The OF Blog:

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

At first glance, I would be one of the least likely people to engage in anything that would smack of even unconscious gender bias. For most of my adult working life, I have worked in female-dominated professions (mental health care, secondary education). Most of my close friends are female, and I grew up in a family environment strongly influenced by New Deal-era activism.

Yet the numbers do not lie. I keep a written log of the books I've read over the past 3.5 years and there has been a sharp drop in the number of books I've read that were written by women. I had read almost 50 books written by women by the end of April 2008. This year, I am only on number 15 out of 153. The overall percentage last year was over 25%; this year it isn't even at 10%. While I could argue that it's a statistical anomaly that will correct itself over the year, while I could argue that I haven't yet begun to re-read favorite novels written by women, it is fascinating/disturbing to see such a low percentage so far.

While I will cop to the near-total avoidance of urban fantasy/paranormal romances sent to me for review purposes, outside of that genre (which I had sampled in the past and didn't find much with which I could connect) there has to be something else going on. It's not like I don't visit websites where female authors are lauded. There are indeed novels and collections by female authors that I want to read. Mary Robinette Kowal is about to release what I believe is her debut short fiction collection; I want that. Catherynne M. Valente has written several stories and novels that I have enjoyed. I just ordered Ursula Le Guin's YA fantasy and am waiting for the first volume to arrive (the others arrived yesterday) so I can begin reading it.

But yet this would still be but a drop in the bucket compared to the books I read on a weekly basis. For the past month, I've been averaging over 10 books read per week, with maybe 1 of those each week (often 0) being books written by women. Puzzling, since I do want to read more speculative and mimetic fiction written by women. I wonder if there's some sort of unconscious bias that is filtering out qualified female authors. Or maybe it's something else all together.

What about you? Have you ever encountered something similar? What books/authors would you suggest to me? Doesn't have to be a genre fiction; I read quite a few narrative styles on occasion.


Gerard said...

I wouldn't suggest anything. I would keep reading what you like and if those books happen to be written by males, so what? It isn't about the sex of the author, it's about the yearn they spin.

Mulluane said...

I find myself almost but not quite balanced. Since I started my 2 blogs last year I have covered 21 female and 15 male authors. But my TBR list is heavily female at the moment so that balance is going to tip a bit. And I don't read Urban/Paranormal stuff either.

No idea why I seem to slightly favor female writers. The balance is not that far off, but I do see a possible trend in that direction. Wonder if it is the luck of the draw or a subconscious thing.

No idea...

MatsVS said...

I don't think I've read a book by a woman since I read Elizabeth Haydon's Rhapsody a gooooood while ago. She ruined women for me. :(

Anyways, I don't attribute the lack of female authors on my reading list to any conscious decision on my part. It's more that most female authors of the sff genre write those terrible "Urban Fantasy" books, which are really but trite romance novels draped behind self-righteous ideas of female empowerment, and I have no wish to waste my time on that. So, rather than siphoning through the trash, I merely ignore it all. However, if someone were to point me towards a novel or series by a female author that wouldn't fall prey to my well thought-out and carefully resonated bias-... ehhr, I mean, theory, I would be happy to give it a go!

Anonymous said...

Female here, talking. After reading your post i took a look at my 2009 book list... 5 out of 40 were written by female writers.

I dislike romance or romance-like fiction and altought i've read Marion Zimmer Bradley or Juliet Marillier when I was younger, i now keep myself away from the majority of female writers.

MattD said...

At first glance, I would be one of the least likely people to engage in anything that would smack of even unconscious gender bias.I dunno Larry, I take a first glance at your "reading soundtrack" post from a week or two ago, and... ;)

Snark aside, though, one of the things I thought about commenting on in one of your other earlier posts was the seeming dearth of female authors of non-mimetic fiction published in languages other than English or in English translation. I mean, we can take even a relatively small country like Serbia and easily name 5-6 really good contemporary authors of fantastika, whose works are known to me because they're available in English. But they're all men.

Obviously there are a few exceptions: Isabel Allende and Cornelia Funke are two that come immediately come to mind. But the overall question, which I'll pose both to you and to the readers of this blog who know more about what is being published in other countries, is: are there interesting and/or popular contemporary works of fantastika being published by women that just haven't been translated into English, or is it that women publishing fantastika in non-English speaking countries is comparatively rare?

