BY ANNA SMITH SPARK
Just before Christmas, a (male) friend wrote a piece criticising a popular ‘most anticipated sff of 2017’ list because it only contained books by white men. Said friend then listed a number of female authors who could have been included. One of them was me.
The next day, I looked at the wishlist I’d drawn up of books I wanted for Christmas. Every single one of the books on it was written by a white man.....
A few weeks later, I posted a link to a ‘best of 2016’ list on r/fantasy. It contained most of the books I’d judge the best of 2016 myself, and several books by friends. I got criticised because it only included white men.
I’m a mixed white-Chinese woman with Asperger’s, dyslexia and dyspraxia. I’ve got a Masters in social and cultural history with an emphasis on women’s history. I’ve got a PhD in English Literature, my thesis looked at female bodily experience in Victorian occult groups. I’ve been a feminist since childhood. I’ve spent my whole damned life fighting the culture wars. Every single con I go to, I end up doing the diversity panel.
Being called out for posting that link felt really, really wrong. Having a wishlist of only white male authors felt wrong.
Except that if I hadn’t had my vanity flattered by being named on the ‘alternative’ list, I probably wouldn’t have thought about it.
But, I don’t know, it’s hard. If I think about my favourite modern fantasy writers, they probably honestly are all white men. If I think about the women currently writing epic grimdark fantasy…. uh…. well…. umm…. there’s me. And Deborah A. Wolfe. And Cameron Hurley. And…. um…. um…..
So then I start thinking about my favourite ever genre authors. And that’s fine, because the three books that have had the biggest influence on my life and my writing, the books that I’ve read and reread till they’re falling to pieces, those three books were all written by women. No problem. It’s all fine and cool.
Ursula Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. I think it’s got two female characters in it who have speaking parts. One’s a seductress baddy. One’s an ignorant old witch.
Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. It’s definitely got at least two women in it. One’s basically a womb on legs. The other’s the hero’s mum.
Mary Renault’s The Persian Boy. It’s got… um… well… I think a woman must speak in it somewhere. I think. Maybe. Possibly Darius’ old mum gets two lines of dialogue at one point, asking about her son.
On one level, I wonder if it matters. The mark of a great book, surely, is that it transcends things like gender. Let’s take the two non-genre books I love more I think than any others. One is Austerlitz by W G Sebald. Suffice to say, I am not and never have been an elderly Mittle Europa Jewish Second World War amnesiac refugee. The other is Persuasion by Jane Austin. It’s about a woman. She’s intelligent and thoughtful, dark eyes, dark hair. Sounds promising. On, no, wait, she’s also a member of the landed gentry, never had to so much as make a cup of tea for herself, never mind commute to work at six in the sodding morning then multitask trying to get the boiler mended, write a powerpoint sales presentation and re-arrange emergency childcare.
Okay, yes. But let’s think about authors. That was the big issue I started all this with, after all. Not characters – there are lots of great female characters in the books on those lists I was so bothered about. But authors. All those white men.
Again, really, I don’t think it should matter. A writer’s gender, ultimately, should have no bearing on the way one receives a book. A book should stand or fall on its own merits, surely, on what it says, what one can take from it, how it feels. J K Rowling, Robin Hobb – if anyone suddenly thought better or worse of either of them when the penny dropped they both have tits, well, I mean … Well, I mean, frankly, you can probably stop reading this right now and f-off.
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is a profoundly complex political statement about love and power and faith and wisdom, centred in a wonderful, positive role-model young woman, and it was written by a white man. The Shopaholic series was written by a woman, and oddly enough it’s an anti-feminist unquestioningly pro-materialist steaming pile of poo.
And I don’t want to be a female fantasy novelist. I want to be an epic grimdark fantasy novelist. I don’t want to win the Baileys/Cadbury’s Flake/Small Glass of White Wine for the Lady or whatever it’s currently called Prize for Women Writers[*], I want to win the David Gemmel Award for best heroic fantasy that smashes you over the head with a three-headed axe. I stood up in front of a large audience last year at BristolCol and said publicly that I suspect grimdark probably is a primarily masculine genre and I’m not really sure why that’s a problem. And I’m honestly not sure why it’s a problem. If women weren’t being allowed to write grimdark, if women were being rejected by publishing houses because ‘we don’t want women writing grimdark’, if the white men I know who write grimdark had refused to accept me into their circle, that would be a problem. But from everything I hear from my agent and my editor and other people, other women, reading and writing in the genre, that’s not happening. I didn’t have any problem at any point with my gender from anyone. Those white men on those lists, I know a lot of them, we get on fine, we talk as equals and friends.
