The OF Blog: Odds and Ends, Including the Pruning of My Blogroll

Sunday, January 03, 2010

Odds and Ends, Including the Pruning of My Blogroll

I've been too busy with other things in my life (including things to be announced in the near future) to really devote time to a few brewing mini-teacup tempests, but there were a few semi-interesting things argued over a few yonders in the past week or so.

First, I noticed that my little post about noticing gender splits in a few Best of 2009 posts has generated a bit of discussion over at Fantasy Book News and Reviews.  Jeff spends quite a bit of time justifying his reading habits and explaining how he's not a "sexist" reader.  Related, although certainly independent of the discussion sparked by a few passing comments of mine, is Shawn Speakman's Best of 2009 list that he posted on Suvudu.  The discussion is much more interesting than the list, but yet that, being of a much more combative level than that found in the Fantasy Book News and Reviews post, seems to bring out another dimension to this topic.

Very few things in life are either/or in nature; same seems to hold true for reading/writing demographics. One is not necessarily a "sexist" if one read fewer female (or male) authors than the other gender, but one might be one if certain stereotypes are held and that there is no willingness to challenge oneself. There is no "magic" solution to these issues; only possibilities fraught with uncertainties. 

However (yes, there had to be a 'however' here), why not just take note of one's "weak spots" and see if things can be improved by just merely daring to explore more.  As I have noted on this blog before, my reading (and subsequent enjoyment) of female authors increased once I realized just how few, relatively speaking, I read in comparison to male authors (I say relatively, as I read almost 100 books written by female authors in 2009 alone).  Same held true years ago of my reading of works by non-Anglo-American/non-Caucasian writers.  Starting to read more works by LGBT writers or which star LGBT characters, something that really took an adjustment period for me, considering my background and sexual orientation.  But it has been rewarding, not just for discovering new authors and new narrative voices, but also learning more about myself and how I relate to the world around me.  So perhaps the best advice for those who want to justify this or claim that others are being too militant (and yes, some are likely being too pushy and thus come across as being little more than mirror images of those they want to excoriate) is to just stop settling and just continue exploring.

Although on the surface this is not related related to the first topic, the post that Mark Charan Newton made the other week about what he, as a writer, wanted to see from review blogs touches a similar nerve among some, I believe.  Read through all the responses.  Note the justifications and the attempts to provide qualifications and counter-arguments.  Then note the final responses there and the links.  Not only has such a topic been brought up before (several times, including by myself), but there's almost the same attitude that persists.  I believe Jeff VanderMeer summed it up best there in his response:  defensiveness.

I would argue that another word would complement and strengthen it:  self-consciousness.  I've blogged about this topic before in regards to another matter, but I will elaborate briefly here.  If one wants to be a successful reviewer (by that, one whose opinions are valued for doing more than just regurgitating what umpteen other people are saying, or the cover blurb for that matter), then that reviewer will learn to be reflective without hem-hawing and trying to make excuses and justification for elements in his/her reviews that need improvement.  I don't consider myself to be a leading reviewer in terms of quality of style and argument, but I certainly won't accept my current state as being the best I could achieve.  If I'm weaker in coverage of (and understanding of) certain books and the authors who write these books, perhaps I ought to reflect upon my own abilities and develop my own solutions or at least work out a few possibilities before worrying about what others think?  I believe the operative phrase here is "Fail Better."

Enough about the self-consciousness of certain reviewers.  How about an interesting article written last week by debuting novelist N.K. Jemisin on "Power and Privilege in Fantasy"?  She has certain interesting things to say about many elements of epic/secondary-world fantasies that perhaps many readers (and writers) take for granted.  Although what she says is nothing new to me, I do believe it does bear consideration, especially in relation to certain assumptions that are made about the construction of and execution of imagined settings and the implications contained within the narratives.

Finally, there will be a few changes in the next few days at this blog.  Some of you may have already noticed that I have begun pruning my blogroll.  In several cases, this is because the blogs were mostly "dead."  In others, it is because I failed to find much of interest.  I will likely shrink it by quite a bit and add a few newer blogs for a while, to see if they might post more of interest to me.  If not, more pruning and discovery.  I'm also probably going to start a new category in my links lists in the next few weeks for listing the many fine e-zines out there or for those lit journals who also have a web presence.  The reasons for this are many, some of which I'll explain later.  But since this blog's core mission is to explore new paths and ideas, it is a long overdue change.

