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It Ain't Equal 'Til It's Equal... [Aug. 27th, 2010|01:06 pm]
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A friend's Tweet pointed me to this article on gender bias in NYT book reviews.   The article is spot on, IMO, in its general intent--to point out that what women write is judged differently than what men write.   Since I am just a few days out of learning that an Austin paper wrote the annual pre-convention article about ArmadilloCon and once again (as in past years) did not mention any women writers attending.  Despite having had the problem pointed out in previous years, and the reporter having been put in touch with a number of prominent women writers.

The comments to that article made it clear that the same attitudes of gender bias about writers in the 1950s and 60s, when I was in school and college, are still alive and kicking.    There are writers (who are men and need no qualifying adjectives) and women writers (who are a separate class, expected to be less suitable for academic study except in specialized "women's studies" programs, although a few Queen Bees have been brought in as proof of non-bias.)

I posted the following there (but am not sure it actually showed up) in response to that article:

As someone who writes both science fiction and fantasy, I have to say this article hits the center of the target.  Although there are many outstanding, award-winning female writers in both fields, a newspaper article about the upcoming regional SF convention near here mentioned only male writers (some of them dead, and some of them with no fiction currently in print.)   In a discussion of this incident,  Vonda N. McIntyre, Hugo and Nebula-winning SF author, commented that articles usually mention women only if about women-writers.

The situation with publishers has improved somewhat...but isn't equitable yet, in that women have had concepts (important in SF) rejected for being "too crazy" while the following year the same concept from a male writer was promoted as exciting and brilliant.   Reviewers of SF/F often concentrate on what they see as "touchy-feely" elements in women's work and not on the "hard" elements that are also present.   Some reviewers clearly feel that women's writing should fit their concept of what women write--apparently so they can dismiss it.

More generally, the notion that most men cannot be interested in the inner or personal life of women--that they cannot connect with a female POV--has resulted in a consistent review and study bias against women's writing.   Willa Cather, for instance, was stigmatized as "merely regional" ( an excuse given in the 1960s for her exclusion from the academic canon for American literature) while William Faulkner, even more "regional" in topic, was always on the list.   Writing by women was excluded from general (lower-level) college courses in the '60s; women were expected to "get" the sexual insecurity of adolescent white suburban males and the angst of older ones; the reverse was certainly not true.

The reasons people give for not reading books by [name the group] say more about those readers than about the books they won't read. 

Adding to that for this LJ post:  women make up half the human race.   What interests women should interest men as much as what interests men should interest women.  Obviously, some men are interested in fiction by women (I have many male readers) but the perception that men can't be expected to be interested in a female protagonist--can't be expected to get inside the head of a female protagonist, even attempt to grasp that POV, those interests--suggests that men are innately inferior (since women are expected to, and do, read male POV characters and "get" what interests them and why.)    When it is possible to dismiss women's interior lives and interests (even those limited interests recognized by sexist reviewers) as irrelevant to men (who share the planet with women, and depend on women for the continuation of their own genes), something is very, very wrong.  

Reverse that and imagine the howls of outrage.   What if women--even a substantial fraction of women--treated books by men as a special category, if they worked from the concept that  writers = women, and men who write = "men's writing?"   If they refused to read books by men, or with male protagonists...if they regarded all such books as a limited subset of 'real' fiction?   If 90+ percent of the books taught in college lit classes were by women; if books by women were preferentially reviewed in major review venues?  If they heaped critical scorn on books for any sign of "male-centric" topics or attitudes ("But, as usual, X writer clutters an otherwise modestly competent novel with typical boy-toys as Shawn, the protagonist, spends far too much time thinking about his motorcycle, playing games on his computer, and the boys at the tavern..."  "Women can't be expected to waste their time on a book that has no rounded female characters in it and a male protagonist  who sees women only as sex objects..."  "Yet another book showing that men simply cannot cope with the emotional complexities of real life..." )    

But instead, most women read and enjoy books by men as well as books by women, and some women go the whole Queen Bee way and defend male-written books as "more serious" than books by women.  I would like to see anyone say that New Zealand writer  Keri Hulme's Booker Prize-winning The Bone People is "less serious" than any book in the world....like it or lump it, it's a brilliant work...but was rejected by major New Zealand publishers before being published by a women's collective.   Hulme is both female and part-Maori.   I just struggled through a highly praised NZ literary trilogy, by a highly praised and awarded male writer, that was published by a major publisher (Penguin.)   It is dull, repellent, and predictable (especially in landing hard on all the lit-crit checkpoints)  and though it contains all the elements of a woman-written family saga, it manages to make them...well....boring to this woman reader.   (It's taken me 2 1/2 years to read this thing, and both my husband and a female editor friend have refused to dig into more than a few pages.)

