The Women We Don’t See

ladybooks

And what does my own reading lack? Diversity!

Friend and writer Christopher DeFilippis recently published his annual round up of books, a thing he has been doing for ages and aeons and will hopefully do for ages and aeons more. Like me, Chris reads a LOT and has opinions about what he reads.

But his top five from 2013 struck me as curious in one way: all the authors were men (even while the subject of one book is a woman who did amazing things for the world of astronomy, and oh I love that book, but I digress!). The worst read of the year, also written by a man. The honorable mention of the year, written by two men.

I asked him on Twitter what his favorite books by female authors were for the year, and to his surprise, he realized he hadn’t read any female authors in 2013. Nor, it turns out, had he read any female authors in 2012. (Octavia Butler made his best-of list in 2011.)

“In my defense,” Chris tweeted when a couple followers made author suggestions, “it’s more coincidence than ailment that needs a remedy.”

Then, I asked him if I could blog about this, because…

Two years.

I let that sink in. As a female author, something in me shrieked, because that’s pretty damn disappointing, even as a coincidence. So, I looked back at my own reading habits of the last three years, because I was curious. I never set out to intentionally read one gender more than another, so I suppose my numbers are also all coincidence (I didn’t count anthologies in my numbers, just single author novels or collections.):

In 2011, I read 57 books, 37 of them by female authors (65%).

In 2012, I read 60 books, 27 of them by female authors (45%).

In 2013, I read 55 books, with 33 of them by female authors (60%).

I re-read a lot of classic SF in 2012: Bradbury, Grimm, Tolkien, Burrows, and I discovered Colson Whitehead! I binged on boy writers.

So, was it actually a coincidence? Could a reader not realize they hadn’t read a female author in two years? Unfortunately, I believe the answer is absolutely and completely yes, because male authors remain the default. Readers just go there, without thinking twice.

#

Goodreads publishes a monthly newsletter. The February newsletter talks to three authors, Alexander McCall, Alice Hoffman, and Andy Weir. Each is asked to name five novels of a specific kind.

McCall’s five favorite tropical books. All five authors are male.

Hoffman’s five favorite books about NYC. Three of five authors are male.

Weir’s five favorite books about Mars. All five authors are male.

Fifteen books, two female authors (mentioned by a female author). 13.3%.

#

When you want to be a writer, “they” tell you to read everything. Read every genre you can get your mitts on, because even if you don’t realize it, this will improve your writing within the genre you actually want to write. They tell you to read broadly, whatever catches your interest, upon whatever shelf it sits.

How do female authors still go so very unnoticed?

How is it their books aren’t getting in front of eyes that would enjoy them?

How can we make it so they do?

Two years.

Two years, without realizing he hadn’t read a female author.

In my mind, this is like going two years without water. Without air. Without 50% of the nutrients you need to survive. Your bones will be brittle. Your teeth will snap off. The forty-meter squid will devour what remains of your soul in the middle of the frozen apocalyptic night.

All right, maybe not, but I remain just as surprised as Chris at the numbers. Because damn. Damn.

45 thoughts on “The Women We Don’t See

  1. Hel

    This line bothers me:

    “it’s more coincidence than ailment that needs a remedy”

    It’s coincidence in that it’s not intentional. But it’s symptomatic (as you allude to in your post) of a system in which female authors simply get pushed to the back and told to sit there. Quietly. (Maybe maintaining her dignity as a woman should?)

    Anyway, good blog post–probably will write a long response on my blog later. Because FEELINGS.

    1. Jim C. Hines

      It may not be a conscious choice, but it ain’t coincidence. Let’s assume he reads 25 books/year, and for the sake of math, let’s assume only one out of four published books are written by a female. Even with those weighted numbers, the odds of *never* reading a book by a woman in two years (50 books), purely by chance, would be about 1 in 1329, assuming my math is right.

      It’s not just some random coincidence, and it bloody well *is* part of a larger ailment that needs a remedy.

    2. Derek

      “it’s more coincidence than ailment that needs a remedy”

      I agree, that’s disturbing. I’ve made a concerted effort to read more women authors in the past two years, primarily by reading Liz Bourke’s recommendations from http://www.tor.com/tags/Sleeps%20With%20Monsters, because I realize that coincidence needs a remedy. Still, I’d say that the only “great” authors I’ve met in those two years are Catherynne Valente and Jo Walton (but the mere fact that I’ve only just come across Walton is shameful).

      fwiw, I read 130 books last year (mostly in F&SF and Mystery), and 50 of them were by women (three co-written with men). Which seems like a fairly reasonable number unless you discount the fact that I embarked on mammoth rereads of Andre Norton and Roger Zelazny. If you discount both of those, it’s less than 25% female writers.