Now back to reading and exercising on my bike.  I do have a personal goal of sorts to work toward getting myself closer to the shape I was in when I was 18.  I have a lot to go...many miles before I sleep tonight.

28 comments:

Elena said...

Thanks for the tip on that Power and Privilege post. She spotlighted something that has bothered me about fantasy for a while now. Glad to see it getting an open discussion on a publisher's blog (so hopefully a decently large venue) and glad to know there are new voices considering such things when they write epic fantasy.

cheers,
E

Joe Sherry said...

*Smacks head*

Sigh. I read Jeff's post when he made it and I had a fairly long response typed up when I decided against wading into it again on this.

Maybe I should.

I think, for now, I'll just answer Anrakes comment of "Perhaps we need a blogger to highlight some of the great works by women or women centered works."

That's what made me smack my head, by the way.

Maybe we need a blogger, indeed.

Eddie said...

I saw a big shift this year - my purchases have been about 50/50 men/women, whereas it has been about 80/20 in the past.

Part of that is, as you say, self-consciousness - consciously trying to read more writing by women. Part of it, oddly, is generic - trying hard to read more literary fiction, read more widely in urban fantasy (not all of which is as shit as laurell hamilton), and generally read outside epic fantasy which was my comfort zone. There don't seem to be a huge number of women writing out-and-out epic fantasy, so if you concentrate solely in that genre, I suspect you'll find your reading has a signficant gender imbalance.

Interestingly, Larry, the book I made you buy features a gay american-born chinese protagonist (although it was written by a white american woman), so you can continue stretching yourself in that regard :).

Martin said...

It is always helpful to be reminded how impoverished the reading habits of some genre readers are.

18% of the books I read last year were by women. That is up slightly on last year but still not great. It is both interesting and useful to monitor this stuff.

S.M.D. said...

Since I'm apparently still on the list I must be saying something interesting, which is a surprise to me, because I always assumed I was mostly uninteresting.

But, to the more "controversial" issue of this post. I enjoyed Jeff's post and I think on some level there's a lot right with it, but also a lot wrong. On the one hand, he has every right to only read books he likes (and if he happens to like books by men, or if he just personally prefers male writers, it sucks, but not much can be done about it). I do think he should look a little deeper into why he likes male authors more than women. Are the books he does enjoy by men all very similar? (I haven't looked at all he read, so I can't say). Are there connections in plot style? Do men tend to write a certain way, and that just happens to be what he likes? (He might have mentioned some of these things in his post). I'm not saying he should force himself to read women (he probably should, just to broaden his horizons), but he should at least be intimately aware and willing to question himself about all the minute "why" details of his reading habits.

Myself: I don't think I am a sexist reader. I selected a book by Kage Baker for best of the year, I love Elizabeth Bear (basically anything she writes), and I generally don't pay attention to the author's name unless a) I know them or b) it's a really horrible name (like Barbie Bimbo or Joe Suckfest or something horrible like that). I also don't think any of this has to do with whether or not one is a sexist reader, though (I may be wrong, but gender might have absolutely nothing to do with my or Jeff's reading habits; or it could have everything to do with it).

That said, I think I am going to start looking over my reading habits a bit more deeply this year to try to understand why I enjoy the books I do. I don't know if I'll figure out all the answers, but I can get close enough.

Alright, I'll shut up now...

Aidan Moher said...

Instead of giving myself a wrap-around because I'm still on your list, I'll question why you think I need to start judging which novels are on my reading list based on external factors – such as the author's gender, skin colour or ethnicity – rather than the text itself.

Stepping outside of your comfort zone is great, but reading a book because the author is female is as bad as not reading a book becuase the author is female.

S.M.D. said...

And what exactly is wrong with giving oneself a wrap-around?

Larry said...

Aidan,

I have to return to work in a few minutes, so this will be brief. Did I say "have to"? I think you're reading something into my post that wasn't there.

Aidan Moher said...

@SMD – Just not in public, dude.

@Larry – My comment is not necessarily directed strictly towards you or this post, just the general attitude from a vocal group of elitists on the Internet that bemoan any anthology/best of list/review that doesn't include work from non-white males. The comment section on that Suvudu list (which I have problems with, for other reasons) is exactly the type of attitude that bothers me. It's absurd that they're attacking Speakman's list because it has no female authors. I know Speakman, and I can assure everyone that he never once thought about the gender of the authors when compiling it.

