Friday, March 09, 2012

Reviewing and Gender

Update: HERE's a great article at VIDA that brings up the points I mentioned here and expands on it and other relevant issues. Great reading. I had NO idea that Oprah hadn't featured a female writer on her book club in 5 years-- did you?

It's been such a long time since I've addressed gender in any fashion on the blog. I used to bring up misogyny in film on a regular basis but I stepped away from the topic because I didn't want to turn my blog into a one-trick-pony. But, as always, certain topics rise to the surface no matter what we do-- probably for good reason.

Lately there has been quite a discussion on the topic of gender bias and book reviews. Specifically the notion that male reviewers don't tend to review fantasy/scifi by female writers. I hadn't intended to venture into the conversation, but discovered that I played an unwitting part in the discussion when this blog was included in a statistical breakdown of how books are reviewed by gender over at Lady Business. Fantasy & SciFi Lovin' was categorized, appropriately, as a mixed gender blog since two out of the three reviewers here are male. And if you look at the breakdown of male-to-female authors that were reviewed in the period studied you'd see that this blog skews about two-thirds in the direction of male authors reviewed; almost exactly in line with the gender breakdown of this blog.

What that means is that this blog, one that has been run by a woman for over six years (this is my seventh), is one of the worst offenders when it comes to reviewing more male than female authors.

How about that.

After seeing the numbers I went and looked at my own personal list of books reviewed (through Goodreads) and saw that I was pretty equitable in my reviews-- my gender balance was almost dead-even.

Does that mean I'm going to cast a jaundiced eye at my male reviewers and start pointing fingers?

Heck no.

Here's the thing. Before I had male contributors to my blog I had a hard time gaining- and keeping- a male audience. I think most blogs like mine will see people come and go, and the audience does change. When I started there weren't that many female reviewers out there. I remember being sent and email from a publisher asking if I wanted to review a couple of books and asking me if I would pass on the word to other reviewers. I actually had to do some searching to find some other reviewers to ask and the only female reviewer I could find at the time was SciFi Chick. I'm sure there were probably others out there, and I'm sorry if I missed you, but we ladies weren't around en masse when review-blogging was new. How times have changed. Now there are so many blogs I can't keep track anymore. If you type in urban fantasy reviews you'll get page after page of results-- many run by women.

I tend to run from gender politics when I feel as if we're tying to make people change their behavior. But I have to admit that looking at the charts has made me think. According to the admittedly small sample it would appear that women reviewers are more equitable when it comes to the gender dispersion of their reviews. They might skew slightly toward favoring female authors, but not nearly as much as male reviewers favor male authors.

But... I have a hard time giving too much credence to such a small study. One thing I know is that correlation does not mean causation-- in other words, just because we can observe what appears to be a gender bias doesn't mean that the reviewers are choosing books based on gender preferences. There are so many other things to take into account from simple considerations like how many female vs. male authors are in print, to how books are being marketed to a certain audience. I know, as the owner of this blog, that the emails I get offering me urban fantasy titles are far larger than those offering me pure science fiction-- those offers go to Bill and Jim. So are the publishers to blame for offering books for review along certain gender lines? Personally, I'd say it's more likely that their experience tells them that men and women are receptive to different things and they make their offers accordingly.

Over the years I've had several contributors to this blog; some male, some female. And you know what? The most consistent and loyal contributors have been the guys. Is that an indictment of women? No. What it means to me is that pure fantasy and science fiction still has a larger male audience than female one. I do know a lot of women who love fantasy, but I don't know many who read a lot of science fiction- myself included. Urban Fantasy has a huge female base but the guys I know often seem drawn to the UF written by James Butcher, Simon R. Green and Mike Carey rather than books written by Patricia Briggs, Rachel Caine or Chloe Neill. I know there are exceptions and I've had my guys request authors like Gini Koch, Seanan McGuire and Sharon Shinn on a regular basis. But I think if you asked the guys what they read more, science fiction or urban fantasy, you'd see a trend toward the sci-fi. I don't have the data in front of me, but I'd hazard to guess that pure sci-fi is still a male dominated genre even though women like Kristine Katherine Rusch, CJ Cherryh and Justina Robson have shown that women can excel at the genre.