(All of which may explain some -- but not all -- of your fall-off.)

As for suggestions: there are the usual crew you've certainly heard of, folks like Bear, Phillips, and Graham (and I know you've read Monette and Valente). Don't just nudge people to read her work from 30 years ago, read and comment on more contemporary McKillip yourself. You hardly ever talk about SF, but you could try Cherryh's Cyteen/Regenesis duo (and have you read any of Kay Kenyon's current series)? Beyond the obvious, you might take a look at Greer Gilman's new Cloud and Ashes from Small Beer Press. Maybe Sylvia Kelso's Amberlight (haven't read this one myself, but seems interesting though the prose looks iffy). And if you're going to be reading more YA, you could check out Ursula Le Guin's new book of essays Cheek by Jowl from Aqueduct Press, which includes some material on YA.

Terry Weyna said...

I don't read urban/paranormal romance, either. My reading usually runs about 50/50, though it's slanted male this year because I've been reading a lot of graphic novels. (There don't seem to be a lot of women in that field; why is that?)

I don't have a great memory for what you've read, but there's some great stuff out there recently, like Catherynne Valente's Palimpsest and Jo Graham's Black Ships (the former far better than the latter, in my opinion, but the latter is a solid story). Since you've been reaching into YA lately, you might also try Ysabeau Wilce's Flora Dare books, which are great fun.

I have particular love for the mainstream novels of Kate Christensen and the slipstream novels (well, at least some of them) of Alice Hoffman. Marge Piercy, A.S. Byatt (didn't you read Possession recently?), Hilary Mantel, Cynthia Ozick (her trio of novellas, Dictation, is interesting), Margaret Atwood (I still think The Edible Woman is one of the funniest novels I ever read) and Margaret Drabble won't steer you wrong.

I've always thought Tanith Lee's fantasy was underrated, even though I admit that her prose tends toward the purple. Her Tales of the Flat Earth are especially good in my estimation. You *must* read Elizabeth Hand, especially Saffron and Brimstone -- it's a magnificent collection. And what about Elizabeth Bear? Steph Swainston? Lois McMaster Bujold?

Oh, I envy you the chance to read these women for the first time!

SF Signal recently did a mind meld about women SF writers -- you could always check out that source as well.

Larry Nolen said...

Thanks for the responses, everyone. In the course of writing posts like this, the exercise turns from a personal realization into a social discourse and it's interesting to see how readers at this blog seem to be less inclined to like romantic fiction, although I certainly could be wrong about that.


That post from a few days ago was when I first really began to think about the gender imbalance in much of my fiction reading lately. However, the translated fiction one is misleading, as that was for new books read in 2009; I've read several more female authors in translation and in Spanish in the past few years and I just hadn't revisited yet this year (side note: almost done reading the English translation of Suzane Adam's Laundry that I picked up after reading a review of it on the This Book and I Could be Friends blog that I have linked in my blogroll. Good to very good so far.) Allende is a favorite of mine; I've read at least a half-dozen books by her. Angélica Gorodischer is outstanding. Daína Chaviano was just translated into English last year - she's quite good. Elena Poniatowska is an excellent Polish-Mexican writer. Giannina Braschi's Yo-Yo Boing! is one of the rare Spanglish novels I've encountered. Liliana Bodoc has written a good epic fantasy trilogy that was published in Argentina. But the problem for me is that I have to search for each of them and that's haphazard at best and since only around 3% of books published in the US each year is of translated fictions, that makes it even more difficult for me. But yes, it does skew the results somewhat.

As for McKillip, do have plans for reading more of her work this summer (most recent I read was Od Magic, which I liked). Not a big fan of SF, although I have heard nothing but positive things about Cherryh. I have read and enjoyed all three volumes of Kay Kenyon's latest. Kelso's book I didn't like all that much when I read it in January 2008, but I haven't read the Gilman (and I keep meaning to read Charlotte Gilman's Herland some time). Will look into that Le Guin book, but not until I've read her recent YA trilogy.


Read the first two (really enjoyed each and I plan on writing a dual review of Graham's first two books next month) and I have Flora's Dare to read tonight or tomorrow. Alice Hoffman! That's someone I've been meaning to try sometime - any particular books you'd suggest? And yes, I did read Possession and I wrote a brief commentary a few weeks ago, but that certainly will be a book that I will revisit in the next year or two. Atwood is good; need to look into the others. Only read one short story of Lee's, but it was good. I have that Hand collection and will read it in the next few months; her Generation Loss is excellent. I'm familiar with Bear, Swainston, and Bujold.

Will look at that SF Signal bit later. Need to get back to working on a few interview questions and sending a couple of email requests off. Been busy today, as I got my old job back, starting May 27th, so my mind has been on other matters. Sadly, no summer vacation for me this year, as I switch jobs with no days off.

Lola said...

I find it EXTREMELY insulting as a woman writer (and yes a writer of urban fantasy) that the overwhelming consensus here seems to be that the majority of women writers write romantic drivel.

I could just as easily say that I stay away from male writers because I find most epic fantasy stereotypical and drawn out WAY too longer for more money and a boost to their ego. However this wouldn't really be true.

There seems to be some unspoken assumption that writing style can BE gendered rather than just a different style by a different PERSON!

Larry Nolen said...


I am sorry if I gave that impression, but I found myself not connecting with the themes that are often present in many urban fantasy works; I did not condemn or dismiss them, only noted that I couldn't relate to them. Same thing with many not connecting with the ideas behind epic fantasy motifs, mimetic fiction, cross-genre (my preferred narrative style), etc. I'm not presuming that there is a gendered writing style, rather that I am troubled by my lack of engagement with a wide range of narrative styles that happened to have been written by women rather than men.

Daniel Soler said...

I noticed this trend years ago, and I'm still correcting it. Some women who have kicked my ass:

Liz Willaims - "Banner of Souls"
Angela Carter - "War of Dreams"
Kelly Eskridge - "Solitaire"
Nicola Griffith - "Slow River"
Leigh Brackett - ANYTHING, but most especially "The Big Jump"
Marcia Bennett - the Ni-Lach series
C.J. Cherryh - the Faded Sun series
Helen Zenna Smith - "Not So Quiet", an awesome war novel
Pat Barker - "Regeneration" - READ THIS FIRST! Takes place during WW1 and touches upon the homoeroticism of war, how the absence of so many young men affects society, shell shock, and other side-effects of modern war.


Larry Nolen said...

I read and LOVED Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy! One of my history professors recommended it to me in 1995, just after The Ghost Road had been released in tradeback and despite having very little money at the time, I bought all three volumes.

Thanks for reminding me that I've been meaning to read Eskridge and Griffith's works. Going to go place an order for both now. Frustrating to see so many names that I recognize and meant to order/read at some point, only to forget to do so somehow. The recs are greatly appreciated!

Nephtis said...

Daniel, glad to see someone else mention "Solitaire" and "Slow River" - I really like these books, but realizing that my fondness of them is rabid and may be irrational, I'm taking it easier on recommendations.

Larry, bravo. The SF Signal link is a good one, lots of names mentioned. Some books that I'm stunned you haven't read yet and should be foremost on your list:

Storm Constantine - Calenture and Sign for the Sacred - these are totally up your alley, especially Calenture (very meta, blurring the line between narration and creation and fantastic floating cities awesomeness)

L. Timmel Duchamp

Then I'd place recommendations in this order:

Maureen McHugh
Ekaterina Sedia - Alchemy of StoneMary Gentle - The Secret Histories of AshLyda Morehouse
Lois McMaster Bujold (Miles Vorkosigan)
Carol Berg - TransformationElizabeth Bear
Karin Lowachee
Tanith Lee (my feelings towards her writing are mainly obsessive lust, so on my list she'd be at the top)
Vera Nazarian
C.S. Friedman
Karen Traviss

And nary an urban fantasy/paranormal romance among them! Having an idea of what your tastes are, I think you'll enjoy them.

Nephtis said...

Elizabeth Vonarburg is another one that I've got on my shelf and, by the sound of it, would be great, I just haven't read her yet.

Terry Weyna said...

Nephtis, what a great list!

Lola, despite the spelling of my name, I should mention that I'm a female. I don't condemn urban fantasy, I just don't much like it; not my style. I don't much like Harry Turtledove/Larry Niven/their ilk much either, and I don't really read a lot of hard SF. I'm just a slipstream kind of gal. Just a matter of taste. I mean no insult by it at all.

Larry, the Hoffman novels I've especially appreciated have been Turtle Moon and Illumination Night. They're among Hoffman's older novels, but I still think they're among her best. Many also swear by Practical Magic -- if you saw the movie, ignore it, and just read the novel.

Larry Nolen said...

I just placed orders for Solitaire and Slow River, since I've delayed long enough on those.

I have read one of the Conversations pieces that Aqueduct put out that Duchamp wrote. It was good and I really ought to order her novels. Next month or June at the latest, when I'll be drawing double salary for three months ($4500/month down here is a killing!). Sedia's book is excellent and I owe her a full review of it. Perhaps I'll re-read it and do so in a couple of weeks. Will investigate the others - some I've read, others I haven't yet.

Thanks for the Hoffman recs, Terry. Those too will be ordered after my next paycheck.

Nephtis said...

Larry, they are thematically very similar, and Slow River is a stronger novel, so I'd suggest starting with just one. And if I were making a list of recs targeted to you, they'd be closer to the bottom, although I've recommended them plenty to others.

Larry Nolen said...

OK, I'll space them out in the reads, then. Considering I'll have a couple dozen other works to read around my latest orders, I think it'll prevent monotony from setting in.

Unknown said...

Honestly, I've never really paid attention to the gender of the writer. A book I like is a book I like, regardless of it was written by a woman or by a man (last year I read some books by both genders that I thought were fantastic reads, such as Wicked Gentlemen by Ginn Hale).

I guess I'm just intentionally unconscious of it, but looking back at what I have read (for fun/review) this year, there has been an overwhelming abundance of male writers (6 and change, since I read Busted Flush and that was a collection of male and female writers). I am currently reading a novel by Kage Baker, though, and read a bunch of books by female authors last year.

Maybe it has to do with the year? Is this like some sort of metaphysical masculine year? Who knows.

Mulluane: I suspect why you read a lot of female authors is because you focus heavily on fantasy, which is populated by a lot of female writers these days (and I mean a lot, more so than other genres, with exception, perhaps, to YA). Not saying that's a bad thing, just saying it.

Martin said...

It is interesting but not surprising that the first comment is the typical "gender-blind" I-only-like-good-stories response.

Diversity is inherently good in most things and reading is no exception. If I found I was only reading magical realist novels or novels set in London I would take steps to broaden my diet. Similarly I could easily fill all my reading time from now until I die with good books by men but then I'd be missing out on a huge swathe of literature. If you love reading why would you want to miss out?

And reading solely within a genre is just as bad. It is interesting that a few people are saying they don't read books by women because they don't like romance or urban fantasy. This suggests pretty limited horizons in terms of what's out there!

Keeping a note of what I've read has been very useful in this respect, particularly because it exposes the fact I am not very good at estimating what I've read (ie I think it is more balanced; I believe this is probably true of most people.) I was reminded again of this by your recent post about non-white straight male western writers.

Since I've started keeping a note:


SF: 66% (Up)
Books by women: 16% (down)


SF: 65% (up)
Books by women: 25% (up)


SF: 60% (down)
Books by women: 13% (down)


SF: 62%
Books by women: 19%

Larry: if you've not read Pat Barker's later work - particularly Border Crossing and Double Vision - you should definitely check it out. If anything it is even better.

Anonymous said...

Subconscious bias/social pressures. The kinds that end up there regardless of good intentions if you don't make an extra effort to check them.

I wonder what's my ratio. Lemme see...
women: 50
men: 33
from October 2005 to the book I finished yesterday.

So yeap, a bias in favour of female writers but with consequent male written books as well. Interesting. I honestly had no idea which way I tended.

Joe said...

Larry - I think about this every two months or so because when I check my records I find that I'm generally only between 30% and 40% on reading female authors.

This month should be better, especially if I pull graphic novels out of the tally.

