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Women Write Fantasy

There have always been serious issues revolving around gender parity and sexism in the fantasy community. Whether this is the depiction of women – as little more than damsels in distress waiting for the fella to rescue her – or the fact that many bookshops and even publishers seem reluctant to fully invest in the marketing of books written by women, it is something we are all aware of but have not yet managed to fix.

Gender EqualityThankfully, there are many dedicated and talented people working on raising awareness and it does feel that publishers, booksellers and readers are beginning to listen and take note of how bad things have gotten. One such eye-opening project was the “Waterstones Fantasy Table Gender Count”, where authors such as Juliet McKenna encouraged readers to head down to their local Waterstones, check the featured and recommended tables to see for themselves just how few women are in the mix. Waterstones picked up on the disappointing results (books by women, especially living women, were few and far between) and agreed to look at a number of their methods.

Of course it is an issue far bigger than a single retailer and there’s still a lot of work to be done. Juliet recently blogged that “I got a ‘Top Fantasy Titles’ email from Amazon [this week], offering me fifteen books by men and just one by a woman writer. Female authors are still consistently under-represented in genre reviews and blogs.”

I should add at this point that Fantasy-Faction hasn’t always been innocent of this kind of under-representation either. We’ve always been very good with our reviews and interviews (featuring fairly equal number of men and women writers), but there have been times where we’ve fallen into the trap of focusing on male authors in our articles about the genres history. On the few occasions this has happened it has troubled me, because I know the conventional response from the ill-informed, that “women don’t write fantasy”, is completely and utterly incorrect.

So, when I heard of a project by Sonika Balyan to create a database of women fantasy writers in a bid to show the world that “yes, women write fantasy and always have”, I was excited and really wanted to help bring attention to it. I hand you over to Sonika now to explain why she felt the need to kickstart this project, followed by the impressive document itself:

Woman Typing by Sila Tiptanatoranin (detail)“I’ve heard from lot of people that women don’t read or write fantasy. It’s interesting to speculate why that is, but what’s more interesting is that it’s not even true. I’m not arguing that there are enough women (yours truly included) reading fantasy. If you doubt that just walk into any bookstore and watch the queue of buyers for an hour. Or go to your nearest book club.

I like to believe that gender has no role in the way we buy books. Of course there are readers who go out of their way to avoid fantasy written by women. But mostly readers are impartial on gender. So we should definitely be seeing more women on the recommended lists. But we don’t. Why? Why is it that we think women don’t write fantasy? Why aren’t more women featuring in our conversation about fantasy?

It might be a bias in publishing industry; it might be a bias of reviewers; it might be a bias of bookshop owners who control display windows. I don’t know the answer. I have my hypotheses, but they are just hypotheses. What I can definitely answer is that women do write fantasy. Really good fantasy.

So I sat down and compiled this list. I do hope this list helps others discover some new authors. I know, I already have.

PS: It’s still a work in progress. I would be happy to receive feedback and recommendations.”

Although the iframe below just about works, we recommend that you click here to visit the original Google document to check the full extent of Sonika’s work out. Also worth noting is that Sonika has added a “male authors with strong female characters” section, which you can access by navigating to the tabs at the bottom.

Do let us know which are your favourite titles and authors from the database. 🙂

Title image by Sila Tiptanatoranin.

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35 Comments

  1. Avatar Cecily Kane says:

    Curiously, while I read about 90% women authors, none of my favorite titles are in this DB — which goes to show you just how vast the number of fantasy titles by women are. Two of the authors within — Genevieve Valentine and Catherynne Valente — I count amongst my favorites, though. And I did enjoy Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death a lot; it’s just far from my favorite subgenre.

    As for the sexism in SF/F, I think it’s mostly systemic and cumulative rather than individual. Critics review vastly more books by men, leading to early buzz that’s so critical for a book’s level of success. SF/F bloggers and sites hear and thus write more about those books, leading to another level of buzz. Publishers spend more time and money promoting the books with the most buzz, which are at that point mostly men. Then the bookstores stock more titles by men, etc. etc. And then you walk into the SF/F section of the bookstore and it looks like Bro City.

