05 April 2011 @ 06:54 am
MEN and women  
Most who read sf and f are by now aware of Niall Harrison's article in Strange Horizons about the dramatic imbalance in the number of female reviewers and works by women being reviewed. Harrison himself is a reviewer, sharp and articulate. Our tastes don't often overlap, which has sometimes caused me to ponder on the years that I went away from male-penned reviews thinking that the contrasts in taste meant that I had no taste. When I was growing up, the tastes of men in their thirties and (if famous) older seemed to be the accepted standard. It took me a long time to become aware of this, and to extricate myself from the automatic assumptions I'd imbued with the smoggy air of university classrooms.

The sense that men write about Important Things and women write about Domestic or Sentimental Things still appears to be pervasive. I recall fairly recently a panel at a big convention where this notion was scoffed, and guess what, all five panelists were male. Each claimed to be a feminist, to read female writers (they could name the ones they read) and unfortunately I didn't think to ask if they could name all the male writers they read until an hour or two after the panel was over and I was still wandering the art show, fuming to myself. Because if you can name all the [x] writers you read, then you can't be reading very many of them in comparison with the rest of your reading, yes? No?

Of course cis-gendered white men will share tastes and paradigms with other cis-gendered white men. The thing I am resisting is that what they think should be The Standard. In the not-so-distant past, when this sort of discussion came up, some women would hasten to say that they don't share tastes with other women, they share tastes with men. Well, of course, if you think they think about the Important Things, you will be proud to trumpet that fact. What would interest me more would be men who say that they read mainly women writers because they think about the Important Things.

I'm not claiming that all male critics and reviewers spout pompously that they should be the standard. They will argue passionately, and with articulate intensity, that this or that is a "bad book" and something else is "a good book", but then so many readers are in the long-trained habit of boosting these men into the authority box. Because, you know, what men think is important, especially if they espouse the paradigm currently considered cool in your particular part of the world surge.

The same cultural conditioning that placed men as authorities cautioned women to be modest and retiring, that women who put themselves forward deserve the brickbats that an offended society throws at them for their forwardness. Madeleine Robins talks about this today.

As I approach sixty, I often reflect back on a half century of reading, the patterns within patterns; oft-read words take on new meanings, and life experience shapes one's definition of wisdom. Yet one of the patterns I am aware of is that women past fifty are culturally negligible, invisible. Heh!
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Alan Yeealan_yee on April 5th, 2011 02:11 pm (UTC)
"What would interest me more would be men who say that they read mainly women writers because they think about the Important Things."

*raises hand* I realize I'm probably a small minority, but I honestly do read significantly more female writers than male writers. I'm trying to read more male writers, but there's something about most books and stories written by women that appeal to me more than those written by men. I can't really articulate the reason for that.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 02:14 pm (UTC)
I'd be interested to hear why that is, once you can articulate it.
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Kalimac: puzzlekalimac on April 5th, 2011 02:18 pm (UTC)
"Because if you can name all the [x] writers you read, then you can't be reading very many of them in comparison with the rest of your reading, yes? No?"

If it really is all, then either that or you're not reading widely in that area. But when the men were naming women writers, did they actually say those were the only women writers they read? Or was it the ones they particularly admire? Or just the ones that came to mind?
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 02:27 pm (UTC)
It was a couple of years ago, so don't trust my memory completely, but as I recall it was like "Of course I read Ursula Le Guin and Nancy Kress and Tiptree," and all four others nodded, and threw out two or three more names (JK Rowling among them, that I do remember, because she raised a laugh) and that was pretty much it--the impression I walked away with was that those were the important female writers. If you read them, you were reading "the women writers" and you could claim to be a feminist.
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Kalimac: puzzlekalimac on April 5th, 2011 02:24 pm (UTC)
I really agree with your larger point, though. Reviewing benefits from having a diversity of reviewers, including sex/gender diversity, and diversity of taste of other kinds too. It helps the reviewer as well as the reader. As a reviewer, I feel freer to speak my mind if I know there are other reviewers covering the same things who might not share my taste, because if there aren't, and I'm the only reviewer, I come too close to issuing a dictat, and that's not what reviewing should be for.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 02:28 pm (UTC)
Yes, very much yes.
(no subject) - asakiyume on April 5th, 2011 03:16 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on April 5th, 2011 04:09 pm (UTC) (Expand)
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obzor_inolitobzor_inolit on April 5th, 2011 02:27 pm (UTC)
Well, I think you'd be pleased to know that the publishers say: reviews don't influence the actual sales of a book (though they once did, in the 19 century or in the first half of 20th).
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 02:29 pm (UTC)
Oh yes. What people actually read doesn't intersect that much with what reviewers favor. But right now the subject isn't sales so much as discourse and dialogue among readers. (I also want to avoid the award black hole.)
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cynleitichsmithcynleitichsmith on April 5th, 2011 02:30 pm (UTC)
I'm a GenXer, and I've certainly noticed writer women encouraging writer men to "get out there and go for it" while, perhaps even in the same breath, praising fellow, especially younger, writer women for their modesty or offering an eye roll to those who're more assertive in their careers.

