Solaris Rising, Women Falling?

Solaris Rising, Women Falling?

solaris_rising2I was consistently impressed with The Solaris Book Of New Science Fiction, edited by George Mann, which published three annual volumes between 2007 and 2009. Solaris Books is relaunching the series as Solaris Rising (shipping in October) under new editor Ian Whates, and I’ve been looking forward to it.

A while back Kev McVeigh at Performative Utterance noted the following rather dismaying statistic:

The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction by Boys volume one has Mary A Turzillo as token feminine contributor. One woman from eighteen listed authors. Volume Two is obviously the feminist volume with a remarkable three women out of fourteen involved…. It’s back to normal for Volume Three as fifteen stories allow room for just one woman…

It might be tempting to just blame editor George Mann for this. Perhaps it really is just his personal taste. After all Ian Whates is now on board, and he published an excellent all female anthology for Newcon Press, Myth-Undertakings. His Solaris Rising might reflect that? No, nineteen stories, 21 contributing authors, just three women.

What I’ve chiefly been dismayed about is the  reaction from some of the SF old guard, which quickly attacked Kev and his arguments in various newsgroups. This was an irrelevant stat (they said), and the percentage of women contributors had no bearing at all on quality. After all, if If Solaris was against women writers, why were they bothering to include any at all?

To put it bluntly, old guard, you’re missing the point. Wake up.

About five years ago I experienced exactly the same criticism as Ian and George. Someone (I honestly forget who) did the math on the first six issues of Black Gate and figured out that I’d published only 15 stories by women, out of a total of 51 – roughly 29%. Right about this time Rich Horton started reporting on the percentage of fiction by women in his yearly short fiction summations. At first I had exactly the same reaction as the old guard – this is a load of crap. I pick the very best stories sent to me; case closed. I deeply resented any implication otherwise, and considered the entire argument a waste of time.

I was, in short, a complete idiot.

All that righteous indignation was preventing me from understanding three important things:

  • it’s not always about editorial taste;
  • it’s only a criticism if you make it one; and
  • while I might not immediately care about those figures, many of my readers cared deeply.

Once I got past all the suspicion that I was being criticized, I realized that I was being given a golden opportunity to improve my magazine, and to understand what my readers cared about. And most importantly, to understand why my magazine wasn’t attracting more female writers.

Sure, I was buying the best fiction I could. But I also started asking myself some basic questions: was there something about my submission guidelines that discouraged women? Was I encouraging female writers the same way I did men? Did I always feel comfortable criticizing and nurturing aspiring women to improve? Did I solicit as many female writers as male writers?

Did I, in fact, enjoy the submissions by women as frequently as those by men?  Why, or why not?

Many of my readers cared about the answers to those questions, and it was about time that I did too.

Once I got over the sting and became a real part of the discussion, I felt a lot better about it. It didn’t necessarily mean I was a bad editor, but it did mean there were important things I could learn. I started compiling the stats on women in Black Gate myself, and wondering about how I could improve them. How I could make the magazine better by making those numbers better, and especially how I could be a better editor.

I didn’t always like the discussion – especially in the early days – but I sure learned a hell of a lot, and I really think it helped the magazine improve.

I was impressed to see the mature and measured response from editor Ian Whates in the comments section in Kev’s original post. It’s clear he didn’t like the implied criticism any more than I did — but he listened to it, and it seems he made a real effort to understand the dynamic involved in his own decisions. That’s the kind of thing only the best editors do.

Modern SF and fantasy editors: ignore this critique at your peril. Yes, old guard, you can dismiss these observations as spurious criticism if you like. But when you choose to see them as criticism instead of simple statistics, and focus all your energies on attacking those who dare point them out, you stand revealed in your own naked insecurities. Facts are facts.

Treat them as simple truth, and a way to help you understand yourself, and they’ll be the best friend you ever had.

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Very well said.

Elizabeth Cady

Well said indeed, John.

Sarah Avery

When I’m looking for a place to submit a manuscript, there are some markets that are straightforward markets, and then there are some girl markets and some boy markets. I know better than to send a boy market a story with a female protagonist, for instance. There are a few markets I don’t bother to sub to at all, even if I enjoy reading them, either because their stats are so skewed or because they’ve been egregiously sexist in their dealings with writers I know.

One reason I decided to assume BG was a market plain and simple, not a boy market, when I sent out that first story was that you’d published Martha Wells more than once. And your encouragement as I revised that story was as helpful as any writer could have hoped to find.

Laurie Tom

As one of the four women who did make it into Solaris Rising (Kev mistook my gender and thought there were only three), I think Ian did a very good job handling the criticism. I don’t think he meant any exclusion any more than you did and that people may have been unnecessarily harsh. Not on Kev’s blog, the discussion there has been pretty civil, but it’s been worse elsewhere.

I admit I’m pretty gender-blind when I’m reading. I started reading Black Gate with issue 1 and I never really considered the gender make-up of the writers who appeared in it. I didn’t realize it was as low as it was, but I’m impressed that you took the opportunity for self-evaluation.


