We Don’t Have to Like the Same Books

We Don’t Have to Like the Same Books

Is science fiction sexist? Is adventure fantasy sexist? Without bothering to go through all fifteen issues of Black Gate, I’m going to guess that there is not a perfect statistical match between the population demographics and the contributors to Black Gate. Which, by the metric suggested by the woman horrified that Guardian readers have the sexist audacity to prefer male SF writers by a 24 to 1 margin, is ipso facto evidence that Black Gate, too, is a bastion of male privilege.

Is science fiction sexist? A bald, potentially divisive and rather emotive question, there. But increasingly, science fiction and its close cousins, fantasy and horror, are being accused of an inherent downer on the female practitioners of the genre – and the latest offender appears to be the Guardian’s recent online poll to find readers’ favourite SF novels. Earlier this month Damien G Walter asked guardian.co.uk/books users to suggest the best novels in the genre, following on from the Guardian’s special SF-slanted edition of its Saturday Review supplement.

The results went online last week, and displayed a great love for science fiction: more than 500 books, classic and contemporary, were suggested for inclusion. However, according to Seattle-based author Nicola Griffith, who did a bit of number-crunching on the stats, there’s an overwhelming bias towards male authors.

Now, I have written on this subject before, but I will not bother linking to it as I have little desire to revive the Great SFWA Screech of 2005, which wound up devolving into a debate of whether a female astrophysics major who ended up teaching lesbian theory in Hindu film counted as a scientist or not. (Seriously, that’s where it wound up. The whole thing was awesome and description could not do it justice, in much the same sense that Mighty Cthulhu is awesome and indescribable.) Anyhow, my point is not to argue whether science fiction, or fantasy, or any other genre is intrinsically sexist or not, but merely to point out that if a numbers game is the appropriate metric, then it is readily apparent most, if not all, literary genres are equally guilty of similar biases against Blacks, Hispanics, Southern Baptists, Esquimaux, Muslims, Sri Lankans, people with Down’s Syndrome, pretty people, and the physically fit.

Let’s face it, most SF/F fiction is written by pasty, middle-aged, intelligent, overweight, irreligious white people with drinking problems and the sex appeal of a composting apple core. Writers are the wallflowers of the world because writing requires tremendous amounts of time and solitude as well as an inclination for observation rather than action. But is it a noble calling or simply a character defect? It really depends on the perspective. On Friday night, I got a call from a good friend. He was out salsa dancing with his Brazilian fiance. I was happily completing a novella entitled “The Treasure in the Whore’s Mouth” which involved secret mages and enslaved elves and the magical equivalent of industrial espionage. Can you guess who is more likely to publish an anthology and who is more likely to prance around with a rose in his mouth? (I know, I know, it’s the girl who does that. Why is dance so sexist anyway?) Our preferences determine our decisions and our decisions determine our actions.

The point is that there is nothing wrong with the fact that some people like to write and others don’t. Nor is there anything wrong with the fact that some readers happen to like certain books and certain writers better than others. There has, admittedly, been a problem with the gatekeepers in the past, as they have tended to produce a certain monotonous aspect to the genre that only shifts with the generational zeitgeist. What was in vogue then is now out of fashion, and vice-versa. But that is a problem now being resolved and largely rendered irrelevant with the advent of epublishing. Ironically, the technology-based paradigm shift will likely produce new complaints from those who were favored by the present gatekeepers. Economists long ago established that there is no such thing as objective value, there is only the millions of subjective values independently assigned by individual human actors. The great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, in his epic explication of praxeological science entitled Human Action, explained it thusly:

“Choosing determines all human decisions. In making his choice man chooses not only between various material things and services. All human values are offered for option. All ends and all means, both material and ideal issues, the sublime and the base, the noble and the ignoble, are ranged in a single row and subjected to a decision which picks out one thing and sets aside another. Nothing that men aim at or want to avoid remains outside of this arrangement into a unique scale of gradation and preference.”

The very idea that there could be something wrong about the fact that certain readers prefer specific writers, or even specific types of writers, is ironically itself an example of the very bias it assumes and decries. But there is simply nothing wrong with readers favoring one sort of writer over another and it is absurd to think that female writers write in exactly the same manner that male writers, especially when one can easily see the difference between male writers of one generation and another. And since there is no problem, there can be no solution. In fact, any attempt to provide a solution will be creating a new and unnecessary problem.

So, in summary, write what you want to write. Read what you want to read. And unless it is a function of your livelihood, don’t concern yourself with what other people happen to like or dislike. While it’s interesting to broaden one’s horizons, the broader they get, the more one realizes that the one thing all divergent perspectives have in common is literary mediocrity.

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C - Foxessa

Ah-hem My partner in crime writing and I both write constantly, and we both dance salsa — and he plays salsa music as well. We are not apple cores, though we do live in the Big Apple. Also we takes baths, often more than one in a single day. And we cook!


Love, C.

C - Foxessa

However, for women who write sf, it is about their livelihoods. But you get that, right?

Love, C.