The whole paranormal romance mention I think would be missing the point, because I know you know well enough that there are plenty of women writing other aspects of SFF. The Mind Meld is a good start.

If you get to what Urban Fantasy really is, and not just the paranormal romance aspect of it, you can re-open the sub-genre again (Emma Bull's War for the Oaks is urban fantasy, but not the romance thingy). Shoot, you can argue that Bear's Promethean Age stuff are urban fantasy.

Nephtis said...

To gender-bias deniers: researchers who look into racial and gender unconscious discrimination have shown that a person is not aware of their own bias. Just going about your business, "judging a person on their own merits" and etc. will result in discriminatory actions due to the unconscious bias.

The only way to know and combat it is by conscious observation, by measuring the outcomes: how many of the professional orchestra players are women? How many employees of color in this company? How many female authors on your bookshelf? To overcome an unconscious bias, you must take deliberate action. Or you can continue living in ignorance.

Eric said...

2 females so far this year out of 16 books I've read. In all fairness, I'm still finishing up my Ancient Greek Reading Plan, which doesn't exactly provide tons of female authors to choose from. In fact, the two female authors I did read this year were from later periods when I wanted a break from the Ancient Greek material.

Just going about your business, "judging a person on their own merits" and etc. will result in discriminatory actions due to the unconscious bias.

Nepthis: This is a great point! One wonders how the heck anyone can judge the merits of a work written by any individual female author without ever having read that author . . .

Unknown said...

Nepthis: Doesn't that assume that you have an unconscious bias in the first place, though?

drxray said...

I too read mostly male authors but female authors I have read and enjoyed in the last year include:

Kay Kenyon- Entire and the Rose series

Liz Williams- Detective Inspector Chann novels

Ekaterina Sedia- Alchemy of Stone and The Secret History of Moscow

Anne Rice- Vampire novels

K.J. Bishop- The Etched City

Elizabeth Bear- Dust

Lauren Groff- The Monsters of Templeton

Margeret Atwood- Oryx and Crake

Nephtis said...

S.M.D. - That's how you find out whether an unconscious bias may be in play - start with zero assumptions, look at the outcomes and see whether there is a disproportionate tilt that is not readily attributable to other factors.

For example, if only 24% of the books I read in the last two years have been by male authors, that's an indication of bias, since 24% is not reflective of the proportion of male writers in sf/f. (If I read strictly in the romance genre, that might be understandable, but I don't.) In my case, it's a conscious bias, and I probably miss out on some great authors as a result. (A bias implies inefficiency.) Ah, hell, I admit it, I'm biased all around. That only underscores my point - how else would my reading be so skewed?

Unknown said...

Nepthis: I don't see how reading more of one particular gender's writing is an automatic indication of an unconscious gender bias. That seems to make a lot of assumptions about how people choose books.
Take for example me. I tend to buy books based on the cover and the synopsis (and on occasion I'll buy something from an author I already happen to like, such as Tobias Buckell or Elizabeth Bear or whatever). I don't really pay attention to the name unless it sounds ridiculous (if the author's name is Bobo the Clown, I'm not likely to read the book, because it'll be impossible to take seriously...if that's the intent). So, to say that just because I happen to read more books by male authors than female authors means I have an unconscious bias against female authors is making a lot of assumptions about me as a person (not saying that you are saying I am that way, but that to make a generalization sort of does).

I think the matter is far more complicated than this. True, some folks may have a bias and your point will be true for them, but to say that all people who read more of a certain kind of author have an unconscious bias is somewhat unfair.

Liviu said...

I completely agree that numbers do not lie and whatever we believe we know or do hides unconscious biases.

So courtesy of Goodreads ease of keeping statistics, of the 96 single authored books (excluding anthologies) 64 are by men and 32 by women; considering that a large proportion of my readings are sf that is still male-oriented and that i do not read urban paranormal or romantic fantasy with few exceptions (Kate Griffin, Maria Snyder, Emily Gee), I think the split is reasonable

Unknown said...

Liviu: Is there actually a stats page on Goodreads that tells you this stuff, or did you just look at the list and count them up? I'm curious, cause I can't find any such thing and I'd like to if it exists...

Liviu said...

