Publishing and Marketing 09: Reading Women In SFF

This is my 400th post. Naturally, I thought that I would do something a bit different from all the reviews I’ve been doing of late, for almost four months now. Reviews are well and good, but that’s not all that this blog is about. It is also “A Place For The Unrestrained Consumption of Good Fiction”. And this means a lot of things. One of the foremost is talking about good fiction, or just fiction in general beyond the context of a review. And that’s what this post is about. I’ve touched on this topic a little in the past, but with this “anniversary” on hand, I feel it is a good time to talk about it some more.

Over a year and a half ago, a friend pointed out to me that my reviews were all disproportionately of fiction from men. It was an eye-opener. It wasn’t something that I had considered before, and I was startled that such a bias had crept into my current fiction consumption, despite the fact that I consumed a lot of fiction from women growing up. And that’s what I’m here to talk to you about.

Note: I’m only looking at novels here, and not comics or audiobooks.

A common argument that a lot of people make is that you should read fiction without any consideration for race, religion, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, etc. That who a writer is in real life, what their beliefs are, should not at all affect your decision to buy a book and read it. At most, it is an extremely thin argument that is meant well but completely fails to consider the realities. Because of how the book publishing industry has developed, the men have a disproportionate amount of clout within the industry, across all roles, whether as creators or consumers or critics. Women have been a part of the industry for a long time though, and they’ve been a very valuable part of it too, but because the number of women in the industry is far too low compared to the number of men, women have always struggled to get an equal amount of attention.

In short, they have struggled against the gender bias, even though they shouldn’t have to. And this applies to all sorts of entertainment industries: movies, comics, etc.

When my friend pointed out to me that I was consuming fiction primarily by men, with a ratio as horrible as 9:1 or thereabouts, I took stock of the situation. I realised that without meaning to, I had let that bias settle in and let it influence me. As a reviewer, I consider it be a major feeling since if I only read and talk about fiction by men, then I limit myself in all sorts of ways. I can’t experiment, I can’t reach out for the new, and thus I only look the industry from one side of that informal divide.

I consciously made an effort since then to read more books by women. I wanted to read something that would be outside of my comfort zone. And I use that term as not something that I’m familiar, but something that would lessen this unconscious bias I had developed without meaning to. To that effect, I just crunched some basic numbers on my reading in all of 2012 and in 2013 so far. Interesting stuff.

In 2012, I read a total of 114 books. These include novels and anthologies and omnibuses, all of which I’m counting as one item rather than doing something complicated. Since anthologies are always a mix of authors from both genders, I’m going to actually discount them from the count altogether, unless there is a special case, such as being written by authors of one gender exclusively (yes, this does happen). For omnibuses/trilogies written by both men and women, they won’t be considered for this number-crunching.

Of the books I read last year, I read 81 by men, and 24 by women. The former statistic includes several anthologies which were written exclusive by men, while the latter statistic includes a single anthology that was written (and edited) by women. That gives a total of 105 books, with the rest being anthologies/omnibuses written by both genders.

If you convert that into percentages, my novel reading last year was 77% men and 23% women. Essentially, I read one book by a female author for every four books that I was reading that was written by a male author.

Now let’s compare that with this year, where I’ve read 109 books in all thus far. The same qualifiers as before exist. The number includes two anthologies that were written by authors of either gender, and a novel that was written by a collaborative duo. So I’m not going to count those. That gives me a total of 106 books. Breaking that down by gender gives me 70 books by men and 36 by women.

If you convert that into percentages, my novel reading so far this year has been 66% men and 34% men. Essentially, I’ve been reading almost two books written by a male author for every one book by a female author.

I don’t believe that you can ever get to a perfect parity in your reading. Not unless you make a real conscious effort to do so, and I consider going to that extreme to be a waste of time. Because then you really are playing to the percentages. And what’s the point of that? Yes, I make a conscious effort to try and read as many books by female authors as I can, but I still make a final decision based on whether or not I find a book’s premise to be interesting. And when you get review copies left and right, sometimes, you have to go with a gut feeling that applies to both sides.

So really, take it as you can get. When I compiled my list of the 25 series I wanted to read this year (link), I made an effort to look at various popular authors from across a big gulf of time and pick the authors that interested me most. And what I ended up with was a nicely balanced list, whether fantasy/science fiction or male/female, with all permutations of those two “criteria”.

I don’t know. I’ve made a conscious effort, but I haven’t really gone out of my way to be what some people say “politically correct” with my reading. Because that’s not something I believe in or support. There is a fine line between that conscious effort and being politically correct or just picking things completely at random as that earlier argument would suggest. And there is a lot of grey area in between.

My intention has been to sample as much of the science fiction and fantasy genres as I can. And I’ve taken it in stride that my bias towards male authors has been unwarranted. It goes without saying, but must be said regardless, that women write fiction that is as good or as bad as their male counterparts. There really is no difference. No quirks in that regard except genre conventions. Its a fact that women authors are just as adept at adhering to genre conventions, or breaking them and doing something innovative. Our cultural bias otherwise is borne out of ignorance and we should take steps to correct that. But not for the sake of just being politically correct, but to truly go in for the enjoyment of it.

So you have to make that choice for yourself. But first you have to be self-aware that you are making that bias either way. Right?

So these are some random thoughts I had on the topic. What do you think?

For more on “Women In SFF”, you can check out my spotlight posts here and here.

Posted on November 21, 2013, in Editorial, Publishing & Marketing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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