If the poll had proved that Guardian readers preferred women sci-fi writers…Could that be construed as reverse discrimination? I like how Theo suggests to look beyond artificial binary oppositions.

Dave T

What the poll didn’t account for (unless I missed it) was how many respondents were female and how many male?

IF they were split evenly then it would show that just as many females liked books by males as males liked books by males. And maybe the books written by males had female protagonists which could have drawn the female vote. Maybe males respond more to polls than females? Who knows? It’s not a very scientific poll–there are far too many variables and ifs to be considered in order to draw any valid conclusions.

Elizabeth Cady

The problem is that you’re confusing individual issues with institutional ones. You’re also making the assumption that we make decisions about taste and preference in a vacuum.

We don’t, sadly. Our tastes are shaped by a sexist culture, and reader preferences are not neutral on this.


Elizabeth Cady wrote:

The problem is that you’re confusing individual issues with institutional ones. You’re also making the assumption that we make decisions about taste and preference in a vacuum.

We don’t, sadly. Our tastes are shaped by a sexist culture, and reader preferences are not neutral on this.

To your first point, the entire issue is about individual preference, so I fail to see how there can be any confusion, except to the very easily confused.

Your second point is interesting, but demands far more evidential support than you offer. Can you explain this notion of “tastes shaped by a sexist culture” in further detail?


The idea that the SF/Fantasy market is somehow sexist is absurd on the face of it. The bestsellers list in the genre is full of female penned romance novels disguised as fantasy. Then you have the epic sales of Rowling – or is she really a he? But Westerners stopped using facts in social analysis quite some time ago (even denying the possibility of factual information) so arguing about this will only give me a headache. If there is any ‘ism at work in the genre, it is the endless plagiarism of previous greats.


What I have learned reading the various discussions over this kerfluffle during the last six weeks, is that anyone that disagrees with the group-think clique in any small way is automatically a sexist. (ok ok, I already knew that…)

The long discussion at SFSignal was quite entertaining…


To Tyr’s point, the reason why Joann Rowling uses “J. K.” has been attributed to the publishing industry…No one would want to pick up a fantasy written by a woman, right? I forgot where I read that, but it rang true when Harry Potter first became popular. The market has changed, but that memory remains.



That doesn’t prove sexism in the market. All that proves is that her publishers didn’t understand the market and never heard of luminaries such as Anne McCaffrey and Ursula Le Guin.

C - Foxessa

Pander? Mostly when people consciously attempt to write for the market they fail to even get the book published. Somewhere the author has to believe in what she is doing in order for it to be readable.

You also know the etymology of the word, presumably. You just told women who write SF to be whores or forget it.

Have you, by chance, read God’s War by Kameron Hurley?

You are missing the trees and the forest here.

Sarah Avery

Some years ago, an organization dedicated to supporting female candidates for elected office did a study to find out why there were so few female candidates. They found the women who did run for office typically got into politics because someone else encouraged them to. Not in a general you-can-be-whatever-you-set-your-mind-to way, but in a specific, hey-julie-you’d-make-a-better-mayor-than-that-doofus way. Even women who later went on to be mighty powers in the Congress had only gotten their start because someone gave them permission to act on their ambitions.

My wild speculation is that something like this is at work with women writers, too. You’ll find active mentoring in the SF/F community, of course, but the romance genre’s equivalent of SFWA does far more active outreach and writing instruction, and the mentoring is much more comprehensive and organized. Personally, I find romance novels unreadably boring, but I have come to have tremendous respect for the RWA as a writers’ organization.


Maybe you find romances unreadably boring, because they are heavily stocked with overly-mentored writers! Too much collaboration and instruction on “the way to do things” leads to conformity, not renewal.

As far as authors using initials, this would explain why E.E. Knight publishes under a name that doesn’t reveal gender, too. No one would ever buy military sci-fi from a male author.

This is just silly. The reason why there aren’t many women who are on the “best” list is because there aren’t that many women who have written classics in the genre!

Neither flavor of the day, nor even entrenched ideologies of the academy, for all its bombast and social molding, can’t change Canon. What’s good is good and it doesn’t matter if the maker is a girl or boy. Sometimes that means that more boys will make more good things. The fact that the great female science fiction writer is rare doesn’t diminish her individual work, does it?

I bet you a hundred dollars that if you took a poll of romance novel reader’s favorites, a man’s name would show up as the author – oh…not too frequently.

Sexist sows, those romance readers.

Jane Yolen published “Harry Potter” before it was “Harry Potter.” She called it “Wizard’s Hall,” so are readers sexist because they obviously avoided Jane’s book but sent the gender-free “J.K.”‘s version into the stratosphere?

Was J.K. sexist for stealing it from Jane?

Sexism is the clouded bogey of all inadequacies. It means nothing in this context. Nothing at all. It is a controversy in search of a context, a rootless and baffling outburst of the obvious.

This is silly, and not in the fun and jolly way that “silly” ought to be.

[…] I wrote in last week’s post, writers are free to write what they want just as readers are free to read what they want. […]

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