVeigh — but it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy — next time the ten best-selling titles are selected, these will have a head start.
  • Jo Fletcher — There was debate in Gollancz about the makeup of the list. But sales was felt to be the right criteria for this promotion — different authors need to be promoted to different audiences in different ways. Gollancz is constantly looking for ways to boost its backlist — they’re looking for a hook for a more female-focused promotion for next summer.
  • Liz Williams — being in thrall to sales is probably the biggest limiting factor in publishing. Small press (or “independent press”) can get away with it, but sales are more of a factor than gender when it comes to getting published more than once.

Relatedly, see this, this, this, this, and this post by Ellen Kushner, and the letter from Geoff Ryman that it contains, on the subject of the gender imbalance in this year’s Hugos. Actually, I’m going to quote a chunk of the letter:

SF is driven by an underlying dream, and part of that dream is profoundly hostile to domesticity, which is traditionally assigned to women. It is hostile to staying at home on Earth. It dreams, Peter Pan-like, of magic flights to a Neverneverland in the stars, full of pirates and mermaids and Indians. It is largely a land of and for Boys. Women love it too, perhaps because they also want to escape domesticity.

These days women’s place in fantasy is not as Wendy. Women get to be guys now. They have a place in the SF dream, most usually toting guns or swords. I guess it’s fun for women to shoot people, and men certainly feel more at home with women who act like the rest of their buddies. I would say that the dream is hostile to the traditional place of women’s power: home. Home is what you escape and Mother is who you hate. Can our stories only glance at child rearing, washing the dishes, building everyday relationships, and earning a living and not exclude women, at least to an extent?

There was a time in the 70s when it suddenly seemed that women writers were calling the shots, getting the attention and winning the awards. Le Guin, McIntyre… the list seemed endless at the time. The fiction was a series of telling subversions of that underlying dream. It was a bit like moving overworked muscles in a new direction, a relief.

We seem to have reverted to type. It’s time at least to ask the question: is there something fundamental to the SF tradition that excludes many things women live through and write about? Or which tolerates those writers and their works while delivering an essentially masculine dream? Maybe in ORDER to deliver that masculine dream. Is this dream so deep and enduring that no amount of conscious political correctness can undo it? Is it the case that men find SF easier to write? Or do fine writers like Liz Williams, Gwyneth Jones, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Suzy McKee Charnas simply write material that is regarded as fantasy or slipstream and so doesn’t make the cut?

The answers will not fit onto the back of a postcard.

But you should still go there to read the comments; and see also Abigail Nussbaum’s response.

25 thoughts on “Panel Report: is UK SF publishing overly masculine?

  1. A thought: Maybe if the Gollancz promotion is aimed at Waterstones’ then we should let Waterstones know what we think?

  2. The “SF4U” promotion last year was also based on sales, the best-selling Masterworks.)

    I think this is rather interesting. As a reminder those titles were:

    The Stars My Destination, Alfred Bester
    Cities in Flight, James Blish
    Ubik, Philip K Dick
    The Forever War, Joe Haldeman
    Flowers for Algernon, Daniel Keyes
    The Dispossessed, Ursula Le Guin
    I Am Legend, Richard Matheson
    Gateway, Frederick Pohl
    The Sirens of Titan, Kurt Vonnegut
    Lord of Light, Roger Zelazny

    I’m particularly surprised by Cities In Flight and Ubik. And presumably Blood Music was deliberately excluded?

    If there had been ten titles, Gwyneth Jones’ White Queen would have been included.

    Not Bold As Love? And what would have been the tenth book? Something by Jon Courtenay Grimwood?

  3. Definitely White Queen; I was surprised by that, too. The tenth book was never mentioned (nor, as far as I can remember, was why they limited it to eight this time around — though the answer is presumably down to economics in some way, again), but yeah, Grimwood would be my guess.

