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Bookshops’ SFF Prejudice Problem?

There has been a recent highlighting of the fact by three well-known female authors that UK Booksellers are selling them and their contemporaries short. My aim today is to take the numerous articles they’ve written and interviews they’ve been involved in and present to our readership, in a single post, along with the observations they have made. My aim is to leave you to think about firstly whether there is a problem with booksellers stocking SFF and secondly whether we, as a community, are contributing to it.

Article 1: Emma Newman learns that Watterstones recommend male written SFF Books over female written SFF Books at a ratio of 113 to 9.
Full article here here.

The short version:
Emma Newman
In 2013, Emma published all three books in her Split Worlds trilogy. She worked really hard to do her part promoting it – reaching out to just about every blogger that would review her work, every bookshop that would host a signing, and every convention that would allow her to panel. Additionally, she wrote tons of free extraneous content (short stories & blogs) to get readers interest and Tweeted/Facebooked like there was no tomorrow. However, Emma was left disappointed by the fact that the bookshops she was in – Waterstones is the one she mentions – weren’t really doing their part. They seemed great at promoting the male authors of the SFF world, but the female authors didn’t seem offered the chance to feature in the ‘premium space’. For example, a leaflet designed to point people discovering fantasy via the Game of Thrones phenomenon towards more books they might like had 113 authors on it of which only 9 were women.

Article 2: Juliet McKenna feels entire industry obsessed with Grimdark books to the extent no one else can get a hearing.
Full article here here.

The short version:
JulietMcKennaJuliet McKenna (who I love by the way – both as a person and as a writer) then spoke with the Guardian newspaper about how women’s fantasy fiction is a world of unknown to bookstores. Juliet discussed how she is left feeling that booksellers and the media are so obsessed with “grimdark books about blokes in cloaks” that it’s hard for anyone else to get a hearing and even offered: ‘I will give a book of mine, of their choice, to the first person who can send me a photo of such a display that isn’t entirely composed of male authors. Because I’ve yet to see one. I have challenged staff in bookshops about this, to be told “women don’t write epic fantasy”. Ahem, with 15 novels published, I beg to differ. And we read it too.’

Article 3: Sophia McDougall points out that SFF isn’t alone in its prejudice and that it’s not just bookshops, but media too.
Full article here here.

The short version:
Sophia McDougallThe most recent response to this movement is by Sophia McDougall. I don’t actually know Sophia, but I’ve been lucky enough to admire opinions from the audience at conventions and can quite honestly say that she is one of the most well-spoken, intelligent people I’ve heard speak in the years I’ve been blogging.

Sophia talks about how, as a writer, she has been paying attention to the workings of bookshops for many years and that Juliet and Emma’s observations match what she has been obsessively checking since about 2007. She also suggests that the only exception to the rule seems to be for female authors who have passed on; they are sometimes allowed to invade the space she sees as – and provides evidence for being – reserved for male authors.

Sophia’s article goes on to say how it isn’t just SFF that is suffering, that she feels it is literary fiction, non-fiction and just about everywhere that collections of books are assessed and displayed. This hit me, because a few years ago Juliet McKenna made the observation that Fantasy-Faction’s reviews were typically dominated by books written by males. I see myself as a diverse reader, someone who reads pretty much anything and yet this HAD happened? When I thought about it I thought about how and why and began to realise that there is this kind of ‘male-ness’ about SFF. I honestly don’t think it lies with the readers, but with the people in position to recommend and gesture readers towards books. For this reason we’ve worked really hard on drawing attention to new female authors over the years and will continue to do so.

Fantasy-Faction’s Thoughts:

I don’t have much to add to what Emma, Juliet and Sophia have already made so very clear: we aren’t paying enough attention to the talented female authors out there and this is hurting us, them and the development of industry. To explain that: If we aren’t buying and shouting about books by new female authors then other people aren’t buying and shouting about them as a result. Publishers then don’t then feel the need to publish more of the same (whether by signing a new author or – as Emma discusses in her article – offering contract extensions for sequels).

Us readers have a bad habit complaining about how the genre can sometimes feel ‘stale’, but I do feel that sometimes it is worth really having a think about whether it is the genre that is stale or whether we, as readers, are too often picking up that book with ‘the hooded man’ on the cover that reminds us of the last thing we enjoyed and, therefore, promises to keep us within our comfort zone. And, anyway, think about why you were attracted to Speculative Fiction in the first place… the diverse nature of the genre, right?

The Folding Knife (cover)If your instant reaction to this article is: ‘women don’t write the kind of books I like though…’ consider yourself to have been brainwashed and conditioned in just the way certain players in the industry want you to be. To give you an example: think about an author such as K.J. Parker… No one knows whether Parker is a he or a she (as their identity has not been disclosed). Read one of his/her books without knowing the authors sex and I guarantee you will find it almost impossible to definitively say either way.

I would like to leave you with a shout out to five female fantasy authors who actively post on Fantasy-Faction Forums. The reason I would like to use these five authors as examples of the great work out there is because of the diversity of the work they can offer you. Whatever your reading preferences, one of these ladies is writing something you will enjoy – I promise!

  • Anne Lyle (Historical-Fantasy)
  • Elspeth Cooper (Epic-Fantasy)
  • Francis Knight (Urban-Fantasy)
  • Gaie Sebold (Sci-Fi/Fantasy crossover)
  • Jennifer Williams (Adventure-Fantasy).

Of course, it goes without saying, you should most certainly check out the work of Sophia, Emma and Juliet who are all VERY different authors too. And, if you are STILL stuck for ideas, here is a thread where we invited forum members to recommend their favourite fantasy authors – maybe come join in? 🙂

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9 Comments

  1. Natalie says:

    I think some female authors within fantasy purposefully use androgynous pseudonyms in order to be recognised- take Robin Hobb and Jude Fisher, both of whom have written under female names otherwise. The problem may go back to publishers rather than booksellers- it would be interesting to see what percentage of adult SFF books actually published are written by women, and of those how many use female author names. Also, if a woman is overlooked, it’s easy for her to blame her gender, but I’m sure there are many male authors who feel they are overlooked, too.

  2. Adam Parkinson says:

    I’ve read three out of those five lady writer reccomendations. Not bad considering I’ve only read books by four lady writers. I really need to braden my horizons.

  3. Mark says:

    Too my shame I have just done a rough, count out of 300 (roughly) books, only 15 are by female authors. Something I will try and change. I don’t tend to notice female authors very much, and don’t recall ever seeing recommendations for any in the shops.

    • “I don’t tend to notice female authors very much, and don’t recall ever seeing recommendations for any in the shops”

      And that, in a nutshell, is exactly what we’re talking about. That’s where the “But women don’t write epic fantasy!” misapprehension comes from that makes people like me (and Juliet and Sophia and Emma) start fuming.

      Props to you for being willing to challenge your reading habits!

  4. […] yesterday we published a piece on Fantasy-Faction highlighting the observations made by three of British fantasy’s female […]

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