[*] Actually, I’d sell my own old mum to the Chaos Lords for a shot at the Baily’s Prize. But I’m speaking rhetorically here.
There are some very heavily female-dominated literary genres: crime, historical courtly fiction, romance all come immediately to mind. In crime, apparently, men adopt female pseudonyms because it helps sales. Urban fantasy is female-dominated. So is paranormal romance. That’s not ‘a problem’. Why should that be ‘a problem’?
To cut to the money here, Stephanie Myer and J K Rowling must have bigger book sales between the two of them than all the grimdark boys combined.
I never felt I couldn’t write grimdark fantasy and I should be writing urban fantasy and I’m a freak because I don’t. I write about people with swords because I’ve always really enjoyed reading about people with swords. My gender and the author’s gender and the hero’s gender have got nothing to do with that. If other women prefer to write about people not with swords – well, I mean, that’s hardly the worst thing currently facing humanity, is it?
Arguably, in fact, wouldn’t we all a lot better off if more men and women turned away from the grimdark side and wrote about building a better world of peace and love right now? There aren’t many women in either the Arthur stories or the life of Alexander, no. But given the men spend their whole time charging around fighting each other to the death, is that really such a massive loss to womankind?
I was lucky. I grew up in a strongly feminist household where the idea I couldn’t do something because I’m a woman, the idea I wasn’t exactly the same intellectually and socially as my brother, was inconceivably. I grew up basically gender-blind because gender didn’t matter. We were just people. I was a writer. I was a reader. I wasn’t ‘a girl’ doing those things. So the gender of authors and protagonists didn’t matter. I liked Alexander and Arthur and Ged and the rest because they were complicated and romantic and their worlds were rich and strange and beautiful and filled with sadness and wonder, and I didn’t ever think ‘but I’m a girl and they’re boys and because of that I can never dream of writing about these things’.
Lots of people I know are basically gender blind, too. The guy who wrote the ‘most anticipated of 2017’ list that started all this – he’s a friend, he was upset by the criticism, he hadn’t meant to exclude or offend. I feel really bad mentioning the whole thing. He’s probably not a Dworkinite feminist, but he certainly wouldn’t dismiss a book because it was written by a woman. He just happens to like books about people with swords. Books about people with swords tend to be written by men. When he found out more details about my book, he, um, put it on his list.
If you’ve got this far reading this, I’m kind of assuming you’re probably not the kind of person who dismisses a book because it was written by a woman, either, really. And as I said, if you are, you can f-off. Preaching to the converted here. People write about people with swords and the gender doesn’t matter. The colour shouldn’t matter either. We, as writers and readers, are basically grown up enough to ignore the idea that skin colour or gender in an author means anything.
Now more than ever before in my lifetime, possibly. Certainly more I think than they’ve mattered for several years now.
We’re grown up enough. It just looks like a lot of people, far more than we thought, aren’t.
To be honest, I thought we’d basically won this war. Maybe more men write grimdark epic and more women write paranormal romance, but that really doesn’t matter a flying fuck does it, because we’re all just equally good bad and indifferent human beings.
Turns out we didn’t win that war.
Hell, looking at the last few weeks, we didn’t win a lot of wars I thought we had got over with years ago. Racism. Climate change. Nuclear proliferation. The holocaust. The basic idea of a value for a human life. Authorial gender actually seems kind of insignificant suddenly, on that list.
But it’s symbolic, in its own little way.
Talking about books in insolation, it doesn’t matter.
As a tiny gesture against the world we’re currently living in, it matters a lot.
People like certain books because they like certain books. It doesn’t make me better or worse that I write grimdark not urban fantasy. It doesn’t make me better or worse that I like R Scott Bakker way more than Robin Hobb. The problem, as far as I can see it, is that others seem to be unable to grasp this basic fact. So I think, ultimately, we do need to think very carefully about ensuring we have a good mix of genders and ethnicities on book lists. To make conscious choices based on wider things. Not because it matters to us. But because right now it matters like hell in the wider world we’re suddenly living in.
Perfect for fans of Mark Lawrence and R Scott Bakker, The Court of Broken Knives is the explosive debut by one of grimdark fantasy’s most exciting new voices.
They’ve finally looked at the graveyard of our Empire with open eyes. They’re fools and madmen and like the art of war. And their children go hungry while we piss gold and jewels into the dust.
In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it.
Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.
The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.
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