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Elspeth Cooper adds her thoughts on Industry’s Sexism Problem

Fantasy-Faction is lucky enough to have a good number of talented published authors – especially female authors – posting in our forums. Perhaps I am being presumptuous, but I’d like to think that each of these wonderful ladies are friends of mine and so am very interested in their opinions and experiences revolving around the issue of how books by men and women authors are displayed differently in bookshops. To catch you up, evidence suggests that SFF books written by women are nearly all displayed spine out, whereas those written by men have an increased chance of being displayed cover out.

Well, the latest SFF author to lend their opinion to this perceived SFF sexism by bookshops is Elspeth Cooper. Elspeth has been publishing books since 2011, so isn’t a newly published author (such as Jennifer Williams, whose views we were able to publish yesterday); it’s nice to have opinions from a variety of authors in different stages of their career. We’ve perviously described Elspeth as ‘likeable, quirky, and having a lot to say about the genre’, and that in terms of writing, her voice is ‘fresh, new and alluring’. As for the content of her novels, The Wild Hunt trilogy is an epic fantasy series with great characters, a setting that mimics Medieval Europe, and a well-thought-out political backdrop. What I’m trying to say is that she isn’t a writer of paranormal romance and she writes books that are as epic, complex and as gritty as any male author – so there’s no reason she shouldn’t be favoured by reviewers or bookshops… right?

Well, here’s Elspeth’s experience spanning over the last 3 years of being a published author:

I’ve been following this issue quite closely, being a female fantasy writer an’ all.

Someone further up asked whether the problem was with agents or publishers not picking up female writers, rather than booksellers. In my experience, that’s not the case (male agent, Big 5 publisher and published under my own non-ambiguous first name).

As I see it, there’s no single root cause of this lack of level playing field. The preponderance of reviews that male writers get, and the way they are promoted in bookstores, undoubtedly plays a big part. It means they’re more visible, which means they get recommended more often (have you looked at the recommendation threads on Reddit fantasy, frinstance? Overwhelmingly men, and you really have to prod them to get a few more women than Robin Hob, Ursula Le Guin, and Lois McMaster Bujold).

Plus, there’s still guys out there who won’t read women authors because they’ve been burned: picked up something marketed as UF, and it’s wall-to-wall sexytimes. Some guys who think women will only write about feelings and soppy relationship stuff, or only have female protagonists that they think they won’t be able to relate to. So there’s marketing and perception problems too.

The other side to the perception problem, which goes back to my first point, is that the adult fantasy market, to an outsider, looks very much like a boys’ club, which deters some women from submitting their books for publication. This may have some bearing on why Tor UK’s slushpile stat for female-authored epic fantasy is at about 30%.

Some guys also still like to maintain that women don’t write the kind of stuff they want to read (I submit they’ve not looked very hard, m’lud) or even that maybe women genre writers don’t get reviewed and recommended as often because, well, not to put too fine a point on it, they’re not as good.

Yeah, someone actually went there in a conversation with me.

I read a stat in a ‘Women in Genre’ type post on Fantasy Book Café that said over 70% of adult-oriented fantasy in Australia was written by women. I found another stat somewhere (forgive me, my bookmarks are on the other computer) that said women write upwards of 40% of adult fantasy in general. Come on, they can’t all be crap.

Having read and enjoyed Elspeth’s books (I even gave them to an editor friend who asked for a great example of epic fantasy and had her come back to me and say they contained some of the most beautiful writing she’d ever experienced), I can’t help but be a little upset – again – that she isn’t getting as much recognition as male authors writing the same kind of thing. Even worse, and something that has already been highlighted this week, that she feels that review sites and the online community are contributing to this problem.

Again, this is something Fantasy-Faction is really trying hard to put right (on our part). Certainly, in the case of Jennifer Williams, who we featured yesterday, it seems there has been progress – there is a real buzz about her books and we now need to work together with the community and with other blog sites to ensure that this isn’t an anomaly – that we continue to read, support and recommend – where warranted – the talented pool of female authors that represent a far larger percentage of SFF writers than many of us realise.

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8 Comments

  1. Avatar blodeuedd says:

    I do wonder about all of this, cos I could not give a damn who has written a book. I do not go by female or male, I go by if the book sounds good. But then I am a woman.

  2. Avatar Overlord says:

    Important clarification:

    “What I’m trying to say is that she isn’t a writer of paranormal romance and she writes books that are as epic, complex and as gritty as any male author – so there’s no reason she shouldn’t be favoured by reviewers or bookshops… right?”