  4. Martin: No, not a boycott, just a letter or a few letters highlighting the issue so that just maybe the buyers at Waterstones will ask the sales staff at Gollancz some awkward questions?

  5. Note also that the SF4U list featured no titles less than 30 years old. This new list suggests nothing has changed in that time.

  6. so that just maybe the buyers at Waterstones will ask the sales staff at Gollancz some awkward questions?

    Sorry, I can’t work out what these awkward questions would be or why the buyers would care.

  7. A broader point raised by Martin’s list is that I think (until the publication of Wilhelm’s Where Late The Sweet Birds Sang), the Le Guin was the only book by a woman in the 50-60 sf masterworks. (Unless anyone can correct me??) Which does make me distinctly grumpy, especially since Gollancz have plenty of other fine work by women writers (Octavia Butler and James Tiptree, for instance) in their backlist. And, while I’m on the subject, why the hell are we getting Walter Miller’s (unarguably fine) Best-of collection Dark Benediction reissued in SF Masterworks now, but not Tiptree’s (even finer, and enormously more influential) Her Smoke Rose Up Forever? Or Le Guin’s The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, relegated to the yellowjacket series instead?

    When we had the BSFA discussion about awards, I found myself saying repeatedly that awards were only one way in which the field goes about canonisation/rewarding excellence, which is why we shouldn’t get too fixated on them. A series like SFM is, I’d suggest, hugely more influential, and reaches people who are never going to know of the existence of the Hugos.

  8. Also, re Waterstone’s, Wot Martin Said. Without wanting to impugn the politics of anyone who works at Waterstone’s, if the Gollancz folks can say “These are cool new editions of our eight bestselling titles of the last X years”, that’s a pretty convincing pitch.

  9. (Unless anyone can correct me??)

    Number 48 was Grass by Sheri S. Tepper. I thought I remembered a Butler title as well but no. Le Guin did have more than one novel on the list though.

  10. Here’s a thought: if the publishing industry and promotions are so tied into the sales figures, and the sales figures are generated through the big book-selling chains like Waterstones, then instead of buying my fiction through independent booksellers in dealer rooms at cons, maybe I should be deliberately buying at high street Waterstones if I want the titles I buy to count in terms of sales figures and future promotions?

    The thought sticks in my craw a bit, as I’d prefer to support independent specialist booksellers, but on the panel Jo Fletcher did say that on sales figures White Queen was only just top eight for that promotion – maybe it would have got into the top eight if everyone who bought a copy of it from a specialist bookseller had bought it from Waterstones instead?

  11. Why would the buyers care? Obviously if a lot of people are asking about something they aren’t stocking they will look into why they are missing all these sales.

    As for the VGSF list, wasn’t Vonda McIntyre’s Dreamsnake eventually on there, and something by Kate Wilhelm?

  12. I get Ryman’s point about domesticity being the antithesis of adventure… or look at it this way: if Mulder and Scully got married, The X-Files would turn into a sitcom with a couch, a kitchen and the nutty alien neighbor.

    I suppose if we all lived dangerous lives full of adventure and surprises, our “escapist” fiction would be mostly “Domestic Fantasies” about heroically doing the dishes and changing the diapers, day after day…

  13. Um, wait. I read the other responses to Ryman’s letter and thought it over. Let me modify my above comment…

    Of course there is SF & fantasy which deals with domestic life — I have written and published such stories myself. (See “Telephone Conversations”.)

    A major theme of SF is Change. Regardless of the reader’s or the writer’s gender, this remains a fact.
    One aspect of change is Growth — or on the most basic level: Life.
    You are born, you grow up, grow old, die, new generations are born.

    In other words, even domesticity is suffused with change (not to mention conflict, drama, generational rifts, social upheaval and even violence!).
    No home stays the unchanged, except in the hazy memories of nostalgia.

    So I see no reason why one can’t place the most amazing science fiction narrative in a domestic environment… IF one treats it as a place where change is a natural constant.

