Gendering the Fans of Speculative Fiction: Do you care?


Fantasy Art

Art by Hannah Flaherty

This past week I poked around online, looking for some interesting forums in the fantasy genre. It’s the one I write in, but I’m not generally active online, mostly person to person and a little on Goodreads. I’ll admit, when I started writing, it was all about the art. No market research was involved. I wrote what came naturally to me, which was fantasy. I prefer the complexity and creative license of the genre. I read fantasy and sci-fi throughout my teenage years and into my twenties. In college, my interest spread into non-fiction, like Jared Diamond’s work or issues in political geography and social justice, which has only helped me write more convincing worlds. As those of you who follow my book reviews here know, I continue to read speculative fiction frequently. To me, fantasy has always been a wide open genre where anything can happen, a highly political and emotionally charged area of art.

So it was a bit of a jarring experience to drop into a forum yesterday and have the word ‘fanboy’ displayed broadly on the front page. Where are the girls? And then on the same page, I found a list of the best fantasy books for women specifically listed on the sidebars, as if I wouldn’t necessarily enjoy the wide range of sci-fi and fantasy that the speculative genre has to offer. At least that was what the blurb felt like. The guys writing seemed well meaning but it made me wince.

So I went off to chew on that a bit. Don’t get me wrong, if some boys want to make a boy centric sight and enjoy some male camaraderie with their genre love, go for it! Men have had their special clubs for just about as long as humanity has had recorded history. It seems to be a constant in human society that boys and girls sometimes need their own space. Very well, I am not about to argue with the full spectrum of human existence. What I will ask is this: is there really an idea that women are the minority section of the fantasy genre fan base? Do girls really need ‘female orientated’ fantasy?

Frankly, the idea never entered my mind before. I’ve enjoyed male and female writers since the beginning and it never mattered to me one way or the other, as long as the writer could craft convincing characters and worlds with plots that held water. I’ve enjoyed Anne McCaffery, Michael Stackpole, Anne Rice, David Webber, Robin McKinley, Timothy Zahn, Tamora Pierce, Kevin Hearne, Judith Tarr, Orson Scott Card, Laurel Hamilton, and Terry Pratchett. Looking at this list, I guess it is a little obvious that the lady authors I’ve read have written stronger character driven worlds than possibly some of the male authors. I’m thinking specifically of David Webber versus Anne Rice. David Webber’s books, especially the latter ones have been driven by politics and campaigns more than character, in my experience. Anne Rice is always driven by ideas and character development. But Orson Scott Card wouldn’t have a plot without his character work and Anne McCaffery’s work would fall flat without her world development, so go figure.

So there, go figure. I haven’t included some newer authors because I wanted to stick to authors with long term draw. Also, I’ve been traveling a lot lately. There hasn’t been a lot of money to buy up new publications and English libraries have been scarce. After some poking around, I am getting a sense that there are more guys in speculative fiction in general, especially when it comes to spinning space ships and large guns. I guess what leaves me scratching my head is the marketing end of it. Do marketers and website builders really think that girls don’t want to dive into all this complex world building, machinery, systems and social orders, that we need a women to relate to in a story to enjoy it? Can’t we root for a male character? Can’t guys root for a female character?

Maybe this is why indie authors are doing so well in some cases. I know that it’s gotten harder and harder for me as I grow older to browse through the speculative fiction area of used book stores because the front covers all look the same, buff guys with weapons and girls with next to no clothes on either helpless or wearing armor for a brazier and looking like the goddess of lust. I’ve taken to pulling books out and reading the back covers first, without ever looking at the front. I figured the poor authors didn’t have control back then and I should give them a fighting chance.

So, what do you think? Is this a marketing misstep, overstep, or hangover from a previous era? Do you personally see a large divide? If you’re a guy, will you read fantasy by a girl? If you’re a girl, do you have a preference? Do gendered names matter? I really, really don’t want to change Ciara to a C initial. At this point, it’s not going to happen, but I am curious. I did grow up reading Tom Clancy along side Dee Henderson, C.S. Lewis and some L. Ron Hubbard. Please, go ahead and laugh. I am!


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8 Responses to Gendering the Fans of Speculative Fiction: Do you care?

  1. hannahgivens says:

    I’m female, and currently working on an SF project that’s mainly about men with spaceships. I didn’t plan it, it just happened that way, and I have to make a concerted effort to give the female characters attention! So no, women don’t need their special brand of sci-fi that isn’t about spaceships and guns and whatever. It seems like it used to be a genre that was more hostile to female fans, but that’s at least ebbing now… We don’t need different media, just media that isn’t actually hostile to women, like so many of those old covers basically were! (That’s why I do make such an effort to include those awesome female characters. I firmly believe that I just didn’t think of them at first because I was so used to seeing male characters).

    • Ciara Darren says:

      Firmly agree with you. We do have a subconscious bias, even as female writers in certain situations, to cast men in roles that are typical to what we’re accustomed to seeing. Recasting gender roles, or simply writing a character that defies the trend can be a personal challenge. I believe art comes out of our subconscious and our subconscious is powerfully influenced by our environments. Thank you for chiming in! Hope to meet you again soon.

  2. I think a lot of this arises from the perception (which is attributed as early as one’s first picture books) that boys won’t read books featuring (or picturing) girls as main characters. Whether or not this is actually true – and if it is, I don’t for a second believe it’s an innate (i.e. not socialized) tendency – it seems to carry forward into adulthood until we’ve got authors specifically targeting a gender demographic like Dairyhead pointed out.

    Best fantasy books for women. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t just be best fantasy books, period. Not all men and women are alike. Even if a story is about something as inherently female as childbirth, there’s nothing to say a man mightn’t enjoy it too if given the chance to do so without judgement and gender-policing.

    • Ciara Darren says:

      The last couple lines of your comment remind me of a drag queen I once watched who did a performance based around the loss of a child. It was difficult to watch and horribly sad, but also so completely human. Someone explained before hand that she was conflicted over whether people wouldn’t feel that she had a right to perform such a piece. In art, I believe we all have the right to try and to appreciate.

      I think boys are praised for certain things by many communities and girls for others and this leads us to focus on certain behaviors. You and Diaryhead certainly part of the heart of the issue.

  3. mobewan says:

    I don’t want to care, but often feel I need to. John Scalzi’s post about ‘reality as a video game’ sums it up perfectly. It’s simply harder to be successful as a woman, authorship no exception. A while ago I did a fair bit of reading around the subject as I realised to my shame that my bookshelf was predominantly male. Not through any conscious approach, but simply because that was what was within easy reach. So I started specifically looking for female authors. I started talking about it online and was amazed at the reaction. Many, many people think the story should stand for itself, the quality, cover etc should be enough. And they’re right. It should. But it doesn’t. Just look at the number of female authors who only publish under a first initial…

    It’s hard to talk about without coming off a bit preachy, but I think dairyairhead has nailed it. Think of people as people. People can be similar and different at the same time. It’s what makes us so cool. A lot of people seem to be scared about that fact and want to pigeonhole others. It’s what makes us uncool. Sad really.

    Fascinating post as always.

    • Ciara Darren says:

      Yes, story, quality, cover, they should stand for themselves. Books and book marketing, it’s all communication though, conscious or subconscious and what it said matters. I know many people think we should move on, but when I run into these things and others, I don’t want to just kick the ball on down the road. When I look at people, I want to just see people, complex, fascinating, unique and yet strangely so similar in many ways that let us connect. Thank you for your thoughtful comment!

  4. dairyairhead says:

    I think that a lot of authors choose a specific market so that they can gain traction among a particular group faster. If you decide your audience is 20 something males, it’s a lot easier to make choices that will appeal to that particular group. It’s harder to market to “everyone”. That being said, I think that a lot of that strategy tends to alienate others who would enjoy the work. I would try to market based on interests rather than demographics. So instead of making a cover geared toward 20 something males, I might make a cover geared toward “people who like sci-fi”. I might take inspiration from books that have been successful in the genre I’m writing. I think that focusing on the individual’s reading preferences is an overall better strategy than focusing on gender, age, race, or other things that are just stereotypes and have nothing to do with actual facts of reading preferences, just statistics and odds.

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