any sociologists out there?

Apparently I’m developing this thing for arguing with mind-melds.

In this instance, SF Signal is taking on gender imbalance in spec fic publishing. Lots of food for thought in there, but I’m at the point where my single overwhelming thought is this:

Is there, anywhere out there, a sociologist with both the necessary interest in genre fiction and the necessary methodological rigor to get us some actual data?

Because until somebody does that study, we’re arguing from evidence that is 98% anecdotes and gut feeling. Some magazines (Strange Horizons, Fantasy) openly discuss the gender breakdown of their submissions and publications; Broad Universe has scraped data from issue runs of some more. But where’s the data for novels? First novels, bestseller novels, big contracts, broken down by (admittedly fuzzy) categories of sub-genre, maybe even weighted for type of narrative if our hypothetical sociologist is good enough. Reviews, awards, hardcover versus trade paper versus mmpb publication. In a dream world we’d know the submission stats, too — but good luck getting those. Even without them, it would be a start.

It makes me regret my exit from academia, but truth is, I could never do this study. You really need a sociologist, not an anthropologist; this is not participant-observation work.

Some things we do know: that the people who say “I just buy/read good work, regardless of who wrote it” are naive. It’s well-established, in fields ranging from biology to symphony orchestras, that the perceived gender of individuals affects their reception: the percentage of women in orchestras went up after musicians began auditioning behind a curtain, with a carpet laid down so high-heeled shoes wouldn’t click on the floor. Swap the names on journal articles, and readers will rate higher the one they think is written by a man. Very few editors or readers out there are actively hating on women writers; the real problem is the inactive prejudice.

But we need data before we can get to the deeper questions of “why,” let alone “what do we do about it?” The relative absence of women in science fiction (as opposed to fantasy) no doubt arises from many factors, ranging from fewer women with the educational background to write hard SF, to less free time on their hands for the writing of it, to a reluctance to submit to markets they perceive as unfriendly to them, to editorial bias, to reader bias, and so around the merry-go-round. The relative presence of women in the current paranormal romance/urban fantasy borderland arises from a different set of factors. I don’t think anecdotes and gut feeling are without their use, but we might get farther if we had actual concrete information.

0 Responses to “any sociologists out there?”

  1. janni

    Having a sociologist look at this would be fascinating. (Anyone in search of a thesis project out there?)

    Can’t remember if I knew about the effect on numbers of female musicians, but that’s extremely interesting.

    I wonder what role the perception that SF isn’t about character, and fantasy is, plays in this? More role than who does and doesn’t have the background to write science, I’m guessing.

    • Marie Brennan

      I do think that’s part of it, though I tread cautiously there, because it’s easy to step into the stereotypes of “women are more nuturing and care more about relationships.” Also, I don’t tend to read the types of science fiction that focus on idea instead of character — though that, right there, is a data point, because I’m female, and uninterested unless you give me people to care about. But it also means I’m overly-ready to slag on idea-driven hard SF.

      I remember reading about indications — though not their source or rigor — that readers are more likely to perceive a story as being romantic if it’s written by a woman. So, if you can imagine two stories with the same “weighting” of relationship content, one by a man, one by a woman, the woman’s story is more likely to be tarred as squishy-feely, while in the man’s story it’s treated as incidental.

      • janni

        I’m hesitant for those same reasons.

        I think the biases and weighting are there, based on what one thinks one knows about writer and story going in, definitely. Writing for kids and teens, I run into this a lot with adult readers, where someone will go into a YA story with certain assumptions, and so notice in greater relief the things that fit those assumptions. (Just had a YA story, labeled as such, up on an adult-readership site a few weeks ago, so have been thinking about that …)

        • Marie Brennan

          What assumptions do you see in adults reading YA? (It’s a tangent, but one I’m curious about.)

          • janni

            The most recent one is that a YA story is trying to teach some lesson. (I’ve noticed this especially in the Escape Pod comments on the story I had there a few weeks ago–fascinating to lurk and listen in the forums there.) I’ve noticed readers going in fearful of the lessons that might be in the story and, more, getting either angry when they find them or being relieved when they don’t.