    What I was trying to say is that not all female authors are PR as many would have you believe, as opposed to saying that Paranormal Romance is lower on the scale of what constitutes a good book.

  3. Avatar Bibliotropic says:

    I admit, I used to be pretty guilty of perpetuating the stereotype. It wasn’t that I’d avoid female authors specifically, but I maintained, naively, that the gender of the author didn’t matter and that if a book was good, it was good, and no two ways about it. I didn’t even think, then, that part of the issue was representation; I was simply less likely to get exposed to female fantasy authors to see if they were good in the first place. I’ve thankfully had my eyes opened a lot in the past few years, and I’m a little bit ashamed of how I used to be regarding the issue. My thoughts used to be that kind of passive resistance that’s not so admirable, a difficult-to-disprove opinion because I wasn’t looking at the whole picture, and on the surface what I thought made perfect sense and sounded fair and logical, so how can you fight against that?

    But there are some truly kickass female authors out there who have written awesome books and whose work I have come to love very much, and perhaps I would have passed them over had I not been making a concerted effort, for a time, to seek them out.

  4. Avatar Splicer says:

    I think the distinction between UK and US bookstores has to be drawn. In the former, there seems to be a distinct effort to feature certain genre books over others using displays. In the U.S., especially in the major bookstores like Barnes & Noble, I come across no rhyme nor reason when it comes to the SF/F or Mystery sections. New books are placed in the front of a section. That’s about it. I see no reviews placed nearby nor any logic to it other than putting the books in alphabetical order.

  5. Avatar Kate T. says:

    I think this issue goes beyond bookstores and prejudiced readers, though both of those contribute to the problem. If writing is anything like other forms of work—and of course it is—men submit and network more because (1) they’re encouraged to and (2) disproportionately rewarded when they do. It’s a nice, positive feedback loop. No doubt this results in better blurbs, better marketing, better…well, you get the idea. If the foundation is screwed up, it’s no surprise that there’s evidence of that somewhere along the line.

    There was a study a while back about women asking for raises. The old (usually sexist) notion that women ask less often and negotiate less often was true, but what the study found beyond that was that women don’t ask for raises for good reason. Asking resulted in others—men and women, alike—disliking them and feeling they were being “too demanding.” It wouldn’t surprise me if good and ambitious women writers run into similar glass ceilings: of people feeling there are enough or too many women in the space, that wanting anything more than to be published is somehow greedy. So much sexism and racism (and other -isms) at this point are so institutionalized that it’s very hard for people to see these faulty foundations even when they’re staring right at them.

    As for avoiding similar pitfalls, I think it helps a lot to keep a running tally of how many men and women you’ve read over in a year. That knowledge alone can offset the fact that more men or women may be published in a genre or have better marketing. I don’t think it’s necessary to artificially perfect some 50-50 split, but if the split is 70-30 you know you’re missing out on some perspectives; if a perspective you’re missing out on is half the population, that’s kind of an unfortunate thing. It also helps to avoid othering people, e.g., having categories/lists for “female authors” but no “male authors” categories/lists because men are just assumed to be authors by default.

  6. I think there’s a certain amount of conditioned response evident in this issue, as well. For instance, there have been studies which show if you put 100 people in a room and 17 of them are women, the men perceive that to be gender parity. If the number of women reaches one-third, females are perceived to be in the majority.

    I’m sorry, I don’t have the original source but it was quoted by Geena Davis regarding the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media. She also drew parallels with crowd scenes in movies: on average, 17% female. And that is perceived to be a balanced ratio.

    She posited that society has actually been training itself to accept this kind of imbalance as the norm, as the way things should be. This offers an explanation for why women fighting for equal treatment are perceived as launching some kind of takeover attempt.

    Ooh. Now why did that make me think of the SFWA all of a sudden…

  7. Avatar infael says:

    I’m a man in my late 40’s. I literally DEVOUR SFF books. There are many great female authors out there, just as there are many great male authors out there. To claim women can’t write good stuff is ridiculous.

    You have Robin Hobb, Ursula LeGuin, Kristen Britain, Margaret Weis (I never pass up a book written by her!), Anne McCaffrey (one of her books was one of my very 1st SFF books), Jennifer Fallon, Elspeth Cooper, et cetera.

    There’s also Tolkien, GRRM, Brian McClellan, David Farland, Brent Weeks, Peter Brett, Sanderson, Salvatore etc.

    I do have an issue with paranormal fantasy being shelved under urban fantasy. PF needs it own shelf!

  8. Avatar Xen says:

    If I ever publish a book I’m going under a man’s name.

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