The overall gist of the conversation, as far as I can tell, seems geared toward encouraging male reviewers to making an effort toward reading, and reviewing, more female authors. And I think that's generally a good goal. But I hesitate toward trying to use guilt as a lever toward achieving that goal. I like the study done by Lady Business because it approaches the topic from an empirical standpoint rather than the I feel or I think standpoint. Logic is our friend in this discussion and guilt is the enemy.

Have I experience sexism as a female blogger? I think I have. I've beat my chest a little bit over the times I've been dismissed as a lightweight in the reviewing game. And there have been more than a few moments when I thought I should just quit. In fact, I can't give you a good reason why I don't other than I still like what I'm doing. I won't say I stopped trying to cater to a male audience, but rather than try to change what I do, I happily accepted the help of male reviewers who bring something else to the blog. Would I like women to be more represented around here? Sure-- but women aren't speaking up and asking to be included.

Think about that.

Almost every time I've had a woman other than myself contribute here, I've had to pursue them and ask them to post-- and I can't get them to stay. Maybe that's my fault. But every man who has posted here approached me first and they have a better track record for sticking around. I've also only had one female author ever write me to thank me for a review; while I've had several men reach out to do the same thing or engage me in a conversation if I didn't like what I read. What that tells me is that men are far more active in advocating for themselves. What that also tells me is that this conversation, which seems driven toward asking the men to do more heavy lifting on our behalf, might not be as forward thinking as we believe.

Again, I'm not trying to indict my own gender. But I know that I am not as likely to put myself forward as my male counterparts-- and that's my fault. So I just think that we have to tread lightly here and not be too quick to judge either side until we ask ourselves what we're doing, individually, to make sure our gender is being represented as we like through our own efforts. Could I make more of an effort to read and review female authors who write science fiction?-- you bet. Should I? I think that question answers itself.


Budd said...

I think males tend to over represent in the Scifi/fantasy genres excluding urban fantasy where they most definately dominate. Most of the big names in the genre are men. A lot of men aren't big into the urban fantasy stuff and it tends to be written by women for women. Take a relative heavyweight female author such as Margaret Atwood and she doesn't want to be classified as a scifi author, and it makes men think women are afraid of the genre. it seems that scifi is men writing for men, Fantasy is a pretty good mix but still mostly men writing, and urban fantasy is mostly women writing for women.

Look at your good reads and break them up into those categories and see if it is true for what you review. I did review Paradise 21 on my site which is a Scifi/light romance. My first romance and can't say that I liked the romancing parts much. I have also reviewed Margaret Atwood even though she isn't "science fiction."

SQT said...

Budd-- That's kind of part of what I was trying to address. I didn't want to get too lengthy. I figured the comments would address the issue anyway.

The romance angle is huge. I could write a whole post on that alone. When I read UF written by women, romance is usually in the forefront and I even get tired of it. I didn't even bring up YA, though I thought about it. Men who write UF don't bring relationships into the story in the same way. You might have sex, but it's more matter of fact and less romantic. I like Alex Bledsoe and he has a great, monogamous character in Eddie LaCrosse-- but romance is not how I would characterize the relationship.

I trend toward light scifi myself. John Scalzi is good for me. Anne McCaffrey walks the line between scifi and fantasy and it was the fantastic elements that drew me to her in the first place.

Blodeuedd said...

Pretty sure I have read more female authors *coughs historical romance* ;)

But anyway, interesting post. Made me think about a bunch of different things. Like, it's not that I do not like sci-fi, I do like some. Dune is the 2nd best book I have ever read. It's just that I read little cos I like a special kind of sci-fi. Like Dune. And cos honestly, there aren't much around where I am. I am not big on guns and ships.

As for my love of UF, well it kicks ass. Still, I'd take fantasy over it anyday. And who cares if a man or woman wrote it in the end

SQT said...

Blodeuedd-- I'm not really into guns and ships either. I like space opera sometimes, but if it goes off into really technical territory, I tune out. I presume the men feel the same way about fiction that has, shall we say, a more girly attitude.

I'm with you on the who cares who wrote it thing. I also still maintain that women have a strong presence in genres that don't traditionally appeal to men and that if we looked at books sales without dividing everything by genre, there would be probably be a lot more equality. That's not a project I want to tackle though...