      And, no Chris, it’s not that “Everything I read tells me that people don’t really want to have a discussion so much as they want to place blame for societal injustices.” You’re not a bad man for not having realized you weren’t reading work by women. You’re a bad man for saying that “it’s more coincidence than ailment that needs a remedy.” It’s very much an ailment that needs remedy.

  2. Charlotte Ashley

    I’m guilty of not reading enough books by women as well, and for me it is a book discovery fail. I go looking for a book to read armed with the list of themes I like, authors I like, and invariably what comes back is recommendations to read more men.

    Someone asked me recently for “Someone like Murakami, only a woman”. I was floored. I just don’t know any women writing slightly surreal, dense, magical realism. That’s terrible. I’m a bookseller, I should know. But I run into the same thing at other bookstores, too. I tell them I want something like Neal Stephenson. Dense, idea-driven SF. Appendixes full of math. What can you sell me? They don’t come back with women.

    Amazon is notoriously bad at helping with book discovery. Goodreads’s recommendations are garbage. We need something better…

    1. Charlotte Ashley

      Hm, I feel I should say that I *do* read a lot of women in literary fiction – just not genre fiction. Of the last 20 books I read, 10 of them were written or edited by women. I’ve got Frances Hardinge, Sheree Thomas, Sigrid Undset, Hilary Mantel and George Sand in there, among others. Maybe I am not as lame as I thought.

      I still want the female Murakami to show up on my recommended pile.

      1. Kameron Hurley

        Was just talking about this on Twitter. Some of the issue is also that women aren’t *marketed* like dude writers are. So you read a description of a novel like GRRM’s and it’s all “world war, political intrigue!” and the *same book* written by “Georgina Martin” is called, “a feisty game of sexual intrigue and dark desire.” And though there’s certainly a huge audience for that sexual intrigue book, I’m not that audience, and I’m less likely to pick it up because of how it’s marketed. I missed the boat on a lot of books marketed as “urban fantasy” that weren’t “supernatural threesome” but were positioned that way in marketing.

        Knew one author who wrote a book that was basically American Gods, but marketed like Urban Fantasy. Only read it because I knew the author, and was a little shocked at the positioning.

        1. Charlotte Ashley

          It’s true that I have avoided a lot of books because the cover/marketing gave me the impression they were YA or had that awful fiery-redhead-in-leather-pants-and-tattoos woman on the cover. On the other hand, a book just had to have a Thomas Canty cover, and I would buy it.

        1. Kiri Morgan

          Banana Yoshimoto, too. Although I love her, and I don’t actually like Haruki Murakami all that much.

  3. Joy Marchand

    Of the 88 books I read last year, 34 of them were written by women. I made no special effort to read female authors, because I was reading a lot of non-fiction for research, and topical non-fiction has what it has, but I have focused more on female-written fiction in 2014.

  4. Sylvia

    I’m afraid I can’t count the year’s best because I haven’t even *thought* about it, but through Librarything I can see the books I entered (which means read to finish, didn’t hate) in 2013. Excluding anthologies:

    5 women
    13 men

    It was a bad year for reading in general and GRRM stole a large chunk of my time … but I’m not overly happy with the results. I’ll keep a better eye on myself in 2013.

  5. Abby Goldsmith

    I don’t keep track of the books I read each year, but I’m willing to bet it was more than 50% male authors, and probably more than 80% male authors. I keep considering writing under a male pen name.

  6. Ian

    According to Goodreads, which I use mostly as a way to track things like this, I read 30 books last year (outside of anthologies and collections by several authors): 25 by men and 5 by women. I can certainly do better than that. There were a lot of old catch-ups or re-reads in there (Banks, Asimov, etc.), and the female writers had a better percentage of the new books, but it was still pretty biased. I make no excuses for this, but I’m glad for the opportunity to measure it and thus hopefully improve it.

  7. Wendy Wagner

    FEMINIST. HULK. SMASH.
    I am reading Russ’s HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN’S WRITING, copyright 1983. It’s horrifying to see how much of what she said 21 years ago is still totally applicable today.

    We have got to do a better job of getting women reviewed and recommended to readers. Otherwise they just fall through the cracks, forgotten by history and canon except as footnotes.

  8. Denise

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. Not sure this will be helpful in terms of themes, and perhaps you already know this resource, but worldswithoutend.com has a list of women authors I’ve found very helpful. I read lots of books by women but this has introduced me to many more

  9. Sarah hans

    There was a meme going around facebook a few months ago asking people to name the ten books that were most influential on them. On my news feed, every list written by a woman had a mix of books written by men and women. Men, meanwhile, predictably, produced lists that were exclusively or almost exclusively male. I challenged my friends to read more books by women, because why not? And I was surprised and pleased by how many of my (admittedly left-leaning and mostly feminist) friends pledged to make an effort to read more books by women in 2014. Some even asked for recommendations. So there is hope…but we have to keep gently pointing out the discrepancies. Not in an angry, accusatory way, because that often makes people (especially men) feel cornered and defensive, but persistently. I’m glad you pointed that out to this reviewer–rather than defending himself with “coincidence” he should have apologized and been embarrassed or ashamed. But of course he’s not. Men have that luxury. Let’s hope that he’ll now be more aware thanks to your gentle prodding.

  10. R.S. Hunter

    I saw this get brought up last year so I decided to consciously change my reading habits for 2014 and only read genre fiction novels by women. So far it’s going well, but I know that prior to this year my percentages probably weren’t good. And it wasn’t because I’d go out of my way to avoid books by women, but it just felt like all the recommendations I’d see or buzz about a new release was always for male authors.

  11. Pingback: Want to be a Bookseller for a Day? | Charlotte Ashley

  12. Cheryl

    I had never consciously thought about this topic before, but I checked my Goodreads stats for last year and they were high in favor of women: 11 of 17 finished (not counting two books that I started but had yet to finish — both by women). I have stats for older years in a notebook; 2012 only had 10 books, 70% by women, and in 2011, 10 of 16 were by women. Beyond that, I only listed new books (not re-reads), but the breakdown is similar: 50% or better every year for as far back as my records go (to 2002).

  13. Christopher DeFilippis

    Thank you Elise for turning our twitter exchange into such a springboard for constructive dialog. So let me provide some personal context. When I expressed my embarrassment at not having read any novels by female authors in 2012 and 2013 it wasn’t due to any perceived shortcomings in my reading habits. It was in genuine shock that I had bucked the odds for so long. It was a “say what?” moment, because gender doesn’t enter into what I choose to read. At all. I just go into my library and grab the book that speaks to me at that moment. Which is why I took umbrage with one twitter replier who recommended a title to “remedy” the situation. It implies an ailment where none exists. Is there a larger issue of women being marginalized in genre fiction? Certainly. And it undoubtedly skews the percentage of women authors on my shelves in the first place. But had you asked me about women authors in general, instead of by specific year, I might have told you about the thrill I had spending my California vacation with Robin Hobb, or how Pat Barker’s Regeneration trilogy crushed me, or gone on and on (and on) about Earthsea and how fundamental Ursula K. Le Guin has been in shaping my worldview. Or how disaffecting I find the one-note feminism of M. Rickertt, or what a colossal disappointment Connie Willis’s Blackout/All Clear was after the brilliant To Say Nothing About the Dog. Or how Duras turns me on. Which is frankly why I don’t see the point of breaking down our reading habits into yearly percentages. Great fiction should be a discovery and a journey, not a homework assignment to check off a bunch of PC boxes. As I say at the end of my Best Reads segment every year, if you have a title of your own to recommend, I’m all ears. There’s always room on the shelf for one more. If you want to have a discussion about female authors, let’s do it in a way that inspires us, not in way that divides us.

    Oh, and Sarah hans–you are SO far out of line that I can’t begin to tell you.

    CFD

    1. Alex Dally MacFarlane

       If you want to have a discussion about female authors, let’s do it in a way that inspires us, not in way that divides us.

      It is not divisive to do what Elise has done, to talk about not reading women and the need to read more. (Two years without reading a book by a woman. I can’t express how horrified I am.) It’s like saying, “If we stop talking about sexism, it’ll go away.” It won’t. We are already divided: you went two years without reading us. We are paid less, published less, read less, reviewed less, listed in end-of-year round-ups. We are talking to bridge that divide, because otherwise people will go years without reading us. (Two years. Fuck.)

    2. Brooke Bolander

      How exactly is she being ‘out of line’? I’m just curious as to the meaning of that.

    3. Elise Post author

      Of course it wasn’t deliberate–which only furthers the point. Women writers are invisible and go unnoticed. And when they go unnoticed by someone like you–who reads so much, and is highly enthusiastic about books–it’s startling and horrifying. The visibility of the female writer needs to improve across the board.