What I do is create bookshelves: eg 2009_bks, read_2009,... all are mutually non-exclusive and for any book I just add it in all the applicable categories which is just checking boxes so very easy...

At a glance I can tell I read 101 books in 2009, while I read 64 books released in 2009, 143 ones released in 2008, I follow 114 "current" series with a loose definition of such, I finished 95 series at least since I started keeping records and bothered to mark them on Goodreads

I have no idea what is the limit of the # of bookshelves you can add, but for now I could do anything I wanted

So I go take a look at read_2009 and then count - I could do a men_auth bookshelf but I generally do not care about that and of course there is the question of pseudonyms - Morgan Howell anyone for a male author writing under a female pen name -

Larry Nolen said...

Wish I had time (and energy!) to respond to each of these excellent, thoughtful comments, but I think I'm coming down with flu-like symptoms (no, not THAT flu!), so I'm going to hurry before I go back to bed:

Nephtis is right to note that data analysis can reveal quite a bit about our own subconscious (and often, very conscious!) biases. I know some of the causes for the gender imbalance in my reading comes from reading works in Spanish, as I am not as familiar with Spanish-speaking female authors as I am with the males. That's likely due to publishing biases in Latin America, although I believe that's started to change in recent years.

Also, some of the difference would come from accidents of reading time. While I will certainly re-read many of the female authors I've read from 2006-2008 for example, I haven't done so yet and that throws things off a bit. But I did a check several months ago of the books that I owned and while the percentage of female authors was higher than what I noted for so far this year (11%, I believe), that percentage (around 20%) is still rather low.

I wonder what would happen if I were to count only the books I had bought. I suspect it would be near the same, as the large number of female writers writing in the newest iteration of urban fantasy (the one closer to paranormal romances in themes and sometimes in plot) would cancel out the overwhelmingly male writers of SF and epic fantasy.

Exercises like this are worthwhile not because there are easy solutions to present, but rather that identifying possible problem areas opens up the reader/participant to a whole host of questions that might generate explorations that lead to some excellent discoveries.

And Martin, Barker's Border Crossing is indeed quite excellent, but I haven't read the other one you mentioned. Again, something to add to a growing list of books to buy and read!

Unknown said...

Funny that, I just had a similar chat with my wife's sister on that very topic. She commented on how many female writers were on my bookshelf this year (hardbacks). I said I had not though about it and pointed out that they were about half of the books there anyway. And then she said, yes, but usually there is none. Which prompt me to go back to the boxes and noticed the almost utterly lack of female writers there. Well, except from the usual suspects, LeGuin, Hobb, Wurtz and a few others.
However, for some reason half of my books this year have been written by women, and I would definitelly concider reading them (authors) again:
CS Friedman, CE Murphy, Carey, K Elliot (in fact already order her new one in Amazon as wells as Hobb's one) and my year's new artist (I usually pick one or two per year, in digital form -- for some reason) Marie Brennan.

Anonymous said...

I'd also like to offer

Naomi Novik Tremaire books and Karen Traviss, her non-Star Wars stuff.

While I wouldn't unconditionally recommend either, or want to read either all the time, I find both

In the GN department: Alissa Torres biographical 9/11 American Widow, is good, if not depressing. Also Jesscia Abel "Life Stinks" is fun. More traditional for the field is Gail Simone on Wonder Woman. Ms. Simone writes other stuff just doesn't occur at the moment.

Anonymous said...

Me again:

GN Novel, Manga Division:

Noaki Urasawa's Monster -- a murder mystery, and 20th Century Boys are both being reprinted by Viz. Both won awards for being among the best translated books.

20th Century Boys just started. Monster has finished and ran roughly 17-18 180 page volumes.

Anonymous said...

I agree, that does seem to be the case. Oddly enough I hear readers of fantasy fiction are mostly women. I read and write both fantasy and urban fantasy. I like them both, but for different reasons. At least in urban fantasy stories wtritten by women we see strong female characters.

I quite enjoyed the Crown and Stars series by Kate Elliot, the Tamir trillogy by Lynn Flewelling, and Kushiel's dart series by jacqueline Carey. Those I can list of the top of my head, but as for anything recently, I tend not to notice the author's gender right away, so not sure if I have read any female authors recently.

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