The OF Blog: Interesting article about changes in perspective when switching from male-centric to female-centric reading

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Interesting article about changes in perspective when switching from male-centric to female-centric reading

On Tuesday, there appeared at an interesting article by Liz Bourke entitled "Sleeps With Monsters:  Reading, Writing, Radicalisation" in which Bourke discusses some of the changes in perspective when she switched from reading primarily male writers to reading mostly women writers over the past several months.  It is worth the time to consider her arguments for having done so, but it is her challenge at the end that has prompted me to write a short response here.

While I do read some SF/F, it no longer is my primary literary genre.  Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to look through my current 2013 reading list and reviews and see what patterns that I notice.  First off, I see that I am slightly ahead of my 2013 goal in regards to percent of books (co-)written or (co-)edited by women.  I established the modest goal of 33% because I knew there would be several difficulties that I would run into when reading in other European languages and also when re-reading a couple of books/series that I usually plan on reading every 1-3 years (for example, 20 books alone are various translations of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry's Le Petit Prince, plus so far another 16 are various translations of Andrzej Sapkowski's seven book Geralt/Witcher series, with another 19 to follow in the next 1-2 months), so having read 105 books so far by women out of 298 total is a positive, albeit modest, achievement.  If I were to break it down by 2013 releases, I suspect it would be nearly 50/50. 

However, there are some interesting trends within those reads.  When I limit "SF/F" to that published by publishers who solely publish SF/F, there is quite an imbalance toward male writers.  Things improve if I shift consideration toward "speculative fiction," but near-gender parity does not occur until I start reading realist fictions or other literatures that do not fall easily into a realist/speculative divide.  An anecdotal observation:  I attended two days of the 2013 Southern Festival of Books in Nashville almost two weeks ago.  I went to seven signing sessions and five readings (two I missed due to traffic/session closed due to C-SPAN filming) during those two days:  3 readings by men, 2 by women; 4 signings by men, 3 by women.  The books/readings were very different, as 2 were histories, 1 was a non-fiction on possible future developments, 1 was a graphic novel, 1 was a twist on a family history/tragedy, 1 was a short story collection involving Southern/Appalachian life, and the last was a fantastical take on early 20th century immigration.  You might be able to guess the genders of the writers based on the categories, but the likelihood of wrong guesses is great, I should note.

When I looked at my 2013 reviews, I noticed some disparities as well.  I have reviewed 44 books/stories to date.  Of course, 20 were of women writers/historians alone, 23 were of male authors, and 1 was a three-book review in which both male and female editors' anthologies were reviewed.  But when I looked at those reviews by those works that would readily be identified as "SF/F genre," out of 16 works, 4 were by women, 11 by men, and the 1 split.  This perhaps is more telling of me as a reader of SF/F fiction (or at least what I have reviewed to date) than anything else, although the disparity could mean several things.

It certainly is true that I read fewer women writers in SF/F than any other genre.  Some of it is due to lack of interest in certain subgenres that I have sampled in the past and didn't like for prose and/or thematic reasons.  Much of it, however, is likely due to relative ignorance or a lesser tendency to re-read women SF/F writers than their male counterparts.  Do I regret this?  Perhaps a little, but beyond being willing to read certain writers who write stories that interest me, I suspect part of the disparity may simply be that I find more interesting tales written by women in other genres/non-fiction than within closely-defined SF/F (if I were to count Southern Gothic within "genre" fiction, my review count would be almost exactly 50/50).  But then again, it's all a matter of being willing to look, no?

So I suppose is the a longer way of saying that I read more women writers in other genres but that perhaps I should be more willing to consider SF/F tales penned by women.  So maybe read more Caitlín Kiernan, Jamaica Kincaid, Karen Joy Fowler, Angélica Gorodischer, Catherynne M. Valente, and others of their talent level (caveat:  I've read several works of these writers, but not everything by them)?  Feel free to suggest works, whether within or without the constricted SF/F genre definition and I may look into it.

Oh, and as an aside, Zelda Fitzgerald's Save Me the Waltz is an uneven work, but with enough flashes of talent that one should read it and wonder at just how her reputation was ruined by her husband and others.  After all, some of F. Scott's more famous lines, at least those spoken by his female characters, were lifted from his wife's diary entries...


Unknown said...

I just finished reading Ancillary Justice by Ann Leckie. The ending wasn't as strong as the beginning, but one of the best books Ive read in a while. Its gotten a lot of deserved praise from the blogosphere. If you're interested in Valente, I would suggest checking out the Orphan's Tale. Its a series of nested stories. For something a little more...not traditional, but certainly straightforward, Deathless is a modern take on a Russian folktale. Finally, if you haven't read anything by Elizabeth Bear, I would recommend trying Range of Ghosts. It's a non European fantasy epic.

Larry Nolen said...

I'm debating on whether or not to read Leckie shortly or wait another month. The described plot leaves me ambivalent, to be honest (but that's due to preferring different narratives, I suppose), but the praise intrigues me.

I've read most of Valente's work and liked most of it, but oddly enough, I've yet to read Deathless.

Bear is another I've read, but her prose is pedestrian for me and leaves me feeling lukewarm about her work.

I suppose I should add an addendum and note that since I wrote this post, I finished reading Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch and minus some issues with the sprawling nature of the narrative, I loved it. Her prose is beautiful to contemplate, especially toward the end of the novel.

James said...

You might have the same problem with Leckie as you do Bear. I wanted to like Ancillary Justice, but the prose was so dull it was like banging my head against a wall.

I'm not sure I can recommend anyone you haven't read yet.

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