In youth literature, it's the two men in a room with twenty women--all beginners--who're mostly likely to go on to make a living at it. Some of that is that their voices stand out. Some of it is that they feel pressure to succeed economically as primary income earners and work accordingly. But there's another component: what we impose and what we allow to be imposed upon us.

Or not.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 03:03 pm (UTC)
The primary income thing was certainly an issue when I was young, but how true is that any more? I look around my own life, and either couples desperately need two incomes to stay afloat, or it's a single mom struggling. The "man as primary income" seems a luxury, though maybe in more traditional strata of our culture it still holds true.

The other thing, though, calling women brash and men proactive for exactly the same behaviors . . . that's pernicious.
(no subject) - cynleitichsmith on April 5th, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias on April 5th, 2011 03:36 pm (UTC) (Expand)
asakiyumeasakiyume on April 5th, 2011 03:21 pm (UTC)
the modesty thing
Maybe women are more sensitive to jibes that they're brash and immodest than men are? When I hear criticisms of people being overly self promoting, it's usually in the context of what people do on their blogs, and I hear it leveled against men and women equally.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC)
Re: the modesty thing
It could be that women are more sensitive to things that many men shrug off, or even consider compliments. "Wow, are you pushy." Say that to a woman, and it seems to me that older women, anyway, are likelier to feel it as a verbal slap. Say it to a man, and he shrugs and says, "Yeah, you gotta get out there and hustle," or some sports metaphor--because this is the way both were raised.

The thing about promotion is another, related, question. People of whatever gender who are constantly touting their particular shtick can be regarded by readership tired of the same thing as loud and uninteresting.

So how DO you self-promote? I'm becoming more and more convinced that you don't, that the most effective promotion comes from enthusiasm of others. So what's the author to do, especially if their shiny new contract contains a clause that they are expected to do their own publicity? I don't have an answer.
Re: the modesty thing - asakiyume on April 5th, 2011 03:41 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(Deleted comment)
Re: the modesty thing - sartorias on April 8th, 2011 04:00 am (UTC) (Expand)
Her Eminence the Very Viscountessbreathingbooks on April 5th, 2011 03:23 pm (UTC)
Because if you can name all the [x] writers you read, then you can't be reading very many of them in comparison with the rest of your reading, yes? No?

I can think of 3 current male authors of fiction that I like. I'm probably forgetting 1 or 2 more, but still... O_o
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 03:34 pm (UTC)
Heh!
elysdir on April 5th, 2011 03:45 pm (UTC)
I think I agree with the general thrust of what you're saying, but I want to explore some of the details. So my comment here isn't meant as argument, just discussion.

if you can name all the [x] writers you read, then you can't be reading very many of them in comparison with the rest of your reading, yes? No?

I think maybe it depends on a bunch of factors, including how many writers you're talking about, and what you mean by "the writers I read."

Fwiw, of the books I read in 2010, about 2/3 were by women (including all of my top 5 favorites), and I think I could have listed most of those women without consulting the list. (But there were three female authors with more than one book on the list.) Probably most of the men, too.

But I don't think I tend to think in terms of "the writers I read"; more in terms of my favorite writers. I can name many of my favorite writers, and I keep a written list (of maybe fifty or so writers) so as not to have to reconstruct it from memory. I think last time I checked that list, there were significantly more male writers than female; which is a little odd and surprising to me, given that, of the stories submitted to us, the ones I really love are at least as likely to be by women as by men.

Regarding Important Things: I think part of the question may depend on what one means by that phrase. In the context of contrasting Important Things with Domestic Things, I would expect it to mean World Affairs and Big Political Issues and Great Philosophical Thoughts. But I think if I were to say a book was about Important Things, I would mean things like how people interact with each other, and what it means to be human, and love and loss and joy. Tehanu springs to mind as a book that is about Domestic Things that are also Important Things by my definition.

Anyway, I don't mean to make this all about me; I think I'm just saying that the issue of liking male or female writers is a complicated one. But yeah, I think I agree with the kinds of trends and patterns that you're talking about; again, I don't mean this comment as argument with your premises.

