Friday, 1 July 2011

Women in SF: writing in invisible ink?

I have been following (and contributing to) the online debate about Women in SF. This was discussed at this year's Eastercon and has been a hot topic recently on Twitter, the Guardian Books blog and various review blogs and author's websites. This has long been a favourite topic of mine (see my post from March 2010 'My Top 40 Female SFF Writers') and it has been very reassuring to see so many people, not only acknowledging that there is indeed inequality within the SF publishing world but who are prepared to do something about it. As Nicola Griffith wrote on her blogpost 'Taking the Russ pledge'
"The single most important thing we (readers, writers, journalists, critics, publishers, editors, etc.) can do is talk about women writers whenever we talk about men. And if we honestly can't think of women 'good enough' to match those men, then we should wonder aloud (or in print) why that is so. If it's appropriate (it might not be, always) we should point to the historical bias that consistently reduces the stature of women's literature; we should point to Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, which is still the best book I've ever read on the subject. We should take the pledge to make a considerable and consistent effort to mention women's work which, consciously or unconsciously, has been suppressed. Call it the Russ Pledge. I like to think she would have approved."
What has surprised me is the number of people who profess not to care about the gender of the authors they read. In an ideal world, this would not be an issue, but we live in a culture where there is still a significant gender imbalance, and not just in the world of SF publishing. There are noticeably few women in the UK who are currently under contract to publish SF, indeed they can be counted on one hand [note: the US situation is better and some UK writers are published there but their books are only available here as imports e.g. Karen Traviss].

  • Are those who claim not to care about the gender of the writers they choose to read not wondering why this is? 
  • Do they think that women just don't write SF worth publishing? 
  • Are they happy with this situation? 

Maybe it is time to wake up and take some action, however small, in an attempt to redress the balance... that is all the Russ Pledge is asking. But denying that there is a problem or just ignoring the issue will not improve the situation. And unless things improve for women wanting to write SF, we will all lose out.

One of the positives that have resulted from this debate has been a new blog SF Mistressworks, set up and maintained by Ian Sales. I have contributed 2 reviews to date (Grass by Sheri S. Tepper and The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K.Le Guin). It is a valuable resource, highlighting books written pre-2000, that may have been forgotten, overlooked or are out of print.

Some further reading:
Torque Control: SF by Women, 2001 - 2010
SF Signal: Mind Meld: What's the Importance of 'The Russ Pledge' for Science Fiction Today? (some of the comments are jaw-dropping!)
SF Signal: Guest post by Judith Tarr: Girl Cooties: A Personal History (again the comments are worth reading)
Guardian Books blog: The Incredible Shrinking Presence of Women SF Writers by David Barnett


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  2. After reading this, and everything else that's been doing the rounds lately, I've come to a bit of a decision - I can't do a great deal to improve the gender balance of the submissions to my zine, but I can very easily affect the gender balance of the books covered in our review section. So from now on I'll review a book by a woman for every book I review by a man. In the long run, maybe that'll have a positive effect on submissions.

  3. That's great Stephen.
    And I look forward to reading your reviews :-)

  4. Cara

    Do you accept requests for reviews by small houses? If so please email me an address (e or snail) to which I should send a request.

  5. I am absolutely grateful to you for pointing this out. I am more of a fantasy girl these days, where I think women have a slightly stronger foothold, but you are absolutely right, especially these days. As we move back in time to where Tepper, Le Guin, and Norton were bigger players, you see more women SF writers, especially during a feminist period where SF was actually used to examine gender issues. My own mom was writing a feminist slanted SF novel at the time (though she came close to publishing, she was asked to change aspects of the book--mainly the feminist points--that she refused to change) so I think I have a little familiarity as a child with these wonderful but often cast aside female SF writers. You have to dig through used bookstores to find good ones these days. I promote Dawn Treader Bookshop if you are anywhere in the area of Ann Arbor, MI at any point, or feel like calling them or hitting up their website.

    In the modern day more and more people, including women, believe they are gender neutral, but the actual slant hasn't changed that much. For one, most aren't aware the publishing industry puts a big ass slant in it, just by what is put out and publicized.

    I'm already a Russ reader--across the board in my reading inclinations. I'm more willing to pick up a book, especially an SF book where I don't want to see the same ol' same ol' lack of character development, if it is written by a woman. Gender divisions are still out there, pervading our lives from the time we are small, and if you aren't reading women writers, you aren't getting a woman's slant on how the universe works, should work, might work, etc. You are blinding yourself to an important and individualized half of the canon. Because I'm not going to say that women write like men. Maybe all people should have the same outlooks, concerns and interests, but that isn't the real world.

    Yay the Russ movement! I may have to slide my reading back towards SF just to support.

    I am giving you a present b/c I love you. It is four minutes of stop action fun for your day.

    My Little Pony Massacre: