Chasing the Links

  • Aishwarya Subramaniam talks about her nominations for the Future Classics poll
  • Michael Froggatt on 2017 by Olga Slavnikova
  • Cold Iron and Rowan Wood on The Meat Tree by Gwyneth Lewis, part of Seren Press’ “new stories from the Mabinogion” series.
  • Jonathan McCalmont on The Red Tree by Caitlin R Kiernan and Servant of the Underworld by Aliette de Bodard
  • Tansey Rayner Roberts talks about the new Norma K Hemming Award, for excellence in the exploration of themes of race, gender, sexuality, class and disability in sf published in Australia or written by an Australian citizen
  • Details of the latest Galactic Suburbia podcast
  • David Hebblethwaite on An A-Z of Possible Worlds by AC Tillyer and on Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor
  • Matt Denault on Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren, and its marketing:

    I wrote at the outset that my two chief frustrations with Walking the Tree involve its outside and its inside. The frustration with the outside is easy enough to describe: the book’s cover. The back cover of my published UK edition contains the instruction to “FILE UNDER: FANTASY” and a quote from Ellen Datlow, best known in recent times for her work editing dark fantasy and horror; the front cover bears a quote from Trudi Canavan, “bestselling author of the Black Magician trilogy,” a fantasy work. Additionally the publisher, Angry Robot, is marketing as similar two more of its books on the back cover: Warren’s debut novel Slights and Aliette de Bodard’s Servant of the Underworld, a dark fantasy. In short, this is a science fiction book by a female author that is being marketed very hard to look like a fantasy book—and a fantasy book for a primarily female audience. This was done, I’m sure, with the best of intentions. But there is a deeply insidious notion about the relationship between women and science that’s suggested by this chosen marketing. Labeling a science fiction book by a female author as fantasy contributes to the fallacious but widespread idea that women don’t write science fiction. This in turn can only reinforce the stereotype that women aren’t any good at science. Parallel to this, to fixate the book’s marketing so squarely on women reinforces that damaging gender paradigm that men’s stories should be of interest to both men and women, while women’s stories should be of interest only to women. The two problems are entwined: men’s stories are important to all because they are seen as real, and thus can be grounded in something real like science; women’s stories are dismissed as fantasy, nothing that could ever happen and so nothing that’s worth treating as actionable. So I’d argue that the book’s marketing, whatever its intentions, is actively, damagingly in opposition to the ideas of the book’s content.

6 thoughts on “Chasing the Links

  1. I haven’t read Walking the Tree but based on his review I disagree with Matt’s comments about its marketing.

    This was done, I’m sure, with the best of intentions.

    Their intention was probably to make money by selling as many books as possible. That’s their job, not challenging stereotypes. We all know that, as a general rule, fantasy sells more than science fiction. Not only might the difference mean thousands of more readers for this book, but those thousands of readers might well be the difference between Kaaron Warren getting her next book published.

    Much of the original discussion here about women authors and SF centered around the fact they weren’t getting published. As I understand the business, the marketing department has veto power on acquisitions, a power they use frequently to overrule the acquiring editors. If the publisher didn’t feel that they could make money without marketing this book as fantasy, should they have just passed? Should Warren have refused any deal that didn’t require the publisher to label her work SF?

    The answer may be yes if you think that fantasy is somehow qualitatively poorer than SF (“…women’s stories are dismissed as fantasy…”). I personally prefer science fiction to fantasy in those rare cases where all things are equal, but I think these days the only people who assign a ghetto-status to the fantasy genre are the same much-bemoaned mainstream snobs who do the same thing to SF. It used to be within the genre there were a lot of SF snobs who looked down on fantasy (despite criticizing the exact same attitude in mainstream circles) but I think they are mostly gone. Instead we see the opposite: people doing all sorts of contortions to justify giving science fiction awards and honors to fantasy novels.

    Now, if this is a “pure” science fiction novel, which I can’t define but I know it when I see it, then the marketing might cause the novel to miss its audience and thus would be a very bad idea for the publisher and author. Is this the case? Like I said, I haven’t read it, but from the review:

    the great Tree provides life-giving food and shelter, tools and building materials; its giant leaves are used to collect rainwater. Those same leaves can cause destruction and death when they fall, and from the Tree emerge ghosts and other horrors.

    Perhaps there is some hand-waving about biotechnology or genetic engineering to explain this haunted magic tree. Perhaps it is a relic of civilization that is indistinguishable from magic. But even if that’s the case, this seems more like Kay Kanyon’s The Rose and the Entire series being classified as fantasy (a bit of a stretch, but still debatable) rather than, say, calling Chris Moriarty’s Spin State or Lois McMaster Bujold’s Warrior’s Apprentice fantasy, which would indeed risk their chances of finding an audience.

  2. Their intention was probably to make money by selling as many books as possible. That’s their job, not challenging stereotypes.

    That’s a justification that is trotted out quite often, most notably in recent uproars over publishers who put white people on the covers of books with black protagonists. Whether or not it’s the job of a publisher to challenge stereotypes (though I would point out that there have been plenty of publishers who have), it is surely all of our responsibility to point out when those stereotypes are being played up to.