You approach the argument from a few level-headed angles, which makes for an interesting read. Others do not. You never say we 'have to', but you certainly imply that it's a shortcoming in the reading habits of many blogs out there, and that we'd be more useful, even-handed bloggers if we (like you) made an earnest and conscious effort to read more female authors.

It bothers me that Jeff even has to think consider whether he's 'sexist', because of the gender of the authors he enjoys.

Bottom-line, I don't think people should worry about the authors race/number of fingers/gender, and just read books they enjoy. Just because all the books on my 'Favourites of '09' list are written by white males doesn't mean I chose them for that reason, it just means that those white males wrote the best books I read this year.

I will certainly agree that being open to exploring new territories, and harbouring a willingness to explore the genre is certainly a good thing in a blogger. Lord knows how much my tastes have expanded since starting ADoI.

S.M.D. said...

Aidan: As if anything is private anymore with the Internet.

As for the other stuff: I have similar issues with those arguments. I don't expect it will go away even if things change significantly, though.

Joe Sherry said...

"I know Speakman, and I can assure everyone that he never once thought about the gender of the authors when compiling it."

Aidan: Isn't that the problem, though? Isn't that why these issues keep cropping up?

Jeff is an interesting case here because I actually respect his choices more because they are thought out. He has identified exactly what type of story he wishes to read and he believes that most of the writers of that type of story are men.

I think it's flawed, but I can respect that.

But it's an interesting and unfortunate statement of what we read when we don't think about it and then believe we're being fair in "just reading what we like" without seriously considering the other and finding out what *else* we like.

Aidan Moher said...

@Joe – I don't try to evenly distribute the gender of the teller I approach at my bank, nor do I care what gender my doctor is when I go to a walk-in clinic and I don't really see why it's appropriate to do so with authors. Recommend a novel to me because its bloody brilliant, and I'll read it even if it's outside my comfort zone. There's absolutely no reason to consider the gender or ethnicity of a novelist when pre-judging whether to read their work or not. It's absurd to suggest that Speakman should have left novels off his list that he loved, to make space to include a more even spread of authors for the sake of 'political correctness'. Last I checked, taste and opinion is rarely a realm for objectivity.

Again, a willingness to step outside of comfort zones and explore the borders of the genre is an asset to a blogger, but I'm certain that an author would rather be read based on the quality of their work, rather than any of these external factors that you claim we should be considering when putting together our reading lists.

Perhaps the best course for us is to disagree politely.

Joe Sherry said...

"Again, a willingness to step outside of comfort zones and explore the borders of the genre is an asset to a blogger, but I'm certain that an author would rather be read based on the quality of their work, rather than any of these external factors that you claim we should be considering when putting together our reading lists."

Yes, but.

It's a great conceptual idea, but the point where it breaks down is if I'm not reading women. Should I bump a novel off my personal "Best Of" list because it was written by a man and I wanted to include a woman? Of course not.

But if every year I post my personal "Best Of" list I never include a book written by a woman, or maybe only one, what does that say about what I'm reading?

If I haven't narrowed my reading focus as far as Jeff has done, and claim to be reading widely (whether in the SFF genre or in general), am I being honest? Am I really reading widely?

I don't claim that Shawn is deliberately excluding anyone from his list (except urban fantasy, by which I assume he means paranormal romance - and that's a choice of taste), but I think what he is doing is unconsciously not reading books written by the other half of the world's population (or, just America's).

To pick on Shawn for a brief moment and also to disclaim that I don't read Suvudu on a regular basis, Shawn's list was posted on Suvudu. The Random House SFF blog. Del Rey and Spectra are under the Random House umbrella.

It means a little bit more to the larger discourse when the representative of Suvudu puts out a list of his top ten SFF books of the year, doesn't include a single book written by a woman, and then responds in his first comment that "Most women right now are writing urban fantasy, a sub-genre that I just don't enjoy. Pick out any of those books with a woman on the cover in tight black leather -- chances are I haven't read it. Sadly, most of them are written by women."

Which is incredibly dismissive - and though Suvudu is probably editorially independent from Random House, that statement reflects on Random House, Del Rey, and Spectra.

But this isn't about Shawn and I don't really mean to make it about him.