...On a related side note, in a certain context I have occasion to regularly see lists of people's five (or so) favorite short-sf writers. A remarkably high percentage of those lists (from both men and women) are either all-male or all-but-one male. It keeps surprising me.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 03:51 pm (UTC)
Thanks for speaking up!

Yes, how one defines Important Things, especially philosophy, dovetails with one's cherished worldview. So for example, the reader who thinks that Cormac McCarthy deeply philosophical probably has a different worldview than the reader who thinks Marilynne Robinson is deeply philosophical. Meanwhile, which one gets more attention . . . is McArthy getting more airtime because he's male? Or because his views are shared by media choosers?
Kari Sperringla_marquise_de_ on April 5th, 2011 04:03 pm (UTC)
It's everywhere. I was thinking about the covers of the BBC listings magazine today and how older men frequently appear -- experts, actors -- but women of all ages are rarer and older women rarest of all (I think Helen Mirren has been on it, as has the Queen) and then are nearly always actresses acclaimed for their enduring beauty (because we are no more than the sum of our looks). I want a world where 50+ female experts are just as much cover material as men, where female achievement isn't so tightly tied to appearance, where our bodies are not considered public property and our creative output not automatically placed in a special cootie box.
Grumble, grumble, grumble.
mswyrrmswyrr on April 6th, 2011 05:06 am (UTC)
I want a world where 50+ female experts are just as much cover material as men, where female achievement isn't so tightly tied to appearance, where our bodies are not considered public property and our creative output not automatically placed in a special cootie box.
Grumble, grumble, grumble.


I want this world, too. :-/
(no subject) - puddleshark on April 6th, 2011 05:33 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias on April 6th, 2011 12:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
shweta_narayanshweta_narayan on April 5th, 2011 04:14 pm (UTC)
This, yeah.

Except that I think it's a bit overgeneralizing to say men's thoughts are culturally considered Important, when (on the gender axis alone) it's really only cis men whose thoughts are weighted that way isn't it? All the rest of us fall into "sentimental", culturally...
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 04:15 pm (UTC)
This is a very good point--not just white men, but cis-white men are considered 'the standard.'
(no subject) - shweta_narayan on April 5th, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - sartorias on April 5th, 2011 04:21 pm (UTC) (Expand)
obzor_inolitobzor_inolit on April 5th, 2011 04:16 pm (UTC)
At least female writers today in most cases aren't obliged to use male names as pseudonims.

And some men who write romances do this under female names, ha ha.


Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 04:20 pm (UTC)
Actually, some women feel constrained to use male nyms, or at least hide their gender behind initials (though I've noticed that I am not the only female to figure that initials is default female). And this is on the rise.
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Niall Harrisoncoalescent on April 5th, 2011 04:32 pm (UTC)
Thanks for this post (and the link, and the generous words); really foregrounds the complexity of the problem.
pingback_botpingback_bot on April 5th, 2011 04:43 pm (UTC)
Thingies five
User shweta_narayan referenced to your post from Thingies five saying: [...] categories being male/female/anon/unknown.) Anyway, has an excellent set of follow-up thoughts [...]
pingback_botpingback_bot on April 5th, 2011 06:52 pm (UTC)
Men, women and Important Things
User aliettedb referenced to your post from Men, women and Important Things saying: [...] (who has started an awesome list of women to read), and Sherwood Smith, who has a great reflexion [...]
Aliette de Bodardaliettedb on April 5th, 2011 07:01 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this.
I really hate that UF isn't considered "serious", but military SF somehow can be meaningful in and of itself--not that there aren't good examples of both, but the proportion of meaningful military SF that gets reviewed in "serious" venues compared with UF books is abysmal...
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 07:07 pm (UTC)
Yes, and the UF that is reviewed? Written by males.
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mojave_wolfmojave_wolf on April 5th, 2011 07:50 pm (UTC)
Heh, I just checked my f-list and you and la_marquise_de_ both have posts on this.

FWIW, I think I've always read a mix, but my reading tastes have tended to skew more heavily femaleas I've gotten older, so that now I probably read a larger number of books by women than by men, and my "favorite/most admired contemporary authors" list also skews more heavily female. Whereas when I was in jr. high and high school, Norton, Cooper, McKillip, Lee, and Piserchia were about it. Oh, Wilhelm. Okay, that's maybe not such a huge imbalance (I initially started to write this sentence as "Andre Norton vs. the World", and I probably read enough books by her alone to make up for any three guys), but I may have been an outlier.

