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.

Notes From A Small Con 3

  • Alas, the recording of the overly masculine panel didn’t work. I do have some notes, though I’m not sure how much sense they’ll make now, and I’ll try to get those typed up.
  • Final tally of books bought: North Wind and Phoenix Cafe by Gwyneth Jones (I already have White Queen — not that I’ve read it, but my intentions are good); Breakfast With the Ones You Love by Eliot Fintushel; Memories of the Space Age by JG Ballard (because I’m under-read in Ballard, it’s a beautiful edition and a great title; read one story on the way back, though, and thought interesting the writing was somewhat uneven); Fools by Pat Cadigan; The Darkening Garden by John Clute; King of Morning, Queen of Day and Hearts, Hands and Voices by Ian McDonald; Nearly People by Conrad Williams; a replacement for my lost hardback of The Year of Our War; and back-issues of NYRSF to 2000, or thereabouts. A respectable haul, I think you’ll agree.
  • I very much enjoyed the post-BSFA-Awards discussion on Sunday, largely because the three panellists didn’t agree on any of the nominated novels, which always makes things interesting. The vote itself, it turns out, was ridiculously close: Nova Swing and The Last Witchfinder were joint second by one vote.
  • No full con reports seen elsewhere yet (well, I guess it’s not technically over yet, even if I’m home, but here are a few photos, plus Paul’s abbreviated update, which unaccountably fails to mention glands.

Notes From A Small Con 2

  • The guests of honour for the 2009 Eastercon, LX, have been announced: Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Tim Powers, and Dirk Maggs (with Mary and Bill Burns as fan GoHs)
  • This morning’s panel on “Is UK SF publishing overly masculine?” covered a lot of ground, featured some full and frank exchanges of views, and good contributions from panellists Liz Williams, Jo Fletcher, Graham Sleight, Gareth Lyn Powell, and Jaine Fenn, plus various audience members, in spite of thoroughly inept moderation by John Richards. I’m hoping my recording of the panel will come out ok, in which case a transcript will be forthcoming. One note: the selection of future masters mentioned in my previous post was apparently made purely on the basis of previous sales (and there was some debate within Gollancz about whether that was appropriate, given the resulting gender balance).
  • A third row posse went to see Sunshine. Opinion is somewhat divided as to whether it’s deeply stupid and quite fun, or just painfully stupid. I tend towards the latter category, although it was quite pretty; this may be because all the pre-film publicity about their physicist consultant had raised my expectations, or it may just be because it starts out as an interesting Cold Equations-style story and turns into a slasher film in space.
  • The hotel really is an excellent Eastercon venue. Everything is on one floor, the bar space is large and convivial, the staff are friendly and the food provision is excellent — they serve a good cooked breafast until the thoroughly civilised hour of 11am, and there are hot baps of freshly-carved pork and beef for lunch! I have a feeling it wouldn’t work if the convention was any bigger (the dealer’s room isn’t huge, for instance), but future medium-sized cons should bear it in mind as a potential venue.

Notes From A Small Con

  • The reviewing panel (which was me, Penny Hill, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, John Jarrold, and Paul doing a fine job of moderating), went well, I think. Lots of contribution from the audience, representing a wide range of opinions and preferences — short reviews, long reviews, spoiler-averse, spoiler-tolerant — and lots of interesting ground covered. I couldn’t summarise it, especially at 1am, but one useful concept that came up was the operation of filters at various stages of the reviews process: what gets reviewed, what the reviews editor publishes, capsule reviews serving as, essentially, notification of publication, then more detailed reviews for those who want more information. Which is to say, what makes a good review depends on who the review is written for.
  • Paul Cornell will be writing for Primeval next year.
  • Last year Gollancz did round-cornered masterworks; this year they’ll be doing eight “future masterworks”, and the innovation will be no titles on the cover. (Don’t know about the corners.) The included books: Evolution, Stephen Baxter; Blood Music, Greg Bear; Schild’s Ladder, Greg Egan; Fairyland, Paul McAuley; Altered Carbon, Richard Morgan; The Separation, Christopher Priest; Revelation Space, Alastair Reynolds; and Hyperion, Dan Simmons. Commence arguing now. (Personally I think it’s a good selection — particularly Evolution — except I’d have gone for Distress over Schild’s Ladder.)