  14. If you take a look at the books on the 2007 Phillip K. Dick Award short list:

    Mindscape by Andrea Hairston
    Carnival by Elizabeth Bear
    Spin Control by Chris Moriarty
    Catalyst by Nina Kiriki Hoffman
    Living Next-Door to the God of Love by Justina Robson
    Recursion by Tony Ballantyne
    Idolon by Mark Budz

    Five out of the seven are women.

    I guess we would have to ask the question, if more males are published than females, are there no good male writers anymore?

  15. For example, by pointing out that the Philip K Dick Award is for paperback originals and the contrast between this shortlist and that of the Hugos shows that women are mostly producing minor works that are not worthy of being published in hardback.

  16. I don’t buy the argument that hardbacks are “better” than paperbacks. The point is whether books are being bought and read.

  17. Liz W’s comment about women not feeling the need to publish echoes a quote from the late Kurt Vonnegut in a 1977 interview:
    His sister was a talented sculptor ‘I bawled her out one time for not doing more with the telents she had. She replied that having talent doesn’t carry the obligation that something has to be done with it. This was startling news to me. I thought people were supposed to grab their talents and run as far and fast as they could.’

  18. Actually, the distinction between the Philip K. Dick Award and the Hugo Award, or rather the distinction between hardcover fiction and paperback fiction, is enormous, and quite germane to this conversation. If Waterstones has an aversion to stocking sf books by women writers, publishers may be hedging their bets by publishing books by women in a cheaper format. This leads to discrimination down the line. Publishers are less willing to take on books by women or pay them as much as their male counterparts when they do. This is what happens when large conglomerates control what they will allow you to purchase.

  19. Rather belatedly, may I add a few bits? This is from memory. Additional comments in square brackets.

    Early on in the panel, Jo Fletcher mentioned the case of the Steve Jones-edited anthology The Mammoth Book of Vampire Fiction by Women. However, one of the contributors turned out to be a man under a female pseudonym – a well-known writer in the horror genre who had been published by SJ before. Jo thought this was a breach of the reader’s trust and said she would not be publishing this particular writer herself.

    [Jo did not name the writer during the panel. During my question I referred to him by the pseudonym only. The story in question made at least one Year’s Best and forms part of a recent novel published under the writer’s real name. The byline also appeared in TTA shortly afterwards – I know that Andy Cox was unware of the writer’s identity when he bought the story as I spoke to him at the time. On consideration I won’t name the author here, though the information is in the public domain.]

    When I came to ask a question, I asked if the issue here was due to the editor being deceived. After all, men write romance, erotica and sagas under female pseudonyms I could name, all the time – their editors are certainly aware of the fact even if the readers might not be. I went on to ask if Jo had a novel she liked whose writer (male or female) wanted to be published under a pseudonym of the opposite gender, would she be agreeable to that? [I couldn’t think of an example in the SF/fantasy genre at the time, though I since have – “Lilith Moon”, author of a couple of 1990s Interzone stories, was apparently a man. Even so, the “Men in Disguise” list in the Book of SF Lists is noticeably short.]

    Jo said yes, she would have no objection to that. [That would cause a problem with publicity tours though.]

    Farah Mendelsohn asked if I was referring to transgender authors.

    I said not necessarily. [For example, Jan Morris is the name that author is known by in real life.]

    Someone on the panel (Graham Sleight, I think) brought up the example of Joe Hill using that form of his name to avoid being seen to trade on his distinguished parentage.

  20. Gary: I don’t know if you remember a fuss in the late 80s when it was discovered that Virago Press author Rahila Khan was actually the Rev Toby Forward. At about the same time I have a recollection of a British SF author being criticised for a pseudonymous submission to a Women’s Press anthology. I won’t name him because I’m not sure my memory is absolutely correct but it shows that this is nothing new. Exclude men from something and some boys will always want to prove they can fool the girls.

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