(I throw in contemporary because I have to admit, while there are women authors I love from before the latter part of the 20th century they are outnumbered. I suspect this has to do with who got published, and also what women were expected to write as compared to my personal tastes)
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 08:01 pm (UTC)
Totally makes sense. Thanks for commenting!
Phoebe Northphoebenorth on April 5th, 2011 09:25 pm (UTC)
Hey Sherwood,

Love this post! I work for SH (first as a proofreader, more recently as an articles editor) AND I review young adult literature on my blog, and it honestly never crossed my mind to offer up my services reviewing for them until I saw Abigail's call for women reviewers. I honestly thought that they wouldn't be interested, even though I'd say 85% of what I review is speculative fiction. YA is reviewed relatively rarely there, despite the fact that there's a huge, thriving community of speculative YA writers--and a major push for "dystopian" (really, sci-fi) literature from YA publishers right now.

(Happily, I was welcomed as a reviewer, and am eagerly awaiting receiving my first book to review for them--Pam Sargent's Seed Seeker. I adore the first two. Can't wait to discuss the series with the SH readership.)

Honestly, the legitimacy of YA sci-fi, particularly, is something I've come up against a lot in my discussions of books. How such-and-such a writer isn't really writing sci-fi. I can't help but wonder if this is because most of these books are, you know, girl books.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 09:40 pm (UTC)
Excellent question! And how often has, say, Jane Yolen been condescendingly asked when she would write a "real" book? Though I do think YA has been gaining visibility in recent years due to powerful surges in popularity that have nothing to do with what self-styled authorities think the readership should be reading.
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Nora MathewsNora Mathews on April 5th, 2011 09:30 pm (UTC)
In addition to how women writers are reviewed, there's the issue of how the cycle of gender expectations is perpetuated by the way women are portrayed in the books that people *are* reading, by male or female authors. It would be interesting to see the results of something like a "Bechdel Test" for fiction.

There's also this "female character flowchart" which is both sad and funny... though it's made with films in mind, it could work almost as well for novels: http://big.assets.huffingtonpost.com/flowchart.jpeg
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 5th, 2011 09:34 pm (UTC)
We had a terrific and ongoing discussion about this at Sirens last year.
pingback_botpingback_bot on April 5th, 2011 09:46 pm (UTC)
April 6, 2011 Links and Plugs
User charlesatan referenced to your post from April 6, 2011 Links and Plugs saying: [...] wood Smith on MEN and women [...]
aberwynaberwyn on April 5th, 2011 10:13 pm (UTC)
Most adults who love to read have limited time in which to do so, thanks to jobs, families, real life, etc. Thus they tend to look for books that they have a good chance of enjoying in this limited leisure. People who love movies or TV can't see everything that comes out, either.

I suspect that there's an unconscious or semi-conscious bias toward picking books that are about "people like them" in order to increase that chance. If OTOH the reader has read good reviews or seen publicity about a book about "people who are different" they are more likely to give it a try.

Which is, I think, one reason why it's important that such books (or films) get publicity. Unfortunately they're often published by small houses (or independent film companies) whose resources are limited. The end result: the big houses think "those books don't sell well" without ever considering they could sell well and reach a wider audience if they had a push behind them.

I never cease to be amazed by the prelevance of non-think and received "wisdom" among marketing people.
(Anonymous) on April 7th, 2011 06:16 pm (UTC)
"women past fifty are culturally negligible, invisible"

I'm not anywhere close to fifty, but I find this thought absolutely terrifying. I don't want to become invisible!!!

~Emily
The Empress of Ice Creamicecreamempress on April 8th, 2011 02:15 am (UTC)
It is true as far as mainstream industrialized world culture is concerned (the very few women over 50 who are identified as sex symbols, like Helen Mirren or Susan Sarandon or Meryl Streep, are praised for looking so much younger than their age, or indeed "ageless").

This is one of the reasons why being a self-loathing misogynist woman who accepts a valuation of herself at whatever price mainstream culture puts on her appearance is such a mug's game--culturally defined "beauty" fades so quickly, and if that's all you've been working, you've got nothing less. And yet, and yet, so many women find that bargain the best one available.
(no subject) - icecreamempress on April 8th, 2011 02:16 am (UTC) (Expand)
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pingback_botpingback_bot on April 8th, 2011 01:31 am (UTC)
More links
User coffeeandink referenced to your post from More links saying: [...] is a super-genius, but she's right. She's the Joanna Russ fairy. Sherwood Smith, MEN and women [...]
Shveta, bursting with stars ॐshveta_thakrar on April 8th, 2011 01:39 am (UTC)
This was an awesome post, Sherwood! Thank you.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 8th, 2011 01:59 am (UTC)
Thanks for reading!
pjthompsonpjthompson on April 9th, 2011 10:39 pm (UTC)
What you said. Srsly, I have nothing to add as you've expressed my feelings precisely.
Sherwood Smithsartorias on April 9th, 2011 11:10 pm (UTC)
:-)
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