By Scholarly Editor Kathy Kitts
Yearly from 2010, VIDA, a women in literary arts organization, has conducted a study on how women fare versus men in publishing. They totaled the number of female and male literary reviewers, reviews and bylines in approximately fifteen of the major literary venues from the Boston Review to The Times Literary Supplement. What they discovered is that men publish more than women nearly two to one.
In response, Strange Horizons conducted their own study to see whether this discrepancy held up in Science Fiction (SF) and fantasy. They tallied the number of Locus ‘books received’ by sex and genre in 2012, and surveyed fourteen magazines examining the number and types of reviews of those books.
They found the overall count of books received in both the US and UK markets unequal with men authoring 694 books versus women at 605. In 2012, women authored fewer than 1 in 3 of the UK science fiction novels. As for reviews, the study found disproportionately few on books by women and even fewer women reviewers. For example, Analog and Asimov’s had no female reviewers at all and the reviews themselves skewed to 75% or more toward male authors.
Historically, counter arguments against sexual bias have suggested that women don’t submit as often or stop sooner after receiving their first rejections. Studies by Northern Illinois University showed that women initially submit as often as men, but do give up on average 1.4 submissions earlier. However, a study in Science showed that papers with a female first author received more harshly worded reviews than identical submissions with a male first author. This alone could account for the small difference in the total submission number.
Another classic argument is market-driven. Fewer female SF authors are published because women don’t buy SF. It could be just as valid to argue that women don’t buy SF because there are few women authors. However, the argument as a whole fails when taking the following into consideration. According the AWP, Publishers Weekly and Amazon, the single largest purchaser of books are females between the age of 35 and 55. Wouldn’t it make sense to go after that market?
The AWP found that more women enter writing programs and graduate than do men but that they disappear anywhere from 3-5 years post graduation. Where do they go? The National Science Foundation (NSF) asked the same question in a study begun over a decade ago. They found that equal numbers of women and men graduate in the Geosciences as undergraduates, but by the tenured professor level, there are eleven men to every one woman. In the 1970s, the number peaked at ten to one, obviating the argument that women haven’t had time to move up the ranks. Ultimately, the NSF found that it wasn’t so much overt sexual discrimination, but rather minute leaks along the entire length of the career pipeline.
This pipeline metaphor reflects the female experience in SF as well. The first leak originates in Hollywood. SF has allowed itself to be defined by visual media. Previously, SF attracted all types of readers and writers because of its promise to examine all facets of what it means to be human. However, the blockbuster mentality/economic model has effectively neutered the types of stories SF publishers accept. The topic must appeal to everyone and offend no one.
Subsequently, publishers discourage stories that target women because they won’t appeal to the entire audience. Taking this argument ad absurdum, middle grade boys don’t read; and therefore, Rowling’s Harry Potter books should not be published because there’ll be no market.
The next leak occurs in both formal and informal education. In formal education, the AWP reports few writing programs accept genre writers and women are actively discouraged from writing genre-based fiction. I suspect this stems more from a bias against all genre literature rather than SF. But regardless of the exact cause, writing programs shunt women away from writing speculative fiction.
As for informal education, the NSF study found the military/competitive model of mentoring, specifically of weeding out the weak (or in writing: to maintain the idea that if writers can be discouraged, they should be because writing isn’t for them) disproportionately excludes women. The study discovered that these talented women did not leave the workforce, but rather moved into business where the mentoring models were more collaborative and empowering.
This is true for women SF writers. They don’t stop writing, they move to a different form or genre. Audrey Niffenegger, the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, could not get published in SF and sold the book as chick lit/main stream. According to LERA (Land of Enchantment Romance Writers Association), the only genre that has increased both its number of new authors and total books published during the current market contraction is romance. Several romance and chick lit imprints are actively pursuing urban and high fantasy titles.
As a consequence, women tend to publish disproportionately in semi-prozines and resort to fan fiction. In turn, publishing in less optimal venues exacerbates the difficulty in joining professional organizations and moving into decision-making positions.
