Follow up to yesterday’s conversation

This has gotten too long and complex for a Facebook post, so I’m bringing the discussion over here where it can be seen.

The Question, posed by Gareth Griffiths is:
Has anyone figured out the readership ratio for SF? I’ve commented on the writer side before – probably 60:40 on my shelves in favour of women but I wonder if there may be a hidden bias that more men prefer books written by men regardless of genre. There may be a unconscious reinforcement of society where there is still a lot of male bias in many places that gets reflected in books by men that other men unconsciously find more natural and attractive.
Is there a correlation between readership and authors’ sex.

My response:
Let me see if I can remember this correctly. . .

I’ve been on a couple panels about this (Toni Weisskopf was in the audience for at least one, and might be able to help me out, if she’s not on a plane by now), which is that, since the inception of female editors (who naturally buy books that appeal to them as females (because what other criterion does an editor have available to them, save their gender?)) and stories featuring female protagonists (this being a different thing, note, than female writers, and also whacks the men who are writing female leads), Boys Have Stopped Reading. That’s reading anything — because there are Girl Cooties everywhere and there are no role models in fiction for boys anymore.

Now, this thesis bothers me profoundly. Reading is one of the great joys of my life, and I don’t want to be the reason that this joy is somehow withheld from anyone else. Jeebus, what a terrible, terrible thing, to be stuck in a world where there was nothing for me to read.

In fact, as we’ve said many times in many different venues, the reason that Steve and I decided to write the sort of science fiction that we do was to open the genre, and make it easier and more enjoyable for girls to play, too.

Note, “easier, and more enjoyable.” I read male POV scifi forever, growing up, because, mostly, that’s what there was. And I kept reading it, despite the proliferation of Boy Cooties, because I was fascinated by the form, by the so-called sensawonda, occasionally the protagonists, but, let’s face it, characterization was Pretty Basic, back in the day. You wanted mysteries, for characterization, and romances, for heart — and I read those, too.

I’m told girls are more empathic than boys — that’s part of our job, see? — and there were a lot of girls in my position, who loved scifi, and science — the children of the Moon Walk, that’s us, and Science Can Do Anything —  and who also wanted to buckle some swash and bend some time their own selves.

And some of those girls, when they grew up? They became writers. And some of them became science fiction writers; and they naturally enough wrote what they wanted to read.  To be fair, I don’t think that a one of us thought we’d be excluding any readers; we thought, if we thought about it at all, that we would be expanding the field and including more readers.

The idea that we’re somehow excluding male readers simply by existing. . .is starting, frankly, to bother me less, the more I read comments in discussions about how girls can’t write SF, Epic Fantasy, Thrillers, Pick Your Favorite Genre.  But, I still find it in me to feel sorry for those little boys, who somehow can’t make a connection with a female protagonist, and I wonder why is that?

Are men that much less empathic, naturally, that they can’t relate to a character of a different gender?  Is not honor, honor, no matter the gender of the hero?  Does adventure and derring-do not speed the heart, despite the gender of the hero?  Are there not, in fact, more similarities than differences between bold, honorable, and great-hearted persons?

So — how do we fix this, for those readers of all genders who are coming up?  How do we not exclude readers, while expanding the field?  Clearly trying to shout people down on the internet is not working.  Is there anything else?

13 thoughts on “Follow up to yesterday’s conversation”

  1. surely the book industry has done this research? I tried a quick Google but didn’t come up with anything useful. Perhaps check with agents or editors?

  2. Well. . .The Book Industry is fairly notorious for not doing research about itself, but you might be right. A few editors and agents do read here, so maybe they’ll have some pointers to share.

  3. Have you seen Shannon Hale’s thing about – she went to a school to give a talk, and the school allowed all the girls to come to her talk but not the boys because “boys don’t read girl books”? I suspect, from that and a lot of comments that has evoked, that it’s a socialization thing – boys are indoctrinated that they may not read books by women, books with female protagonists, etc. Which can lead to two bad results – boys, having had their choices of reading slapped down, stop reading; or, they read only books by and about males, and decide that females are incomprehensible beings – which leads to them reinforcing the notion that boys don’t read about girls. Vicious cycle – best broken by introducing boys to really good books by men and women, and rejecting the notion that there are girl books and boy books.