For their mental health and character growth, persons of both genders should read widely in  fiction by persons of both genders.   Where the attitude of another gender feels uncomfortable, it's time to stop and ponder--is this really how that gender perceives reality?   Could that be a heretofore unrecognized reality?  What circumstances make that perception of reality, that set of values, reasonable?   (If the reader says "Nothing!" the reader needs to ponder longer.  Maybe study some relevant nonfiction about how that gender is shaped by that culture.)  It is not necessary to agree with any character, of course, but coming to terms with fictional characters--play-acting someone else's life--is one way to prepare to engage other peoples' reality in daily life.   (The ability to "play-act" is considered essential in the development of social awareness in children, for instance.   It's used a specific therapeutic technique with autistic children and others who have social difficulties.)    Fiction can help develop a more accurate "theory of mind"--a more accurate understanding of how other people think, how they are likely to react to situations, and what shapes those reactions.  

Dorothy L. Sayers wrote in one of her essays that she had been asked by a male reader how she was able to write realistic conversations between men.   She was, she recounted, astonished that her questioner was so unfamiliar with women's conversations as to think men's were completely different.   Men and women are both human.   Both genders have legitimate interests in everything that touches human lives.  

Including fiction. 




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Comments:
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[User Picture]From: jimhines
2010-08-27 06:14 pm (UTC)

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Have I mentioned how much I love reading your blog and posts like this?
[User Picture]From: stormsdotter
2010-08-27 06:33 pm (UTC)

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Dangit, Jim, not only was I thinking of your Princess books while reading this post, but I had much the same reaction you did. Being your nemesis does not entitle you to space in my head! :P

Elizabeth, I am even more determined to get published after reading this! :)
[User Picture]From: la_marquise_de_
2010-08-27 06:25 pm (UTC)

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Applause.
[User Picture]From: nagasvoice
2010-08-27 07:01 pm (UTC)

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Thank you, yes YES!
[User Picture]From: othercat
2010-08-27 07:15 pm (UTC)

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Great post and very insightful. ^_^
[User Picture]From: lingster1
2010-08-27 07:58 pm (UTC)

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How very, very true!
[User Picture]From: galbinus_caeli
2010-08-27 08:26 pm (UTC)

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I like to read from different viewpoints. I live in my own head all day long, I like to work through different patterns when recreating.
From: (Anonymous)
2010-08-27 08:27 pm (UTC)

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I'll confess to being surprised this is still an issue. Given the seemingly-very-common use of pen-names now when writing outside of whatever's narrowly defined by the market as 'your' sub-genre, I've pretty much given up on making assumption about what the author's gender is. Or, for the most part, caring.

I'm fairly certain that at least in the modern paranormal / urban fantasy genre, there are a few male writers publishing under female names (perhaps for the perceived benefits in drawing in the romance crossover audience). I know that one of the series we recently tried and enjoyed was written by a married couple and published under a female name.

(I say 'for the most part' because there are a couple of quirks of writing - mostly in the area of narrative attitude / voice - I associate almost exclusively with male writers and which make me roll my eyes. There might be female authors who indulge in those habits in an attempt to appeal to the stereotype of the male reader, but I haven't noticed it.)
[User Picture]From: e_moon60
2010-08-28 01:47 pm (UTC)

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Pen-names are easily penetrated if you try, and editors/agents/publishers know the gender of the writer, as do many readers and most reviewers. The Internet has made that easier than ever.

And many people do care about the name on the book's cover, and avoid a gender they dislike (or, as the article cited, and following comments noted, avoid certain book cover styles.)




From: llennhoff
2010-08-27 09:16 pm (UTC)

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I've only read your fantasy, not your sf, but I remember noting at the time that Paksenarrion was designed to be, if not exactly sexless, at least uninterested in the topic. Gird was much more into non-platonic relationships. Dorrin is not mentioned as having had serious relationships in her past, while the male character *blanking on name* had a long time (but never shown) unfulfilled crush on the female head of the Golden Company. Is there a pattern of your mentioning relationships of major male characters but not female ones? If so, is it intentional? Or is it related to how in Paksworld it might be easy for a married man to lead a mercenary's life but not so much for a woman?
[User Picture]From: bunny_m
2010-08-28 01:57 am (UTC)

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Speaking as a reader who has read most, if not all of Ms Moon's books, I would recommend that you give her SF a try and see if you like it.

I will also note that Paksenarrion is the only asexual character I recall. You might want to give Remnant Population a read for a central female character that is, IMO, nuanced, very much feminine and all kinds of awesome and quite able of kicking butts when required.

