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The Subjective Unicorn

Sunday, July 17th, 2011 | Posted by Theo

child-of-elvish1I 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 Gate contributors.

First, I believe it is entirely admirable to investigate one’s motivations underlying one’s actions. Second, in a free society, a publisher is, and should be, free to publish whatever and whomever he wants. I take no exception to all-female anthologies, neither am I troubled by collections of stories that are entirely devoid of female contributors.

Third, I entirely support John in his efforts to strike what he considers to be a reasonable balance between excellence in fiction and equitable sexual contributions primarily because it is clear that his modified approach has not caused the quality of the magazine to suffer. As an early subscriber, I think the magazine has grown consistently stronger under his direction.

Given the massive difference between the number of genre writers of both sexes and the number of available print publications at this time, I suspect that John could publish a magazine with all-male contributors or all-female contributors without sacrificing much in the way of quality either way. This is especially true given his laudable commitment to discovering and developing new writers.

Maria Snyder's "The Wizard's Daily Horoscope"

Maria Snyder's "The Wizard's Daily Horoscope"

As 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. Publishers, too, are free to publish what they want, with the caveat that their freedom is intrinsically limited by their contributors and their readers alike. Due to the unique nature of its product, Black Gate has the ability to be very flexible with regards to experimenting with its mix of contributors without having to fear much in the way of turning off its readers. The fact that I might happen to prefer Todd McAulty to Martha Wells does not mean that I do not enjoy the latter and I will note that very, very few men have ever written adventure fantasy that can compare favorably with Nancy Varian Berberick’s.

On the other hand, stories such as Maria Snyder’s “The Wizard’s Daily Horoscope” have trod perilously close to the chick lit line for me. So, I believe John can safely pursue all three goals of publishing quality fiction, discovering and developing new writers, and maintaining whatever sexual balance he deems fitting without compromising any of the three.

There are, however, two things that lead me to part company from John in his position vis-a-vis what he describes as “the old guard”. First, sexual equality simply does not exist anywhere in the real world. This is something that even that notable male chauvinist pig, Germaine Greer recently noted in the Telegraph:

What should be obvious is that no competitive sport, except maybe the ghastly synchronised swimming, was ever invented by women. Men with time on their hands will play with anything that comes to hand, bottle-tops, stones, knuckle-bones. They will invent rules. They will set up teams and they will compete. Women don’t do this; they don’t form clubs, with secret signs and passwords; they don’t gang up for fun. They don’t invest huge amounts of money in leisure activities – unless you count shopping, which is actually very, very hard work. Women’s inequality in sport is an illustration of their inequality in every other field of human endeavour.

It is important to notice that Greer isn’t talking about opportunity here, but rather inclination. By way of example, Greer might have cited Grantland’s new Reality TV Fantasy League, in which a group of men have transformed a television genre aimed predominantly at women into a competitive game which almost certainly would involve gambling if only gambling were legal. One notes that they found a woman to serve as commissioner and suspects, on the evidence of Jay Kang’s negative points, she may be the only one besides Bill Simmons who actually watches the shows involved. But can it really be sexist for there to be a distinct lack of female competitors in the budding new pastime of Competitive Fantasy Reality TV Watching? If it is problematic that only four of 21 authors (19%) in an anthology are female, isn’t it even worse that zero out of 6 (0%) Fantasy Reality TV players are? How many weeks, how many years, how many decades must pass before any such lack of female involvement is deemed to be the result of sexism?

Second, most other organizations, even in the publishing industry, do not necessarily have the same room for maneuver that Black Gate enjoys. Science fiction and fantasy did not begin as male-dominated markets out of sexism, they developed because a few unusual men wanted to write in a certain style about certain subjects and other, younger men wanted to read what they had written. As women have entered the field as readers, writers, and eventually editors and publishers, they have transformed it and expanded it, for the better in some ways and for the worse in others. But if some publishers pursue explicitly female markets while the remainder attempt to pursue sex-neutral markets, this will obviously create a new void that the law of supply and demand dictates will eventually be filled. And as has been seen with the entry of Fox News to a media marketplace that previously consisted of ABC, CNN, NBC, CBS, PBS, MSNBC and so forth, purposefully ignoring even a market deemed outdated and disfavored does not mean that market’s demands will forever go unmet, in fact, it tends to indicate that the organizations that ignore that market will be at a competitive disadvantage as they battle over half the total market while leaving the other half to their one disreputable competitor. These things have a way of sorting themselves out over time, and in the rare occasions when capitalism won’t do it, technological progress usually does.

So, there is no reason why Solaris should be condemned for publishing a mostly male publication any more than Black Gate merits criticism for producing a more or less sexually equitable publication or Newcon Press should be criticized for publishing an all-female one. The presence, or lack of presence, of female contributors is an entirely subjective issue that is solely of legitimate concern to the individual publisher’s conscience and pocketbook; it cannot reasonably be considered an objective problem with a material metric by the world at large.

The amusing irony about all of this, of course, is that if urban fantasy bestseller lists can be considered a reliable guide, the most sexist action John has ever taken as the publisher of Black Gate is his deplorable, alivist prejudice against vampires.

7 Comments »

  1. Excellent post, Theo.

    Of course, my point was not that magazines should strive for completely gender equality, but instead take the gender stats as evidence they’re doing a poor job of attracting women writers, and that they’re probably suffering for it.

    It was also a plea to those editors (and their supporters) to stop interpreting evidence of gender imbalance as an attack, or a demand for full gender equality, and instead take it for what it is: a completely correctable oversight, and a path to perhaps improve their magazine.