            Another common one, especially for middle grade stories is that the story is lightweight or “cute.” Hard to tell if this one is genre labeling or simply the presence of children, but I’ve been told that stories that include deadly attacks by killer plants, children who abandon their parents forever to turn into dragons, and kids who ditch their magic just to fit into the world are all “cute” (or, for a given market they don’t suit “too cute”), and I can only think it’s because there are children there, because some of these stories don’t even end entirely well.

            A third is definitely not a genre-label but a presence-of-children issue: the assumption one is supposed to automatically have sympathy for a child character, and that children exist in a story to (often unfairly) make the reader feel for their peril. A child-in-peril to another child is simply a character; but to many adults, a child represents things–innocence, vulnerability, and so on–and so is almost more a symbol than anything else.

            It’s fascinating stuff. And much of it non-intuitive to me, since I read YA for fun and have pretty much the same reading protocols there as for adult books.

  2. difrancis

    I’ve noticed in epic fantasy (that not-particularly scientific anecdotal observation thing) that most epic fantasy women writers aren’t usually nominated in awards categories. Men dominate in terms of popularity (sales) of the field also: GRRM, Terry Goodkind, Robert Jordan, Terry Brooks, Ray Feist, for instance. I am not sure why, unless it is gender association. Some women writers do well in epic fantasy–Robin Hobb and Kate Elliot, for instance, but they don’t seem to be as widely read/popular. I wonder at that. And writers like Carol Berg or Lynn Flewelling who write such very good epic stuff, don’t seem to really hit the radar nearly as much.

    I have often wondered why–if it’s a gender of the name for readers, if it’s (subtle or not) lack of support from publishers, or what. I am curious and have wished for a study.

    • Marie Brennan

      Exactly. You need sociology/lit-crit reader-response work to start unpacking that issue: is it because men are more likely to have the spare time to write big fat epic fantasy series? Or because editors are subconsciously more willing to commit to a project of more than trilogy length when the name is male? Or because standard epic fantasy is built on a set of tropes that appeal more to men? All of the above? Multiple other answers? I would very much like to know.

    • mindstalk

      OTOH Lois Bujold is up there with Robert Heinlein in Hugo Awards.

      • pixelfish

        Yeah, she is, but I have to explain who she is to people. I never have to explain about Robert Heinlein. Or Orson Scott Card. Or Asimov. The only female SF author that seems to reliably show up on male readers radar is Anne McCaffrey for writing “those dragon books”–and then the perception is that McCaffrey is like fantasy for women.

        She, Kate Elliot, and Robin Hobb are the equal of Martin, I’d say, but they get way less attention in some ways. (Well, Robin Hobb is a toss-up. Her pseudonym could read as a male or female name, but still, less known than Martin. )

        So even if people like Bujold are winning, the male authors are still garnering more attention for whatever reason. At least that’s been my experience.

        • Marie Brennan

          Heinlein does have the advantage of time. But yes: Anne McCaffrey is one of the few female names truly as high-profile (in a commercial sense, not a critical one) as the biggest male names in SF.

  3. kitsunealyc

    Not to explode you out, or to deny gender as an interesting category, but of equal interest would be looking at the valances of race and/or class.

    A few years ago (after our ICFA paper, actually), I was enamoured of doing something like this for fanfiction vs. gaming, because it seems like those particular ways of participating in creating interactive fictions are very skewed in terms of gender, and the perception of them is even more skewed. But, ultimately, I think you’re right. This is more sociology turf than anthropology, and I am just not that much of a survey monkey.

    • Marie Brennan

      Oh, of course. But I’ve already proposed somebody’s life work here; I figured that was enough for one LJ post. <g> Also, I’m responding specifically to a debate about gender. Certainly, though — class and especially race are highly worth looking at, and don’t entirely separate from gender in the first place.

      Survey monkey-dom is exactly what is needed. And I just don’t love statistics enough.

  4. mrissa

    When short fiction editors say that they like men’s work more often, I believe them. It’s not that I think they’re lying. It’s that, on the balance, I like men’s and women’s short fiction about equally, so the odds that someone who likes men’s more will be picking the stories I would want to read are much smaller. And what is an editor for? One of the major functions of a short fiction editor is to sort through the chaff and come out with the wheat for the reader. If you start declaring that a vast majority of the wheat happens to be written by men, I will look at the short story collections on my shelves and think, “Perhaps we are not using the same grain here,” and move along to read something else.