    This leads to bias whether conscious or unconscious in the minds of readers, such as that women don’t write fantasy or that the fantasy they do write is paranormal romance or urban fantasy — because the bookshelves at the bookstore totally indicates that’s the case. Then you get readers’ recommendations of books that are wholly dominated by male authors.

    It’s bad. It’s bad for women authors and readers and the genre as a whole. How many women are alienated from the genre when all visible evidence indicates “this is not a place for you”? How many women spend years not knowing that SF/F is their favorite genre because there’s just less for them to enjoy and relate to?

    So I’m glad that projects like this one exist and that FF, while not always perfect, is highlighting the issue.

    • Avatar Overlord says:

      Thanks so much for this, Cecily. There is no defence for the levels of sexism in SF/F and it shames me and the site when we fall victim to the kind of unconscious bias you mention. On the few occasions it has happened we’ve made a real effort to reflect on why, learn from it and grow.

      The good news is, this year we’ve had a real buzz and excitement around books by authors such as Kameron Hurley, Jennifer Williams, Ann Leckie, Rebecca Levene and so, so many more. I think this is the first year I’ve been blogging that when people say ‘what are the titles people are most looking forward to’ my answers have been mostly titles by women authors 🙂 I don’t think this is just me changing either or books by women getting better either. I’d like to think it is the blogging and publishing community buzzing around women authors in a way that they haven’t before.

      There is no doubt there is a long way to go, but it seems to be moving in a positive direction.

      • Avatar Cecily Kane says:

        I also think that things are moving in a positive direction. Look at this year’s Nebula Awards!

        I think you guys are doing a good job self-correcting. It’s necessary sometimes. The cumulative effects of the system here lead to many more male authors simply being on one’s radar — so to correct the imbalance, one must go out of their way sometimes.

    • Avatar ScarletBea says:

      I’m not going to question or not the existence of sexism within SF/F, but I do take exception with the following questions:

      “How many women are alienated from the genre when all visible evidence indicates “this is not a place for you”? How many women spend years not knowing that SF/F is their favorite genre because there’s just less for them to enjoy and relate to?”

      Are you really saying that women readers can only enjoy books written by women?
      Are you really saying that there are books (in any genre, but we’re talking SF/F here) that only appeal to women, or only appeal to men?
      And are you really saying that many women won’t try any SF/F books just because they only see male authors?

      I do hope I’m misunderstanding your comments here, or if you’re right, I despair at women who do this, because they’re cutting themselves from real life and creating their own sexist space.

      • Avatar Cecily Kane says:

        Protip: in any conversation about systemic sexism in which a woman posits something, the rapidity with which the conversation is derailed to scrutinize her bona fides as an individual (particularly with “You’re also sexist”*) is predictable and tiresome.

        First of all, I said nothing. I asked questions. There are question marks at the end of those sentences. And all but your last question about them is a straw man because had they been statements, they imply nothing of the sort. However:

        Books do have audiences, and marketing catered to those audiences; some of that marketing is gendered. And, yes, the fact that the covers of many books in the SF/F section cater to the male gaze or a male power fantasy does say — to me anyway — “this book is not for you.” The fact that so very few author names and protagonists on covers are female is exclusionary and some people do find exclusion alienating. (Curious — do you feel the same way about men that find the romance section alienating, as the genre as it currently stands in western culture is heavily written for and marketed towards women?)

        On an anecdotal level, I actually do like a lot of fantasy subgenres that are coded “female,” such as fairytale retellings, and that women simply write more of, like mythic fiction. And I have noticed that a lot of my favorite fantasy books — like those fairytale retellings, but especially fantasy within any given subgenre with heavily female protagonists — tend to be shelved in general fiction and marketed as “women’s fiction” (likely because women’s fiction outsells SF/F, but point remains — think, say, The Time Traveler’s Wife or Outlander as well-known illustrative examples of what I’m talking about, though my particular favorites don’t have nearly that level of fame). All of those things do have a cumulative effect, enough to make some people not realize that SF/F is their favorite subgenre for years and years, even if they’re *reading it*. Because fantasy books have dudes with swords on them, capisce?