Well said, John!


Thanks, John. 🙂 I don’t know about that, but I’m glad if I helped pull in writers like Sarah. I think I owe you far more for picking up my stories when I was at a very low point in my career. Black Gate really helped me keep going at a time when it would have been much easier for me to just give up.


Although your point that good adventure fantasy should be invited from the widest pool is valid, it is pretty clear that Black Gate thrives because it depends, in actuality, on a narrow but deep pool.

Why else the multiple stories of James Enge, John C. Hocking, Martha Wells, etc.?

Because they are crackerjacks, and that’s a rare thing, regardless of gender.

I read adventure fantasy as widely as possible, and the fact is that there are whole anthology series dedicated to “Warrior Women” and female authors, and it would be nearly illegal, and market suicide, for someone to come out with a male counterpart to that. Don’t tell me that the default magazine or anthology is exactly that, because it is demonstrably incorrect.

I think you do the issue a disservice by painting all the opponents of “Editing by Statistical Sex Profiling” as members of the “old” (read “dying” or maybe even “should be dead”) guard.

Perhaps your opponents on this topic have been old guard, I don’t know. But I think there is a third group who would more closely echo Sarah Avery’s comments: some markets are women’s markets (and broadcast themselves proudly as such) some are men’s markets (secretly so, of course) and then there are the ones like Black Gate – plain old everyone’s markets.

To the point that Theo raised in an earlier post: we don’t have to like the same things. To which I would add – “and certainly not in perfect proportion.”

Black Dynamite

I had to register to this site solely to comment on this absurd post. I still can’t believe my eyes at what I’m seeing. Is this for real? I’m truly appalled that no one sees the fallacy in your reasoning.

Mr. O’Neill, you yourself said: “Sure, I was buying the best fiction I could.”

THAT should be the ONE AND ONLY thing for a magazine editor to take into account.

If a story is good, it’s a good story, regardless of the writer’s gender.

Hypothetical situation: I am an editor looking for 10 stories. I got 10 submissions from women, and 10 from men. If it happened that the men submitted better material and the final men to women ratio of accepted fiction was, let’s say, 8:2, should I feel guilty for selecting the best possible fiction? Should I have ditched 3 superior stories from men and publish additional 3 inferior from women, to achieve some kind of senseless equality at the expense of the quality of my magazine?

On the other hand, if women submitted better material, I’d publish more women, and the ratio would reverse. It’s not that I’m a pro-feminist or something, I just select THE BEST POSSIBLE FICTION.

“Sure, the editors involved may have selected the best stories sent to them, regardless of gender. But how great can an anthology BE if roughly half of the pool of possible contributors (i.e. the women) were discouraged from contributing?”

Discouraged? Discouraged by what??? I mean, WHAT??! This magazine has its submission guidelines and prefers the fantasy genre. If a man wants to write fantasy, he will write fantasy. If a man doesn’t want to write fantasy, he won’t write fantasy. The same goes for women.

So what are we even talking about here? I dislike romance, so I won’t write romance. Should I get upset because some romance magazine publishes more women than men? Are they guilty of not encouraging me to write romance?

The majority of track and field runners are black. Why is that? Oh, my God! It’s surely not that blacks are inherently better at running, and therefore the number of black runner greater. No! It must be that in some way we are discouraging white athletes from running! Yes, that’s it! What can we do? What can we do? In response to that grave issue, we should have an All-Black Olympics and also an All-White Olympics. A great solution, no?

Come on, people! Give me a break! Can’t you see the absurdity in what you’re saying?

The truth is very simple: PEOPLE WRITE WHAT THEY WANT TO WRITE.

It’s no one’s fault, it’s just the way it is. All this fight for gender equality is, in this case, nothing but a delusion based on an non-existing problem.

P.S. If I submit to Black Gate in the future, should I submit under a female penname? Will my chances of getting published increase then, perhaps? And maybe if I take a minority penname, like Hispanic or Asian, will my odds increase even further? Just asking…

Dave T

Hi John,

Let’s say you’ve done all you propose a good editor should do, and you still have–let’s say–an 80% male to 20% female ratio. And then someone points out the statistical disparity.

How do you respond to the criticism then?


Sarah Newton

Very nice article, John – it’s a difficult topic, and you negotiated it splendidly.

Issues of quotas and group bias are always as thorny as hell. I think in the case of male / female writers and genres perceived as somehow “favoured” by one or ‘t’other, there’s often as much self-censorship on the part of the contributing writer as the editor, as you and the other commenters here point out – writers may be disinclined to write for a publication where they don’t feel they’ll have a fair crack at the whip (and I feel Black Gate is demonstrably and definitely *NOT* such a publication, of course!).

Likewise, I don’t think there’s a once-and-for-all “solution” – it’s an organic process, whereby (in this case) women writers gradually realize a given publication is open to submissions from them, and at the same time the publication starts to open itself more and more up to such submissions. It’s a mutual bootstrapping which over time hopefully gradually erases the problem.