Aidan Moher said...

I'll agree with you about Speakman's defence of his article. I'm not sure he took the best approach, and would have been better served by not painting the genre, and certain sub-genres, with such broad strokes.

On another note, if an author's gender/ethnicity/whatever is a particular boon to the story being told, or presents a new angle on a tried-and-true story, then that's certainly worth investigating.

Larry said...

Aidan,

It's a bit of irony that you used "elitists" to describe the attitudes of those who are demanding greater attention for authors whose ethnicity and/or gender and/or sexual orientation have pushed them into the background, despite several of them writing some very impressive stories.

What I think is happening is that some are so insistent on it that it goes beyond pleading for attention to a few (but only a few) cajoling others in what appears to be a hostile approach toward making others aware of other viewpoints.

But place yourself in their situations. Is it acceptable for a reader to be "neutral" when the "neutral" status tends to exclude most non-white, non-male writers?

There is no panacea, though. Just because a writer might not be a white male does not mean the story will be excellent. But who's to say that it wouldn't be? Yes, I do find it difficult at times to understand people who find a particular "comfort zone" and settle in it, but that doesn't mean I'm going to be judgmental, as that would run counter to my personal philosophy.

So...the question returns to the issues of self-consciousness and defensiveness. Can one be the first without being the latter? I would like to think so.

Aidan Moher said...

I can't argue with anything you've said, Larry. I suppose my only caveat is that, to me, stepping outside my comfort zone is exploring the genre and reading stories that I'm unfamiliar with, not making a concscious decision to read more books by women, or men, of colour.

I use 'elitists', especially in the case of the first commentor on the Suvudu post, because there is an individual assuming superiority (over Speakman, whose list is in question) because they feel they are a more even critic of the genre, a title bestowed on them because they read books by women and Speakman does not. Elitism runs both ways, though I can see how you might find the use of the word ironic.

Race, gender and other external factors generally do not play a role in what novel I choose to read next, and I don't ever want to be a position where I am crafting my reading habits around forces not under the control of the author.

Now, if you had a Fantasy novel that came out of South Africa and drew on the history and culture of that civilization to craft a compelling, unique experience in the genre, that would be worth getting excited about. If a Latino woman from inner-city LA wrote The Innocent Mage, I could give two shits.

Yagiz (Between Two Books) said...

Looking back at the books I've read recently, I think my male to female author ratio has been pretty balanced.

I haven't read all the comments in detail, I apologize, but it looks like I agree with Aidan. I wanted to drop a line to give my opinion on a different aspect of the discussion.

The only reason that I can think of why someone would have only male or female authors in his/her best reads may have to do with some general traits in the story lines and probably the way some details are told:

Now, I hope I'm not going to be stoned to death because of this generalization but I think, in fantasy in general, I prefer female authors' romantic scenes and male authors battle/martial scenes. I'm sure even I, with my limited knowledge, can think of exceptions to my own generalization so it's just my weak attempt to explain why one's favorite authors may be of a given gender.

E. L. Fay said...

Glad to see I'm still on your blogroll!

This is an interesting discussion. When tallying my 2009 stats, one thing that immediately jumped out at me was that out of the 40-45 books I read this year, only 14 were by women. And according to LibraryThing, my library of books I own is 70% male. Since I happen to be female, I am utterly confusted by this.

I don't seek out authors based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever. I read what looks interesting to me. Which raises the question of why most books that interest me are by men.

Like you've suggested, I have begun to look at my "weak spots," in regard to both female authors and non-European authors. Hopefully I'll improve this year.

Joe Sherry said...

"I don't seek out authors based on their race, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever. I read what looks interesting to me. Which raises the question of why most books that interest me are by men."

E.L.: I think that's the real question.

Larry said...

Aidan,

You know I'm going to be a stickler when it comes to semantics! :P

I re-read that entire comment thread there and what I noticed is that the majority of the responses were constructive (hey, have you tried ____?), while yes there was that one who did come across as being combative. I think it might be better to accept that there will always be those 1-2 in a debate who'll take that tact (tactless?), while most others will try to come to some sort of common ground.

Yagiz,

Your comments remind me of another divide, one that is based on narrative and not the author/reader. I read very few books in 2009 (or in previous years) that had extended (or even brief in many cases) "battle scenes." Perhaps it is, as was stated above, that if one reads predominantly epic fantasies, then one has self-selected for male-dominated scenes and for majority-male writers?

