Sunday, July 13, 2008

Gender Balancing Act

SFSignal last week posted a marvelous Mind Meld feature on gender balance in sf. It was sparked in part by Jonathan Strahan's mea culpa upon announcing that the Table of Contents of Eclipse 2 had only one woman's name on it. When I was in England, I spoke with Niall Harrison about this as well. His view (also expressed in the Mind Meld) is that it is imperative, especially for independent reviewers who can choose their own books, to make sure to get women's names out there in front of the public for discussion.

I'm hesitant to wade into this discussion for many reasons. I've already mentioned my own ambivalence about gender. However, since the Masterclass I've been thinking deeply about my approach to reviewing. Thus for honesty's sake I feel the need to address this facet as well. I consider myself a feminist in that I feel it is imperative for women to be able to pursue their individual destinies without feeling constrained by other's expectations. That ideal isn't possible to fully achieve; even WASP men have to deal with societal constraints. ("Son, why ain't yew out there playin' football?") However, women have more constraints to shake off than men do, and that's important to remember.

So in general I agree with those who think that women are not currently being given a fair shake and could use some help. Here I have to put out my own mea culpa. Since I started reviewing on Spiral Galaxy, Lo these 2 years ago, if you count up my reviews of novels, single-author non-fiction books, and single-author collections, my stats are: 134 books by men, 34 by women. That's 80% male (.797619), 20% female. Ouch. I have to admit that I am part of the problem.

So what's my excuse? I've got a bunch:
  1. I've been reading lots of moldy-oldy sf, stuff from before 1940. The gender balance on that stuff is atrocious. (Those books start to make up the "Canon" of early sf. Who decides what's in the Canon...? Probably folks who look more like James Gunn and less like Farah Mendlesohn. That's a discussion for another day.)
  2. For years when I was growing up to be a physicist/engineer, I rejected anything that questioned my machismo. I refused to take Home Economics or typing. I refused to learn to make coffee. I wore combat boots and took fencing. I never wanted to be shunted into secretarial work (sometimes that was a clear and present danger). I read Greg Bear and avoided Octavia Butler, just based on the names on the cover. I actively avoided female authors. Given how much of our tastes get set in high school (I still find combat boots comfy, even if I know better than to wear them to work—for work I wear hiking boots instead) I probably still subconsciously choose male authors over female ones, even if I really enjoy Elizabeth Moon and C. S. Friedman now.
  3. I am a physicist/engineer. I prefer science fiction to fantasy and eschew romance titles altogether. Thus I end up reading more male authors than female ones.
  4. I've still got issues with machismo. Strong emotions make me uncomfortable. Romance plots, unless they happen naturally in the background, turn me off. Again, stereotypically, I'm going to be leaning towards male authors here.
But no matter; it's still obvious that I am part of the problem. The easiest thing for me to do would be to agree with Niall and consciously select more female authors to review. But I'm not going to commit to that. (Please don't hurt me.)

For one, I'm still working through the old stuff. Like it or not, the vast majority of pre-1940s sf was written by men.

The more important reason is that it's not the fight that I choose. I've realized that what I want most from SF is the ability to think about the world differently than before, to get new perspectives. Just reading something by a woman does not automatically give me a new perspective—despite my waffling, I am one. What I want to focus on is getting my hands on more speculative fiction written by non-WASPs, non-English speakers, and non-Westerners. Ultimately I'm more likely to get new ideas from someone from Japan, like Haruki Murakami, or any black author, either Octavia Butler or Stephen Barnes, than from Catherine Asaro. Reading something by a person from South America, like Kalpa Imperial by AngĂ©lica Gorodischer (translated by Ursula K. LeGuin) (which I've now ordered) or even about South America, like Brasyl by Ian McDonald from Northern Ireland, is more likely to stretch my mind than reading Lois McMaster Bujold. I haven't been going out of my way to get ARCs for books like these, but now I will. I hope that I'll review more women in the process. When the criteria is new perspectives, authors like Kelly Link, M. Rickert, and Theodora Goss will float to the top. Just because someone is a WASP like me, male or female, doesn't mean that they won't have the next bleeding-edge speculation or totally different world-view. But living on a different continent, male or female, drastically raises the chances.

