An open letter from author Juliet E McKenna about everybody's responsibility when it comes to the gender balance in SF, fantasy and horror writing
I've been asked lately, "why are you giving SFX a kicking?" when I've blogged about the gender balance of the magazine's book reviews. Okay, first and foremost, it's nothing personal. I value the mag personally as a fan of genre film, TV, books and comics, and professionally as a writer I know how much we all benefit from such high-profile genre publication. Hey, I'm a Direct Debit subscriber (mmm... uncluttered covers...)
Because I value SFX , I want it doing the best possible job of telling all of us fans about the wealth of SF, fantasy and horror talent. There's an issue here and it doesn't only concern SFX . The website Strange Horizons recently posted a survey showing that a disproportionate number of SFFH books written by men are reviewed in magazines and web sites compared to books written by women. Across a range of genre venues 30% of the books reviewed were written by women and 70% were by men, when overall in the UK and US, women write 45% of SFFH novels and men write 55%.
When these numbers don't tally, fans aren't seeing the whole picture. So I think it's fair to say, "Hey, editor Dave/Jim/Bob/Pete, did you realise...?" Happily, the responses I've had have been variations on "Oh ****, we didn't realise! We must do better!" Believable? Of course. I never thought to check my own reviews for gender balance before, like every other reviewer I've asked about this.
Problem solved? The mighty sword of feminism defeats the evil patriarchy? Sorry, no. Because deliberate sexism doesn't cause this any more than it causes the wider under-representation of women writers in anthologies and across publishing lists. I've been working in this industry for over a decade and trust me, it isn't overrun by chauvinists. For a start, a lot of women are involved. Also, I've worked in Personnel in the car industry; I know deliberate sexism when I see it.
Shame. It would be nice to simply point an accusing finger at the evil sexists and say they're to blame. We do all love to assign blame. At best, if we can get rid of the sexists, the problem's solved. At worst, we can still point and say since it's not our fault, there's nothing we can do. Then it's no longer our responsibility. Right? Wrong. When I worked in Personnel, I wasn't at fault when a racist manager gave a British Asian lad a hard time. But it was my responsibility, along with everyone else in the company, to hold that manager to account as well as to look out for institutional racism or sexism.
That's why the Personnel Department was asked why so few women having children returned to work for the company. We discovered several factors combined to make that very difficult. No single system was deliberately sexist but that was the overall outcome. Dumb systems can give even dumber results. There are chapters on this stuff in management textbooks. Sorry, I can't give references; those books went to Oxfam long ago with my power suits and shiny shoes. But we can all watch for dumb systems giving undesirable outcomes in the SFFH world. We can all do something about them.
Every reviewer can check their personal choices of books, to make sure there's balance. Each reviews editor can do the same; monthly, quarterly, annually. If balance is lacking, we can ask why without necessarily accusing anyone of sexism. The reasons may have nothing to do with reviewers. What if a particular publishing house doesn't offer any books by women writers over a six month period? It happens... especially in hard SF.
Then we can ask why. Most likely, the publishers, men and women, will point to lower sales figures for female authors compared to men. They publish more SF by men because that's what sells. Yes, but if that's what's mostly published, of course that's what mostly sells. It's a self-fulfilling prophecy, a dumb system.
What can we do about that? As readers, we can choose to try books by women writers when a review catches our eye (which is why those reviews are important). Use your local library if you haven't got the cash to spend. If you liked a book, blog or tweet about it, to let other readers know. Once publishers see that people are reading books by women or blue furry things from Alpha Centauri, they'll publish more of them. Sales spreadsheets don't care who's written a book. They just want to see the money.
Okay, up to a point. Publishers can't publish books that don't exist. Editors get disproportionally fewer submissions from female and minority authors. Agents and anthologists say the same. But I know from running workshops that people of every profile are writing. So editors and agents can check their websites and guidelines for anything which might deter applicants already dubious because they don't fit the white/male majority dominating the bookshelves.
Magazine short-fiction and anthology editors can make sure they draw up a balanced list of writers for invitation-only projects and appeal as loudly possible for a representative range of submissions for open collections. Aspiring authors in writing groups can all encourage each other to try their chances with their best possible work. If you're a reader who usually sticks to novels, try some short fiction and anthologies. If you find something really good, say so online. Agents and editors always check the net to learn more about writers who've sent some promising stuff. Because agents and editors want good stories, whoever writes them. Because good stories sell.
I'm not saying this is a quick, easy fix. Dumb systems have a lot of inertia. But it's not that difficult for us all to do what we can individually to boost the signal. Because this matters. If you don't think so, why are you reading SF, fantasy or horror? The genre has always challenged unthinking, accepted ways and confronted bias. It's the voice of those out of step, who so often end up leading the future.