    > First, sexual equality simply does not exist anywhere in the real world.

    Very true. But I admit I don’t see how the existence of the Reality TV Fantasy League is evidence that efforts to attract more women writers to Black Gate are misguided.

    Yeah, the world is sexist. Black Gate is sexist. I’m probably sexist. That’s not a license to give up. I’m still going to strive to improve.

    > Second, most other organizations, even in the publishing industry, do not
    > necessarily have the same room for maneuver that Black Gate enjoys. Science
    > fiction and fantasy did not begin as male-dominated markets out of sexism,
    > they developed because a few unusual men wanted to write in a certain style
    > about certain subjects and other, younger men wanted to read what they had
    > written. As women have entered the field as readers, writers, and eventually
    > editors and publishers, they have transformed it and expanded it

    Indeed – well said.

    > So, there is no reason why Solaris should be condemned for publishing a
    > mostly male publication any more than Black Gate merits criticism for producing
    > a more or less sexually equitable publication

    Well, I wasn’t criticizing Solaris for gender imbalance, or saying anyone else should. I was saying: Don’t kill the messenger, Solaris. It could be a very simple fix for you to attract more women, and it’s worth the effort — it will bring more top-notch stories, interest more women readers, and generate more buzz.

    This whole topic is so emotionally charged, and the debris from so many old arguments scattered around like so many old land mines, that it’s hard to get that point across.

    Comment by John ONeill - July 17, 2011 12:50 pm

  2. Very true. But I admit I don’t see how the existence of the Reality TV Fantasy League is evidence that efforts to attract more women writers to Black Gate are misguided.

    It’s not. I have no objection whatsoever to your efforts to attract more women writers, or any other kind of writers, to Black Gate. You have 15 issues worth of evidence demonstrating that your judgment in these matters is to be trusted.

    Well, I wasn’t criticizing Solaris for gender imbalance, or saying anyone else should. I was saying: Don’t kill the messenger, Solaris.

    Ah, I see. In that case, I have no choice but to retract my criticism of your non-criticism. Killing messengers is always pointless, regardless of what the message is.

    Comment by Theo - July 17, 2011 1:09 pm

  3. Nancy Varian Berberick is, indeed, fabulous. I love her short work, and Panther’s Hoard is one of my favorites. She deserves to be far, far better known.

    Comment by Managing Editor Howard Andrew Jones - July 18, 2011 2:13 pm

  4. Has anyone considered that female authors don’t want to write the type of fiction that appeals most to male readers? I prefer sword and sorcery and military SF. Very few women share an interest in that type of fiction, either as readers or authors. I’m ok with that. If CS Friedman, for example, wants to stop writing above average space opera and write awful chic-lit undead fantasy, that is her business. What is tiring is when people accuse people of being sexist for having personal preferences that don’t include what most female fantasy writers put on paper. Your magazine doesn’t claim to be cater to my tastes but has enough content that does, that I’ve purchased some of your magazines. It would be disappointing to see that content narrowed so as to further appeal to a female audience. I think there is a market out there for what is a largely male audience that I hope somebody that is unafraid of being harassed by feminists will fill.

    Comment by Tyr - July 18, 2011 6:34 pm

  5. Tyr,

    Thanks for the comments. As I’ve said a few times, I don’t intend to make any changes to the way I select fiction. At all. I’m quite happy with our reader base, and they have rewarded Black Gate extremely well over the last decade.

    What am I trying to do? I am trying hard to attract more women writers to Black Gate – writers like Nancy Varian Berberick (whom we published in BLACK GATE 4), Martha Wells, Sarah Avery, Elaine Cunningham, Judith Berman, and many others.

    Why? Because I believe our current gender mix is evidence that we do a poor job of convincing those writers that we’re the right market for them.

    There are terrific women writers of Adventure Fantasy out there, and Black Gate is doing a poor job of finding them. Instead, they’re submitting to places like FANTASY or REALMS OF FANTASY, where their work is rejected because it doesn’t suit the style of those magazines.

    Black Gate should be finding them, and we should be encouraging them, and we should be publishing them.

    Honestly, I’m a little sick and tired of the majority of the men (100%, at last count) responding to my post whining about “Black Gate pandering to chick lit” and “Editing by Statistical Sex Profiling.”

    It’s clear that no matter how many times I explain this, our male readers hear only “Black Gate will now commence pandering to women,” and they respond with anger and confusion.

    Based on the evidence, it’s clear most of our male readers are incapable of understanding what I am doing, or why.

    So I’m going to stop talking about it, and just do it.

    Comment by John ONeill - July 18, 2011 10:25 pm

  6. I’m in danger of writing a post about ways and reasons female writers might assess a fiction market as unwelcoming on the basis of gender. Whether such assessments are accurate, fair, or useful–those are all open questions. But writers make highly subjective judgment calls every time they send out a manuscript, so maybe it would be interesting to look at how gender can play into that.

    Or I might be incinerated in a comment thread flamewar for continuing a conversation some readers wish would go away. Maybe if I settle in to read a few more chapters of A Dance with Dragons, the temptation to blog will pass.

    Comment by Sarah Avery - July 18, 2011 11:07 pm

  7. Mr. O’Neill,

    I don’t think anyone is questioning what you do with your own magazine. I suspect the badgering of other magazines is what rubs people the wrong way. If a magazine has 100% male or 100% female readership/ authorship or anything in between, it doesn’t (and shouldn’t) really matter. If you want it to matter for your magazine, fine, that is your right. Leave everyone else to their business and drop the crusade.

    Comment by Tyr - July 18, 2011 11:47 pm


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