E.L.,

As long as you continue to do excellent work covering translated fictions, you'll never leave my blogroll! And yes, I agree with Joe's comment in response to you.

Anastasia said...

Reading books by male authors is easy - they are much more widely discussed and recommended. The cycle is self-perpetuated - books that are discussed get read, books which are looked over go undiscovered - independent of their inherent quality. To read more books by female authors you must read more broadly. If you make that commitment, you'll find that the quality of books you read increases. Take it as a challenge, just to see what happens.

Tim said...

I don't understand why this matters. Read what you want. Who cares if the the author is a man or a woman, or from the the USA or from Spain, or what ever factor you might wish to consider. It's not a "weak spot" if you end up reading more books by men than women, it just how it turned out. Reading should be a pleasure, and to critisize someone for reading what they enjoy seems a little childish.

Larry said...

Tim,

I wonder if the failure to understand comes from your background. I'm going to go out on a limb and presume that you are a white, middle class male who has had little to no direct exposure to discrimination. Although I pass for white and have only a small percentage of Cherokee ancestry, I have experienced some forms of direct discrimination due to my job (working in a female-dominated profession) and via where I've lived in the past (outskirts of Miami, before moving back to TN). Unfortunately, it does matter to quite a few people the origins of the author and the experiences s/he have had, as that tends to influence their works. To just dismiss that so casually is rather unsettling to me. Which is why I don't like to turn a blind eye toward anything - I question, explore, and garner more enjoyment from doing so. So your final comment about reading for enjoyment is rather ironic, since I would find a "mindless" read to be the least enjoyable experience possible.

Tim said...

Larry,
Are you suggesting that because a woman or whoever writes something, that their work is automatically more relavent or engaging than someone elses? That someone can not have a meaningful reading experience if they don't purposefully seek out a more diverse group of authors? Good books are good books regardless of the gender or racial backround of the authors.

Anastasia said...

Tim,

So if equivalently good books by women and minority authors exist, why aren't you reading them?

Tim said...

Anastasia,

Why do you suppose I am NOT? I am a huge fan of Kage Baker, Cherie Priest, Elizabeth Bear, Liz Williams, Jane Lindskold, Margo Lanagan etc. My arguement is that you can find good books by many authors, and do not HAVE to seek out female authors if thier books have not appealed to you.

Larry said...

Tim,

What's the "default" setting? For many, it's the male/Caucasian/straight/bourgeois setting. While that's my background for the most part (minus the bit about being wholly Caucasian), it's not something I view or want to view as being the "best" fit for my "enjoyment." Some people are stimulated by new experiences, new perspectives. I'm one of those.

Sometimes, I wonder if statements as the one you made about "Are you suggesting that because a woman or whoever writes something, that their work is automatically more relavent or engaging than someone elses?" indicates some deep-rooted unease. There's nothing "automatic" about it; the opposite in fact, since many stories from groups outside my own tend to present perspectives that challenge my subconscious world-views.

As for Anastasia's question, your response is rather odd. It's almost a sweeping generalization in your final sentence, as it seems to condone the dismissal of an entire group just because a single female/non-Caucasian or a few out of many female/non-Caucasian writers might not have written stories that connected with you.

illukar said...

I don't know many people who decide whether to read a book based on the gender of the author, but a great many appear to decide whether to read a book based on the gender of the protagonist.
And women are more likely to write female protagonists.

Thus, while it is by no means a hard and fast rule, the relationship between reader gender and protagonist gender is a major factor in whether the book is read in the first place, whether it is a story the reader relates to, enjoys, and nominates to be on 'best story' lists.

I remember an excellent essay by Diana Wynne Jones about venturing into female protagonists. She started out with male protagonists because she considered it unlikely the book would be accepted with a female protagonist. It was a really major thing for her to venture into writing female protagonists because almost everything in genre which she read had a male protagonist. Robin McKinley also has an essay out there about having read so many books with male protagonists when she was growing up, because they were simply the only thing available, and desperately wanting stories with female heroes.

I'd love to see the reception of certain of the major 'best books' if every single character was gender-switched, with slight tweaks to accommodate the changes. Would they suddenly drop off many people's 'best books' lists because the protagonist was abruptly someone that the reader couldn't relate to?

 
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