Jessica Strider said...

Interesting post. I did a similar check a year or so ago and found I'm fairly even in my reviews (just a bit slanted towards books written by men).

I tend to get a lot of SF review requests, which may be because I've been reviewing a lot more SF recently. In the past my focus was more on fantasy, but not urban fantasy or paranormal romance, which come to think of it, I rarely got review requests for. Guess that means people have been pretty good about checking out what I review before querying.

I think one of the problems with getting men to read books by women is that they'll read one or two, find too much romance/fantasy/whatever and decide that ALL books by women are the same when in reality they just need to find the right books. The same is true for YA. Some of it is really geared to the teen audience (with adults acting very stupid) while other YA books are fantastic, with great characters and new ideas.

I consider it part of my 'job' as a reviewer to help readers try new things, and that means reading new things myself. Hopefully I'm encouraging more men to read some of the great SF and fantasy novels (and YA novels!) written by women. And men they've never heard of. Indeed, in my opinion the more people read - by men or women - the better. Because books rule. :)

Bryce L. said...

Great response to that article. Some of my all-time favorite authors are women, Melanie Rawn, Susanna Clarke, Liane Merciel, to name a few. I don't even pay any attention to the author's gender, I pick what looks interesting.

At the same time, I looked at my Goodreads list and I read a majority of male authors. Like you said, there are too many factors, but I honestly lean toward sff being something males write more of. Maybe it's because of the publishing industry, but maybe women just aren't as interested in it as men are. I know my wife hates anything remotely sff, but she reads as much as I do.

Although I DO realize that's an even smaller sample. :)

SQT said...

@Jessica-- I couldn't agree more. If I want to encourage diversity, then I have to practice it myself.

@Bryce- I liken scifi to maps-- I don't understand either very well. The male brain and the female brain work differently. That doesn't mean we can't appreciate the differences, but I don't think we should be forced to change our tastes to suit someone else's idea of equality.

Kathleen said...

I disagree with so much that you've written here sqt ("The male brain and the female brain work differently." Barf. I'm sorry that is not science.), but I appreciate what you have said. It's an important topic to talk about, and its hard. Because it's hard doesn't me we shouldn't do it, and again, I salute people who do.

I've never been to your blog before.

Jim Haley said...

Man, I'm causing trouble even when I don't realize it. It's funny, because I checked out that story when it was linked by someone else on twitter, looked for our blog and didn't immediately see it referenced (apparently missed that one) and then didn't bother to read the rest because I didn't feel it was pertinent to me.

Why? Because I -do- read women authors (as SQT mentions). Sharon Shinn is one of my absolute favorites. Vicki Pettersson, Christie Golden, Karen Traviss, Karen Miller... In some of those cases I actively seek out those authors next books. In other cases it's because they're writing books in a franchise I enjoy reading. But either way, I don't particularly care who is doing the writing so long as I'm enjoying the story. But, I -do- seek out particular kinds of stories, mostly of the scifi variety. There seem to be less women writing those stories (though for all I know, there may be more using pen names), so from a pure volume standpoint, I'm always going to have more books written by men to read than ones written by women in the genre of my choice. I have no real intention of changing my reading habits - I know what I enjoy reading, and it's not dependent on the author's sex.

Charles Gramlich said...

I read a lot of older SF and a lot of that was written by male writers. I'm also reading a fair number of graphic novels, also more dominated by male writers. I've read a fair amount of fantasy by women writers, though.

SQT said...

@Jim-- Well, you're certainly not in trouble with me. I know first-hand that you don't distinguish gender-wise when it comes to what you review. It's simply a matter of who is doing the writing and what's available.

@Charles-- You're probably one of the most open-minded people I know. In fact, most of the men I know who read scifi/fantasy are, by nature, pretty inclusive. If I have felt any gender bias from men, it's usually in that they don't share my interests and don't visit the blog because they don't see what they want to see. Pretty simple. If this were a predominately YA and UF blog, I'd have almost no men visiting. That's not a bad thing-- just the truth.

SQT said...