Of course, there’s also the nightmare question of “cultural bias”, even touching upon which is often taboo. Some cultures actively discourage women from being interested in certain genres, and encourage men, and vice versa, so that there’s an *actual* imbalance in the proportions of men and women interested and writing in a given genre, which of course will skew any attempts at publishing balance. Addressing that is a whole other ballgame 🙂

Dave T

John, I agree with about 95% of your logical, reasoned, reply. Well done.

However (and I may be misreading you here), you begin by using the word “observation” and very near the end slide into using the word “problem.”

It’s very easy to slip into granting the premise that there is a problem from merely observing some raw statistics. If an editor has done everything you describe above (which is a good process of self- and editorial-examination), and the statistics are still skewed in favor of females, it doesn’t mean there is a problem. The “skewing” could result from any number of valid reasons. To wit: it is logically possible that just because you might receive a 50/50 split in number of male/female submissions it doesn’t equate that the story quality (from either gender) will be equal in any given batch of slush. It just doesn’t work that way, as you well know.

I remember back to dinosaur days when I was reading slush for BG before its first issue hit the stands. I was deluged with ms.s, most from male writers. However, you’ll recall that of the small percentage of ms’s I received from female authors, I sent quite a few your way for final acceptance. I’d wager to say that–as a percentage–I forwarded more female written stories your way than male scripted stories. And you bought probably 95% of them.

And for the record? I didn’t give a good screeching hoot who wrote the stories. I sent you the best of the lot as I came across them.

Here’s the same gender question posed a bit differently: if you’re concerned about having more female writers in the pages of BG because they may draw more female READERS, then consider this– Whether written by a male or a female, how many female protagonists are center stage in BG stories, with whom a female audience can identify? I don’t think it’s necessarily the question of female writers, but female characters with whom a young female audience interested in adventure fiction could identify, could relate to. You look at a lot of andre Norton’s stories and you’ll find young female heroines, and it didn’t seem to turn off the perceived male audience at all (certainly not me when I was a pup).

Good adventure fiction is the key here, with both heroic males and females in the lead (or in tandom), and not necessarily who writes the damn things.

Just my two cents. 🙂

Dave T

Commission someone to begin blocking out some adventures featuring both Hercules and Xena (not them, of course, but some new characters both your male _and_ female audience can identify with. If they’re written well you’ll have a sure-fire winner on your hands.

And maybe get a male and female BG writer to co-write these stories. In some adventures the male would write the female lead parts, and the female would wrtite the male part. And switch them around from story to story so no one would know who wrote what part. Sort of like when Leigh Brackett & Ed Hamilton wrote “Stark and the Star Kings” and Leigh wrote the Star Kings sections and Ed did the Stark sections. I think such a collaboration between any two of your writers (one male, one female who could collaborate smoothly together) would be tons of fun, provide some really exciting, fresh stories–and keep readers guessing from story to story as to who wrote what. 🙂

Dave T

Oops, in my reply to your reply, John, I meant “if the results are still skewed toward _males_, not females. Sorry about that.

C.S.E. Cooney

What an interesting article, John! And a fascinating discussion here in the comments. I am curious to see how both the situation and the conversation develops.

[…] come to both praise and criticize our esteemed publisher’s recent blog post concerning The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction and the balance of sex with regards to Black […]

Dave T

Send away, John. We’re about 95% caught up now. In case you don’t have my new address (since December) I’ll send it to you via email.

Looking forward, as always, to a new BG. 🙂


[…] to admit I’ve been a bit frustrated with Ian Whates’ recent anthologies from Solaris: Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction (2011), and the brand new Solaris Rising 2 (March […]

[…] the fallacies of that approach after his initial defensiveness, as he talks about in his post “Solaris is Rising, Women Falling.” There are some good tips there if Ms. Crisp is serious about having her staff seek more female […]

[…] It is edited by Ian Whates, who proved his editorial acumen with the fine AF anthologies Solaris Rising and Solaris Rising 2, and will be published by NewCon Press in the […]

[…] also published Ian Whates’s Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction and last year’s Solaris Rising […]

[…] the original genre anthology series — Ian Whates’ Solaris Rising (two volumes so far: Solaris Rising in 2011, and Solaris Rising 2.0 in 2013), which covers science fiction, and its fantasy […]

[…] You know who else has my gratitude? Those men and women who started compiling and reporting statistics on the percentage of women writers in genre magazines. They included Black Gate in one of the first of those reports, scoring us at an abysmal 29%. Here’s how I reacted, as I reported back in 2011 in my article Solaris Rising, Women Falling? […]

[…] covered several excellent anthologies from Solaris recently, including Ian Whates’s Solaris Rising, Solaris Rising 2, Solaris Rising 3, and two from Jonathan Strahan’s — his SF […]

[…] the fallacies of that approach after his initial defensiveness, as he talks about in his post “Solaris is Rising, Women Falling.” There are some good tips there if Ms. Crisp is serious about having her staff seek more female […]

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