Monday, November 4, 2013

Round Table: Gender Bias in SF/F Part Three

This round table on Gender Bias, has been an eye opening experience for me. I had no idea how prevalent and subtle this issue was at the onset. But through my discussion with Stina, Zach and Maz I've found myself in a unique position to do something about a problem. To perhaps have a chance to have some slight impact on my audience other than sharing my opinion about the books that I devour each year. Because, gender bias is real and it's a problem we as a community can take steps to solve. 

I hope that some of the fledgling bloggers or aspiring ones, can learn from my experience and save themselves a public and sobering lesson and help educate the readership about the amazing writers who need our support to continue to tell more stories. The next Kameron Hurley, Stina Leicht, Lauren Beukes, Erin Morganstern, Emma Bull, M.L. Brennan, and countless countless others may be on the edge of giving up. We can help those stories get told, by simply making sure we read those stories that aren't told by heterosexual white guys. 

And I'm happy to say that I think we've done some good. The numbers are encouraging. The first part of this round table is already the most viewed item on this website's history. Part Two didn't get as much traction, but people are reading. And hopefully, they'll pick up one book by an author they might have otherwise looked over. It's something, and In would be lying if I didn't say I was proud. 

So here's the latest installment. I'm sorry it's taken so long, but life gets in the way at times. But to make up for it, I'm going to let the audience which book in the above picture of my To Be Read pile I need next. Comment below with your vote. I'll announce the winner in a week. 

Matt: Let's talk about the process of selecting the books we read. I'm curious about what everyone's process is and if being published and active in the genre community has changed what books are chosen. I wonder if thoughtful analysis of our process may reveal something about where we can take active steps to be more diverse and inclusive. 

Mazarkis Williams: OK, I spent a long time thinking about this, because it was hard to remember what I did before I was published. And that's weird, because that's most of my life. Right now if I have an optional book, I look at the BookSworn members or the other Night Shade authors and choose one of theirs. But before that, I would waste a lot of time on Amazon. If I was able to look inside the book and read the first few pages, that usually decided it for me. But to get to that point I read the book description and at least five of the reviews, making sure I got one unfavorable and one favorable review into the mix. I'm very picky, in case you haven't noticed.
(I did go to the bookstore from time to time and actually browse like a real person, but mostly, I would choose my books online.)

After I was published, I learned how Amazon sorts books. When I search for "epic fantasy" they show me the top selling books first. That means that most of the Night Shade books would not have come up for many, many pages. Many of the books I now love and keep on a treasured place on my shelf would have been buried.

Of course, from there I could click on other peoples' lists of favorites (at least I did - I don't see those lists along the side of the page anymore). Looking at others' favorites might have given me an opportunity to see books that were not in the top 100, but generally, by the time I had gone through 100 books, I had either given up or I had found something. So I was getting a very narrow view of what was available. 

It is kind of the same when you go to a bookstore. With limited space, they are better off stocking only books they know will sell a lot of copies. So any Barnes and Noble is going to have George R R Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, and JK Rowling but you might have to search a bit or ask special for a less well-known author.

So really I'm talking about a whole different phenomenon, which is that success brings more success in the publishing industry, while lack of success brings more obscurity. I have said previously in this discussion that I did look for women's names, believing (falsely) that women write better characters than men, and I was successful in finding books by women.So by pointing this out I am not saying women authors were pushed off the page entirely. However I just clicked on books-->fantasy--> epic and never saw a woman's name until the bottom of page three. Then I found two more on page five, one on the bottom of page six, and no more until page 10. So someone looking for books in this way would believe that there are not many women epic fantasy authors compared to the men. And that was what I thought, too.

Zachary Jernigan: Well, for me the process has always been different. I -- honestly -- didn't start using the internet to find books until the middle of last decade, and didn't really start ordering books on the internet in earnest until, oh, five or six years ago. This wasn't because I lived in a homemade yurt on the Orkney Islands or something; it was because I worked in gigantic used bookstores or simply lived very close to gigantic used bookstores. 

For close to a decade -- until about 2008, in fact -- my book-buying method didn't vary too much. I searched the shelves physically, sometimes on hands and knees. I had no other friends who read sff, and I certainly didn't have any online friends to talk about books with. (I used the internet almost solely for email and looking stuff up, and only at work: to this day, on my own I've never signed up for internet anywhere I've lived.) 

This isn't to say I was uneducated, though. I went out of my way to research authors I was interested in.

And yet, there's no way to get around the fact that my main method of choosing books consisted of picking the book up and looking at it. I'm, like most people, pretty superficial, and a cool cover and nice blurbs would often be the things that sold me. Only gradually, as I became more educated in the genre, as I became an dissatisfied with my assumptions about reading (let's say this occurred around 2002 or 2003, after I'd been reading heavily in the genre for a good half-decade), did I begin to branch out and read with a purpose.

You see, up till then I'd mostly been reading new(ish) literature -- stuff published in the last decade or so. Sometimes I'd read an older work and know it, but just as often the older works I'd read were simply re-issued works that I was not aware enough to realize were older works. (No, it didn't occur to me to look at the publication dates.) Being an ex-post-facto internet fact checker type, I wouldn't realize that until after I'd read the book.

This is how I came to learn that Samuel Delany is a black man, and that James Tiptree, Jr. was a woman. Discoveries like these made me curious about how many other assumptions I'd made about the authors I was reading, and so I began ever more to push at the boundaries of what I'd always, despite loving it, thought of as a rather tame (white, middle class, fairly conservative) genre. When I really began looking, I realized that I was both right and wrong in assuming this. Many of the classics are written by white, middle class (even if they didn't make much money as an author), conservative males.

