Reviews, Genre, and Gender

Written by Natalie Luhrs

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

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April 24, 2013

So yesterday, Strange Horizons published their SF Count–where, following the lead of VIDA, they count the proportion of books that were reviewed and written by women as opposed to men.

And just like VIDA, Strange Horizons forgot to include RT Book Reviews.

RT primarily reviews romance novels and mentions of RT often draw sniggers from men (and some women) in the SF audience because hey, romance novels are somehow inherently funny. Here’s the thing: they do have a pretty good (if I say so myself) science fiction and fantasy section, one which I was pleased to be involved with for just over eight years.

I manage data at my day job, so I have kept data for every single book that passed through my hands during my tenure (that would be 100-150 books a year, give or take). These books were mainly from the Big 6 publishers and mainly science fiction and fantasy with a smattering of urban fantasy. RT has a separate urban fantasy section and it was and is coordinated by someone else and I’m not sure if she keeps records or not–but I can say pretty confidently that most of the books reviewed in that section were written by people who identify as women and reviewed by the same.

From 2004 to 2012, I reviewed a grand total of 564 books for RT, 354 by women and 210 by men.

From 2005 to 2009, I reviewed most of the SF books myself. During that time I reviewed a total of 396 books. 228 were written by women, 168 were written by men.

(Note: The gender distribution in the previous two paragraphs has been changed since original publication–per Rosary’s comments below I mistakenly identified three women as men. My apologies!)

In 2010 I cried uncle and got some help from a fabulous group of reviewers. Here’s a chart showing how many books we reviewed in the science fiction and fantasy section and how many of us there were:

Year Reviews Reviewers
2010 146 9
2011 127 10
2012 124 14

You do NOT want to know how long I struggled to get this table to look semi-okay. HTML and CSS are not something I’m very good at anymore.

I’m not going to bother making any pie charts because pie charts are the worst–really, folks, they’re terrible. If you want to show the size relationship between different items, use a column or bar graph with your columns or bars sorted by size–and because I can’t resist, I redid one of Strange Horizon‘s graphs:

Locus Books Received by Author Gender 2012

So much easier to understand! At least I think so.

Anyhow, back to my data. I went ahead and put the 2010, 2011, and 2012 data into two graphs–one divided by author gender and one by reviewer gender. While I only reviewed for RT through November 2012 I was easily able to pull the December 2012 data from their website and figure out which books I would have assigned versus those assigned via other routes (digital-only books were not part of my domain).

(Note: The graph above has been updated since original publication per Rosary’s comments below; I misidentified the gender of one of the authors reviewed in 2012.)

RT_graph_2Really, they just speak for themselves, don’t they? (Anyone interested as to how I’m deriving these numbers can look at the dataset–I’ve obscured the identity of all the reviewers, but will disclose that I am F01).

The question really is this–why is RT consistently ignored when it comes to these annual surveys, both by VIDA and within the speculative fiction community?

I suspect that it actually has to do with the fact that RT‘s primary audience is women and that the bulk of what they review is romance novels. In the past, I’ve had to clarify repeatedly that there is absolutely no romantic requirement for the science fiction and fantasy section, often while there was snickering happening. I’ve also seen authors and commenters on various websites denigrating the reviews written by myself and by those who reviewed books I selected.

As I mentioned just last week, I’ve often felt unwelcome in the speculative fiction community and seeing my work–and the work of other women–run down like that didn’t help me to feel more welcome (writing 175 word book reviews that summarize the plot and provide some criticism within a fairly strict format is damned hard work at times). And seeing the publication I spent 8 years of my life writing for being consistently excluded from discussions of the absence of women’s voices doesn’t help, either, especially since their writers and audience are exactly those voices that are missing from the larger conversation.

Let me be clear: what Strange Horizons and VIDA are doing is incredibly important and I absolutely support their annual efforts to keep this issue in front of the community–the amount of data collection they do is pretty astonishing even if they insist on using pie charts to present their results. I think they’ve done a lot to raise awareness, however everyone could be doing more. And one of those things is taking what the people at RT are doing seriously and including them in these kinds of surveys.

Why is it that when speculative fiction readers and writers talk about “genre” it’s taken as a given that they’re only talking about one in particular? Genre is bigger than that–it encompasses different kinds and shapes of stories, including romance. I have no issue with people who don’t want to read romance, but I do take issue with people who don’t want to admit that it exists when they talk about genre fiction.

Coming tomorrow, Donna talks about genre labels and the use and abuse of them–it ties in really well with what I’m talking about here, in fact. And we didn’t even plan it this way!