  4. I did read that, yeah, and it struck me as incomprehensible on so many levels. How can a school even make a decision that a portion of their students simply, don’t need to know something? Are there no women teachers in the school? Do boys learn from women? Oh, they do?

  5. Juliet McKenna has collected a certain level of data about SFF displays and marketing in England. It shows an alarming tilt towards male writers. “If You Like Game of Thrones” displays would have few if any women authors represented. I have not seen any surveys at a similar level in the US. However, as a bookseller in the largest brick and morter stores still standing, we can’t put together our own displays any more. They are dictated by buyers and merchandisers–who in turn are largely driven by what publishers will pay to feature titles in certain locations. That is a very narrow, limited number of people who end up influencing what many others see.

    Also, as I bookseller, I do run into readers, almost always male, who won’t read a book by a woman author. I can’t remember a woman reader who acted as if a male author had cooties (in SFF–but a male author in Romance? Cooties!) So that’s my two cents worth from the front lines.

  6. I find it interesting that stronger women (and men) in society who raise boys alone tend to have more empathic sons. Those who are raised in conventional two parent (male and female) together seem to have a stronger gender bias (boys don’t cry) kinda makes you wonder about how we parent/ teach the next generation. This two parent bias also holds true for women raised in those households as compared to single parent homes. Just what I have noticed but I was a single parent of a daughter and she is a joy to everyone. Just my opinion

  7. In my recollections of story hours and recreational reading materials for my own children in primary grades was that there was a close or equal balance of male and female authors AND characters.
    Once they got to middle school ages, their choices of fiction intended for young readers was VERY limited and already attractively bound in BLUE (for boys) and PASTELS (for girls).

    The publishing industry is probably only playing to the natural gender based distinction that kids start to make early in life. Children DO naturally gravitate toward their own gender for certain things. They also naturally attempt to exclude that “Other” for a time. The marketing of products today tends to pander to that juvenile preference. It may be unintentional that the practice is re-enforcing the stereotype and prejudice. The end result is a solidification of a gender preference of those readers who are not carefully shepherded into a balanced reading menu of both authors and characters.
    If there is a solution, it is many-pronged and complicated. It will involve a change in marketing, good publishing, and most of all good parenting. (That means the parents have to have the TIME for that necessity, which is a whole other problem altogether)

  8. I agree with everybody above. When I was a bookseller, the boys started drifting away from reading fiction in Middle School. The prevailing theory among the teachers, school librarians and home schoolers I talked to was – if you can keep the little guys reading into high school, then they’ll be readers for life. The boys did display a bit of bias but I’m not sure where they got the bias from. I know the GUYS WRITE FOR GUYS READ books did help keep the boys reading…but those were mostly male authors. I wish the publishing industry – and heck, society in general – was less gendered but I’m not sure how to change that. Short of sticking a book in a boy’s hand and telling him all about why the plot would be so exciting, that is.

  9. Do I remember correctly that when JK Rowling’s books hit it big there was a big fuss made because boys were reading them too? That seemed odd to me. Here’s a boy hero at a boarding school for wizards; how could boys not be interested in such a subject?

  10. Today I can’t even begin to imagine this as an issue. I read books that sound interesting.

    I’m trying to remember if the gender of the author would have made a difference to me as a teenager. Originally I mostly read war novels and historical fiction; very few if any of the military fiction was authored by women, but I certainly knew Rosemary Sutcliffe was a woman and I don’t remember that making the slightest bit of difference (in fact I sought out every Sutcliffe booking could find because I knew she was a great author). Perhaps reading tons of Enid Blyton as a littlie vaccinated me against girl cooties.

    When I became a SFF reader I don’t remember being concerned by the author’s gender. In some cases, thanks to those sleight-of-gender names, I didn’t know I was reading a woman’s work for years (e.g. Andre Norton, C. J. Cherryh …), but I was under no misapprehension that Marion Zimmer Bradley, Mercedes Lackey, Jo Clayton, etc. were of the female persuasion.

