Over the Borderline: More on Genre, Gender, and Reviews

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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May 1, 2013

As I read some of the responses to my post last week, I kept thinking about boundary policing, moving goalposts, and gaslighting.

Which is an awful lot for a thesis statement, so let me break it up a bit. In the form of a simulated conversation!

Group A: Hey, we really like $thing! It would be awesome if more people were talking about $thing!
Group B: We really like $thing, too! And we’re talking about it over here!
Group A: You’re talking about it wrong.
Group B: …

That’s boundary policing–this is so Group B knows that they are viewed with a certain degree of scorn or low esteem by Group A.

Now, Group A will start to move the goalposts around–this is to ensure that Group A will never have to concede common ground to Group B.

Group B: What do you mean, we’re talking about it wrong? We have space devoted for it and we are certainly talking about the same $thing because we have data to prove it!
Group A: Well, maybe, but you also talk about those other things that we’re not interested in.
Group B: Can’t we talk about both?
Group A: You also don’t talk about $thing enough.
Group B: We talk about it as much as those other places do!
Group A: Well, maybe, but you’re just not doing it like we do, so it doesn’t count.
Group B: …

And finally, it’s time for Group A to attempt to gaslight Group B–the point of this is to make Group B doubt themselves and, eventually, to go away (or stop talking or whatever).

Group A: We never heard of you, you aren’t part of us.
Group B: But we are definitely talking about $thing, maybe you should listen to what we have to say?
Group A: Don’t you know that we get to decide these things?
Group B: But we thought you wanted to have more people talking about $thing?
Group A: Why did you think we’d ever listen to you? That’s wishful thinking. You’re very confused and possibly deluded.
Group B: …

It was, let me say, interesting to have some of this pointed in my direction. It was not something I’d ever really experienced directly although I had seen it happen to other people many times. There were a lot of people who didn’t do this and thank goodness for them because it gave me hope that we might actually be able to see some change. Someday.

And I guess that’s part of the reason my eyebrows damn near jumped off my face when I read Sarah’s guest post over at Fantasy Cafe last weekend in which she (rough paraphrase) claimed that there is too much emphasis put on people’s plumbing and not enough on the quality of the writing and that she believes people to be mixed up and confused. The authoritative nature of her statements is perplexing to me; it seems to imply that she believes her perspective to be, I don’t know, the one true perspective? I found her argument to be essentialist  and reductive and therefore fundamentally flawed and unsupportable.

This conversation about review coverage and gender parity isn’t about discrimination against specific authors–it’s about systemic discrimination. In short: the game is rigged and it needs to be un-rigged.

Note: It is not my intent to erase genderqueer or genderfluid individuals from this discussion; it’s just that I don’t think I ever reviewed books by anyone who identified in either of those ways during my tenure at RT–it should go without saying, I hope, that I believe books written by people who identify as genderqueer or genderfluid should be given the same degree of consideration.

Let me describe the process I used to decide which books to cover in RT.

I’d make a list for the current month–based on what I had received as well as what I knew was coming out but didn’t have yet. I usually tried for 10 to 12 books a month (summer months always had more books than winter ones; January was always the absolute worst to fill).

Some titles would automatically make it in–part of an ongoing series, an author whose prior work I liked, a title I’d heard a lot of good things about, that sort of thing. I would usually have, at the end of this process anywhere from 3 to 6 books for 1 or 2 remaining slots. And do you know what I did then? I looked at the books by women first. If it looked like a readable and reasonably entertaining book and something that I thought that the readers of the magazine would like, it would get one of the remaining slots. If it didn’t look like any of those things, I set it aside and went on to the next book–almost always prioritizing books by women over those by men (the reasons for this I will explain shortly).

The result was that I was able to run a fairly balanced section most of the time with minimal effort on my part. I often opted not to cover some books written by men because I knew they had a high enough profile that they would get sufficient coverage elsewhere or that their fan base was established and large and not being reviewed in RT would not be a detriment.