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  1. Elisa

    *slow clap*

  2. --E

    It doesn’t surprise me that SF/F readers don’t include Romance when they talk about “genre”–they’re talking about their genre. They’re not including Crime Fic either, so it’s not that Romance is being actively excluded, it’s that the focus is narrow.

    That said, there’s no excuse for forgetting RT as a review forum for SF/F. As you note, the SF/F review section does not require that the book be romantical–it focuses on SF/F as a genre; genre-Romance novels are reviewed elsewhere in RT.

    Forgetting to include RT in a discussion of this issue is…ironic, to say the least.

  3. Jill


  4. --E

    Though, continuing my thought…. RT is not thought of as an SF/F forum. While it includes SF/F, it is not SF/F-specific, as the other venues cited in the count are.

    The count also omitted the review sections of prominent newspapers and broader industry publications (e.g. Publishers Weekly, Kirkus). Now that I think about it, Romantic Times would perhaps be excluded as being “not specifically an SF/F-focused publication.”

    • Natalie

      I think my issue is that the SF/F section was, during my time with the magazine, run as an almost independent entity–I had a lot of control over what I was including and one of my goals was to review as many books written by women as I could. My other goals were to make the section relevant to SF/F readers and to make SF/F accessible to romance readers.

      I feel like I have been engaged in the same conversation as many other people in the SF/F genre–obviously, other people feel differently. I can see opting to exclude RT because it covers many different genres (like PW & Kirkus); the main objection I’ve seen to my post so far is that it’s not part of the same “scene” as the other publications with frankly doesn’t make sense to me. How do you define a “scene”?

    • donna

      How do you define a scene? Probably as “what’s important to me.” 😉

      Despite people like you (and me) actively trying to promote RT as an all-inclusive forum for review, the fact is that too many people out there remember when RT stood for Romantic Times. And Romance, as we know, isn’t their scene. God love the SFF community, but they can get a little snobby about stuff. A whiff of romance cooties and they run.

      Btw, I will proudly out myself as F04 on your database. I was curious to see how my numbers matched up. I appear to be somewhat evenly split between M/F authors, although I clearly read more on the male-generated side, which kind of surprised me.

    • --E

      SF/F section was…run as an almost independent entity

      –>But is that obvious to people on the outside? I don’t know the inner workings at PW and Kirkus, but I know that, for instance, the person assigning SF/F reviews for PW is active in SF/F circles; by contrast, someone over at Kirkus who assigns SF/F for review to [mutual friend of you and me] doesn’t appear to be SF/F-oriented.

      I strongly suspect that your basic thesis, “RT is overlooked because of the ‘romantic’ part” is correct. Not just in SF/F circles, but in general.

      What becomes interesting, though, is that a reasonable claim could be made (as I did) that RT was left off the SH analysis because RT does more than just SF/F; while at the same time one could say RT was left off the VIDA analyses because RT is genre-oriented, not “general” enough.

      Heads you lose, tails no one wins?

      I hope that over time, RT can lose the association with “romance”–not because there’s anything wrong with romance, but because RT is MORE than just romance, so it would be good for other genres to recognize that RT offers something to them, too.

    • Natalie

      I have been more of a lurker than a participant in online SF/F circles–I’m trying to rectify that now. The reasons I have historically lurked are complicated and not really on topic here (the reasons are not off-limits for discussion; I’ve been thinking about writing about those reasons as a follow-on to my sexism post from last week actually).

      It really does feel like a no-win situation and I know that the people working there–editors and reviewers both–work extremely hard at what they do and it would be nice to see them get some recognition for that work.

  5. Eric K

    The very first time I saw a blurb on a science fiction novel from “Romantic Times”, I think I might have blinked once or twice. If nothing else, it was slightly unexpected. But since I was a fan of Bujold’s SF romances, I decided to go check out the reviews.

    And once I started reading the RT science fiction reviews, they quickly became one of my most trusted sources of information on SF books, both because of their solid knowledge of the genre and their excellent taste. I actually do buy based on blurbs, and a strong RT blurb is one of my most reliable indicators.

    For me, omitting RT from a count of SF books reviews would be like omitting [i]Locus[/i]—it strongly suggests that somebody had a pretty big blind spot. If a publication consistently produces large numbers of excellent reviews, why should I care whether they belong to some “scene” or not? Who gets to be the self-appointed arbiter of “scenes”, anyway?

    • Natalie

      This is just… I don’t have words for how nice it was to open my email and see this comment. Thank you.

