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Women in SF/Publishing

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.

*** since I've disabled anonymous posting on account of spam, some people are having trouble engaging in the discourse. I will post comments by proxy - email juliet dot mckenna at gmail dot com ***


( 77 comments — Leave a comment )
Jun. 5th, 2011 06:00 am (UTC)
> No, I certainly don’t want to see any agent or publisher’s slush pile land on my doorstep.

That was going to be my criticism. As an amateur reviewer I can't keep up with the *published* books sent to me let alone unpublished ones.
Jun. 5th, 2011 07:38 am (UTC)
Jun. 5th, 2011 06:03 am (UTC)
(First: I agree unreservedly that there is a problem and you've characterised it accurately.)

However, one thought occurred to me immediately: in your description of the machine (editors, publishers, reviewers) you missed out one key component -- bookstores.

I pay virtually no attention to the British retail picture because I'm a de facto American author in career terms. But is there any evidence for systematic under-promotion of female SF writers in British bookstores? My understanding is that if Waterstones' centralized buyers don't like your face, you're in a world of hurt -- with 40% of the high street frontage, that can irreparably dent your advance orders. Then there's the question of whether they ever put female SF authors on 3 for 2 or other front-of-store displays. Is this an issue, or am I barking up the wrong tree?

Edited at 2011-06-05 10:10 am (UTC)
Jun. 5th, 2011 07:40 am (UTC)
visibility in bookstores is indeed another facet of this whole issue. Thanks for flagging it up.

No, I don't know how well female writers are represented in the limited appearances of SF&F writers in front of store promotions - but I'd bet they're under represented.
(no subject) - fjm - Jun. 13th, 2011 03:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
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Jun. 5th, 2011 07:15 am (UTC)
This is so sensible. I have long felt we need at least an SFF group within the Society of Authors: that would be unisex, but it would be one way of connecting us, and women's networks could be set up within it.
The problem may begin before the writing stage, though. Girls are still not doing science, and, when they do, being given less attention, less support and fewer opportunities. I wonder whether women sf writers might contact the Women in Science network and see what that produces?
Jun. 5th, 2011 07:42 am (UTC)
Indeed - the books have to be there to be in with a chance of publication in the first place.

Some link up with the Women in Science network would surely be worth pursuing.

Hmmm, Baroness Susan Greenfield is a Hildabeest...
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Jun. 5th, 2011 08:08 am (UTC)
Of course if SF by women is hard to sell, new female writers who are tailoring their output with an eye to being commercially successful will avoid it and stick to other genres where women are an easier sell.

Thus chicken and egg situation!
Jun. 5th, 2011 08:43 am (UTC)
- and every female SF writer seems to have the conversation where they're asked if they've ever considered writing Fantasy or Young Adult...
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Jun. 5th, 2011 08:35 am (UTC)
heretical probably, but would the Tiptree Award serve better by being reposityioned as a prize for women's fantastika (like the Orange if for general fiction) rather than a slightly vague 'gender' award? Then again, as a US based award it mightn't necessarily help woman writers on this side of the Atlantic. But, as you say, something needs to be done.
Jun. 5th, 2011 08:46 am (UTC)
this was mooted yesterday and is worth discussion, though there was a feeling that the Tiptree does what it does well and if it ain't broke, etc,...
Jun. 5th, 2011 09:43 am (UTC)
I think a large part of the 'doesn't sell' problem is that when editors buy work by women, they buy 'chick-lit' (note the exponential increase in shallow women characters + supernaturals). Because women writers are of course ONLY going to be read by women, and OF COURSE women are only really interested in clothes and romance and shoes. ::vomit:: I'm a woman, and I don't want to read romance! I want to read strong plot and well-realized strong characters. A little skin is ok, but if I wanted to read bad vampire porn, I'd do that online for free.

So why can't I buy work like that by women? Oh, yeah...it's not on the shelves. Why? Because the publishing world thinks women writers don't sell. Because they don't publish it, so we can't buy it...
Jun. 5th, 2011 09:56 am (UTC)
And what publisher is going to take the risk?

I recall an interview I read ages ago with some Hollywood hotshot, who said that no one wants to be the first with a success but everyone wants to be the second. I think that was in the context of superhero films, but the principle is widely applicable.
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Jun. 5th, 2011 11:56 am (UTC)
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.

I don't know whether or not such an award is a good idea, but I'm also not sure this is a convincing argument against it. Here's my attempt at a defense, which I'm quite willing to have shot down.

First, "You have your very own award" is a silly argument, and people who try to make it will look silly. People don't try to say this about the Orange Prize very often; when they do they look silly, and get slapped down hard. I'm sure the same would happen if the argument was deployed against any hypothetical Speculative Orange. I think it's far more likely that a Speculative Orange would highlight remarkable works that didn't make the running for the existing awards in the field, and make those awards look silly.

Second, what people do try to say about the Orange Prize is that it isn't necessary, or that even if it was necessary in the past it isn't now. This is easily disproved with recourse to numbers, and if the time ever does come when the rest of the award-giving world isn't horrendously biased against women, the prize could be disbanded.

