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.


8 thoughts on “SFF Review Gender Balance Part II

  1. “…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.”

    If nothing else whatsoever comes of this enterprise you will have at least given us the above quote, and thus in some undeniably small but also undeniably real way made the world a better place to be.

    Good luck with it. Worth following the trackback links on that Dribble of Ink post too. Seems it kicked off trains of thought in more than a few smart people.

  2. A comment on Twitter from the author Aliette de Bodard: “I would argue that you have to broach books written by women slightly differently. If you read them and then decide whether you like them or not, there’s a good likelihood, I think, of liking men’s books more than women’s books, because it’s the way our society is wired, and it’s so deep a bias it’s mostly unconscious at this stage.”
    Definitely worth thinking about.

    • “Have to” is a tricky way of phrasing it. I actually have a degree of sympathy with the ‘I judge books by the story, not the sex of the author’ crowd, because if you gave be a properly anonymised book in plain jacket I don’t think I’d be able to tell the gender of the author just from what they’d written. But when does that ever happen?

      I think everyone judges stuff outside their comfort zone a bit more harshly. If you have to ‘make an effort’ to do something (however well intentioned the effort may be) then it’s natural to expect a return, and the the more effort you expend, the more reward you’ll want to get back. I think maybe Aliette’s missing this step here. It’s not that people like men’s books more than women’s, but that because of their relative scarcity and/or lack of visibility they often represent a greater investment of effort and willingness on the part of the purchaser/reader, and so a greater return is expected. Admittedly it amounts to the same thing. And I could very well be wrong about all of this.

      • I’m not sure how much I agree with her either, but she knows a lot more about fighting patriarchy (and anti-colonialism) than I do. There are some books I read that make me say “this feels like a woman wrote it,” but it’s hard to say what exactly is different. And I think she’s talking about embedded viewpoints, cultural assumptions, etc., but again, I’m not sure what exactly is one or the other and how to tell them all apart.
        And in the end, I am part of the group that thinks that white men probably shouldn’t go around telling other people that we’re all finished with that discrimination baloney so just be quiet now. Oddly enough, this set of posts has generated more hits for me than anything besides “nadia secret of blue water porn,” whatever that may say about the blog.

  3. Teresa Frohock and Mark Lawrence recently got involved with an experiment that seemed to generate a lot of interest where each day they posted a small extract from a yet unpublished piece of work and didn’t give the name of the author. This was to check if people could genuinely tell if the author was male or female. It was very interesting – the results might be on their blogs. I did take part and I was useless at guessing the gender – well, probably guessed about half of them correctly. It’s surprisingly more difficult than you would imagine.
    Lynn 😀

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