    • donna

      I’ll add my thanks, since I wrote a few of those possibly 😉

  6. rosary

    hey I spotted an error in your data set. Alex Hughes is female, so you’ve actually got one more female author than male. But the fact that she uses Alex and doiesn’t include a picture or a pronoun in her author blurb is telling.

  7. rosary

    And Rob Thurman is actually Robyn Thurman. And I have no point to these data correction, but they point to the fact that it’s easier in SFF to have an androgynous name that can be more easily perceived as masculine.

  8. Natalie

    Just noting that I’ve updated the dataset on Google, the first RT graph, as well as my personal statistics to reflect Rosary’s corrections. Thanks!

  9. Jessica Strider

    I’m a long time reader of science fiction and fantasy and work in the fiction section of a bookstore in Toronto, Canada. One of my co-workers, who reads a lot of romance, moved RT from magazine section to the front of the romance section thinking (correctly) that it would sell better there. I picked it up and discovered the SF/F reviews. While I don’t always agree with the ratings, I have made it a habit of seeing what books they’ve reviewed for SF/F and Urban Fantasy every month, both to see how they’ve rated the books but also to see what’s coming out soon. They’ve started reviewing ebook originals, which is pretty cool as a lot of other places ignore those titles. The magazine also contains some great industry news, mostly romance specific but sometimes general information on self-publishing and changes to the industry. Seems a shame that a magazine that increased the number and variety of reviews they publish at a time when others were cutting their review sections completely, should be ignored or reviled by those of us interested in the SF/F genre.

    • Natalie

      Absolutely! I was going to post an update on the situation in my linkspam post tomorrow–I am beyond pleased that Strange Horizons listened to my concerns and responded so positively.

      I wanted to speak to the larger issue as well, though, which is boundary policing around who is counted as part of the community–I am not so sure I was successful there, I may have to think about this aspect of things more and write another post.

  10. Sophie Gale

    I don’t know why people overlook RT now, but back in another millennium when I worked in a bookstore and had friends who wrote romance, I regularly read RT–and the reviews were horrible. Sturgeon’s Law assured us “ninety percent of everything is crap,” but nothing ever got less than 3 stars out of 5 or something unrealistic. And, of course, the magazine was all advertisements for Harlequin and Silhouette–that’s just to be expected!–but the overall impression I got was “payola.” Forgive me for an old bias, but I would never pick up RT for any kind of book review.

    • Natalie

      Thanks for the comment! This is a long response–this is what you get when I have two hours to think before I write it all out.

      You make a very valid point: rating inflation is an ongoing issue at RT. It is, however, better than it used to be by a significant margin. There are a lot of reasons for the inflation but the two easiest reasons are selection bias and personal relationships between reviewer and reviewed. I’ll address these in reverse order.

      On the romance side, they have reviewers who have literally been there for 30 years–RT started out as more or less a fanzine–and after 30 years of conventions and whatnot, there is a blurring of the line between personal relationships and professional relationships. Add into that the sort of lovey-dovey we’re all friends here thing that is the public perception of the romance genre and you get people not wanting to upset their friends and subsequent rate inflation.

      As for selection bias–there are section coordinators who work semi-independently to put their respective sections together and who also review books. And the other reviewers are sent lists of books available and allowed to pick what they want. As opposed to other publications where, I believe an editor just assigns books based on how any a reviewer has said they can handle per issue (this happens at RT, too, but only if something doesn’t get picked up by someone who wants to read it). So you get people picking out books to review that they’d want to read anyhow. I don’t know about you, but I’m not going to go out of my way to pick out a book that doesn’t appeal to me given the opportunity to choose. I know that I was doing this–why would I read Laurel K. Hamilton when I could read N.K. Jemisin instead? (Of course, I ended up with the LKH as often as not, too.)

      Finally, you mention the issue of advertising. I know that a review is often guaranteed with purchase of an ad for some of the smaller and digital only presses–a positive review, however, is not. A the beginning of my time, I had some of these books assigned to me and I wrote honest reviews. Some of these reviews ran in the magazine, others did not. Books which fell under this umbrella are generally assigned by someone in the advertising department. I do wish that these reviews were clearly differentiated from the others.

      I know that I was only questioned on my ratings when there seemed to be a mismatch between my words and the rating and I often revised my reviews to bring the two into line–sometimes making a review more positive but also making it more negative or adjusting my rating to be in line with what I wrote.

      Since I do have data, I can tell you that my average rating over 564 books is in the 3 to 3.5 range–lower in earlier years and higher in later as selection bias influenced which books I was choosing to review versus assigning out to others.

      All that said, I totally understand your reluctance to rely on them as a resource based on your experience in the last millennium. But it isn’t the same magazine now that it was 10 years ago.


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