I'm going to give my new reviewing philosophy a solid year, then I'll run the statistics again, by gender and nationality, and we'll see what's changed.


Anonymous said...

The easiest thing for me to do would be to agree with Niall and consciously select more female authors to review. But I'm not going to commit to that.

It's not so much consciously selecting more female authors to review at the expense of other books you want to cover that I was thinking of; more just double-checking that there aren't books by female authors that you want to cover for reasons unrelated to their author's gender, that you may have overlooked because of (for all the reasons you mention) the fact that it's easier to notice books by men.

For example: I have an interest in mainstream-published sf novels. So I am currently reading The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway. But in all honest, there are probably more mainstream-published sf novels by women than by men (in the UK at least) ... so I also want to read The Invention of Everything Else by Samantha Hunt.

I've been a bit self-conscious about my stats recently as well. Since I started taking reviewing seriously, I'm probably running about 66% male ... but on Torque Control, in the past couple of months, it's been more like 80%. And now I have novels by Richard Morgan, Paul McAuley, and Ken MacLeod I want to review. I think my point really is that any independent reviewer should be *aware* of the issue, because these days the odds are that the categories "books you like" and "books you are interested in" will include a fair number of women, even if you don't immediately think they will.

Cheryl said...

Can I recommend Angela Carter?

Also Daina Chaviano has just had her first English translation published.

Mustn't forget Johanna Sinisalo.

Finding women science fiction authors is a little harder, but I do warmly recommend Gwyneth Jones and Kathleen Ann Goonan and Liz Williams.

And I'm sure I have forgotten some.

Cheryl said...

Kelley Eskridge and Nicola Griffith.

I'll get boring soon.

Anonymous said...

I hope you're reading Tiptree and Russ in your historical explorations!

Karen Burnham said...

Niall - thanks for clarifying. I agree with you that simply being aware of the issue should help the balance over all. I imagine that simply having that 80/20 split knocking around in my brain will make me less likely to pass over a female author when it's down to "What should I read next?" That's really the crucial point, isn't it? Because we all have way more books than we can read. Hovering over a large stack and figuring out what to read next is probably the most important time to be aware of one's reviewing goals.

Sorry if I misrepresented you!

Karen Burnham said...

Cheryl - thanks for the recommendations! I should try Carter, and Sinisalo is on my list, but I haven't heard of Chaviano before. What sort of author is she?

Karen Burnham said...

Terry - No worries. I've already read "Female Man," which blew me away. Amazing stuff, and some of it is still ridiculously relevant. I've also got the "Her Smoke Rose Up Forever" collection for Tiptree.

Right now I'm still working on pre-40s sf, so I'm planning to hit the Tiptree seriously when I get to the New Wave.

I also got a copy of "The Country You Have Never Seen" last week, and I'm really looking forward to experiencing Russ' criticism for myself; I've heard so much about it.

Cheryl said...

Chaviano is a Cuban science fiction and fantasy writer. She's won quite a few awards, but writes mainly in Spanish. She was a Guest of Honor at ICFA a few years back, and sounded very impressive. (She also had half of the men following her around with their tongues hanging out.)

Oh, and I forgot to mention Tricia Sullivan.

Karen Burnham said...

Cheryl - Aha! I met her at ICFA in 2007. I didn't realize that she had a book out in translation now. "The Island of Eternal Love"? I will definitely try to get it. She is a lovely person.

Unknown said...

I think the gender imbalance is also due to your reading tastes - more men write hard SF than women. If you shift across to "softer" SF, the ratio is closer to even, and I think there's a slight balance towards women writers in fantasy.
There's a similar imbalance in romantic fiction, which is predominently written by women.
As you say, it's worth keeping an eye on your reading list, simply to make sure you're giving the women in the field a fair opportunity.
I'd second the recommendation of Liz Williams. And if you read fantasy, Susanna Clarke's pretty good.

Karen Burnham said...

Nick - Thanks for the recommendations. I've got a couple Liz Willaims books kicking around that I will certainly bump up on my priority list now. And I loved "Joanathan Strange & Mr. Norrell," and eagerly await the next installment from Susanna.