I like to think of myself as fair-minded and progressive. I love reading and been a fan of science fiction and fantasy for many years - it's all about the glorious future or strange new worlds and civilisations but around five or six years ago there was an online debate about blogs and representation. A lot of the major blogs at the time were challenged over the lack of women being reviewed and I (at the time just a reader) decided to have a look at how many books I was reading by women and it was around 30%!!! To put it bluntly I was acting in a sexist way.
Why am I raising this? Well for the last few months I've been lurking in a facebook fantasy forum - which is quite large and has members from around the world. Over the months I spotted something interesting. Every time someone asked for book recommendations - it would be books made by men. Often books that hadn't been that recently released. I could easily guess after a few months they would quote - Sanderson, Rothfuss, Lawrence , Eriksson etc. Yes, all very big authors but I noticed a lot of my fellow male SF fans seemed...well not actually to have read that much fantasy certainly not it's more recent authors and in particular those by women.
Some more recent posts I would say have underlined this disparity and I got a sense many men didn't think there was an issue so I asked the group a simple question. How many books have you read this year and how many were by women. In a (totally unscientific) survey of around 50 responses the average number of books read was over 50; women read 53/47 in favour of women but men......only 25% of books were by women. JUST A QUARTER!!!
That was bad enough but some of the responses were just tiresome
- I don't read books by women as I only read fantasy (Le SIGH)
- as a guy I largely read series (LE SIGH)
- male authors have the better covers (LE GRITTED TEETH)
- men wrote more books (WOMBLE STARE)
- women are too emotional and don't get men right (WOMBLE STARE OF DEATH)
- I don't see gender I just read a good story (even if in those cases women were hardly evident in their annual reads!) (WOMBLE SMASH)
Roughly speaking women make up approximately half the population of the planet so if you don't see gender I would think you'd manage the average wouldn't you?
But amazingly the books they thought would be the best reads are by men in huge numbers. What a purely weird coincidence! Now I doubted most of the men had explicitly chosen this but I do think they were implicitly biased towards men; the reasons for this will be many - as kids many of us are told there are books for men and women; go into a bookshop and I'm always amazed how many tables in the SF section are vastly male and we have already discussed over years there have been a bias in some blogs towards male authors. All of which creates an environment that unfortunately I think has influenced men to focus on men BUT ITS 2017 AND WE SHOULD KNOW BETTER BY NOW.
I've been following this debate for years. After I realised a few years ago that I was acting stupidly I made an effort to get to around 50/50 and these days it's norm for me. Many women who have written books; write blogs or host podcasts have been calmly explaining the concept of bias and opening our eyes to a larger world so I'm quite disappointed when I see so many years later that many seemingly rational people who can engage in sensible discussion seem incapable of thinking they are at fault or need to change their behaviour. Our genre is supposed to be the imaginative one; the books that can create whole new countries and yet we default to a mythical white male-led cod-European setting as default that didn't even happen in our own middle ages. Our genre explores power structures all over the place yet we seem more than happy to ignore discussing and challenging gender roles preferring to instead default to 'the classics' be it insipid love interest or damsel or in some case sexually assaulted to give our lantern jawed hero motivation.
If you believe the world should be a better place and I'd be scared if you thought this one was healthy at the moment then the obligation is on YOU to do better. No one likes to admit they're in the wrong - it's hurtful; it's embarrassing and it casts an unwelcome glance into our characters and beliefs but this will not kill you. I'm suggesting you are limiting yourself if you do this and by starting to look a little outside your comfort zones you're actually going to find MORE books; new authors to enjoy and new perspectives that I think might make you think about our world more; why it is the way it is and how it could change for better or worse. I think the likes of Frances Hardinge; VE Schwab, NK Jemisin, Kate Griffin, Nnedi Okorafor, Seanan McGuire, Alyssa Whiteley and so many more are equal to any man in the the task of telling you a great story in whatever segment of SF you're looking for. Can't find one? Then ask me and if I can't suggest one I bet I know someone who does.
And I'm going to be honest I don't think achieving parity is that much to ask of you - you've reached base camp when the books you read match one of the most basic splits in our society; you may also want to consider how many authors who are people of colour you read; LGBT etc. Some will say well this is quotas for reading but I think we ALL (and I know I need to do better too) should if we believe this is the genre that can change the world should be prepared to do our bit and make our choices representative of our own world and challenge the role many of us have in it. To actually be as open minded as we like to think we are and you will have more books and all bookworms love more books. Going into bookshop or library and missing out on half the books sounds horrific- why do that to yourself?
Finally while this issue was getting discussed on Twitter I would like to share a bingo card that my friend @lazyhedwig made that records all the standard clichés why men do not read books by women feel free to check them off next time you see this debate.