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. Fuck around and find out.
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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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