I seem to have invited some mockery by claiming that the male and female brain are different and by not being more specific about citing sources about "articles on the net." I guess you can't get away with throw-away comments these days if people decide to disagree with you. Kathleen, at least, had the class to comment here rather than mock from afar.

Here are some search results from just typing in "male female brain" I didn't type in "differences."

Are these sources credible? I don't know. I just went from the top down. My point is simply that we could argue whether the point is scientific or not-- but clearly I'm not insane for intuitively making the point in the first place.

Jodie said...

'in other words, just because we can observe what appears to be a gender bias doesn't mean that the reviewers are choosing books based on gender preferences.'

I'm really not sure how many times I can say this, but the post at LB does not concerned itself with this issue. I do not think there is an attempt to suggest a definite correlation between sexism, or gender preferences and the low numbers of books by female authors, reviewed by male bloggers anywhere in that post. In fact, the post sites a quote from another blogger in an attempt to make a lack of judgement about gender preferences very clear. Here's that quote from coffeeandink:

'I am not suggesting that the participants are consciously sexist or intend to suppress or erase the existence of women writers. I am saying that this conversation follows a typical social pattern in which (a) men talk more than women in mixed company; (b) men promote male writers significantly more than they promote women writers; (c) the criteria which determine value or worth inherently favor men's contributions over women's, which are deemed trivial or inapplicable; (d) women's contributions to the critical or cultural canon are systematically devalued, forgotten, or erased.'

I also think that considering you want to explain that correlation does not equal causation, you've tumbled into equating those two things in your argument about why women contributers don't stay, or ask you for spots and why women writers don't respond to your reviews. From my own experience of just being in the blogging world, being a woman and being engaged with ideas about the way womens lives are often influenced by social factors I can draw out lots of other guesses why you might come up against women acting in these ways. I'm not saying my reasons would turn out to be right and yours would turn out to be wrong (or the reverse). Instead I'd suggest that we'd both be making guesses.

SQT said...

Jodie- You're right in saying that they weren't making that specific assertion. But I would also say that, if you're having to repeat yourself on the point, a lot of us are interpreting it that way. I'm not always the most detail oriented person, so it's easy for me to try to make a point that encompasses the various conversations I've seen regarding this without being specific enough.

As far as my personal experience with women and blogging-- I don't think I was going for a causal relationship (or making a correlation=causation argument) I don't know why women haven't been as inclined to speak up regarding reviews as the men-- I only know that that has been the case. As you say, I would only be guessing if I did. I was only trying to say that I think we could do ourselves a lot of good by showing more initiative when it comes to promoting our own work. I'm sure there are a lot of women who do take the initiative- but I don't see it on a first-hand basis. My personal experience isn't hugely persuasive because I'm just one person. But it has influenced my opinions on the matter.

The Man in Black said...

More often than not, I don't even look at the gender of the author that I'm reading. I know KA Applegate is a woman, as is JK Rowling. I know that I love Karen Traviss's work (as far as I know), but I turned down an offer to review one of her books, because I couldn't care less about the Halo EU (I daresay SQT is probably the same way). The Sci-Fi franchise I most often read, Star Wars, has had some excellent female authors in it, but one thing that I've noticed is that no female author has stayed in Star Wars for a long time and published a lot of works in it during that time. Perhaps the female editors are of note, but perhaps, all in all, it's just a coincidence.

I think that's mainly what I have to say- a lot of it's coincidental, but you I do believe there are more women writing things that they know women like that men might not be as drawn to than there are men writing things that only men like- because there's no porn in my Sci-Fi/Fantasy. There are things that serve the PURPOSE of porn in urban fantasy (Twilight is the best known example), and maybe Sci-Fi targeted at women.

This reminds me, I have some urban fantasy novels by a female author whose Sci-Fi horror I love sitting on my bookshelf, and you can be sure I'll look forward to reading them despite the fact that the author believes they're different enough to merit a different pen name.

I've been meaning to get into more Trek- anybody know if there is a higher F:M ratio there? Most of the Trek I've read has been written by one Bill Shatner, but I know most of it isn't.

That was my ramble. If you can make heads or tails of it, thanks for reading.

Jodie said...

