SFF Review Gender Balance Part II

I hadn’t planned on following up the last post, but the comments (and links therein) got me to thinking more. In particular, this post on Dribble of Ink attracted some heated discussion and forced me to catalog the more detailed bits of my opinion. Let me make it clear that nothing I write here is an exhortation. Instead, this is the logical progression in my head from one position (apathy) to another (cautious activism) that works for me. It may not work for anyone else, and that’s just fine with me.

The most common response to musings on the gender balance seems to be, “I choose what I read based on what I like, not the gender (or anything else) of the author. It works for me, I’m happy with my reading choices and I’m not discriminating against anyone.” This is usually followed by some variation of the hoary “none of this should matter anyway, because we’re supposed to judge books (or movies, or science papers, or whatever) by the content, not by some form of affirmative action.” Both of these are valid points, but they depend on one being a certain kind of reader, and on an assumption of underlying equality. Again, I’m not blowing up anyone else’s reading experience here or calling a great many well-intentioned readers bad names. In fact, I happen to believe that the book-centered SFF community is a tolerant, gentle, and altogether inclusive bunch of people, even while Greater Geekdom is a fetid, slimy bog of Prehistoric social attitudes.

That said, my own position as a reader dictates certain things. Everything else that I will say is based on two givens. First, seeking a greater balance in reading choices is not the same thing as altering final opinions of a book based on some factor unrelated to the book. Just because I think I should read more books by women does not mean I feel like I should give books positive reviews because they were written by women. This seems like a no-brainer, but I see a lot of arguments that conflate the two. Second, while we are making considerable progress equality-wise, only the densest of us would proclaim the battle over when The Patriarchy is still clearly in control of everything, both in the genre and in the rest of the world. If any readers have a bone to pick with these two baselines, I recommend reading no further and leaving no comments. It won’t end well for any of us.

The crux of the matter, for me, is the kind of reader I have chosen to be. If I am reading purely for fun, then I feel no compulsion to break out of my comfort zone. There are plenty of other things in life that I consume more or less indiscriminately, because I have no investment in the Platonic Ideal of whatever that is. Clothes, for example, or ice hockey. I had been, until a few years ago, a casual consumer of science fiction, reading for escape and amusement; I would no more seek out authors to make a statement than I would pick up a romance novel. To this reader I say, “Have at it! Enjoy what you read! Do whatever works for you!”

Now however, I see myself as a student of science fiction. I profess to be engaged in science fictional dialogues across time and space, excavating symbolism from the meta-contextual substrate, illuminating the threads of cliché woven throughout the grand tapestry of genre, and other such pompous hoo-haw. Imagine how deflated I was to realize that mostly I’m just reading a bunch of words written by English speaking white dudes. I feel a bit like I am writing a pretentious food blog focused primarily on Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s. Not to put down some of what I’m reading, of course, since those white dudes are cranking out amazing books, but there’s so much more I’m missing!

Dialing up the pretentiousness even more, this blog makes me, in some small and insignificant way, an advocate for SFF. Even if the only person whose view of the genre I am shaping is my mom, that’s still one person who might skip over worthy stuff because I didn’t go to the trouble to seek it out, or worse, decided to skip it because the author didn’t fit my comfort zone. I doubt that every blogger feels this way, nor should they, but I feel some responsibility to be on the vanguard. From the first, I have tried to do this with Japanese books, but those aren’t expanding my personal horizons. As a (painfully obscure and self-appointed) part of the genre institution, I’m just propping up the privileged class if I don’t search for and amplify the marginalized voices. Self-important? Perhaps. But if someone doesn’t make an effort, how many writers will never get a chance?

I’m not instituting any quotas, I won’t harangue other bloggers, and I’m not going to force myself to read stuff that I’m not interested in. (Hello there, urban fantasy and crappy supernatural pulp!) I am however going to think a bit more about the choices I make to read and review, and make an effort to try things that others might not. At the end of the year, I’ll take stock again and see if anything has changed. After all, as a working musician, I know exactly what happens to those voices that the mainstream ignores.