Why Aren’t There More Female Sci-fi/Fantasy Authors?
They’re certainly out there, so where are they?
Recently, I did an article on ten books everyone (at least, every fan of fantasy and science fiction) should read this summer. After I posted it, I was reading through the comment section and noticed something odd that a reader had pointed out: I hadn’t included any female authors on my list. “Really?” I thought, checking it over. “Surely I have at least one female…” But no, I didn’t. (Don’t.) Of the ten books on my list, nine were novels written by men. The other one was a collection of the best short science fiction stories from 1929-1964. Of the 24 stories in that volume, only one, “That Only A Mother,” was written by a woman–Judith Merril. This revelation left me flabbergasted. Why weren’t there any women on my list of great sci-fi and fantasy books?
You see, I’m currently getting my master’s degree in creative writing. In my program, out of the fiction, nonfiction and poetry sections, I’m one of only a handful of men. In my local writer’s group, the majority of the people I know who write fantasy and science fiction are women. So why is it, when I look at the 200-ish books on my bookshelf, only 12 of them are by women? (15 if you count books co-authored by women.) Looking through the dozen-or-so anthologies of speculative fiction I own, the best ratio I could find of female/male authors was in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror collection of 2008. Of the 40 authors featured, 19 were women, roughly half.
Once this data was brought to my attention, I thought it over. While I’m sure no sexist or bigot ever really thinks of him/herself as sexist, I know I certainly don’t. The best writer I actually know in person is a female friend of mine. My very favorite short story of all time is “Perfection” by Lynn Flewelling. And who doesn’t love Harry Potter? But thinking about the Boy Who Lived does bring me to a good point. You’ll notice that the author of the famous kid-wizard series doesn’t use the name “Joanne Rowling” on her books, but rather “J.K. Rowling.” There’s a good reason for that. According to her website, Rowling’s publisher recommended that she use her initials rather than her first (feminine) name in order to avoid scaring off young boys from reading her books.
I do not understand this.
I cannot ever remember a time when I was a young boy where I asked my parents as to the gender of a book’s author, heard that it was a woman and then decided I wanted nothing to do with that book based on that fact. Who does that? Where is this a problem? Frankly, I have trouble remembering the name of authors until I need it to be able to find their book at a bookstore or library. I can understand if someone describes a book to a child, and that child, upon hearing that the protagonist is of the opposite gender from themselves, might not be interested in it. Kids are concerned about cooties at that age. They’re just taking proper precautions.
But what child cares about the author of that book? I didn’t even really understand what relationship an author had to a story when I was a kid. I certainly wasn’t sorting them out by gender. (I thought Dr. Seuss was some sort of whimsical physician who knew a feline haberdasher.) And yet, the contents of my book list had to have come from somewhere. And if it isn’t some sort of bias in me that causes my shelf to look like it does, what then is the cause?
I’m not the only person to have pondered about this issue, as these articles from Slate and the Guardian–both of which were prompted by stats from VIDA–point out. It seems that fewer women are getting published by publishing houses; literary magazines tend to focus their efforts on books written by men and more men than women are reviewing books (which, as you’ll remember, are written by more men than women). I don’t think there’s any kind of phallocentric conspiracy out there, but the numbers do unsettle me, as I think they should.
The ability to tell a good story is not limited to gender. Imagination is not solely a faculty of the male brain. So what’s going on here? First off, it seems that more men than women submit stories of short speculative fiction. So statistically speaking, that’s one answer right there: there’s a larger pool to choose from in the “male-written story” category. Consequently, more of them will make it to print. And I’d say (and most students of the genre would agree) that there used to be a clear bias against female-written speculative fiction stories, thus explaining Judith Merill’s standing as the lone female writer in the “Science Fiction Hall of Fame, Vol. 1.” She was an exception to the rule. And that bias against female authorship is clearly still present, at least in the minds of some, or J.K. Rowling’s publisher wouldn’t have recommend her using a nom de plume.
So, having been made aware of this issue, I know I’ll certainly be on the lookout for more fine fiction written by women, and I’ll be doing my best to bring it to your attention, dear readers. If you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them, as I’m planning on doing a follow-up to my “10 Books You Need To Read This Summer” article, featuring all female authors. I just finished “The Telling” by Ursula le Guin, (a book of the Hainish Cycle), and I liked it very much. Also, my thanks to those who pointed out to me where my article was lacking. I do read the comments on these posts, as well as what people have to say on Twitter.
Stay geeky, my friends.