      • Avatar Overlord says:

        I don’t think that is what she was saying. I think she was speaking more of those thinking about engaging in SF/F as a community.

        However, if you walk into a bookshop and all the books are by guys, all the websites you check out are talking about guy authors and there is a blatant dismissal of female authors then there is a danger you will feel the genre is ‘an all boys club’.

        That said, by saying ‘how many’ I think Sonika makes it clear she didn’t mean all women readers. Indeed, as you point out, most probably won’t think anything of it, but even 10/20/100/1000 is too many if we are talking about human beings missing out on something that could potentially be their new favourite hobby (again, as you say).

        • Avatar ScarletBea says:

          Thanks Marc, I did mean it like you explained.
          I will apologise for the tone of my post, and if it was misread as aggressive – people are always saying I’m far too direct when writing, when I’m only trying to make my point.

          I won’t reply more here, this isn’t a forum where it’s easy to talk back and forth, and edit posts, etc, but feel free to move the discussion to the FF forum.

  2. […] on Fantasy Faction today, there’s a very interesting link to a document put together by Sonika Balyan, which is […]

    • It’s disappointing to find my old buddies Susan Shwartz and Josepha Sherman, Janny Wurts and Patricia Wrede listed but nada about me. How many fantasy novels have I published, twenty-some? And short stories? And YA with strong female characters? Once I get over myself, I’ll think of others who are missing, but right now I’m sulking.

  3. An excellent project. At grass roots, there seem if anything more women than men writing fantasy, often excellently – it’s a matter of getting a higher proportion published and fully promoted.

    I know classic fantasy better (70s and earlier) so here that would be the greats like Moore, LeGuin, Norton, McCaffrey, Tanith Lee & the Coopers (Susan & Louise) but my absolute favourite on the list is Mary Gentle. A brilliant writer who deserves to be a lot better known.

    Off the top of my head, I noticed a few glaring omissions of classic authors:

    Evangeline Walton, for her Mabinogion tetralogy

    Joy Chant, for Red Moon & Black Mountain and the prequel The Grey Mane of Morning (YA)

    And, although she’s more SF, shouldn’t Mary Shelley have pride of place?

  4. As a woman who writes fantasy novels (and will hopefully have one published soon!) I love this discussion. I’ve often wondered why male authors seem to dominate this genre – that’s obviously a misperception on my part, but the fact that I’m having that misperception is something to be examined. I remember reading once when I was a kid that JK Rowling’s agent or publisher had recommended she use just her initials in her pen name because boys weren’t likely to read books written by women. And that got me wondering for years if I would ever have to do the same if I were a writer. It seems sad to me. I want to be an out-loud woman in this field. Hopefully as this topic takes more of the spotlight, we’ll see an uptick in people noticing the female writers of the genre and the very valid contribution they make.

    As a side note, I always enjoyed seeing Anne Bishop’s name on shelves in the fantasy section – my middle name is Anne and Bishop is my maiden name. It was almost like seeing my name on shelves!

  5. I remember seeing this list over on Jen Williams site and I’ll make the same comments here I did there.

    Sarah Pinborough is listed for the Dog Faced Gods trilogy, but not writing as Sarah Silverwood for the Nowhere Chronicles?

    Also in the list of male writers with strong female characters I think Red Country should be added to Joe Abercrombie’s name for Shy South, and also George RR Martin should at least be recognized for the women in ASoIaF. On the whole I will agree women are not treated well in Westeros and beyond, but GRRM has populated his world with some very strong female characters.

    Brianne of Tarth
    Catelyn Stark
    Arya Stark
    Yrgitte
    Cersei
    Sansa Stark

    And of course….

    Daenerys Stormborn of House Targayan, First of her name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Breaker of Chains, Khalessi, Queen of Mereen and Mother of Dragons.

