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.