The Great Divide

(Note – These thoughts were formed, though not for the first time, after reading this Tor.com post by Liz Bourke: Conversations Founded on False Assumptions. And the subsequent comments. Because the more I read comments sections, the more I see people completely missing the point while crying that they, and only they, are the ones who can really hit the bullseye.)

I don’t pick my reading material by gender. Some would say that makes me ignorant, others would say that makes me a hero. I like to think I’m somewhere in between.

I got lucky. I almost fell by utter accident into a space where I read males and females almost equally. This year, I’ve read 35 books written by women, 23 by men, 4 where I’m not sure of the author’s gender, and 3 anthologies where the authors were both male and female and probably some that weren’t binary, maybe. I made no effort to do this. It just happened to be the way my reading material fell into my hands, picking what to read based solely on what I wanted to read.

And yet. I can’t deny that this is not representative of most people who read SFF.

Lots of people like to take the high ground, to claim that a good book is a good book, and that being male or female doesn’t influence how well you can write so gender shouldn’t matter. And if that was the whole story, they’d be right.

But that isn’t the whole story. Far from it. There are a dozen or more factors that go into it, not just what gets into your hands but what gets into everyone else’s hands along the way.

First of all, let’s look at things historically. People who are genderblind love to point out authors like Norton, Le Guin, McCaffrey, as shining examples of why gender doesn’t matter in fiction. Looks, these women all won Hugo awards, even! People saw how awesome their work was, they read it, they loved it, and they gave it awards! You can’t say that there’s a gender bias in genre!

This is, bluntly, akin to saying that racism doesn’t exist in America because of a single black President. One exception does not undo the whole system. Because looking at the rest of the story, you’ll see that the Hugos were awarded to people for 8 years before a woman got the award. By that point, some male authors had won multiple times. As recently as 2009, all the nominees for Best Novel were men. Were women just not writing anything good that year? Were all the male-written books just coincidentally better?

This stuff matters. It matters because it’s indicative of what people take seriously. And it’s like a snowball; it starts small, but grows bigger the more it keeps going. You think that women don’t really write things that men would be interested in. So you don’t read the books that women write. Thus those books don’t really sell as well. So publishers aren’t as likely to take on books written by women. Which means fewer books make it to the shelves with female names on the covers. And books written by women get marketed less because publishers don’t expect a big return on their investment. Which means you don’t read as many books written by women, and you certainly don’t consider them for awards, because by that point you’re stuck in this hideous mindset that if a woman wrote something worthy of an award, it would be here on sheer merit, and since it’s not, it must not exist.

If you look no further than the bookshelves, then sure, that’s what it seems like. But books don’t magically appear there at the whim of a single writer and single reader. There’s a process. And that process has been tainted by history.

“Okay, fine,” you say. “Maybe that’s true. But let’s just look at books published in the past half decade. In 5 years we’ve made huge strides toward equality. Let’s forget the past and move ahead to a better future.”

Spoken like someone whose past has never forced them to fight for recognition.

The past influences the present. All the time. Making your high horse stand on a soapbox doesn’t change that. But okay, let’s follow that line of thought for a moment and pretend that it makes perfect sense.

Why, then, do “Best Of” lists keep popping up with all these male authors. And why do people keep getting annoyed about it?

Oh, right, because of that pesky “history” thing.

It’s another part of that cycle. When male authors dominate the shelves for so long, it’s natural to think that the standalones and the series that stick around after so long are the ones that are really worth it. And again, out of context, you’re right. But those books come from that period of women being shoved to the back because of the pervasive thought that what they write is only of interest to women. George R R Martin and Robert Jordan and Robert Heinlein and a dozen or more authors don’t dominate those lists solely because they write a good book. They dominate it because they write a good book and because they were given a lot of visibility. You are, plainly, more likely to pick up a book written by a male author because there are more books available by male authors.

And you’re back into the cycle. Keep buying those man-written books without thought, keep claiming it’s only due to the superior quality of the story, and you’re making sure that only man-written books stay in print, with marketing budgets, on review and award lists.

This is why entire challenges exist to try to get people to read only fiction written by women. It’s not to try to force men down into some tiny box where their worth isn’t appreciated. It’s to try to even the score a little. It’s to try to convince people to break out of a comfort zone they didn’t even know they were in, to try something new and realize that hey, it really is as good as some people say it is. And when you start looking, you’ll see that there are books all over the place that are written by women.

You just have to look. Because history backs up the publishing industry’s male bias and says that yeah, men sell better than women, just look at all this data we have on hand from all the years we sold books that were 95% written by men anyway! They’re not going to do that for you, because as much as the tides are turning and equality is coming closer all the time, it’s not here yet, and the tried-and-true still makes more money even if it’s biased.