    • Avatar quillet says:

      While you definitely have a point about his strong female characters, I’d have to argue against including him in this particular list, for three reasons:

      1) The jury is still out on ASoIaF, because it isn’t finished. Those strong women could all wind up being horrifically obliterated by the strong men in the series. (We know Martin is capable of doing anything to his characters!!!)

      2) In your own comment you say, “women are not treated well in Westeros and beyond.” This alone renders Martin’s work deeply problematic from a feminist standpoint.

      3) Martin reeeeeeally doesn’t need any help getting attention. He already gets lots. 🙂

  6. Avatar AJ Zaethe says:

    This is really sad, but very true. So many female authors are missed out on. I myself have a few fantasy books by female authors. But I do not have all that many. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke, The Black Jewels Trilogy by Anne Bishop, Tathea by Anne Perry, Riddle Master by Patricia A. McKillip, and a couple of others. It’s sad to say that my private collection follows this trend as well. I would like a nice evan paced collection. I don’t want to favour one over the other.

  7. Having frequented many a forum for fantasy writers, I can vouch that they usually have a significant proportion of female posters. Of course women write fantasy!

    That said, it does seem that male authors dominate my bookshelf. I guess this is because the sub-genres of fantasy that interest me (namely action-packed sword & sorcery stuff) are stereotypically geared towards men. Nonetheless I generally don’t care what gender writes a book that I like.

    As for male authors with strong female characters, I would like to count myself among those. I love action heroines. Problem is that I haven’t finished a story ready for publication yet…

  8. Avatar gary furrow says:

    I have always read and enjoyed women fantasy writers. Women such as Robin Hobb and Anne McCaffrey led me into fantasy as much as some of the male authors.Now, Elizabeth Bear and the late Kage Baker continue to fee my thirst for good reading. I would never chose to pick a fight with someone as eminent as Ms. McKenna; but, I hope her email represented an off week for female authors rather than an constant trend.

    If it is a constant trend, then we need to push our friends to read more fantasy written by women. For, if they do not, they are missing some of the best work out there.

  9. Avatar blodeuedd says:

    Well sure in fantasy, but I have never read an UF book by a male author. And I read a LOT of UF.

    I also know I should care and stuff, but honestly I do not. I want to read good books. I do not check if a male or female wrote it

    • Avatar Overlord says:

      If you are looking for some recommendations: Jim Butcher, Brandon Sanderson, Neil Gaiman, Richard Kadrey, Ben Aaronovitch, Paul Cornell, Benedict Jacka 🙂

      • Avatar blodeuedd says:

        Oh some of those I have not even heard of, must check them at once. And some I have neglected, sorry guys! lol

        • Avatar Tom Lloyd says:

          Also Mike Carey – admittedly my UF tastes are VERY limited given it’s restricted to cities I know well, but the Felix Castor are the best UF I’ve read and on the list of favourite series of any genre/sub-genre.

  10. Audrey Niffenegger! And I agree with Nyki’s comment above–Mary Shelley should certainly be on that list.

  11. Avatar Lee Johnson says:

    Honestly, who really cares if there aren’t as many female authors as male authors…? Fantasy is a genre that largely explores pretty masculine concepts. Adventure, exploring new worlds, claiming birthrights, combat, coming of age, proving your worth, protecting and providing for a woman you love, etc. all generally appeal to a male audience because those are things men experience and think about throughout their lives. That’s just something that I don’t think female authors can really understand because they themselves aren’t men who lack that experience. Not because they’re stupid, but because they simply don’t have that male experience to be reflected in their writing.

    I’m not saying fantasy can’t be written well by female authors about these same things (JK Rowling certainly comes to mind), but by and large the traditional features of fantasy appeal to the overall nature of men. Hence why more men may tend to write and read fantasy/Scifi than women, and women appear to be underrepresented in the genre.

