Alisa Krasnostein is editor and publisher at Twelfth Planet Press, maintains a blog at livejournal and is part of the team at the podcast Galactic Suburbia. In 2009, she published several multi award nominated works including the short story collection A Book of Endings by Deborah Biancotti, the science fiction anthology New Ceres Nights, the novella Horn by Peter M Ball and the novella double Roadkill/Siren Beat by Robert Shearman/Tansy Rayner Roberts. Forthcoming works in 2010 include the short story collection Glitter Rose by Marianne de Pierres and the suburban fantasy anthology Sprawl. Alisa Krasnostein is also Executive Editor of the review website ASif! and part of the Not if you Were the Last Short Story on Earth crew.
Over the last couple of years, there has been increasing discussion online about the ongoing gender disparity in science fiction (SF). We still see low representations of women in science fiction magazines and anthologies, many awards shortlists, and in criticism of the genre. One of the issues that has become apparent is that those who commentate and review the genre wield much power in directing what works get read and recognised. To me, this seems like a significant wall that needs to be broken down in the quest to see women equally respected and represented in this genre.
Two recent SF projects leapt out at me as additional examples of the ongoing reinforcement of the invisibility cloak over women in science fiction. Both projects sought to make commentary on the field, both sought to build the canon of the genre – that is, to establish a concise list and record of who the greatest writers are or were and which works are the best of all time. That they happened in rapid succession made interesting commentary material.
The first was a Mind Meld at SF Signal in May. Mind Melds pose the same question to a variety of prominent people in the SF community including writers, editors and critics. In this particular Mind Meld, presented in two parts over two weeks, the question was “What Science Fiction Books Should be In Every Fan’s Library?” The answers were fascinating. On first glance, a diverse variety of women’s works were listed in the responses but on closer inspection, when removing the answers (which were varied and diverse) provided by the women who were asked, in part 1, the lists made by the male respondents were either devoid of women or repeated the same one title – The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. This was the entire contribution by women writers worthy of collection in every fan’s library according to these male critics who were asked. In part 2, this list expanded to include Le Guin’s The Dispossessed and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
On our fortnightly podcast Galactic Suburbia we discussed how often this is the case – that women writers’ contributions to the genre are often ignored in discussions like these and thus these kind of lists result in further marginalising women and their writing from science fiction, science fiction canon building and archiving. How sad it was to see brilliant writers like Octavia Butler and Joanna Russ so easily forgotten. And if critics can ignore their contributions so easily, is it any wonder that women’s influences in the building of a genre can so too be easily dismissed? After all, they weren’t considered worthy enough to be in every fan’s library …
Hot on the tails of this came a very unfortunate anthology entitled “Before They Were Giants” – a reprint collection of 15 first short stories by famous and admired writers in science fiction. The cover of this book alone is deeply offensive, I merely state the words “vagina dentata” to make my point. And inside, as pointed out by Farah Mendelsohn on contributor Michael Swanwick’s blog, only one female writer is included in the whole book.
To me these two incidents went hand-in-hand. Why the editor, James L Sutter, felt no need to question why his book was almost devoid of female contributors remains for me far more interesting and crucial than the actual editing process he went through. Sutter came online to address his own error (as he referred to it) and explained how it happened. The story was not unique nor one we have not heard before in exact examples like this one. He had made a list of writers he would have liked to include, careful to avoid overlap with other similar books, and then he had worked down it. When all but one of the women on his list declined the invitation, he proceeded. He himself admitted that it never occurred to him that there would be an issue with a male heavy table of contents and I, and other observers in this discussion, sighed the collective sigh of disappointment.
This discussion has never been about overt sexism or deliberate exclusion of women from publishing in science fiction. Ok, it has been in the distant past. But these days, when the supposed obstacles to women getting published and recognized in science fiction have been lifted, we remain often invisible and forgotten. These obstacles may once have included ideas like women couldn’t write “real science fiction” or that women didn’t write as well as men. These days, we argue that the lack of gender balance is a result of far more subtle and subconscious factors. And for me, those factors were at play and well evident in both the Mind Melds and in the lack of reflection by Sutter on his collection of SF “Giants”.
As always happens in discussions like these, there is the backlash commentary. I’m still trying to forget the outrageous backlash at the commentary over Mike Ashley’s Mammoth Book of Mind Blowing SF which also failed to include anyone other than white men. In the case of Before They Were Giants, episode 3 of the Skiffy and Fanty Show demonstrates the complete lack of understanding of the issue. Here, they argue that this book is not suffering from a case of gender bias because Sutter had originally intended to include women. This I think is the diversion point in the ongoing discussion.
For me, the struggle is always how to explain that the issue at hand is not a deliberate act of sexism, but that a subconscious, unmeaning, unthinking act can be just as harmful. This is especially true when the product is one meant to make criticism and build canon – to say who is worth remembering, and therefore by exclusion, who is not. This may not have been the deliberate intent, yet it remains the final result. And without criticism pointing this out, especially to those who might never see it otherwise, we are destined to repetition.
Last week, links to the Periodic Table of Women in Science Fiction: 75 Years of Fabulous Writers was floated around and has become a meme. It says most succinctly just how many “Giant” women have been influential in this genre. And just how many are so quickly and easily ignored.
Note: I have included the links to the Skiffy and Fanty podcast for accuracy reasons. I did not include it in my own blogging of this issue because I did not want to be accused of sending over my friends to “erupt” a further “flamewar”. I respectfully ask readers here to refrain from doing so.