Wednesday, June 1, 2011

More documentation, more numbers, more "explanations"

Last Saturday, Nicola Griffith posted A shocking UK sf 'favorites' score: men 500, women 18. She begins:

Yesterday, in the Guardian, Damien G. Walter asked readers to list their favourite sf. And they did. In a follow-up blog piece, Walter estimates that more than 500 books were mentioned. I scanned the Guardian comments--yes, all of them--and counted only 18 women's names. Eighteen. Out of more than five hundred.

I admit, I could have missed one or two. For the sake of argument, let's say there were exactly 500 novels mentioned. Let's say 20 of them were by women. (Yes, some respondents mentioned titles, some author names. Apples and oranges. Sue me. Or, better, take the time to parse the comments yourself and then share.)

The ratio of women to men is 1:24. About 4%. I'm quite aware of gender bias in literature (see, for example "Hard Takes Soft" and "Girl Cooties") but this ratio, frankly, shocked me.
She then takes notes of some of the “explanations” for the disparity, and remarks:
Or, as Joanna Russ might have put it:
"She didn't write it."
"She wrote it but she wrote only one of it."
"She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist (sf writer), and it isn't really art (sf)."
"She wrote it, but she's an anomaly."

These are just a few of the classic arguments, so beautifully exposed by Russ, used by critics to suppress women's writing. (If you haven't read How to Suppress Women's Writing, your education awaits.)

Clearly, women's sf is being suppressed in the UK. Oh, not intentionally. But that's how bias works: it's unconscious. And of course sometimes it's beyond a reader's power to change: you can't buy a book that's not on the shelf. You can't shelve something the publisher hasn't printed. You can't publish something an agent doesn't send you. You can't represent something a writer doesn't submit. Etc.
You'll want to read all of Nicola's post, for she goes on to offer a list of Things to Be Done to correct the situation.

I was bemused to see a post in response to Nicola's on the Guardian's blog yesterday: The incredible shrinking presence of women SF Writers.
Is it the industry itself that is sexist? High-profile women in major UK publishing houses working in the genre – including, but not limited, to Anna Gregson, Anne Clarke and Bella Pagan at Orbit, Julie Crisp at Pan Macmillan and Jane Johnson at Voyager – would suggest that the glass ceiling doesn't exist at the business end.

Nor is there a shortage of women writers troubling the SF/Fantasy/Horror bestseller lists – Jaine Fenn, Sarah Pinborough, Marianne de Pierres, Justina Robson, Stephanie Swainston, Cherie Priest, Tricia Sullivan ... it would take more space than is available here to list every woman writer active in the genre today.

Which means, if we're looking for a culprit, that suspicion must fall on the genre's very active fanbase: as this Guardian poll suggests, if there is sexism in the SF world, it may well be a matter of representation by the readership. It's difficult to legislate for equality in an online poll such as the Guardian's: the results are what they are. With no shortage of women working in the industry, the question must be asked why the people who offer their opinions – be it in a survey, or by way of compiling a book or magazine supplement – are putting forward a demonstrably male bias.

Perhaps the received wisdom that SF really is just for boys is true. Or maybe it's just that those who take part in online polls are mainly white, middle-class men, and a very, very vocal minority out of a much wider and more representative readership. Thoughts?

The “thoughts” that follow, in the comments, range mostly from abominable to dense, and so I read only a handful of them. I wonder how much this is due to the blog author's (the post seems to be unsigned-- I couldn't find a byline on the page) suggestion that it's the fault of the fan-base...

One commenter did point to Cheryl Morgan's post on the subject Female Invisibility Bingo. In her post, after reflecting on Nicola's apt citation of How to Suppress Women's Writing, Cheryl makes this suggestion:

There should be a bingo card, and we can add to it some of the reasons I saw given this morning as to why women shouldn’t care about exclusion from things like “best of” lists.
1a. Women shouldn’t complain about exclusion because their books are more popular than men’s.
1b. Women shouldn’t complain because the lists reflect popular taste.
2a. Women shouldn’t complain because it is only critics talking and who cares what they think?
2b. Women shouldn’t complain because it is only fans talking and who cares what they think?

And the beat goes on...

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