To find the stuff that didn't speak with this voice wasn't difficult, in fact it was right under my nose, but then again... I did work in a gigantic used bookstore. What Maz says about the selection at Barnes & Noble is true, and it's depressing. In truth, the times where I've lived nowhere near a gigantic bookstore, I've nearly wanted to shoot myself. I can only imagine how having Barnes & Noble -- and the algorithms at Amazon -- as the only book-buying option can warp a new reader in the genre into the kind of person who assumes all sff must be a certain way. And while that does cause these individuals now and then to lionize writers of color and of other gender identities (a good thing), it also causes them to ignore how fundamentally awesome some of these older works are -- indeed, how untamed and sophisticated they could be even in an era of less sympathy toward writers of color and non-male perspective.

One must understand the struggles and triumphs of past generations to be able to contextualize the struggles and triumphs of their own era.

(God, I'm writing a novel here. Sorry. You've hit on a topic I love. I'll wrap this up...)

As to whether being published and active in the community has changed my book buying, I can say without doubt and some sadness that it certainly has. Mostly gone are the days where I paw through the shelves at a bookstore, because I have so much information -- indeed, I seek out so much information -- right at my fingertips. I've been welcomed into the community by so many awesome people, and that makes me enthusiastic about what they're doing. Which, lest I be misinterpreted, is awesome. And yet, at the same time, it has caused me to read with less purpose to educate myself.

The education is never over. I need to keep reading widely, as an advocate, to understand those struggles and triumphs that I wrote about above. I need to keep my head at least partially in the past, always aware of and never minimizing it, in order to really understand just what we're accomplishing and still have yet to do in the genre.

Stina Leicht: Before being published, I worked in a bookstore called BookPeople. There, employees were encouraged to adopt a section of the bookshelves and get to know them well. We were allowed to 'check out' books we wanted to read and were given free ARCs because the biggest part of our job was to hand sell books--that is, to make personal recommendations either in the form of recommendation cards posted on the shelves, or selection displays, or by talking to customers about our favorite books. I worked in the kids part of the bookstore because it was the most fun. Others had selected the picture books, chapter books, and mid-grade portions, but no one appeared to be interested in the Teen books. Since it was closest to what I wanted to write (fiction for adults) I decided to go with that. At that time, Teen/YA hadn't exploded yet. (This was just after the first couple of Harry Potter books had hit the shelves.) So I set out to read as much of the section as I could. I also read books that were recommended to me via other employees. Word of mouth is possibly the biggest thing among booksellers.

Now, there are three categories of reading on which I focus: enjoyment, education, and research. Research is... well... research. It's non-fiction for the most part. I find it through searches on the internet as well as trips to the library and bookstores. Education? Well, I don't have an English degree. Therefore, I feel it's important to my improvement as a writer to educate myself, and it's here that I'll carefully select titles because they're classics, considered literary masterpieces, award-winners, or are otherwise highly regarded works. (In this, I do make a point to pay attention to gender, race, and country, in case you're curious.) My entertainment category is filled up with titles I hear about when I'm at conventions, the works of authors I've met and know, and novels my husband recommends.

Matt: To talk a bit from a reviewer’s perspective, I’d have to say that my process for choosing what books to read has changed significantly from my days as a pleasure reader. In the days before I started the blog, I read primarily from authors whose work I’d enjoyed previously and whatever new authors had buzz on Amazon, and if I was currently re-enrolling with the Science Fiction Book Club, I’d use the initial order to rack up on promising new authors.

Blogging changed that for me. With the ease of obtaining e-copies from sites like NetGalley and eventually being able to get new releases directly from the publisher, I’ve found myself reading farther and farther from my comfort zones. Science fiction and genre bending titles are much more common these days, and I read far less of my favorite authors. The days when I’d read two or three books in a series before moving on to a new author are pretty much gone. These days I tend to look at new releases on NetGalley and base my review schedule on those titles I can obtain.

But this roundtable has modified my approach even more. I’ve stopped requesting e-galleys completely for the moment and am actively branching out to include more female authors with the goal of an even gender split in my reviews moving forward. Mira Grant, Catherynne Valente, Teresa Frohock, Emma Bull, and Delilah Dawson are all in the TBR pile at the moment. If life would just slow down a little, I may get to them all by the end of the year.


  1. This has been such a fantastic roundtable, and I really admire how head-on you approached the topic. It's a very thoughtful conversation, dealing with a very nuanced issue!

    Concerning your TBR pile -- Teresa Frohock's Miserere absolutely blew my mind, and it's a book that deserves so much more attention than it's gotten. And Emma Bull was my urban-fantasy gateway drug with War For The Oaks, so I think you've got some real treats in your future!

  2. I just reread Miserere and enjoyed it as much as the first time, so I'm fourthing it. But I'm also suggesting Cold Magic and Feed, because both of those rocked too. Haven't read the others, though I've heard good things about almost all of them.

  3. MISERERE. It's a phenomenal book.

  4. I agree completely with your take on how being a reviewer changes your reading habits. Thanks for this! It's definitely worthwhile reading. :D

    As for your next book, I'd recommend FEED. Excellent start to an excellent trilogy (that I'll review one of these days...)

  5. It seems I cannot be contrarian today because I also vote for MISERERE.

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