I await accusations of affirmative action and tokenism here. Also exhortations to think of the men.

The thing is this: I knew that most of the books by men I was choosing to exclude would still be covered elsewhere. That there would be plenty of reviews on Amazon to buoy them up in the search algorithm, that they wouldn’t be shy about promoting their work in public spaces online (see Seanan McGuire’s response to claims of over-promotion during the Hugo nomination period). I wasn’t so sure about the books by women–especially the debut titles. Sales of an author’s debut book can make or break their career and it seemed like making sure that women were equally represented overall was the right thing to do.

One thing that’s important to keep in mind is that when women talk just 50% of the time, they are often perceived as “dominating” the conversation–I know I’ve had this happen to me at various points in my life. I’ve been interrupted when talking by men and when I attempt to finish my thought or redirect back to my point, I’ve been told to be quiet and let the man have his say. Who gets to talk is very much an expression of who has the power–and in Western society and culture, men have that power by default:

It appears that men generally talk more in formal, public contexts where informative and persuasive talk is highly valued, and where talk is generally the prerogative of those with some societal status and has the potential for increasing that status. Women, on the other hand, are more likely to contribute in private, informal interactions, where talk more often functions to maintain relationships, and in other situations where for various reasons they feel socially confident. (also from Language as Prejudice)

As I read  Juliet McKenna’s post over at Fantasy Cafe earlier this week this point was really hammered this home for me–McKenna points out that male authors get the bulk of the promotion (i.e., more opportunity to “talk”) from publishers and this helps to constrain or limit what folks in the industry like to call “discoverability”:

Lack of visibility by way of reviews matters because that’s the information which so often guides the non-fan book-seller making disproportionately influential choices.

Women write all kinds of speculative fiction and a lot of it’s damned good. And yet. And yet. When a bookstore decides to sell promotional space based on the popularity of Game of Thrones, the only books that publishers feel are worthy of promotional dollars are those written by men? That doesn’t seem quite right to me.

Women writers of speculative fiction find themselves open to accusations of writing too much about feelings and having too much romance–and that these things are actively detrimental to speculative fiction (why is this? and “I don’t like it” is not an acceptable answer; there’s lots of stuff I don’t like and I wouldn’t necessarily call it detrimental to an entire genre). I’ve seen this in reviews of books by women–books where, if the author were a man (or if they simply appear to be male), the romantic plot would have been described as “nuanced” and possibly also as “subtle” or “sublime”–but since the book was written by a woman, the fact that there’s a romantic plot is suddenly a flaw.

Obviously, readers have preferences. I myself have preferences. But when a preference is cited repeatedly as a fact, as something intrinsic to works written by one group or another, then it’s a problem (there’s that pesky essentialism again!). And it seems to me that the very idea that it is a rational decision to promote and review books written by men over those written by women is a huge problem–it’s all very circular, in my opinion. If male authors of speculative fiction receive the bulk of promotional space and funds, is it any surprise that their books tend to sell better?

Finally, this essay by Foz Meadows really talks about this tension better than I can–she starts from a different place than I do–she’s talking about escapism, but her thoughts on privilege are well worth reading:

…there’s a very real sense in which a default policy of abstinence from the critical analysis of narrative is itself a product of privilege: of being afforded so many positive representations of oneself in so many different media that negative portrayals are never demonstrative of authorial prejudice towards, ignorance of or disinterest in the type of person you are, because the variety of portrayals on offer is itself proof of the fact that everyone likes, knows and is interested in you – or at least, in your attention.

Male writers may not necessarily notice that they’re getting a higher level of service than the women with the same publisher–or it may be dismissed with a glib, “Well, my sales are better.” And they may very well be, but one of the reasons for that may be the higher level of investment by the publisher–in other words, a self-perpetuating cycle. And publishers are definitely in business to make money and the P&L rules many (but not all) of the decisions made–much, I think, to the detriment of marginalized voices. Large companies–be they publishers,manufacturers, whatever–have very little incentive to invest in areas where they don’t feel as if they’ll make a profit. Which I believe is a loss for everyone.