'But I would also say that, if you're having to repeat yourself on the point, a lot of us are interpreting it that way.' - yes, I can see that, but I genuinely don't understand why, based on the post I can see (btw I'm one of the LB bloggers who beta'd Renay's data). Would you be willing to explain why the post suggests this interpretation to you, so I can understand where you're coming from better?

It's difficult for me to reply to your second point without clear data, because like I said I'd be guessing and although my guesses could be backed up by a lot of anecdotal sources, that wouldn't necessarily make me right about the particular situation of every female blogger who reviews SF/ wants to review SF/has been approached by you. I would suggest that when you say:

'until we ask ourselves what we're doing, individually, to make sure our gender is being represented as we like through our own efforts'

you may be missing general reasons that seriously impact many womens ability to 'do the work' as other people have termed it, which may or may not impact on women reviewing in SF. Since there's a pretty long tradition of ignoring those reasons I get kind of edgy around posts that don't at least mention their reality, even if that post then says it can't guarentee these reasons affect the women it is specifically talking about.

Personally I read your idea that 'What that tells me is that men are far more active in advocating for themselves.' as a judgement of causality because of that key word active, which comes with a lot of linguistic baggage(I took it to mean that you were saying there are more male reviewers, *because* men are more active/dynamic/self-assured and that you were laying blame on women for being passive, without addressing any of the long cultural tradition, reinforced by patriachal society that goes along with any idea of women being called passive). I was reading subtext in where I maybe shouldn't have.

I would suggest though that when looking at the LB results, female bloggers are dragging up the overall review ratio for books by female authors. So, the ladies in this sample are reviewing books by female authors and more books by female authors (as shown in the second graph). If it weren't for the female bloggers in this sample the gender split in that top pie chart would look a lot worse. Maybe something to think about, something backed by data, when calling for women 'to make sure our gender is being represented as we like through our own efforts'.

We fundamentally disagree on the idea that we need to reach a certain level of female involvement in search for equality, before we look at whether the men are participating in working towards female equality. I think men should be working with us (and I emphasise with us, because there are women out there advocating for equality - sorry, I know I'm going more wide ranging than SF now but I think this kind of applies across all areas of equality), because as naive as it's the right thing to do as human beings. And if they're not working with us, even if we can think of practical reasons why they might not know to work with us, or (in hopefully a very small percentage of cases) reasons they may not *want* to work for equality...we are kind of within our rights to say we find that a thing we'd like to see change at any point in time, with any amount of female activists working for equality. I would expect to hear GLBTQ groups, or groups of a different race from me saying they'd like other people's inactive stance to change, if faced with inactivity about equality from outside their community. I would never say 'you don't appear to have enough active supporters from within your own community' before I agreed that a change needed to happen. But like I said we just disagree.

SQT said...

@Bill- It would be interesting to do an informal survey and ask men and women how much scifi they read. And how specific they get within that genre-- Halo, Star Wars etc.

@Jodie- I kind of feel like we're misinterpreting each other. When I wrote the post I was intending to make the point that I wouldn't interpret the data in a way that suggests a deliberate gender bias. I'm sorry if I wasn't more clear.

(I took it to mean that you were saying there are more male reviewers, *because* men are more active/dynamic/self-assured and that you were laying blame on women for being passive, without addressing any of the long cultural tradition, reinforced by patriachal society that goes along with any idea of women being called passive). I was reading subtext in where I maybe shouldn't have.

My experience is that women have been more passive, and that could contribute to fewer women being featured on review blogs. That is one potential cause (though by no means definitive or even close to being the sole reason). Where I get lost here is why the cultural/social reasons behind the passivity I've noticed aren't our own issues to address.

There is a lot of baggage with the issue and I'm sure I could spend days researching the reasons behind the way women and men are treated differently in society. But I think if I were to try to encompass all of that in one post I could really get lost in the weeds and miss the whole point. I was just making an observation and trying to suggest that one way we can improve the way women are featured as writers is to make sure we are more active in advocating for ourselves and reaching out to people who can help us. I agree that we should work with the men in trying to make this happen (as I think we are with this discussion). But I hate the idea of continued passivity.

Thank you for the work you've done on this issue. It is appreciated.

SQT said...

Jodie-- I think you and I essentially want the same things. We just disagree on how to get there. I have huge respect for your point of view and appreciate your input.