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 Phlogiston Forty-Six, 1996

Recently several people have, quite independently of each other, glanced through my book collection and remarked that there seemed to be rather a large preponderance of men writers. "Where are all the women?" they ask. "Are you, perchance, a male chauvinist pig?"

Since I tend to regard myself as a feminist, such observations are worrying, and need to be taken seriously. So I collected some figures. First I counted all my books and determined the ratio of men to women in both the SF and fantasy genres. Then I went to both Dymocks and Whitcoulls and counted the books on their shelves in the same categories. For good measure, I also gathered statistics on their mainstream fiction and their detective fiction. The theory was that the bookshop shelves would give a representative sample of the relative numbers of men and women writers in the world at large against which I could compare my own collection.

The first discovery I made was that if you stand in a bookshop counting the books on the shelves and making notes on pieces of paper, other customers keep well away from you (in case it's catching), and the staff glare at you suspiciously since you are obviously up to no good.

The second discovery was this:






My SF Collection 





Whitcoulls SF





Dymocks SF 






My Fantasy Collection





Whitcoulls Fantasy





Dymocks Fantasy






Whitcoulls General





Dymocks General






Whitcoulls Crime





Dymocks Crime





In round figures, Whitcoulls and Dymocks both agree that the ratio of men to women SF writers is about 9:1. My SF collection has a slightly different ratio, about 13:1 with an obvious male bias. Whitcoulls and Dymocks both disagree about the fantasy ratios, but if we average them both we get about 1:1. Again, my collection shows a different ratio, about 1.6:1 and again the bias is towards the male writers. To an extent, therefore, my critics are obviously correct -- there is a definite preponderance of male writers in my collection. Am I a male chauvinist pig? I suppose I must be, though only just (there's considerably less than an order of magnitude in it).

In all categories, female writers are outnumbered by their male counterparts both in my collection and in the Crime and General sections of my guinea pig bookshops, though as I browsed the shelves I was interested to note that female writers are amazingly more productive, particularly in the field of crime fiction. The shelves positively groaned with book after book after book by Agatha Christie, Ellis Peters, Ruth Rendell and Patricia Cornwall et al. I have no theory as to why this should be so. I merely present it and move hastily on.

It is also quite obvious that there are some fiction categories that women seem to prefer over others. A lot of women write fantasy and crime fiction, comparatively fewer write SF. Again, I have no idea why the figures should cluster around these categories, though I note in passing that I read comparatively little fantasy. I do read a certain amount of crime fiction, and my favourite writers in this genre are all female (Lindsey Davis, Ellis Peters and Sarah Paretsky, if you are interested).

I could offer some specious justifications for the bias my books exhibit, I suppose. A huge part of my SF collection dates from the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s when SF was almost exclusively a male preserve (and often the few women writers that existed would take male pseudonyms or simply use their initials in order to disguise their gender). To an extent that is bound to skew the statistics. But that's just playing with numbers. What we are really asking, I suspect, is whether or not I find any difference between men and women writers and if so, what might that difference be. And why do I seem to prefer one over the other?

In an introduction to the James Tiptree Jr. story collection Warm Worlds and Otherwise Robert Silverberg remarked:

It has been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree's writing. I don't think the novels of Jane Austen could have been written by a man nor the stories of Ernest Hemingway by a woman, and in the same way I believe the author of the James Tiptree stories is male.

Silverberg must have greatly regretted putting these words into print when, several years later, it was revealed that James Tiptree Jr was the pseudonym used by Alice Sheldon. Nonetheless the fact that he phrased this the way he did suggests that at some fundamental level he was reacting to the style of the prose presented to him and making deductions about the gender of the writer based on what he read. That he was wrong in this particular case does not mean that all such deductions are necessarily invalid.

To an extent we all make such extrapolations all the time and there is a tendency in some people to confuse the writer with the work and ascribe opinions stated by the characters in the books to the writers themselves. Such attributions are suspect at best and occasionally downright misleading at worst (particularly in the areas of politics and sociology with which a lot of modern SF concerns itself). Nobody would seriously argue against this (it's the premise behind ninety percent of the essays I've written). So why should deductions of gender be any more or less suspect than deductions of opinion? Both are value judgements and the value may well be less than the evidence supports, in a critical sense.