    4. Sarah Hans

      I fail to see how choosing your books based on titles/covers/author names (i.e. the books that “speak to you”) is purely based on coincidence, when we’ve seen time and again how the covers of books by women are drastically different than the covers of books by men (see: Maureen Johnson’s Cover Flip Project). The fact that you have enjoyed books by women in the past, and spent time with female authors on vacation, in no way excuses you from making an effort to read books by female authors in the present. Or people of color, for that matter. You can review all the twenty-year-old novels by women you want, but it will not help authors whose books came out yesterday, or even two years ago, because you’re not making any effort to overcome your own biases and read them. I do think you should be embarrassed, yes, because when someone pointed out your bias you doubled-down and shouted “coincidence!” rather than taking the time to examine your biases and come to the conclusion that maybe you should try harder. We all have biases, there’s no shame in that, but we can choose to account for those biases and do our best to remedy them. As a person who has influence over what other people choose to read, as someone whose biases can actively hurt or help the authors you choose to read, I hope that you’ll make that choice.

    5. silviamg

      Her comment was inspiring and did not seem mean-spirited at all. I hate how women must handle everyone like they’re porcelain.

  14. Ruth

    I thought Sarah Hans’ comment was thoughtful and not at all out of line. Yours comes off as dismissive, defensive and honestly makes me angry and sad.
    You talk about odds- if I flipped a coin what 40? 50? 100? times and each time it came up heads, I think I’d be a bit naive to suggest it was just coincidence. The chances of that happening are so small my calculator ran out of space. Pointing to a few magical times it came up tails wouldn’t change that.

  15. Ruth

    Although, on reflection, my pretty superficial anyway analogy reads pretty binarist, so sorry about that- I meant a men/non-men split rather than men/women as obviously lots of people have genders other than just man or woman.

  16. Pingback: Linkspam: 02/07/14 — The Radish.

  17. Paula R. Stiles

    Since when is making sure to read women like eating your vegetables or taking out the garbage? Failing to read 51% of the population’s output in two years means your choice of books must be pretty damned limited, is all I can say. What’s he been reading, 13th century monk’s chronicles?

  18. Pingback: I am a sexist, I am a racist, I am a homophobe | onechaptermore

  19. Christopher DeFilippis

    I have so many conflicting emotions right now I don’t know where to start, but here goes.

    I try to provide some personal context to the situation and I get labeled as defensive, “doubling down” on my position as if I’m trying to bluff a losing hand. I try to steer the conversation in a direction that I feel will be more productive and I get labeled as dismissive. I’ve been branded a #knuckledragger by twitter trolls and have seen my comments appear out of context on other blogs aiming to vilify me. Everything I read tells me that people don’t really want to have a discussion so much as they want to place blame for societal injustices. And that anger is understandable. But it seems that you’re demanding that I admit that I deliberately excluded women from my reading choices and that’s just not true. And it’s evident that many of you don’t care about what I have to say unless it’s mia maxima culpa. Not gonna happen. You keep throwing percentages and impossible odds at me, but there’s no malicious misogynistic intent on my part and I will not roll over and be your pariah du jour. But I WILL thank you. (As I said, conflicting emotions).

    On my radio show, I frequently rail against ignorance. And have even defined evil as willful ignorance. So I took your words to heart and have been thinking hard about my reading habits. And the natural place to start my examination was up in my library. An audit of my shelves shows an undeniably appalling lack of female authors. This troubles me deeply, because clearly there’s a bias here that I was wholly unaware of. Of course, ignorance is no excuse. Nor is ignorance of ignorance. So yes, I will be more closely examining my future reading choices. And that’s thanks to you.

    But it will honestly be a while before I can pick up a book by a female author without feeling a stab of aggravation at the memory of this discussion thread. Which brings me back to my earlier attempt to broaden the conversation. In all of the vitriol, none of you took the simplest route to help me expand my reading horizons. Not one of you actually recommended a female author that I should be reading. NOT. ONE. OF. YOU.

    So lambast me all you want. It means nothing. These are the last comments I’m going to make here, because it’s obvious that no matter what I say, you’re more interested in grinding axes and bemoaning the lot of female authors than actually celebrating and recommending their work.

    CFD

  20. Maxine in RI

    People keep a list of what they’ve read? I’ve been rereading some of my old sf: Bradley, Kurtz, McCaffery, LeGuin, L’Engel. Also cookbooks and herbals, most of which are by women authors. I will admit that Gaiman and DeLint are in the mix as well.

  21. Pingback: Two interesting links | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea

  22. robin reid

    Followed a link from Liz Bourke’s blog (which I read on my Dreamwidth Feed) to this excellent post (and blog, for which I will make a Dreamwidth Feed!).