    • Marie Brennan

      The thing is, I think there legitimately comes a point where you can say, this type of story? Generally interests male readers more, and therefore is more likely to be written by men, and so my submissions and acceptances and readership are not going to be gender-balanced. (Statement still valid for female values of same.) And there isn’t anything wrong with that.

      But we can’t see that until we clear away the other crud, and address questions like whether editors are a priori biased against a woman writer sending them that kind of story because they assume it won’t be right for them and their readership. There is indeed something wrong with that.

      • mrissa

        The latter situation, yes, definitely something wrong with that.

        I guess I have a problem with the former situation when the editors want to have it both ways. When they want to buy stories that appeal, statistically, to more men — but they want to call that being gender-blind. And I also have a problem with it when they want to put that in terms of absolute quality — when instead of saying, “Look, we want this kind of science fiction story,” they instead say, “This kind of science fiction story is the real kind, [and the other kind is the girl kind], which my readers like best, [because I’m not interested in having girl readers]. Why are my subscription numbers falling? Why is this anthology not selling very well? It must be because people don’t like short fiction. It must be something else. It couldn’t be that I am doing a bad job of choosing short fiction that people want to read. I will now complain about kids readers these days.”

        • Marie Brennan

          Well, yes. Hypocrisy = bad.

        • ksumnersmith

          This made me laugh to the point of choking on my tea. Thank you. *g*

        • pixelfish

          I had this problem once at an otherwise excellent job (graphic designer for a non-fiction market)–they kept chasing the diluted and market-saturated male demographic, and then whined about how circulation was going down. And when they finally went after the women’s demographic, they still went at it from a male’s idea of what women must want. Much head-desking. Loved this job but they did have a hard time grasping that their market was expanding, and their opportunities lay in not exclusively courting the single demographic that had built their reputation.

  5. kniedzw

    You should drop Sue Linville a line, as well. She’s a Bloomington native, you know.

  6. ithiliana

    Hey! I didn’t realize you had a LJ: usually we all trade at the conference! I don’t want to give my offline name here even though I’m fairly out, but I have red spiky hair and organize readings at the conference! It’s great to see you! *immediately friends*

  7. layangabi


    Hi there. I found your journal via f’list hopping, and would like to friend you, because you have wonderful, awesome meta, about scifi and speculative fiction, and many other things. As evidenced from this thread. =D

  8. bellatrys

    You know, re the thing about “liking male-authored stories more”

    I wonder how that would shake out if editors were forced to review stories totally blind? That is, no name attached to manuscripts – manuscripts would be presented with a number only, and they’d only find out who wrote it after they’d accepted or rejected it.

    This wouldn’t be 100% because (I would expect) any editor worth gtst’s salt would be able to spot some authors by their styles; but overall it seems like it could function like the audition screen in terms of avoiding prejudice.

    I suggest this because I recently saw a post up at iirc Echidne’s on what you say about how studies have found that reviewers – both male and female, but especially male – will judge the exact same article as being a) better-written if a male name is on the coversheet, b) worse if a female name. So obviously there is a real ingrained prejudice out there against things written by (perceived) women.

    And also because, for a while in school I was an assistant reading editor (in addition to my art-editor duties) on our literary magazine, and due to a prior scandal in which editors had been caught recommending their friends’ stories and poems, and rejecting their enemies’, the faculty advisor had come up with this system so that we could not tell, we were given anonymous typescripts with code numbers on them, and forced to rate them solely on the basis of spelling, grammar, adherence to theme, uniqueness, and so on.

    Granted, a lot of our time was spent arguing over the Least Worst pile so that we could have enough material at the end to fill an issue (without me having to do 20 drawings to fill blank pages, that is), but still it did make it a *fair* rejection process, even with the slow eroding of our standards (and our sanity simultaneously.)

    (here via coffeeandink’s link btw)

    • Marie Brennan

      Re: You know, re the thing about “liking male-authored stories more”

      There are a couple of magazines that do exactly that, but offhand I can’t remember which ones. Not any of the ones that make their stats publicly available, alas.

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