Additionally, I’ve been following the discussion around Wikipedia’s “American Novelist” category and the inclusion and exclusion of women from it.  According to some of Wikipedia’s editors (all male), American writers are men and American women writers should be shunted into their own category, a subset of the larger one.  There are many rules they’re using to justify this action, yet another case of boundary policing.

The act of moving women writers into a subcategory reduces their overall visibility–how many people, looking for an American author to read and using Wikipedia as a resource (hey, it could happen) will stop on the first page? I know that when I’m using WIkipedia that if there are ten million subcategories and hardly anything listed in the main category I stop poking around on Wikipedia and go elsewhere. (Of course, this is because I usually don’t take Wikipedia as a serious source of information except in the most general sort of way.)

Take a look at what Jess Zimmerman said on Twitter about Wikipedia–I think this is applicable to the review gap as well:

Men are people. Women are a subcategory of people. Men are writers. Women are a subcategory of writers.

As long as men’s voices seen as intrinsically more authoritative than women’s voices, as long as they receive greater attention from review outlets and other mass media, then this is always going to be a problem and I think the only way to begin to solve it is to take an active part in talking about it and proposing ways to make women, their voices, and their work more visible.

Also exacerbating the problem is the fact that women are often dismissed for being emotional when they talk about this–in my gaslighting example at the beginning of this essay, I chose the words “confused” and “wishful thinking” on purpose–those were both words or phrases that were being applied to me when I published my post with RT’s data last week. Despite the fact that I had data and provided it to whoever wished to look at it, I was still perceived as being “emotional”. I would like to suggest that getting emotional when one’s voice isn’t heard actually isn’t a bad thing–it should be an indication that there’s a problem.

I believe that these discussions around gender parity in reviews are one way of disrupting the cycle of invisible women. To ask that venues be a bit more thoughtful in their process of assigning titles for review and to ask that more women reviewers be recruited when there are openings. For editors to be vigilant around reviews that talk about what the reviewer wishes the author wrote as opposed to what the author actually did write.

This is a big, complicated puzzle and there aren’t any easy answers. But there are some initial steps that we can all take in order to begin to address this inequality.

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  1. rosary

    I’m glad to see you write on this. One of the reasons I noticed the three writers in your database with the misidentified genders has to do with the very names they chose as “pen names.” Alex Hughes, Rob Thurman, and A.C Crispin–all are androgynous to be though masculine names, and thus they can slide more easily past the sexism involved in reviewing and in SFF. It is, of course, and old trick that even the Bronte sisters used in the 1800s (Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell for Charlotte, Emily, and Ann). That in 2013, that very old trick still has to be used to receive “serious” attention is rather depressing, and speaks volumes to how very prevalent sexism is in our society.

    • Natalie

      It is depressing and I don’t know what there is to do about it except to keep talking.

    • donna

      I’m not looking to start a fight here (really, I’m not) but the pen name thing cuts both ways. Miranda James is a man, you know. But men don’t write “cat mysteries”…

      What I would like to know–really–is how much marketing had to do with their name choices. By marketing, I mean the publicity people. Did the authors choose these names voluntarily or were the changes suggested because SFF with a male author is easier to market and sells better? That right there would answer a lot of questions for me.

      “thus they can slide more easily past the sexism involved in reviewing”

      Not to pick a bone, but let’s not point a finger at every SFF reviewer. I reviewed countless SF books for RT in 8 years–the gender of the author was totally irrelevant to me, only the quality of the work I was asked to evaluate. I’m thinking a lot of people down in the lower reviewing ranks of the bigger publications don’t get much choice–what they get to review is often at the whim of whomever’s above them on the food chain. Natalie was careful to try to be as inclusive as possible, but the fact of the matter is that publishing is still a man’s world in a lot of ways. So if you want to point a finger at sexism in reviewing–and I agree it should be pointed–I think looking a bit further up the ladder would be productive 🙂