According to the Strange Horizons study, women publish less often than men in “professional publications” as defined by Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). Such magazines would include Analog, Asimov’s, F&SF, Strange Horizons and Tor.com. The only venue to have more women authors than men in the study was Cascadia Subduction Zone, which is not defined as a professional market by SFWA. Meaning, publishing in women-friendly venues precludes women from gaining membership into SFWA. As a side note, only five of the past twenty-eight presidents of SFWA have been women. Additionally, most slush readers are men and despite some women in gatekeeper positions (i.e. Sheila Williams as editor at Asimov’s), the data suggest inherent biases persist.
Even after publication, the total number of female authors continues to trickle away. There are few women reviewers and even fewer women authors who receive reviews. This lack of visibility costs them at award time and in secondary sales in anthologies. With fewer reviews and fewer anthologies, fans and juries are less familiar with the work done by women, and we are back, circling the drain. With weak sales, publishing companies are free to say they don’t want to buy women authors because they don’t sell.
So if SF doesn’t want women, why should women bother with SF?
In an article in Mother Jones (April, 2012) Erin Belieu says, “I know there’s a part of the feminist world that is like, ‘Hey, screw ‘em, we’ll do our own thing over here,’ and I can see there’s a value in that. But a kind of nudgy part of me thinks: No. I want access, and I want my daughters to have access because we all know there’s no such thing as separate but equal.” I’ll also point out that if SF continues to cling to the “stereotypical reader” dinosaur, then the asteroid of changing demographics will vaporize the genre soon enough.
What can we do?
First, we can reevaluate and expand our notions of storytelling, of language, and of subject matter. We can solicit, and publish writing by women and then discuss these pieces seriously as literature. And we can educate the marketplace that we are here and that we have cash.
Second, we can start a conversation where we elicit from you, our readers and scholars, concrete solutions to the problems outlined here. How do we patch up this pipeline? Do the research and send us your findings.
[…] of the Bulletin. Others, such as our Scholarly Editor, Kathy Kitts, PhD, argue that this incident is just part of an overall culture of sexism in the science fiction community. It is hard to argue with her facts, even if you might want to argue about the motives behind these […]
Part of the solution lies in operating more like other manufacturing businesses and less like the “special” province traditional or legacy publishing has operated as in the past. In no other industry with which I am familiar in North America (Canada, US, Mexico) is the engine of manufacture so undervalued, misunderstood, and poorly treated — and this could be said for the customer (readers) as well.
Re: Ian Drury’s comment (and Deborah’s) – they are exactly right. However, in general, the metrics are not just gender-imbalanced in terms of product, they are imbalanced in many ways. And rather than looking at what readers what, as you suggest, Kathy, non-product (book) related criteria may be used, which has little potential for improvement.
Thank you for confirming what I suspect. I’ve been writing science fiction for nearly 15 years and attending conventions and conventions for about 10 years, but haven’t yet been published. I might be facing discrimination on the bases of my gender, but it’s a complex situation, so I can’t be sure.
I think this article has nailed it. The magazines which are acting as gatekeepers are aimed toward a male audience. SF which appeals to a female audience is routinely turned away, not because it’s poorly written, or unoriginal, or written by a woman per se, but because it doesn’t fit the market.
When I do get a personalized rejection or when I’ve been turned down by an agent, I’m told my writing is excellent but it’s “not for us.” I’m left guessing as to why my writing isn’t for them, but in looking over publishing venues I see that most publishing venues aren’t for me. I’m only submitting about 2 times a year because I can’t find venues which seem right for my work. I send anyway. I only have 20-25 rejections so far. Of those rejections, only two times did I feel there was truly a good fit between the venue and my story. This made those rejections particularly painful. Women are often criticized for quitting too soon, but this might be because we’ve accurately assessed the situation and determined that continuing is a course of action is a futile waste of time.
