Reviews, Genre, and Gender

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice. And I give absolutely no fucks.
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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).

RT_graph_1_revision
(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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