    • Avatar Overlord says:

      That is one argument and, to be honest, the argument that most feel is outdated and incorrect. What those arguing against your kind of thoughts are saying is that publishers make it seem this way because they keep reprinting the same thing over and over / giving preferential treatment to those kinds of books. In turn, bloggers and readers tend to pick these books up. The fact you feel you “don’t think female authors can really understand” or write certain things is proof you’ve not come across the kinds of books that would prove to your otherwise.

      To explain this further: Many are arguing – rightly, I feel – that books written by women writers aren’t being given the same kind of marketing push as those written by male authors. I.e. if you walk into a bookstore looking for a new title and there are 5 books by Mr x and 0 books by Mrs y on the ‘featured table’ then you will very likely end up leaving with a book by Mr x. For this reason, Mr x’s books are selling well so the publishers give Mr x an extension on his contract and also look for books similar to those that Mr x has written. So, rather than Mrs y not existing or readers for Mrs y not existing, the bookshop and publisher has just ensured Mr x and his friends’ continued success.

      Because the publisher has now signed up Mr x and all his friends, the publisher has a huge list of male authors to promote. So their newsletters, the books they chose to send as Advanced Review Copies all become male dominated. The bookshop gets sent more books by Mr x and their friends a few months later. ‘Oh, Mr x! we sold loads of his books last time… we should put them on the features table again’ they say, whilst shoving Mrs y’s books on the shelves not expecting them to sell.

      In the mean time, Mrs y and her friends are sat at home writing phenomenal books that are not selling or perhaps not even being picked up by the publisher. Is this because of quality or content? No… it is because they are not being given a fair chance.

    • Jennie Ivins Jennie Ivins says:

      I’m interested to know why you think adventure, exploring new worlds, claiming birthrights, combat, coming of age, proving your worth, protecting and providing for your family are masculine concepts.

      Women enjoy adventure and exploring as much as men do. Women have birthrights and have had them throughout history. Women have been and still are in combat. Everyone comes of age and has to prove their worth. And everyone wants to protect and provide for their families. I’m not sure exactly why those are things that women wouldn’t understand or be able to write.

      • Avatar Overlord says:

        My girlfriend (who is a girl) seems to talk about nothing else than wishing she could own a dragon and be a dragonrider of Berk.

        Having grown up with a single parent (my mum), I don’t think she’d have any problem at all understanding the concept of ‘protecting and providing’ for someone.

        • Avatar Jennette says:

          I am glad to see the rallying behind women writers of fantasy here.

          I’d like to second what Jennie said.

          I’m all about the action, adventure, exploring new worlds, sword fights, etc.

      • On the combat point, I train sword-fighting with a number of women. They could kick the backside of 95% of the group and just merely humiliate the other 5%. Suffice to say I don’t think women lack the experience or understanding of adventure, combat, claiming your worth, etc

      • Avatar @ScrivK says:

        I need a like button for Jennie’s post! As a woman who travels solo around the world, mountain bikes, rock climbs, has studied martial arts, is very successful in the tech field and is building a growing business (not to mention writes and reads epic fantasy) I really don’t see how those are male-only concepts. Every *person* I have known in my life understands and relates to those things in their own very relevant way.

    • Avatar Cecily Kane says:

      Aw, man. A large part of the wrong here has been addressed by Overlord and Jenny (WORD, y’all). As for some other points:

      1) I don’t think there is any evidence that women write or read less fantasy than men do. The numbers I’ve seen indicate the contrary. The issue is that fantasy written by women isn’t promoted nearly to the same extent that fantasy written by men is at several levels (which Overlord went over).

      2) You’ve stated a really narrow concept of the genre of fantasy. Where does, say, a fairytale retelling fit in this narrow concept of fantasy? Urban fantasy? Mythic fiction? Dark fantasy, a la Neil Gaiman or Caitlin Kiernan?

      3) This is also a massive generalization of why people read fantasy in the first place. Some people read fantasy because they love reading about magic or gods. Some are attracted to certain kind of setting. Some love the mythology. Or the paranormal.

      The reasons that people read fantasy are as diverse as the kinds of people that read it. And lots of those people are women.