I’ve been able to met with agents who represent romance and literary fiction but not those who represent science fiction. Again I’m facing a mismatch between what I write and who I’m approaching. Romance and literary conferences offer organized opportunities to meet with agents and editors, science fiction conventions do not. At conventions writers meet agents and editors informally. I’ve been unable to strike up a suitably casual conversation with agents and editors. I think they don’t even realize that a woman standing nearby and being friendly might be an excellent SF writer. Or maybe they realize it’s a possibility and wish to run the other way. I remember last year at a conference I was about to say hi to an editor but he was talking to another man, both of them dressed in a similar fashion, and it didn’t seem like an opportune moment.
Part of this problems I believe is cultural/geographic mismatch. I live in Alaska. It’s expensive and difficult for me to attend conferences and conventions. Most editors and agents are from places like New York and Florida. We lack commonality beyond the difference between male and female.
If this is the case, then SF might be best served by having formal meetings between writers and editors/agents at science fiction conventions. We shouldn’t be relying on editors and writers accidentally meeting in elevators. Formal meetings would ensure that editors and agents are meeting with those of different genders, races, and cultures, not just with other people who are similar to the agents and editors. This might also reduce harassment at conventions, since it would reduce the confusion between when women are seeking sex partners and when women are seeking editors and agents.
I would like to see SFWA move away from these magazines as gatekeepers. It’s fair and legitimate for these magazines to turn away writing which doesn’t fit there needs. It’s not fair for SFWA to turn away these writers. It’s fair and understandable for agents and editors to speak casually with whomever they like. It’s not fair for the entire industry to rely on these casual conversations to determine who is worthy as a writer.ul. Women are often criticized for quitting too soon, but this might be because we’ve accurately assessed the situation and determined that continuing is a course of action is a futile waste of time.
I have been writing science fiction and fantasy professionally since 1982, with a dozen traditionally published novels and over 60 short stories in publications such as Asimov’s, F & SF, and Star Wars: Tales of Jabba’s Palace (as Deborah Wheeler). I’ve served as an officer of SFWA (Science Fiction Writers of America); two of my short stories have received Honorable Mention in Year’s Best SF. I have never once been discouraged from writing or submitting science fiction because I’m a woman, nor have I ever been told, by agents, editors, or readers themselves, that my work does not appeal to male readers. In fact, I get just as much fan mail from men as from women.
Over the years, I have received tremendous support from my male colleagues, beginning at a reception in the early 1980s, when the great science fiction writer Poul Anderson asked me what I was working on and listened intently, nodding in encouragement.
[…] Strange Horizons here. It also discusses and offers suggestions for why female writers submit less. This article by James Gunn examines that phenomenon too, and why female authors seem to fall by the wayside as time progresses. Another, personal account […]
I represent four female SF writers, all now with publishing deals; I signed them because their scripts were highly commercial. Editors bought them for the same reason. An author’s gender, race, sexuality or age make no difference: the sole metric is the quality of the script.
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Hi there just wanted to give you a quick heads up.
The text in your content seem to be running off the
screen in Safari. I’m not sure if this is a format issue or something to do with web browser compatibility but I thought I’d post to let
you know. The design look great though! Hope you get the issue resolved soon.
Hi and thank you for the heads’ up. Browser compatibility is always a snafu. I’ve tested in the Safari browsers on the machines I have access to. If you are interested in helping, send us the version of your Safari and your OS and a screenshot of the problem if possible. Would really help us debug. Send it to Tepring Crocker, Outreach Manager: You can find the email address on the Staff page!
James Gunn’s Ad Astra
I was told, to my face, by a UK editor not to bother submitting hard SF because I am a woman. Why should I bother writing it anymore? I gain no pleasure from comments like that. I can keep bashing my head against a brick wall or I can write something that’s actually appreciated.
This is the blog post about the incident: http://pattyjansen.com/blog/there-are-girl-cooties-on-my-space-ship-on-women-writing-hard-sf/
(also, the above two are spam comments. If this is a wordpress blog, install the WP anti-spam plugin, and stop getting these inane comments. Seriously, I fail to grok the point of comment spam)
[…] the Bulletin, others such as our Scholarly Editor, Kathy Kitts, Ph.D, argue that this incident is just part of an overall culture of sexism in the science fiction community. It is hard to argue with her facts, even if you might want to argue about the motives behind these […]