    On one level this topic reminds me of the currently hot trend in education of trying to level the playing field for boys (either by changing big chunks of the educational model to make them more boy friendly, or by giving extra support and opportunities directly to the boys, or by excising the girls completely so that the poor wee boys aren’t intimidated).

    Arguments about fundamental issues with the education system aside, I find this whole notion mind-boggling. Boys today seem to be doing much worse in school than girls; obviously it’s because boys are incapable of sitting still and working, or dealing with theoretical concepts; they need to be up and moving, physically active, with a focus on practical, concrete stuff. Oh, and you need to teach using topics and themes that boys are into.

    Okay,but isn’t this an education system that was originally designed entirely with boys in mind; girls just being a more recent abberation who had to fit themselves into the existing model. Back when boys absolutely dominated school – which really isn’t too many decades ago – the system was a lot more rigid and “boy unfriendly.” There was a lot more sitting in silence for extended periods of time, less focus on student and interest, and a lot more “hitting” by parents and teachers for failing to conform and perform. So why does the current system supposedly no longer work for boys???

  11. This site mirrors to Eagles Over the Kennebec, my blog on LiveJournal. The following comment was posted there, by Djonn, and I have the poster’s permission to repost, here.

    Has anyone figured out the readership ratio for SF?

    In a word, no. Not that I know of, at least.

    Three reasons:

    (1) First you have to define “SF” — always a sticky problem — and in this case, you have to define it in a way that’s both meaningful to the audience and usefully measurable by market-research tools. There are lots of stats and statistical claims for subsets of the SFnal continuum, but very little in the way of credible data for the field as a whole.

    (2) I’m not certain what’s meant by “readership ratio” here, either. If the question is “what proportion of SF readers are male vs. female”, relative to the set of “all things SF” that’s one thing. But the secondary question, “is there a correlation between readership and authors’ sex?” is a different animal entirely, with a much-different set of variables attached to it. — that’s a whole separate discussion. (The short answer to that second question is “sometimes yes, but with lots of genre-specific qualifiers”. It’s…complicated.)

    (3) Of all media consumption, readership of text-based material is the most difficult to measure and monitor. Note especially that sales and readership are two different things.

  12. I started out publishing children’s literature (in 1979), and was at that time told by my editor(s) that children would not read books about protagonists younger than they are, and also, that boys would not read books with girl protagonists. I said, “Oh,” and essentially ignored the dictum, writing what I wanted to write (fantasy with strong women characters, and historical fiction); my most popular book, A Murder for Her Majesty, which is still in print, features a girl protagonist an a bunch of boys (choristers at York Minster). The book was frequently assigned to 4th and 5th grade classes, when the teacher wanted to give them something to read about “the Middle Ages” (loosely defined). In my many (many, many, many) school visits, I found that kids, both boys and girls, read and enjoyed the book. Once, a boy told me that he wouldn’t have read the book if his teacher hadn’t assigned it, but that he really liked it, and he was glad she had. I asked him why he wouldn’t have read it, and he said, “Well, I usually like books about sports.” I suggested that if he looked in the historical fiction section, he might find books about what were sports in the past, like sword fighting, being a gladiator, etc. and might that be interesting, too? He promised to try it, so I suggested he look for Rosemary Sutcliff’s books about the Roman Empire. Of course, I don’t know if he ever tried them (the down-side of school visits; no follow up), but he certainly seemed willing to make the attempt.

    I think my point, here, (if there is one) is that publishing houses’ *marketers* are the ones who make a lot of the decisions about who will like books — and that can end up being a self fulfilling prophecy.

  13. Just a data point but my husband’s favorite scifi authors are Lois McMaster Bujold and David Weber, and right now he is whinning because there aren’t any more Elizabeth Moon books for him to read. 62, republican but socially pretty liberal, manager of an small international company, engineer. So predicting what someone will read based on gender and biography can be a real fail.

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