Of course, this being fiction, YMMV.
[User Picture]From: bookmobiler
2010-08-27 10:48 pm (UTC)

But being human...

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"Men and women are both human. Both genders have legitimate interests in everything that touches human lives."

Unfortunately many members of both genders are not.

It has changed a bit over my lifetime, but slowly.

At the moment male domination of the publishing industry and academia still leans heavily in sometime unconscious ways towards male writers.

It will correct itself. Just not soon enough to do the present generation much good.

In the meantime, unless a writer hits me over the head with it I'll keep reading regardless of the author's gender, race or sexual preference.

I will admit to political bias. :)
[User Picture]From: gategrrl
2010-09-01 04:34 pm (UTC)

Re: But being human...

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It will only "correct itself" through action, and making this an *awareness*--not by hoping and wishing those in charge will change. Making a male bias go away or disappear isn't a case of using your auto spell-check and correcting misspelled words.
[User Picture]From: elfkat
2010-08-27 11:09 pm (UTC)

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I always find it weird when this subject comes up when there are so many men who can not write a decent women's conversation and right now James Patterson's Women's Murder Club series comes to mind. They are absolutely terrible and painful to read when the conversation comes up. Has he never listened to his wife or the women in his family?
[User Picture]From: gategrrl
2010-09-01 04:31 pm (UTC)

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I thought he wasn't a very "good" writer to begin with?

And not in his defence, but as a general comment, some writers simply have a tin ear when it comes to dialogue.
[User Picture]From: gunhilda
2010-08-27 11:20 pm (UTC)

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About 80% of the fiction on my bookshelves is by female authors. It's a deliberate choice to send my money in that direction and use libraries for the rest. I suspect if all women did the same, there would be mass upheaval and apocalypse. Or something.
From: paulwoodlin
2010-09-01 09:03 pm (UTC)

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A poet complained once that if everyone who wrote poetry bought poetry books, poets could end up on the bestsellers lists. Sorry I don't remember which poet said that, but I suspect it's true.
[User Picture]From: ann_mcn
2010-08-28 01:39 am (UTC)

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I work and volunteer in theatres around town, and it is distressing to see how self segregated the audiences are. It's a wonderful way to learn about people who aren't yourself, and it also matters to be in a live audience, with Others who aren't like you. I've worried sometimes if it would be taken wrong to be laughing at certain things in a black play, for instance, but so very often my fellow volunteers would elbow me to share the humor. I don't think people give enough credit for the generosity of people who have a right to resent. Yes, there are angry women writers, and black writers, but even so they are glad if men or whites -- other PEOPLE -- will read and watch and share with what the writer has done.

Perhaps there's bottled up guilt in the male critics and they don't want to face it?
[User Picture]From: sobrique
2010-08-28 01:36 pm (UTC)

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I don't tend to differentiate when picking up a book between male and female authors. I don't think there's any differentiator in quality.

I will confess that I tend to be a little more cautious when picking up a book by a male author with a female lead character (or vice versa). Of the only times I've noticed 'gender' as anything at all to think about in a book, it's been when this happens - I think it's a much harder challenge to the writer, and so less pull it off well.

I do think there's differences in mindset and writing style though. At the risk of over generalizing, I find male authors just a little more prone to geeking (especially in Sci-fi) and losing track of the characterisation and main narrative.
Again, it's not always the case, but ... well, either way I don't actually mind particularly - I've never really considered author gender as relevant to whether a book is good or not, although I guess I do have some expectations towards writing style.
Hmm.
I think I'll go back through my collection and double check those assumptions.
[User Picture]From: masgramondou
2010-08-28 03:57 pm (UTC)

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Yes that applies to me too.

I'm fairly sure I have more male written books than female ones - but I have, I think, more Anne McCaffrey books than books by any other writer (though both my collections of Sir Pterry and Dick Francis run her close). And in my recent buying,and definitely in my recent rereading which I think is key to what I really enjoy, I'm pretty balanced about the sex of the author and the sex of the protagonist(s). What I want is a good story - if someone (such as our esteemed hostess here) writes it I'll buy it and I won't pay attention to whether her name is Elizabeth or Edward (well OK if HER name were Edward that would be surprising but you know what I mean).

I mostly read and buy genre fiction because what I want out of a book is relaxation and enjoyment. Gritty literary works describing miserable bores leave me cold and hence are left on the bookstore racks by me. Fortunately, despite the fact that very few respectable media outlets review any sort of genre fiction, it tends to be fairly simple to find reviews of it on the Internet.

