Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The Big Reveal, and a Few Thoughts on Gender in SFF

As promised, today Teresa Frohock revealed the results of her "Guess the Author's Gender" experiment!  I wrote sample #9, The Sea-Folk's Price.  (In case anyone's curious: I wrote the story specifically for Teresa's experiment, but I didn't attempt to alter my usual style in any way (consciously, at least!).  Heh, it was quite interesting to write a piece of fiction *not* involving Dev and Kiran.  First time since November 2007!)

The numerical results of the experiment are interesting to see, but I think the most fascinating part was reading the reasons people gave for their guesses in the comments to each writing sample.  (My personal favorite comment?  The person who voted "male" for my piece because it reminded them of George R. R. Martin.  My husband now wants to know when I'll be making zillions of dollars like George.  Had to inform him that would be Never.)  I'm hoping participants will now comment on the reveal post with their reactions upon seeing the truth of who wrote what - I'm quite curious to know what people think.

If I'm honest, I was surprised that so many people guessed "male" on my piece, and I'll admit that the experiment's results did indeed challenge some of my own assumptions.  See, I've long thought that there *is* often (but not always) a difference in the writing of male vs. female authors.  Not in terms of quality, but of focus.  After all the thousands of SFF books I've read, I feel there's a grain of truth in the old saw that female authors are more likely to focus on character, while male authors are more likely to focus on plot. Deep, well-rounded characterization is first and foremost on my list of what I look for in a book, and I find the majority of my favorite SFF authors are female.  Dorothy Dunnett, C.J. Cherryh, Emma Bull, Carol Berg, Martha Wells, Elizabeth Bear...all their books feature wonderful characterization, and the heart of the story (as I see it) lies in the characters' various internal arcs rather than the specific events of the plot (even when the plot is fast-paced and exciting!).

That's not to say male authors can't pull off the same.  Guy Gavriel Kay is an excellent example of a male author with incredible skill at characterization; or even Mark Lawrence, whose novels work beautifully as a character study of damaged, near-sociopathic young Jorg.  Yet when I look at my shelves - I only buy paper copies of books I truly love and intend to re-read a hundred times over - I'd say a good 70% or more of the SFF books are by women.

Anecdotal, I know.  Yet after reading much discussion of the "male gaze" vs. the "female gaze" in recent months (see Kate Elliott's excellent post on the subject at SF Signal, as an example), I can't help but think there is sometimes a difference.  The gazes that Kate discusses are of course potentially independent of gender - a woman can write with a "male gaze" and vice versa - yet the cultural component of it makes me wonder.  Perhaps we can't always so easily cast aside our culture and upbringing and gestalt of experiences; perhaps all these things flavor our stories, and it's not out of the question to think that people of one gender in a given culture might share enough experiences to affect our personal "lens" in similar fashion.  A subtle effect, not always easy to discern (especially in short samples), varying from one author to another...but still potentially there.  And if it is...to me, that's not a bad thing.  One gaze isn't better than the other; they're just different - and one reason I love to read is the chance to experience the world through different eyes, so hooray for a diversity of focus.

That's not to say that there aren't frustrating misconceptions around gender in SFF fandom.  There are two in particular that drive me up the wall:

1) A female name on the cover means a book with a lot of romance.  No. Just...NO.  The romance genre might have a huge female readership, but trust me, guys, there are plenty of women like me who prefer stories with a different focus.  I said that 70% of the SFF books lining my shelves are female-authored.  None of those books are romances.

2) Women don't write epic fantasy.  This one simultaneously boggles and frustrates me.  Most people saying this are using "epic" to mean secondary-world fantasy, but even if you restrict the definition to sprawling multi-volume grand-scale stories, there are plenty of excellent female authors to choose from.  (Janny Wurts, Michelle Sagara/West, Helen Lowe, Robin Hobb, Sherwood Smith, Elspeth Cooper, for example.)  If you open it up to secondary-world fantasy in general, the list expands exponentially.  Yet this bizarre blind spot remains, in certain segments of fandom.  Why?  I don't know.  I figure all I can do is talk loud and long about the many awesome female-authored secondary-world fantasies that I love, in hopes new readers will discover them.

So I certainly hope Teresa's little experiment might help to challenge the participants' assumptions, as it did mine - and maybe even convince some to give a few new authors a try.


  1. "Women don't write epic fantasy."

    This one drives me up a wall. I think the big widest-scale epic fantasy (the highest Stakes scores, to use my terminology) is less represented with female authors, but even so, the evidence is that they write it in spades.

  2. It may be true high-Stakes-score fantasy is less represented, but I wonder how often Judith Tarr's dismaying story (http://www.sfsignal.com/archives/2011/06/guest_post_girl_cooties_a_personal_history_by_judith_tarr/) applies, just with "SF" replaced with "epic fantasy." How many female-authored epic fantasies weren't marketed that way, because of the perceived bias? How many were published and never achieved bestsellerdom and so fell off readers' radar? It's so hard to say without some kind of rigorous study. But in the end, as you say, the exact ratio is less important than the fact women ARE writing epic fantasy, and plenty of it.