Saturday, July 12, 2008

Gender in science fiction publishing

My unfortunate habit of taking a week to finish chewing over something I’ve read before commenting on it strikes again. (I’m one of those people who always think of devastatingly witty comebacks two days after the conversation is over.) Last week over at SF Signal, they asked the following question for their Mind Meld:

Gender imbalance in genre fiction publishing is an ongoing point of discussion in the blogosphere. Is there an issue here? If so, then what are possible solutions? What can readers, writers, editors and publishers do to rectify the situation?

I’m going to focus here on science fiction, both because I know it better than fantasy and because it is much more male-dominated. I’m also going to focus mostly on American society, since I actually know enough about it to speak on it with some confidence.

I think the discussion is hampered by the widespread and largely unexamined assumption that a gender disparity in publishing or awards constitutes, in itself, proof that something objectionable is going on within the publishing industry. Everyone except Mind Meld contributor Andy Remic and (at her own blog) Cheryl Morgan thus pays little heed to the elephant in the room: for whatever reason, men and women tend to differ in the stuff they like.

It makes no difference whether this is because of innate differences or socialization; science fiction editors control neither human evolution nor the history of Western culture.

Of course, there are women who like stereotypically male interests and men who like stereotypically female interests, but whatever the cause, the general trend is obvious. Because of this omission, it’s somewhat surreal to observe much of the discussion of this issue; I feel like I’m reading a historian who’s trying to explain the last 60 years of American foreign policy without ever acknowledging the existence of the Soviet Union.

It’s important to keep in mind that this does not require any unbreakable iron laws about what men and women can write or want to write; it merely requires a tendency. People often act as if disproving the existence of the former disproves the latter, and so end up attacking strawmen. For instance, in his contribution to the Mind Meld, Hal Duncan writes:

…even if you take the most "masculine" paradigm for what SF/Fantasy is meant to be (and I don't) there's no reason that can't be written by women (other than the possibility that, well, maybe they're not interested in writing that sort of bollocks). There are male Romance writers. And in SF you had Alice Sheldon writing so "masculinely" as James Tiptree Jr. that Silverberg argued she couldn't possibly be a woman. In this context, it seems to me you're really just dealing with a lot of presumptions and prejudice about the capacity of a writer of a certain gender to tell a particular kind of story. I don't buy the idea that female writers aren't going to be just as good at writing to that market.

Well, yes, there are male romance writers. The obvious question is, How many, compared to the number of female romance writers? Yes, it’s foolish to say that no female writer can write well in a stereotypically male genre, but that’s not at issue.

Feminists have argued for years that girls in American schools are discouraged from pursuing math and science; I think that’s true, though I suspect it has more to with the peer environment than the teachers, and I think innate factors come into play as well. In any case, if women have indeed been discouraged from taking an interest in science by our society, then it is to be expected that there will be fewer women interested in science, and thus fewer women reading or writing science fiction, especially hard science fiction. Indeed, the feminist critique of the way girls are educated and socialized and the claim that the disparity in science fiction publishing and awards must be caused by publisher discrimination are in conflict; if women in present-day America were writing quality science fiction in the same quantity as men, that would be a good reason to believe that American society and education doesn’t discourage females from pursuing math and science, which most feminists would likely find a surprising result, as I would I.

Now, I agree with those who say that it would be good if girls were given more encouragement and support by our culture in areas like math and science while they’re growing up, but that’s a culture-wide issue. Growing up, being a known geek in school is rough on boys in American culture, but my impression is that it’s even worse for girls. As long as they pay a higher price for nerdy interests, they will “buy” less of them.

Of course, the decision-making process at publishing companies isn't the only place in SF, nor the most likely one, where sexism might come into play. I’ll be posting some more on this issue shortly, so I hope you’ll stick around. I would also highly recommend Cheryl Morgan’s very interesting post about this issue.

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