  12. My ROMANITAS trilogy straddles Fantasy and Sci-FI, and perhaps as a result, I can’t help but feel it often gets left out of discussions like this. I thought of it, in part, as an attempt to write epic fantasy in a modern setting. So here I am,pointing it out to those it may concern.

  13. Avatar Jeremy Szal says:

    From my experience, it seems that it’s the SF genre that has less focus on women as opposed to fantasy, a lot less.
    But personally, I couldn’t care less what sex the author is. If it’s a good book, it’s a good book; end of discussion. But a book shouldn’t be knocked to the top of a list, simply because it’s written by a female in an attempt to create diversity. It should be placed there because it’s good. The same goes for books written by males.

    At the end of the day, both females and males write fantastic fantasy. Read their books because they’re good, but don’t diss it because of the name on the cover. That’s just stupid.

    That’s my 0.00000002 credits.

  14. Very pleased to see my name on the list – as well as sword n’ sorcery (the Blackbird series), I’ve written epic fantasy (The Amber Citadel trilogy), alternative history (The Court of the Midnight King, about Richard III) and all sorts of odd fantasy (Sorrow’s Light, Dark Cathedral, Elfland) plus vampire novels (A Taste of Blood Wine, Dracula the Undead)… 20 books so far, all featuring strong female characters of course, but strong in all sorts of different ways. And weak ones too. HUMANS in other words!

    But WHERE IS STORM CONSTANTINE??? She’s written many magnificent fantasies, not least the Wraeththu Chronicles and the Sea Dragon Heir books.

    I’m sure there are others missed off too. But thank you so much for writing this post and creating the list.

  15. Avatar Sebseb says:

    Sorry, know I’m super late to the party. But I love reading old articles. I happen to be planning a trip to my bookstore tomorrow, and after reading this I realized all of the authors on my radar I’m looking for are women, and all but one write fantasy and/or sci-fi. I’m also currently reading Robin Hobb, the queen of fantasy. The authors I’m looking into getting tomorrow are Katharine Kerr (Deverry cycle), Octavia Butler (may har genius mind and heart rest in peace), Margaret Atwood and Virginia Woolf (our non-spec author, get her shit it is brilliant no matter what you read). I was also thinking about reading Deryni and Wars of Light & Shadow (I like lengthy series, and women happen to write them).

    my point is that I’ll read anything as long as it’s good, I do not care what the author’s gender or genre is. I wouldn’t care if Robert Jordan turned out to be a woman, the Wheel of Time is still the most brilliant ode to both fantasy and classic literature. And it does bother me, just as it bothers most others, the publishers are so cautious of female authors since they tend to put out the most praised fantasy novels as often as men.

    Hobb is often spoken in the same breath as GRRM and Jordan. If Riftwar and Shannara are spoken of, you’ll often find both the Elderlings and Deverry somewhere near. Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood are often considered two of the best authors at the head of current science fiction since they tend to be heavily philosophical and deal with social issues in very original ways.

    Two of the most popular authors currently on the shelves, Meyer and Rowling, are women. And Rowling had to hide behind an acronym to get there. Robin Hobb used a really specific method to get a unisex pen name (as well as a bunch of other marketing methods). When, the reality is, the readers don’t actually care about the gender of an author–that has been made very clear. And not even the publishers or the distributors do; they simply think, for some reason, that the readership cares. And we don’t. All we want is brilliant writing.

    That’s why Naomi Novik and Jemisin are fairly popular. They’re on interviews all the time, they have blogs and are fairly well-known authors who are well received. They have great ideas that were put out there. So this weird stigma that publishers thing the readership has doesn’t exist and they need to know that.

  16. Avatar Susan Haseltine says:

    I have been maintaining a list of women SF & Fantasy authors for several years now, starting with one of the last rounds of “women don’t” based on a rather short list WomenWriterfrmBN.doc which was SF oriented. Since SF is almost entirely fantasy I don’t make a distinction.

    Is there contact information for Sonika Balyan in the event she would be interested in my list which is rather longer than her’s – since it now includes her’s it’s even longer.

    Thanks,
    Sue H

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