Third, and relatedly, it's clear that current awards in the UK, with occasional exceptions, reward good writers who are men. A Speculative Orange wouldn't reward those who are good writers, for a woman, it would reward those women who are good writers, but don't get recognised now.

The argument in favour of a Speculative Orange, as I see it, is that awards are effective conversation starters, just about the most effective mechanism we have for starting conversations about specific books; and talking positively about specific books seems to me one of the vital things that needs to be done. (I admit I'm also fond of the idea because the existing Orange Prize has such a dismal track record about including speculative writing -- worse than the Booker -- despite what is on the face of it a more inclusive entry criteria, not being limited to Brit/Commonwealth writers, not being limited to two books per publisher.) I wonder, however, whether it wouldn't be sufficient to run it as a one-off, to make a point with it, rather than establish it as an ongoing thing.

(Whether we need a Tiptree-style award -- I take Cheryl's point that we're the only English-speaking country without one -- is a different conversation, I think, because it's content-based. The issues are related but not, I think, the same.)
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(no subject) - jemck - Jun. 5th, 2011 12:38 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 5th, 2011 02:04 pm (UTC)
- from Ian Whates, posting by proxy because LJ can't locate his long-unused account

"it's clear that current awards in the UK, with occasional exceptions, reward good writers who are men." Sorry, I don't think that's clear at all. This year, Lauren Beukes' Zoo City narrowly lost out in the BSFA Award for best novel to Ian's 'The Dervish House' - both excellent novels -- and it did win the Arthur C Clarke Award, while the BSFA's second fiction award, for shorter works, was won by Aliette de Bodard. Sarah Pinborough has picked up British Fantasy Awards for the past two years. The awards reward good writers of both genders, and women are frequently represented on the shortlists; not often enough, perhaps, but with the current gender imbalance among published authors, that's inevitable.

Have to confess, I'm in two minds about a separate award for female authors. As an editor and publisher, gender is generally one of the very last things I consider when assessing a piece. It's the quality of the writing and the story that counts. Some of my favourite authors are women... and some are men. To have an award specifically for one gender smacks of being a little patronising. There's a risk that this might be perceived by some as suggesting that women authors can't compete with the men; and they most certainly can.

At the same time, I do agree that something needs to be done.

Jun. 5th, 2011 02:18 pm (UTC)
Sorry, I don't think that's clear at all

Going by the invaluable Locus index to SF Awards, it seems fairly clear to me, unfortunately:

Female winners of the Clarke in the last decade: 2/10
Female winners of the BSFA best novel in the last decade: 0/10
Female winners of the BSFA best short in the last decade: 2/10
Female winners of the BFS best novel in the last decade: 0/10
Female winners of the BFS best short in the last decade: 1/10

(Sarah Pinborough's other win being in Best Novella, instituted for the 2005 awards; so far she is the only woman to win.)

This year may well represent progress -- I certainly hope so.
Jun. 5th, 2011 02:28 pm (UTC)
I was also at the BSFA / SFF meeting yesterday and certainly took a lot away from it.

Specifically on the subject of a Speculatively styled Orange type prize, I'm against it, which I also said yesterday.

I can actually see good arguments from both sides, and am entirely open to hearing more. My current position comes from my own experience running an SF award (the Clarke) and pretty much goes as follows.


There has been an argument leveled at many, many awards (including the Clarke) that, while nice to have, they don't do much in terms of sales.

With the Clarke, I've been told we managed to noticeably spike sales against expected trends for the last two winners, China Mieville and Lauren Beukes. This by the way is in immediate post-win weeks, not the long tail effect that might come from word of mouth, casual browsing, noticing the 'winner of' tag on the cover etc etc which is much harder to track. I'm talking about a noted immediate spike.

It's taken the Clarke, probably the UK's best known SF prize,
pretty much a quarter century to reach that height.

Of course this isn't really a specific argument against creating a new award, rather it's a caution about the immediate effect such an award would have.

Let me add another note of caution here - if people do want to set up such an award they need to realise to do it well it's basically a second full time job you need to commit to, and also you probably need to envision being involved for a minimum of five years to keep momentum and build groundswell both within the existing community and, crucially, outside of it too.

These comments shouldn't be read as a negative take on all the positive comment above, simply one shared from the perspective of someone who runs an award rather than someone who comments on them.

In fact, should there be people out there who not only think a Speculative Orange prize is a thing worth bringing into existence, I strongly urge them to get in touch with me - I'm more than happy to share my experience and advise on the administration, marketing and pr sides of things.

In the meantime, while the Clarke Award won't be creating any new categories, I am looking very hard at ways we can support the SF community of writers to raise its presence as widely as possible, and some of the other ideas discussed yesterday such as advise & mentoring are ones we have on the list.

Again, if people would like to discuss any of these ideas (or their own different ones) with me they're welcome to get in touch with me.

The best ways are ClarkeAward at gmail dot com or, better, @ClarkeAward on Twitter.