    Thank you for this excellent post! I remember when I had my click moment and spent the next five years reading nothing but women authors (from the Virago publications to every feminist theory book I could get my hands on — this was in the early 1980s, so fewer publications then, to all the new genre authors I could get my hands on). And people when hearing about this choice would be very upset even when I pointed out that I’d read only/mostly male authors in school (and my English programs, including a master’s degree at that point), and this choice was restoring the balance, but of course, the perception is that anything above 20% or so women in a situation is somehow *too many women.* (Joanna Russ’ fiction saved my life in rural Idaho when I was 14).

    As an English professor, I teach marginalized literatures–including the “Women Writers” course — and often in my other courses have a larger percentage of women authors (and not just white, straight women). And I still read mostly women authors (though of course, not consciously intending to exclude, it’s just that the books that most appeal to me, by golly, happen to be by women for the most part–with a few exceptions (Terry Pratchett), and that’s what I buy and read–in recent years, paranormal and sf romance (unlike my adolescence when I avoided anything to do with romance). And, unlike my earlier sf fandom experience, I’m active in a female-dominated part of fandom where, among other things, we share recs about authors (not entirely but in my area mostly female authors).

    It’s like living on a different planet!

    Before I dash off to do some work: one recommendation and one bit of self-promotion:

    1. First: Nicola Griffith’s HILD is an absolute must-read. I am going around encouraging everybody I know to read it.

    2. It’s way too expensive for anybody to buy as an individual, but a few years ago, I edited The Encyclopedia of Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy (which by publisher policy did not exclude male authors entirely! and which by my editorial choice did include quite a lot about women in fandom, as well as women writers and editors!). It could have been three times as long as the limit I as given, and I still could filled it.

  23. delagar

    “…none of you took the simplest route to help me expand my reading horizons. Not one of you actually recommended a female author that I should be reading.”

    As one of those blogs that mocked Chris (fairly gently, frankly), I’d like to made a brief response to his anger and hurt feelings.

    These are expected, I think. Not excusable, but expected. Both Buddha and Socrates tell little stories about this — what should be, they ask, the rational response to someone telling you that you are ignorant, or that you are getting something wrong?

    Why, you should thank that person, obviously, and ask how to improve.

    And yet — like Chris — we mostly react with anger.

    This is not a useful response, as we see here. Chris has had his errors pointed out to him by people he perceives as his inferiors (stupid women!) and while he knows we are right, he can’t help being furious about it.

    If only we had used a nicer tone, he fumes. If only we had approached him more helpfully. If only we had been sweet and kind to him. *Then* it would have been all right, *then* he wouldn’t be feeling like this.

    Chris, son, you fucked up. It happens to all of us. Admit it. Learn from it.

    And Good Lord. You seriously need us to lead you by the hand to the best books by women? Let me share a tiny secret with you, since you’ve apparently been living in a cave. There’s this thing called Google, and you can put these other things called “search terms” in them, see…

    I recommend something like “100 best SF books by women.”

    Have fun.

  24. StaceyHH

    Wait a minute, Chris, which one is it?

    This: “Which is why I took umbrage with one twitter replier who recommended a title to “remedy” the situation.”

    Or is it this: “In all of the vitriol, none of you took the simplest route to help me expand my reading horizons. Not one of you actually recommended a female author that I should be reading. NOT. ONE. OF. YOU.”

  25. Pingback: link love – kyriarchy edition | Grumpy rumblings of the (formerly!) untenured

  26. Tungsten Hippo

    I am making a conscious effort to diversify my reading, along many different axes, because as Chris says, reading should be a voyage of discovery- and I will discover so much more if I read things written by authors of diverse backgrounds in diverse genres.

    I read novels and long non fiction books, but I really like short ebooks for how the reading time in my life is arranged right now (i.e., quite uneven distribution, and usually far shorter than I’d like!) so I read far more short form writing than novels right now. One of the awesome things about short ebooks is that the “cost” of picking something I don’t end up liking is so low- even if I decide to read it to the end, it only costs me a few hours instead of a few days.

    I struggle to find diverse short ebooks, though- gender identity and race are not things you can search for on Amazon. Also, while Amazon makes it easy to find the things published as Kindle Singles, it can be hard to find other shorts. So I started a website to make recommendations. After reading this comment thread, I’m thinking I should add some sort of feature to make it easier to find (for instance) “space sci-fi written by a woman” on my site. I’ll have to think about that.

    Thanks for the great discussion.

  27. Pingback: 2013 Reading Summary

  28. Pingback: Reading women, part 1 | Fine Print

  29. Pingback: March of the Links | Becky Black