Way back when I asked all of you to assign me some blog topics, Erica Redshift asked what I thought of the generally accepted wisdom that men read fewer books written by women. She’s at the beginning of her writing journey, and is, understandably, outraged to think that putting a woman’s name on her book might trim her potential audience.
I had her send me a few of the things she’s been reading on the subject, for context:
I’ve struggled for an embarrassingly long time with the question of how to reply. Preferential sexism among my readership is not something I give a lot of thought to in my day to day, or when I’m actually writing something. And yet… I can’t pretend I’ve never given it any thought. I have an idea that I have more female readers than male, but some of my most vocal and enthusiastic fans are guys. (You know who you are, I hope. I treasure you bigtime.)
I can certainly remember my first editor at Tor saying Indigo Springs was, unequivocally, “a girl book.”
It was only at my most recent appearance, in Bellevue Washington, that a number of twenty-something women–people I didn’t know, that is–turned out because they already knew who I was and loved my books.
When I chose to go with my initials as a byline, it was the Eighties. Part of my thinking was definitely about having a gender-neutral name. But some of that ties into my own gender identity, which isn’t exactly cisgendered female. There’s no James Tiptree, though, hiding behind that mysterious A.M.: I’m out and about on the Internet. Everyone who cares to knows who I am: it’s all there, probably, except my blood type.
Maybe I don’t think about it much, but I was on the founding Motherboard of Broad Universe, an organization that describes itself thusly:
We are a nonprofit international organization of women and men dedicated to celebrating and promoting the work of women writers of science fiction, fantasy and horror.
I don’t have a great problem with publishers identifying the target audience for my fiction and trying to market to the marketing at the people most likely to buy it. My publisher does a pretty great job of this, in my opinion. As for who reads my books, who loves my books… that’s entirely out of my hands. I write them. I certainly try to make them cool and lovable.
If someone isn’t into my stuff, I’m great with that. Everyone should seek out fiction they love, right?
So the real question, for a female writer starting out, I think, is “Will this tell against me? If so, what can I do about it?”
I think the answers are the same as they’ve ever been: a) write the best stuff you can; b) Represent. Whether it’s by joining Broad Universe, blogging to support the writers you love, or even just telling someone at a party that Ilana C. Myer has a novel coming out next year and it’s amazing, OMG. Or mentoring talented younger writers, and maybe keeping an eye peeled for people who might fall through the cracks because of gender, or race, or physical ability, or abundant social awkwardness, or whatever, y’know?
Celebrate the good guys. If you take on bad guys, pick your fights carefully, and avoid sticking knives, metaphorical or literal, into your peers’ backs.
Basic human stuff, in other words.
(Erica, I’m sorry this took so long. I kept thinking if I revisited the draft of this essay every week or so, I’d come to some profound insight or another. It did spark some things, but nothing that quite fit into this essay.)
Christopher Buehlman’s The Lesser Dead has been out for about a month now, and if you like your horror horrible (as opposed to romantic, edgy, or cuddlesome) I cannot recommend it enough. Here’s my review at Tor.com, in which I try to say more than “oohh, oooh, squee, squee!”
This week I am reading fourteen student novel openings and a book that won’t be out until 2015. Sneak peeks are one of the perks of the job, and I’m looking forward to telling you about this one closer to its release date.
I reviewed The Golden Princess for Bookworm Blues on On September 23rd. This is the latest in S.M. Stirling’s Emberverse, and is set several generations after the Change. (The Emberverse has its own Wiki, so if you’re looking to study up, go here.)
The Golden Princess focuses on a new generation of Montival movers and shakers: Princess Orlaith, her brother and their various friends and followers. In the former category is the Empress of Japan, Reiko, a young ruler far from home. Like Orlaith, she’s grieving the sudden loss of her father even as she takes on new responsibilities.
Reiko is on a quest much like the one that brought the magical Sword of the Lady to Orlaith’s royal dad, Rudi MacKenzie. I won’t rerun the review here, but two weeks later a couple other things about the book have come to mind as the story settles into my consciousness:
First, this is a book about two young women forming the kind of friendship that might, given their respective political roles, be truly world-altering.
Second, the Change is starting to be seen by this new generation of younger characters as the way things have always been. This is not to say they don’t know about the Industrial world and information age–all of which came to a crashing halt a few years before Y2K. That history’s very much available to them, but the advanced technological period of human history is, more and more, being perceived as the blip. We are a aberration, a brief interruption in a feudal way of living that is seen, by its citizens, as more “natural.”
It’s a believable evolution in mindset. You can see it in action yourself if you try to tell a nine year old about life before TV (No! It really happened!) But what intrigues me about this paradigm-shift in these books is that the remarkable young women dotted through the narrative don’t have much sense that the weird industrial period coincided with a whole lot of feminist activism. Without it, few of them would be queens, royal couriers or knights-at-arm.
This is emphatically not to say that Stirling is ignoring the same history of activism, or downplaying the challenges faced by women in his brave new world. The big baddies in this world make a gruesome art of oppressing women, and The Golden Princess
contains, among other things, one character’s brush with sexual assault and an intriguing reference to a female-dominated Japanese civil service.
Sexual politics aren’t the point of this book, but they’re there, and they’re both subtle and intriguing. It wouldn’t be right or desirable to watch Orlaith and Reiko sit around jawing about the advances their great-great-grandmothers made, battling glass ceilings their descendants couldn’t even imagine. But that blip–us, and our values–are part of what makes this particular fictional revival of the medieval lifestyle so interesting.
Meanwhile, the spectacle of two mighty queens becoming besties is one of the most enjoyable elements of the story.
Assuming we all agree that Mr. Darcy is Jane Austen’s most desirable hero/dudebro/prospective mate, who is second in the pecking order? Is it Knightley? Bingley? Henry Crawford?
(Of course, I was kidding about Henry Crawford.)Now, as I write this post, the unofficial poll results are:3 people say “What? Darcy? No way!”
Edward Ferrars and Henry Tilney are getting no love at all, and Mr. Knightly, from Emma, gets one hat-tip. There’s some quiet praise for Edmund Bertram.
The two contenders are: Colonel Brandon and Frederick Wentworth… and it looks like Brandon’s pulling ahead.
There’s been some talk about whether the fire of fannish love, in each case, was sparked by the literary characters or by their portrayals in film and TV. Is Darcy the undisputed cock of the Austen walk solely because of Colin Firth? Will Alan Rickman lock the number two spot for Colonel Brandon? Even Edmund Bertram’s supporters mention Johnny Lee Miller in a yum-yum favorable context.
Speaking of delicious Darcy goodness, have you all seen The Lizzie Bennet Diaries?
Your thoughts on this burning issue are always welcome.
Over on Facebook, several people tagged me in the “list ten books that have stayed with you” meme. It has taken me awhile to get to it, in part because the moment I started, I realized I needed a list for childhood faves and a second one for books that had an impact since I’ve been an adult. Here’s the latter list, in no especial order:
Lincoln’s Dreams, by Connie Willis. When we were first married, Kelly and I took turns reading each other novels that were important to us. She got to the crisis in this book one evening, shortly before I had to head off to work at an all-night answering service. I phoned her as soon as things got slow and begged her to finish it over the phone. It took her until 1:00 in the morning. I started rereading it the next day.
How Few Remain, by Harry Turtledove. This was my first real introduction to long-form alternate history, and the first scene whereby a not-assassinated Abraham Lincoln is talking to trade unionists about their rights blew my brain right out of its skull. (I keep tchotchkes and TTC tokens there now.)
Mystery, by Peter Straub. This could just about go on the childhood list. It’s a book I’ve returned to, every couple years, since I was in my teen.
I have a love-hate relationship with Straub’s work, and with the Blue Rose novels particularly. This is the one I love beyond reason: it’s perfect, in terms of its writing and the story it tells, and the fact that he ret-conned the story later causes me actual physical pain.
Zodiac, by Neal Stephenson. Early Stephenson often makes me happier than later Stephenson, though I have mad love for Snow Crash, too. This one, with its poisoned lobsters and anti-pollution activists, goes straight to my enviro-geek heart.
The Shape of Snakes, by Minette Walters, absolutely fascinates me. I reread it just about yearly. The ending gets me every time.
In the Woods, by Tana French. I’ve gone on at length about this one, and its gorgeous prose and unreliable narrator, before.
The Blue Place, by Nicola Griffith. And its sequels. Lesbian noir, with a point of view so convincing it makes you feel as though someone’s reached inside your brain and rewired you.
The Rift, by Walter Jon Williams, a man who has written so many brilliant novels. And yet this is the one I love: a retelling of Huck Finn as a modern U.S. disaster novel. Heart, heart, heart.
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde. An alternate world where people care about literature the way people here care about football. With time travel to boot. Oh Emm Effin’ Gee!
The Closer, by Donn Cortez. Another book whose final line just kills. This was written prior to Darkly Dreaming Dexter, but the concept is similar. Is it darker? Less dark? You decide.
I will not tag others–I’m coming late to this meme and figure everyone who wants to play has done so–but I will note for anyone who’s interested that I plan to post the childhood books list in the not too distant, so even if you did the above exercise, you can jump on that wagon too.