I had a very interesting day in London yesterday at the BSFA/SFF AGM. I don’t propose to recap the panels but I would like to mull on a few things that arose from the contributions by, notably Tricia Sullivan and Pat Cadigan, among others.
Tricia and Pat started the day, along with Shana Worthen, discussing the situation of women writing SF. Niall Harrison would have been there to highlight the reviewing issue as exposed in the SF Count at Strange Horizons but chaos on the rail line from Oxford scuppered that. (I was extremely fortunate to have caught an earlier train and even that was half an hour late into Paddington)
Anyway, Pat and Tricia had plenty to say – about how few women write SF, how isolated they can feel, how little recognition they get, how to be blunt, their books just don’t sell. Not moaning but simply stating the facts and these are irrefutable as Shana Worthen’s handout, collecting a few recent statistics showed – along with the SF count, consider the 7 women listed in Gollancz’s 50 Years of SF poll, the 3 in Forbidden Planet’s 50 SF Books You Must Read list, the 2 women winners of the 41 BSFA best novel awards – and there’s much more besides, such as the under-representation of women as GoHs at conventions, so on and so forth.
And, as Pat said, she’s sick and tired of being sick and tired, because she’s been having these same conversations for 35 years.
Why is that? Well, one thing Tricia said hadn’t occurred to me before. Since there are so very few women writing SF, it only takes one or two of them to take a few years out to have children and women writers can pretty much entirely disappear from view, in the review coverage, in the short lists, in all the ways in which visibility is increased. And I’ve already discussed on this blog just how crucial visibility is to sales.
This is the vicious circle women SF writers are faced with – publishing is about what sells and white men write SF that sells. So white male SF is published. So that’s what sells... It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Which is absolutely not to say that SF publishers are sexist – not in the least, not considering how many of the editorial staff are women, for a start. Nor are reviewers, taken individually, not the ones that I know anyway. But somehow, the end result ends up biased. Somehow, the machine is dumber than the sum of its parts. Is there an antonym to synergy? Because this is where we need it.
Incidentally, I was extremely heartened, over the course of the day, to see how many of the men present were absolutely ready to accept this without feeling in any sense personally got at or criticised. And to accept, with real concern, that this is a genre problem, not a women’s problem. This is going to be key to improving matters after all.
Okay, so how do we improve matters? Let’s light some candles rather than curse the darkness. One thing that occurs to me is a conversation I had some years ago with a few members of The Scattered Authors Society, a children’s writers’ collective set up to address this isolation issue. One of their most successful-ever initiatives was all chipping in and getting posters printed up with – I think – twenty or so of their book jackets which they sent free of charge to local and school libraries. That prompted a measurable uptick in sales and library borrowings. Once kids know the books are there, they’ll be interested. If they don’t know they exist... we’re back to that visibility issue.
So could the BSFA/SFF do something similar? We’re all working to address this problem within genre circles but we need to look beyond them. That’s what five years of The Write Fantastic has taught me. It’s also shown me how keen local authority Reader Development Officers are to spread the word about reading across all genres – even if this year, their funding has been hacked back to the bedrock. So we can’t look to them for funding this sort of initiative – and please don’t expect writers to. I’m working as hard as ever and earning half what I earned five years ago and I am by no means alone in that. Publishers? Might they be persuaded to find some spare change from their dwindling marketing budgets?
One suggestion that’s been floating around is a women-only SF prize, or er, given how few women would actually be eligible as writing SF, a women-only Speculative Fiction prize, one year SF, one year Fantasy, one year Horror and back to the start?
Sorry but no, I’m not in favour. Because that will become the counter-argument waved whenever anyone flags up women’s under-representation in all the other awards. What are you complaining about? You have your very own award! And, you know what, echoing Pat Cadigan, I don’t want to be congratulated/rewarded for being a good writer, for a woman. I want to be considered a good writer who happens to be a woman.
As Jenni Hill (Solaris Books) remarked, when did you last hear Terry Pratchett complimented for being good male writer? That prompts a further thought; this week saw the winners of the Anywhere but Here, Anywhen but Now prize announced. Two chaps but that’s not what interests me. I’d dearly love to know how many of the 500 entries were by women. If anyone can think how we might find out, please do stick your hand up.
Because something else Jenni Hill commented on was how few of the SF submissions she sees are actually written by women. Does this mean that women just don’t write SF? Not going by the anecdotal evidence. Not looking at short stories in magazines – though the under-representation in anthologies is another related issue.
But what those aspiring female writers don’t see is a tradition in women being successfully published to encourage and inspire them. This is a key difference between SF and Fantasy – where we have our own similar/different set of bias-related issues of course but that particular Venn diagram is not today’s topic.
So what can we do about that? Tricia Sullivan floated the possibility of some sort of mentoring programme for aspiring writers. Or just some less formal support system, email list, online group... If that could be managed without overburdening already over-scheduled female – and male – authors, that would be great.
It occurred to me to wonder about the agenting issue. Because that’s a key filter in the process when it comes to getting submissions on an editor’s desk. And again, just so we’re clear, I’m not saying that agents are sexist. Far from it. But there are simply so few agents that will handle SF&Fantasy, especially here in the UK. Read the listings and see how many agencies specifically exclude it.
One agent can only handle so many clients at any one time and once again, they are looking for what sells, on their own behalf and on behalf of the aspiring writers they see. Is this another anti-synergistic bottleneck? Especially if women are under-represented in their submissions, on account of the lack of a visible/successful tradition to encourage them?
If so, how could we get round that? How about an alternative route to market/editorial desks? Could the BSFA/SFF – by which of course, I mean the members, and I hope that means at least some of you – organise some system for women writers to submit their work for assessment and have those that make the grade for threshold-number of informed, experienced readers, sent to editors etc with that ‘stamp’ to lift them above the mass of the slush pile. No guarantees but something to tell editors that this is worth a closer look?
I’m just throwing ideas out here. No, I certainly don’t want to see any agent or publisher’s slush pile land on my doorstep. I don’t have the time or the patience to deal with that sort of thing, not when I look at agents’ blogs, like Jennifer Jackson’s Notes from the Query Wars and after a brief chat with Jo Fletcher at Eastercon about what’s bombarded her new list.
Trust me, if I wanted to be a literary agent, I would have signed up the fifteen to twenty people who’ve asked me to represent them over the past decade. Just so you know.
But my own beloved, late lamented agent Maggie Noach, had a reader who came in once a week to read the 30 or so query letters and sample chapters and pull out the one or two that were worth a closer look. Of those 4-6 a month, Maggie would find maybe 2 a year worth representing. Couldn’t we find a way of at least offering that kind of assessment?
While encouraging those that don’t make the grade to improve their skills through the many local creative writing resources on offer – and highlighting the writerly groups for genre writers, such as the BSFA Orbiter programme? Such as the online critique groups? Especially since Simon Spanton (Gollancz) commented that when they find something interesting in their open-submissions pile, they go looking online for reaction to any other short fiction by that writer and/or online critiques of the work in progress.
I didn’t know that and it’s definitely worth noting. Could we set up some online space for aspiring women’s writers? Would that help or ghettoise?
What can we do? Because doing nothing is not an option.
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