Silverberg claims that there is a difference between male writing and female writing; male insights as opposed to female ones. He further claims that Tiptree succeeded brilliantly in illuminating the male insights. However as events later proved, the deduction he made from his observations was wrong. Perhaps (with the wisdom of hindsight) a better deduction would have been that "Tiptree" exhibited brilliant insights and was therefore a writer of the first class. Stop there and I think nobody would argue. The fault (if there is one) lies in the assumption that only a man could exhibit such an insight, and this is demonstrably false.

What is demonstrably true is that biologically I am male. I have a reasonable insight into what motivates and interests me. I know how my mind works and how I react to external stimuli. I am the only person I know that well -- I have never been inside the head of anyone else and I cannot explain any other person as well as I can explain myself. And the same applies to you. The person you know best (though often imperfectly) is yourself.

I can extrapolate my feelings and reactions and make predictions about other people I know (and sometimes I am right and sometimes I am wrong; so it goes) but in every case I feel more certain about the reactions and motivations of my male friends than I do about those of my female friends. This is hardly surprising, I suppose since I have lived as a male for umty ump years and it is easier to apply my own experiences to a situation than to try and do it from an external or foreign point of view. We all prefer the easier options. But easy or not, it is a direct function of how I perceive the world.

Therefore when I see such character insights in a story and when those insights push my buttons (yes -- that's exactly how the character should react) I get a little frisson, a genuine moment of transcendental knowledge. The writer has brought someone alive for me. Perhaps the ultimate test of a writer, and certainly a moment to which all real artists must aspire.

So the question reduces to this -- for any given writer, how genuine do the insights that the writer presents to me feel? How well has the writer penetrated the motivations and makeup of the characters I am reading about? The better the writer does this, the more likely I am to weep at the tragedies and rejoice in the triumphs.

However the plain fact is that any writer will always find it easier to convince me to believe in a male character than to believe in a female character simply because the writer doesn't have to work nearly as hard at it -- it's an outgrowth of my biology to believe in and understand male characters. That doesn't make it impossible for me to believe in and understand female characters. Just harder, both for me and the writer.

Notice that unlike Silverberg I make no a priori judgement about the gender of the writer in question -- I have deliberately used impersonal words in developing this train of thought. I don't believe that gender of the writer has any relevance to the question at all. Ursula Le Guin makes me believe in her heroes and Gene Wolfe in his heroines (to name but two) and that fact alone shows that it is always possible to transcend mere biology. It is simply a question of belief on the part of the reader; of how convincing the writer (male or female) is to that reader.

But for exactly these same reasons it will often be the case, as Silverberg implied, that a male writer will write about the male worldview and a female writer will write about the female perspective. That's the path of least resistance and it is a most unusual person who won't travel that path. Though a number of writers are unusual, and do take the opposite approach, and when they succeed, will definitely find their books occupying pride of place on my bookshelves.

Asimov, for example, has done it at least three times (but then he always was unusual wasn't he?). Probably one of his best characters, and certainly his own favourite, was Susan Calvin from the Robot stories, but there was also Arkady Darrell from the Foundation stories and Marlene from Nemesis. Gene Wolfe also presented a very believable female viewpoint in Pandora by Holly Hollander.

On the other side of the gender divide, Maureen F. McHugh managed the truly amazing feat of telling a male viewpoint story in the first person with the novel China Mountain Zhang. Ursula Le Guin, with the character of Shevek in The Dispossessed, also managed to present a most convincing male worldview (this book remains one of my all time favourites).

All of them exceptions, and all of them exceptional. But they prove the rule.

It doesn't always work, of course. There is considerably more to it than simply giving a character a name associated with the opposite gender. Heinlein tried many times to write from a feminine perspective but in my opinion he never once succeeded in being convincing -- at least not on the levels of presentation that we are examining in this essay!

Put all these thoughts together and the conclusion you come to is that the male writer is more likely to convince me (as opposed to you) of his male insights than the female writer is to convince me of her female insights.

Contrariwise, the female writer is also much more likely to convince me of her male insights than the male writer is to convince me of his female insights.

And no, damnit -- that doesn't mean that I only read books about male characters and neither does it mean that the only books I read by female writers are about male characters. It means no more than it says -- it is much more difficult to convince me outside of these areas. And therefore when it works outside of these areas it is correspondingly that much more rewarding than any other reading experience and is to be treasured as such. Look at Mischa in Vonda McIntyre's The Exile Waiting (also Snake in Dreamsnake), Kivrin in Doomsday Book by Connie Willis or Leisha Camden in Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress if you don't believe me!

So taken as a whole, that's the closest I can come to an explanation of why the books on my shelves are skewed towards the male, though not exclusively so.

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