    On the subject of the novel’s genre, I think Matt D makes a good argument for reading it as science fiction. But you could post this comment on the review and ask him yourself…

  3. Matt Hilliard, good comments. A few replies:

    – If Walking the Tree isn’t a “pure science fiction novel” it is pretty darn close, closer than many books labeled as SF. In the review I tried to avoid giving away details that the book wants to keep secret, and don’t know how many such details you want me to give now, but it is set in the future–at least 1000 years by our calendar–on a planet that exists in our universe, amid human settlers who had, but then abandoned or lost, a great deal of technological knowledge in the wake of plague and ecological disaster. It reads a lot like a successor to 1970s SF, somewhere between Le Guin’s anthropological travelogues and Anne McCaffrey’s planetary romance/survival tales. The “ghosts” do not turn out to be ghosts. The only element that could be legitimately argued as impossible is the Tree itself–I’m not sure its size is physically possible. Although that size is only ever suggested, never measured; and it is implied anyway that it’s not precisely a single tree, but rather multiple species tightly entwined. The word for forest is tree, when you have nothing else to compare it with.

    – By “women’s stories are dismissed as fantasy” I didn’t directly mean as genre fantasy, but as impossible flights of fancy, daydreams: the opposite of “real.” Which then makes such stories candidates for genre fantasy, but doesn’t define the whole of fantasy. My phrasing there was ambiguous, I apologize.

    Their intention was probably to make money by selling as many books as possible. Well yes, but I meant that they probably aimed to do this by going after an established market–women readers of fantasy–who they legitimately thought would like the book. That is, I don’t think they set out to do anyone a disservice. But while I don’t think it is a publisher’s job to “challenging stereotypes,” I do think they have a responsibility to not perpetuate stereotypes–and if they do perpetuate them and seek to make money by them, as Abigail says I think it’s the reviewer’s job to point that out.

    But I’d also argue that in the current market the commercial problems with mislabeling a book are several:

    First, if a publisher mislabels a book there’s the real chance of alienating readers: “this book isn’t what I signed up for” can very easily turn into “I don’t like this author and won’t buy her books in the future.”

    Second, if right from the starting gate a publisher seeks to keep an author in a cage–“Kaaron Warren writes only dark fantasy/horror”–then I think it gets increasingly hard for the author to break out of that cage and write anything different. It does the author an artistic disservice, especially an author such as Warren who has already shown that she wants to write in a range of genres.

    Third, it can also deny the author new segments of readership. Walking the Tree is a book with enough moments of darkness and enough images in common with her short stories that I could imagine Warren’s existing readership enjoying it, yet I could also imagine a large crowd like the SF romance readers–one of the areas of SF that I believe is selling well–enjoying the book, too. It’s not a romance per see, but it does involve both a fair amount of sexual escapades and the empowerment of a female POV character, so it’s somewhat congruent. It’s also a book congruent with the throwback SF movement–we’ve had Scalzi’s throwbacks to Heinlein juveniles, Stross’s throwback to late-period Heinlein, Walter Jon William’s throwback to New Wave Zelazny, and all have sold pretty well, so why not see this as a throwback to 1970s feminist SF, and market it as such? It seems that’s a type of novel that genre has largely ceded to general literature; and yet Atwood sells pretty well, doesn’t she? And enough people have apparently read Sarah Hall’s Carhullan Army. So I think mislabeling a book can end up costing sales, of this book and of an author’s future books, by missing a chance to grow an author’s readership base.

    And then there are matters like awards–if you read the thread that got a lot of this started, you’ll see that the publisher hadn’t initially thought to submit this book to the Clarke Award, because the Clarke is for SF….

  4. Abigail: That’s a justification that is trotted out quite often, most notably in recent uproars over publishers who put white people on the covers of books with black protagonists.

    At the risk of sounding inconsistent I think that is a different case. For one thing, the race of the protagonist is generally indisputable, whereas the boundaries of genre are subject to endless debate. Second, and I guess you will disagree on this, I view the genre stereotyping of women authors into fantasy as being harmful to the authors but not nearly so much to readers. The skin color nonsense, on the other hand, isn’t such a big deal for authors but is harmful to readers of all races.

    It is because I see genre assignment as primarily an author issue that I think complaints about it can be answered by sales and financial arguments. Maybe I’m wrong and the genre assignment of a novel has a meaningful impact on, say, a young female reader’s impression of her prospects in the sciences, but I don’t think most readers would notice this even on a subconscious level. Maybe it helps than I live in America where (unlike other countries?) fantasy and SF are always shelved together anyway.

    But you could post this comment on the review and ask him yourself…

    I was pretty sure Matt D would read my comment both here and at SH, and my thinking was the comment was more about the women/SF discussion than the review itself.

    Matt D: I do appreciate spoiler sensitivity, and normally I hate arguing about genre definitions so perhaps the review was better off not being bogged down in it, but had your defense of the book’s science fictionality been present it would have largely preempted my comment. I agree and mentioned in my original comment that mislabeling can cause writers to miss their audience. I’m not convinced the SF market is as healthy as you imply but I don’t have anything concrete to cite, it’s just an impression from publisher and author comments, most recently the way Le Guin basically apologized for calling Hav SF in her review.

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