(I would reply more via LJ, but had to create an account to contribute today personally rather than by proxy)
Jun. 5th, 2011 03:08 pm (UTC)
You should be able to login to LJ with your Twitter account. When it asks for a login, click on "Log in with OpenID". (Although, of course, you now have one...)
Jun. 5th, 2011 02:33 pm (UTC)
If someone would like to run this as a guest post on a platform that doesn't have LJ's issues with non-member/anonymous postings, just let me know!
Jun. 5th, 2011 02:51 pm (UTC)
My blog seems to accept comments without too much fuss. I have moderation turned on, but I could try turning it off and keep an eye out for spam!
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Jun. 5th, 2011 02:49 pm (UTC)
On the subject of SF and science, I am the opposite - I have a scientific background but prefer to write fantasy because SF is too much of a busman's holiday :)

I wrote a blog post about the subject of visibility earlier today (not posted yet) in which I suggest that the problem may be (at least in part) down to women's reticence in general. We're not very good at getting out there and getting our voices heard compared to men - and when we do, we get shouted down and accused of whining because it's all too easy to dwell on the negatives.

Positive action doesn't have to mean positive discrimination. I think initiatives like the posters mentioned, that just promote women's work and give it a high profile without making a big deal about the fact that the writers in question are women, are the way forward. We need to be on panels talking about our genre as writers first and women second, not restrict our discussions to why women are under-represented in SF - as shown at Eastercon, this too often devolves into the rehashing of old arguments with no clear way forward. We need to be mentoring mixed groups and, like a good teacher, making sure that the girls aren't being drowned out by the more vocal male members of the group.

My tuppence-happorth, anyway...
Jun. 6th, 2011 02:03 am (UTC)
Having looked again at my blog, I'm ashamed to say that of six books reviewed, only one is by a woman. True, I've mostly been reading "the competition" and my corner of fantasy is dominated by men - and the one alternate history fantasy book I did review was, somewhat predictably, a romance! However I will make a concerted effort to seek out other works by women, in the name of balance. Starting with Aliette de Bodard, I think - but if anyone has suggestions, do let me know!
Jun. 5th, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC)
Some interesting ideas here, but one thing I keep coming back to is history.
The recurrent refrain is that women didn't/dont write SF (they write fantasy, paranoromance, YA, Whichever label is appropriate to dismiss their work.) There are things publishers, booksellers, editors etc might do, but what we can all do is to keep countering this writing women out of history by highlighting examples that show the truth.
http://performativeutterance.wordpress.com/2011/05/27/150-women-sf-writers-a-list/ is my starting point.
Jun. 6th, 2011 05:12 pm (UTC)
Re: History
Just by the way, if you'd like names to add: Kate Elliott's "Jaran" series is SF, too.
Jun. 5th, 2011 04:59 pm (UTC)
There's another factor as well. I've seen a decent bit of SF being published by women in the last couple years. Here's the thing, though. It's not being published under SF. It's being published or shelved under romance.

The problems of a woman writing SF with romantic elements aren't new, and have been pretty well documented by authors like S.L. Viehl, who has been vocal about leaving SFWA because of the Old Guard SF authors who basically told her that she was contaminating the genre because she had characters that had romantic and sexual relationships.

I can think of several authors who have mentioned to me that they didn't even consider submitting to a SF publisher. Because the book had romantic elements, it wouldn't be welcome in the genre. Frankly, having spent time in both romance and SF circles, romance IS incredibly more welcoming to women authors.

The other issue you get into is shelving. Authors like Linnea Sinclair, who are actually published by SF publishers, are frequently shelved under romance instead of SF. SF readers aren't the ones finding the books. Romance readers are. Linnea Sinclair is an amazing author but has been virtually ignored as far as the SF field goes, whereas she's won several awards in the romance genre, including the RITA (this is romance's version of the Nebula).

The overwhelming message is: We don't want any of that girly stuff in our genre. It's no surprise women are going elsewhere. You see a fair lot of SF in YA recently, as well. It is frankly easier to go to a genre more friendly than to deal with the sexism.
Jun. 5th, 2011 05:07 pm (UTC)
Complicating this particular factor locally is that in the UK, there is almost no SFR published. Catherine Asaro - and - I don't know that any other is published here.

Sure, they're available on import. But they aren't eligible for UK awards unless published in this country.
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Jun. 7th, 2011 02:16 am (UTC)
the cadence/pausing problem affects women in almost every career, but I wonder if there's a way around it in SF: more shared world/series publishing? the 'not enough women in SF' thing doesn't hold water if you count media SF tie-ins like Star Trek, Star Wars et al. So a series that is commisisoned as but not sold as women in SF would give the option of rotating in and out writers who need exposure/maternity coverage. yes, it's special pleading but I'm not against quotas to tilt the playing field back off 45 degrees...
Jun. 7th, 2011 02:35 am (UTC)
ooh, now that is an interesting idea, particularly in combination with some other ideas this discussion is prompting...
( 77 comments — Leave a comment )

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