So when you proudly declare that you don’t see gender in your reading, that you only see quality, keep in mind that what you’re really saying is, “I’m trusting other people to judge what quality is before I can even pick up a book.” It’s not just about quality control, it’s just about gatekeeping, it’s about sales figures and history and the cyclical belief that women don’t write interesting things and so aren’t worth showing an interest in. You’re trusting a flawed system to judge what you want to read, and when you look at your reading lists and find that 4 of every 5 books you read were written by men, you’re trusting that somebody else judged them absolutely fairly.

Which, by the way, ignores the ripple effect before you even look at books already in line for publication. When books on shelves are overwhelmingly written by men, it puts across the message that women have a harder row to hoe to even get considered for publication in the first place. Maybe it would be better to just give up on this whole writing dream. No matter how good you are, nobody will ever buy your stuff. After all, if they were willing to look at more female-written fiction, wouldn’t they have done it by now? f things were truly fair, wouldn’t the numbers on the shelves be equal across genders?

And if you think I’m reaching for an excuse as to why women just don’t write or submit things, do keep in mind that female authors in the past have had to adopt male pseudonyms, or at least ambiguous ones, in order to be taken seriously. Andre Norton. James Tiptree Jr. It’s not enough that they wrote something good. They knew full well that the best way to getting taken seriously was to pretend to be a dude.

Still think there’s no bias? That history doesn’t affect the present? Because this is what you’re naively claiming every single time you say that good fiction knows no gender, that you’re genderblind and only quality matters. Quality matters only if you’re a dude. Only then are all things equal. Weren’t born with that dangly bit between your legs and an appropriate name to match? Then your choices were, for a long time, to either fake being a man, or just be so unbelievably brilliant that nobody could ignore you anymore. It wasn’t enough to be great. You had to be the best just to stand with the greats.

Nobody’s saying that you’re deliberately making lists of straight white cismale authors when you put together these lists. They’re saying that you’re doing so thoughtlessly. Naively. Ignorantly. Without consideration to the fact that the achievement line was set by these people and everyone else starts with a -2 penalty to all stats, which were devised by the men at the top to begin with. To ignore this says you’re okay with it. That you don’t think changing it is worth exerting any real effort over. That unfairness isn’t worth fighting to fix. That you don’t even want to hear that things might be skewed in any direction but the one that validates your opinion.

But hey, it’s all just about the quality, right?

6 comments on “The Great Divide

  1. You just have to look. Because history backs up the publishing industry’s male bias and says that yeah, men sell better than women, just look at all this data we have on hand from all the years we sold books that were 95% written by men anyway!

    And this is the sort of argument that gets trotted out for, things like women superhero movies, or just movies that have women in strong roles. Self fulfilling prophecy BS

  2. I considered myself a women-centric reader until, motivated by an article or two similar to yours, I checked through my “finished” list on GoodReads and realized, “Wow, I’m actually reading 75% men.” I check it again now and then, and while the figure is getting closer to parity, it still isn’t quite there. Marketing definitely has an influence, too, sometimes in weird ways.

    Anyhow, your last paragraph is spot on. There’s no malice in these all-male lists, and there wasn’t any in my 75% men’s SF habits, for that matter. But unthinking bias is still bias!

    Many people get defensive when they called on being unmindful. But if you’re too conciliatory no one will listen. I haven’t been on the SF grid for long and this subject has come up continually, with exactly the same responses that could fill their own bingo card. It gets disheartening sometimes.

  3. I always tend to feel on the edges of these discussions, because what if you don’t see gender in your reading but you just tend to pick up a book based on whether or not the story looks interesting to you? That’s how I’ve always approached adding books to my to-read pile, and after reading this post I went to check my current stats out of curiosity. I’m at 56 books by women out of 113 books read this year (the rest by men, anthologies, and unknown) which floored me because that is pretty much 50/50 and absolutely unplanned.

  4. The shitty thing is the thoughtless part. We (white, cisgendered males) have a luxury that every other demographic does not: We can forget. We can forget that other groups are disadvantaged because in damn near everything I can think of, we’re advantaged, and no one seems to gives a damn about our race, gender, or sexuality.

    That’s why I try to read articles like this every time I see one. They remind me that I need to pay attention to who I’m reading, because who writes a book does matter, in the same way that companies function better when there are more women and minorities—more diverse viewpoints counteracts tunnel vision and groupthink. It’s also because I’ve got to put a conscious counterbalance in place to push back against the inherent bias in publishing.

    Which sucks. You shouldn’t have to remind white, cisgendered guys to pay attention to who we’re reading. We should all be able to pick up books however we please, and accidentally get a good cross-section of the viewpoints out there. And even as I undoubtedly benefit from the status quo, I’ve got to keep it in mind and keep fighting against it, because it doesn’t matter if it benefits white, cisgendered males like myself. It’s still bullshit.

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