Do You Oink?

“Is science fiction sexist?” begins David Barnett’s latest volley in The Guardian against perceived discrimination in genre fiction.

His question’s inspired this time by the Guardian’s recent online poll to find readers’ favorite SF novels which reportedly got 500 responses, only 18 recommending work by women.

Who’s to blame for the disparity? Not the industry, says Barnett. Looking around, he sees women executives running publishing houses. Not the writers: women authors produce some of the top-selling books, obviously many readers appreciate their stories —  

Which means, if we’re looking for a culprit, that suspicion must fall on the genre’s very active fanbase: as this Guardian poll suggests, if there is sexism in the SF world, it may well be a matter of representation by the readership. It’s difficult to legislate for equality in an online poll such as the Guardian’s: the results are what they are. With no shortage of women working in the industry, the question must be asked why the people who offer their opinions – be it in a survey, or by way of compiling a book or magazine supplement – are putting forward a demonstrably male bias.

Of course, the Guardian list is by turns marvelous and hideous. That Ursula LeGuin’s The Left Hand of Darkness was named by seven people may not compensate for Norman Spinrad’s The Iron Dream having been named by anyone at all. Also, I would not have thought the universe contained as many as three people who feel Time Enough for Love is their favorite sf novel, much less that all of them would be released from the asylum long enough to respond to the Guardian’s poll. And Melville’s Moby Dick might be out of place here, though the proffered description camouflages the fact cleverly enough.

The Crotchety Old Fan also made these choice observations about the list in “Who Will Guard the Guardian?” 

If you take the time to scroll down through it, you will find (in addition to the distinct lack of female authors) – several votes for the Bible, numerous authors and works that are more fantasy or horror than SF, tons of people who apparently can not spell their self-proclaimed favorite author’s name, multiple entries for the same work from the same poster… 

Nevertheless, as part of the “active fanbase” I have to say my feelings were wounded by Barnett’s accusation of “sexism,” which is practically impossible to refute when it’s presented as yet another of these gender head-counting exercises, giving a veneer of objectivity to his essentially subjective political opinion.

I’m reminded that a few months ago when I argued here that Doomsday Book had been a worthier Hugo winner than the novel it tied, A Fire Upon the Deep, I received absolutely zero pats on the back for preferring the work by a woman. Indeed, several readers were frankly critical — Jo Walton said “I was absolutely astonished by this post” – though solely because they disagreed with my opinion of the two books’ relative literary merits. Which was exactly the grounds on which I expected a challenge. It’s the right basis for a difference of opinion between fans about their favorite stories.

One more question I have as a member of the “active fanbase” is why the Guardian invests so much effort at cultivating an audience interested in sf, then runs an article slagging the people who make an effort to participate on its site? Only because we’ll rush to read that too, I suppose.

6 thoughts on “Do You Oink?

  1. I’ve been out of the asylum a long time – there’s no need to ‘release’ me. (Besides, the Guardian is one of the few publications they allow inside the asylum uncensored. Makes sense when you think about it….)

    Time Enough is one of my faves (though not my #1). If you have a few uninterrupted weeks I could explain – but I suggest you bring a melon ball scooper as using it to remove your own brain through an eye socket is about the only possible form of relief from said explanation.

    The poll is flawed, most definitely. I think that most people voting did not arrive with their own suggestions, but rather typed in something that someone elses’ entry reminded them of. Under such a supposed dynamic, it’s easy to see how a runaway trend could come through.

  2. @Steve: Oh dear me. I rolled the dice and lost big on that joke… Though in the back of my mind there was that little voice reminding me that practically every Heinlein novel is somebody’s favorite. Which one is mine? Here it’s definitely a conflict over “favorite” vs. “best.” Starship Troopers has kept its appeal over time, for its linearity and real life relevance (compare it to Eugene Sledge’s WW2 service autobiography With The Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa), though I would defend The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress as the better novel. When I first read Double Star and The Door Into Summer I was very impressed by them, too, but haven’t reread them for a long time which may be an implicit ranking in itself. About a year ago I reread Stranger In A Strange Land and I still admire its historical importance but in terms of currency it’s too riddled with lectures about topics that have been overtaken by the times.

  3. Just tweakin ya a bit Mike. For me ‘best’ and fave go hand in hand – TMIAHM.

    The two things I like about TEFL is, plain and simply, imagining having LL’s longevity, and I really like the homesteading tale about the middle of the book with the gene-enhanced mules, LL’s family & etc.

    But the one thing that stands out, particularly in light of the meta-level discussion is the conversation between Lazarus’ nurse/doctors in the opening scene.

    Neither has a clue as to the gender, race, whatever, of their opposite number. Through professional interaction they realize they like each other and are compatible and, before their shift is over, one has proposed a sybaritic vacation to the other, which is accepted.

    Right there, out in the very open for everyone to see, RAH posited a scene in which two human beings did not judge each other on anything other than each others “souls”.

    To this day I am reminded of that scene every time I see an interracial or non-hetero couple (can’t tell an inter-faith couple just by looking: said non-hetero for lack of a phrase covering all of the possibilities) and the first thought that pops into my head is “well, maybe we are getting a little better every day.”

    Lazarus was a wonderful old/young cuss. COF can only HOPE to begin to achieve a very small measure of his sarcasm, wit, crotchitiness and cynicism. (Besides, I ‘can’ make an omelette, could probably even deliver a baby, but as far as calculating an orbit goes – “Sir, that planet is coming up awful fast…”.

  4. One feels a strange undercurrent in the Guardian’s story… or else your coverage of it. But I suspect it’s the story itself and not your reportage. The author points out the more or less equal representation of the female sex in professional publishing and other genres of writing, then points to the readers as indication that such a benign state of affairs is obviously lacking in science fiction.

    First of all, I dispute whether counting whoever answers the Guardian’s online poll necessarily represents the average reader of SF! Online activities are notorious for collecting mainly opinionated and indescriminately informed people who have plenty of time on their hands. (We will overlooks the first person, singular, here.)

    Is it my imagination, but I sense the meaning of the Guardian’s remarks are that those wonderfully non-sexist editors and publishers in the field should put matters in order, by giving the readers what’s good for them rather than want. Freedom to choose what you read, I guess, is a privilege of the right education and correct opinions.

    I blame sci-fi writers myself… They don’t have to be so ovewhelmingly male. There are such things as sex-change operations now.

  5. PS — there is no accounting for the tastes of Heinlein fans. They tend to prefer the books that regular readers find disquieting, self-indulgent or off-the-beam-entirely. Most fans will like “Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” “Door Into Summer” or “Double Star” — but the genine Heinleinian will rave about “Time Enough For Love,” “I Will Fear No Evil” or “The Cat Who Could Walk Through Walls.” Its as if what they like about Heinlein’s writing is what everyone else can’t stand.

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