One difference I do note is that it seems to me that while female comedians are often good, I've not had much luck finding female comic writers. Or indeed, apart from Mark Twain (and recently Dave Freer), of non British comic writers. Just about all the funny writers we can all quote, from Jerome K Jerome to the aforementioned Sir PTerry, are British [PG Wodehouse, Douglas Adams being obvious others]

This is probably my lack but I'd love to know what people recommend in terms of non British male comic writing
[User Picture]From: stina_leicht
2010-08-28 02:20 pm (UTC)

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go, elizabeth, go!

well, i wasn't able to run into the reporter in question yesterday. it's too bad. oh, well. there will be another time. :D
[User Picture]From: alfreda89
2010-08-28 03:20 pm (UTC)

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I didn't see anything that looked like your post, E.
[User Picture]From: damiana_swan
2010-08-28 08:14 pm (UTC)

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My fiction shelves are (mostly) filled with female authors, with several notable exceptions. It's partly because I want to support female authors as a whole, but mostly because I find that most male authors really *don't* get what it's like being female. In general, the more a male author pats himself on the back for understanding women, the more likely it is that no, he really, really doesn't.

I think I've got every single book Robert Heinlein wrote, for instance, but OH did he ever get it wrong when he tried to write adult women. One particular comment a female character made comes to mind as an example--something about not being able to understand why any woman would prefer a dildo when there were so many live warm ones walking around attached to men.

The irony was, well, deafening.
[User Picture]From: cissa
2010-09-01 12:27 am (UTC)

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Heh. The PLUS of a dildo is that it is not attached to a live warm man. But you knew that. :)
[User Picture]From: cissa
2010-09-01 12:25 am (UTC)

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I prefer reading women authors over men. I do make some exceptions- I'm a big F/sf fan- but in general, I'd rather read a female author than a male one; the women are not as stupid about men as, say, Heinlein is about women.

The real key, though, is addressing women, men, and aliens from Alpha Centuri as PEOPLE. If an author is not able to describe various persons in his/her narrative as PEOPLE, they FAIL.
From: paulwoodlin
2010-09-01 09:13 pm (UTC)

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When I was a kid, I thought Andre Norton was a French man, probably because I was reading her military SF and there weren't any women characters. I wish I could have seen the look on my face when I found out Norton was a woman, because the men really were that believable.

And yes, it is ironic that writers who invent alien races and try to protray them "realistically" fail so badly writing the opposite gender.
[User Picture]From: funwithrage
2010-09-01 01:56 pm (UTC)

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Damn straight. Followed a link here from Jim Hines, and I'm very glad I did. Excellent post!

(I have long wondered--while not particularly liking either of the characters--why we're supposed to consider Holden Caufield's dysfunction more serious and meaningful than Bridget Jones's.)
[User Picture]From: kosarin
2010-09-01 04:52 pm (UTC)

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Excellent essay, and something that should be heard. I wish I had something constructive to say, all I can offer is that "Yet another book showing that men simply cannot cope with the emotional complexities of real life..." sounds like my mother, and if you can find a reviewer who writes like this I absolutely want a link. (I do realize that was not the point... Like I said, nothing constructive.)
[User Picture]From: kosarin
2010-09-01 04:52 pm (UTC)

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Oh, and I'm also here from a link by Jim Hines.
[User Picture]From: rarelylynne
2010-09-01 05:15 pm (UTC)

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*applause*

I'm friending, if I may.
From: paulwoodlin
2010-09-01 09:17 pm (UTC)

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A friend of mine, Lane Robins, writes dark urban fantasy, and complains to me from time to time that reviews of the urban fantasy field ignore the women writers. She's not writing paranormal romance, she's writing a bitter, cynical gumshoe detective that happens to be a woman, which undoubtedly has something to do with it. She's not writing what women are "supposed to."
From: paulwoodlin
2010-09-01 09:24 pm (UTC)

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I'm sorry, I'm an idiot. She writes high fantasy as Lane Robins, but her urban fantasy is as Lyn Benedict.
[User Picture]From: Brenna Lyons
2010-09-03 03:11 pm (UTC)

KUDOS!

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You say many of the things I often do, and you do it so eloquently. Kudos on a great post.

Brenna Lyons
[User Picture]From: catrambo
2010-09-03 05:02 pm (UTC)

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Great post, thank you. It's frustrating to see that the glass ceiling still exists in a genre that is supposed to be forward looking and drawing attention to and questioning that trend is one of the best ways to combat it.
[User Picture]From: jess_ka
2010-09-03 05:10 pm (UTC)

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Excellent post. You rock.
[User Picture]From: fastfwd
2010-09-03 05:28 pm (UTC)

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You kick ass.
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