  2. Rosary

    I’m not pointing any fingers, except in a general, there’s lots of sexism in the world, sort of way. For A.C. Crispin, I’d say it was probably a very deliberate choice to use initials when she started publishing SF in 1983. And reading Alex Hughes’s author’s note at the back of both Clean and Sharp–the name is probably a choice. Hughes’s note is fascinating in how it goes out the way to not identify gender. And sexism works both ways, the number of male romance writers and “cozy” writers is probably much higher than most realize because no one associates those genres with men. I imagine “Miranda James” is a name chosen precisely because cozy mysteries are seen as having a female audience, so a thus a woman’s name is needed–the same being true of romance. Certainly some of it is marketing, but then does that make the marketing or the culture the marketing works in, the sexist element?

    • donna

      Well, given that the purpose of the average publisher is to make money, I’d say to at least some degree it’s the market. They’re going to select what the market will buy. What I’m saying is that they’re not helping matters by encouraging gender-hiding through pseudonyms, regardless of genre. But they also don’t want to lose their shirts on a book, so if a mystery about a male librarian and his cat in the south will sell better with a woman’s name attached to it…*shrug*. It’s a problem, certainly. I imagine the authors want to be successful as well.

      And of course there’s a lot of sexism in this world. I’m just trying to defend the lowly people who really don’t get a choice with regard to what they’re given to review. I was one of them. My choices were limited to whatever my senior editors offered to me. So again, I think one way to deal with this problem, which is knotty and complicated, is to look UP the food chain a bit.

    • Natalie

      I am pretty sure that I made it clear that I was talking from an editorial perspective in terms of assigning books for review.

    • donna

      You did. You, I suspect, are the exception to the rule.

    • Rosary

      Been on both sides of that as reviewer and as editor (long time back as I age), but I recall how in academia I often did have much choice either because of what was sent to me for reviewing purposes or in reviewers. I remember getting some flack for asking a relatively youngish fellow to review books on Jean Rhys–I mean he was a Rhys and Caribbean scholar. The flack, a male in a women’s studies journal?

      I’m not really picking at reviewers, or those who assign them, but at the closemindedness in the publishing field in general. Afterall, the same mindset that tells a male he must be Miranda James to sell his novels is the same mindset that looks at something like RT and says, oh for women mainly, we’ll send them fluffier material-or the same mindset that looks at RT and says oh they review mostly stuff for women–second tier books then. It’s the same mindset that tends to engage in the boundary policing (and it tends to be patriarchal in nature).

    • Rosary

      darn it–I left out the not did NOT have much control. I’ve done too much grading and math today.

    • Natalie

      I actively researched what books were coming out and solicited copies from publishers. It wasn’t simply me picking titles only from what I was given. I know that the other sections of RT work similarly and, I expect, other review publications as well.

  3. Merrian

    One of the things that stays with me from Sarah’s post the the American Women Novelists debacle on Wikipedia is that claiming of a high ground of rationality and quality. The intention to shut down differing views and experiences is implied in this through the claim to know quality (whatever that is) when they see it and therefore whatever else the rest of us are on about it isn’t ‘quality’. What I feel is the deliberate distance this creates that there is no dialogue intended; just a shout down until the other goes away, silenced. Note that I am responding emotionally therefore can be discounted. In this paradigm there is no truth in emotion.

    I am glad that Juliet’s and now Kate Elliott’s posts on Fantasy Cafe balance out Sarahs.

    To answer Donna, a female hard SF author tweeted in my tweetstream yesterday:

    Publisher told me yeah, sure we want hard SF, but admitted to being less interested if it’s written by a woman. I’m actually fucking furious

    — Patty Jansen (@pattyjansen) April 30, 2013

    blockquote class=”twitter-tweet”>

    to those following the discussion, I am reasonably sure he saw marketing problems with a female hard SF writer

    — Patty Jansen (@pattyjansen) April 30, 2013

    • Natalie

      I saw that–absolutely INFURIATING.


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