Gender and the pendulum

Yes, I do realize Kate has probably sprayed her keyboard with coffee reading the title.

Blame it on the fact that my focus is still somewhat disturbed, but we hope by tomorrow… But let’s look at other matters. Now on a list I belong to, one of the long time fantasy authors said that as her numbers were bad with one publisher… and now with a second, she was going to have to consider a pseudonym in order to sell. Now this has happened to a lot authors, and in some cases the the pseudonym has stormed the market and done well (Robin Hobb for example). But the question raised was what the effect of the gender of the pseudonym would have.

And thick and fast the comments came that using initials or a gender-neutral name (some of which, I must admit, depend on your culture of origin. For me, Tracy Hickman had to be female. Not that it worried me, but some of the folk telling me that their name was ‘gender neutral’ just made me laugh) would overcome bias against women writers.

The clincher of course was that Alice B. Sheldon had had to call herself James Tiptree Jnr to get into sf… in 1967. The trivial fact that Zenna Henderson succeeded in doing rather well, with her own name and not hiding her gender, in sf… in 1952, is somehow never mentioned.

There are misogynists out there. Men who would never read a book by a woman author. They exist, the way that Neo-Nazis exist. Let’s look at the probabilities of their numbers, and think about what effect those numbers could have.

Now: IF these nasty misogynists are there in anything but very small numbers, destroying a female writer’s chances of success, unless she disguises herself as JK…Bloggs. Or Hilary… Bloggs (it really is a male name in places)… then 1) books by males will dominate the fiction lists. 2) Only books by women in deep disguise, under male pseudonyms or gender neutral or initials will succeed, or at least these will be there on the popular lists in huge numbers.

I wasn’t feeling too much like writing this morning, so I did the figures. I used Amazon for the data pool and used their search engine for the sort. It’s of mediocre quality. I looked up any name I was in doubt over the gender of. As this an assumption about trad publishing, I confined my search to P-books only, and from traditional publishers. As the point what is happening in future, not what happened in 1967, I set ‘new release’ as a filter.

Looking at fiction the ‘most popular’ in the top 100 new releases…

40% were male. 60% were female

Refining this to Fantasy and Science Fiction… (and I only did the top 60, I ran out of patience)

31% were male. 69% were female. If I had excluded game tie-in and movie tie-ins the figure would have been lower still. Of those: 1 male used initials, 2 females did (both in Paranormal Romance), and one female had a name that I had to look up see what the gender was. (In other words, either very few women use the ‘initial’ strategy, or it’s very unsuccessful). In all cases clicking on the name brought up a profile showing the gender. There is no gender hiding in this sample.)

The ‘sf’ filter is rubbish and gave me almost entirely female written fantasy. Curiously the top 10 had 4 covers of naked male torso (sometimes with a partial head), and 1 (Laurell K Hamilton) – recumbent female partially clothed. When it comes to the frequent ‘objectifying the human body’ protests I think the pot has called the kettle black a lot.

Refining the filter to ‘Fantasy’ gave 25% male. 75% female. One male used initials, 3 females did (two of the same ones in the sf/fantasy search, all Paranormal Romance) Once again, no gender hiding.

I’d have liked to break it down into further sub-categories, the search engine just isn’t up to it. However, it would seem that the figures do not confirm the perceived wisdom. Rather: if your book fails, it might be you, or it might your publisher… but actually it’s not ‘those bad men’ sabotaging your career. I know this is hard to accept, and they’re so convenient, and less likely to take it out on you than your publisher, but that’s the breaks. There is no need to change your gender in your new pseudonym. It won’t help. Actually, if anything, they suggest that a female pseudonym for male and female writers might be in order. Of course there could never ever possibly be any female readers who could possibly be misandrous… Why at least 50% of all Romance titles are by men… aren’t they?

The trouble with all these things is they do start with a Tiptree/Sheldon point. There is a real problem. Whether you’re talking about education or books or representation on TOC, excluding people shrinks the pie. And it always ends up provoking the same reaction in the end: Someone shoves the pendulum the other way. (Such as in this University situation in the UK, which I believe has parallels in the US). Inevitably it’s a case of ‘we’ve got to rob Peter to pay Pauline, and then later when demands get too strident to ignore we’ll have to rob Pauline’s daughter Petronella to pay Peter’s son Paul. Because it’s a multi-generational thing, taking a decade before changes start having effect. And the changes are slow to spread but gather momentum. And by the time they do… you have silly folk like that Psychology Professor (and plenty in publishing and among authors) in denial of where the pendulum momentum will take it… in ten years time. And in ten (or twenty) years time they finally acknowledge it’s a problem, and start shoving hard the other way. Only it takes a long time for the momentum to damp, and another thirty years to lose the old cohort. And so… they push harder. Actually what they should do is start putting on brakes as soon as the direction changes, because, seriously this see-saw is counterproductive. We just need to grow the pie. We can. And hell, I really don’t care what the gender of the author is… so long as the story is good. I found typing with my personal calliope totally impractical and I have been told by several women that not a bit of good came of sitting on the keyboard either. Someone’s sex ought to make no difference, and that means unless the results are hovering around 50% there has to be a reason, and it probably comes down to idiocy a lot of the time.

However one other interesting thing did come out of the stats. And that was that the top 30 were all well built-up authors, regardless of of gender. Even the book that plainly has huge ideological support and push from its publishers (it’s a Dan Browne clone) has an author with some prior (and other kindle) publications. All of the other successful authors I looked at… have between 10 and 50 books under their own name. The old idea that you had to let an author build an audience… appears proven. Pseudonyms are a choice forced on authors, and can work for a reboot… but it’s starting afresh. Plainly they work best if you can take/keep some of your following. I think that’s even more true now, in an Indie e-book era.

Oh and I’m looking for a US first reader for the next Bolg, please?

I’m hunting typos and ‘that doesn’t make sense to American readers’ help.

23 thoughts on “Gender and the pendulum

  1. Naughty Dave! Fortunately I’d just finished my morning cuppa (tea – I don’t drink coffee) when I read that. Then I had to refrain from giggling out loud at work.

    Of course, you’re absolutely correct about the trend of discrimination – but you left out one factor: the backlash effect. The more extreme things go to any direction, the more extreme and nasty the kick back in the opposite direction will be. It doesn’t pay to make the people you think have been against you bitter and angry about you and everyone remotely like you. Most of them weren’t ever actively against you in the first place, it just never occurred to them there might be a problem (this is part of why tit-for-tat reprisals always escalate).

    It must be some kind of human blind spot that so few people can see this.

    1. agree on ‘backlash’ – and seriously I don’t want that, and would rational people would want to avoid it – much rather stop the pendulum swinging, and reach a reasonable balance. I suppose what I see as an author’s requirement – the ability to put yourself into someone else’s shoes… and head and other bits (uh, figuratively) is important to me. So is the need -as a my kind of plotter- to look forward and predict probable and plausible outcomes based on current situations and actions. When I hear strident denialism I can see what sort of backlash they’re going to bring – probably not just onto themselves – down the track.

      The odd thing is I predicted the university situation about 10 years back on my blog, and got violent objection that if you gave ‘affirmative action’ to various minorities… that poor white males would eventually end up as worst off, and having to be offered preferential places etc. The idea caused outrage. My suggestion at the time was that special deals for the current crop needed to be got rid of, BEFORE this happened was considered so vile that some subscribers quit completely.

      1. I don’t think it’s at all odd that you predicted this and got shouted down. The pattern seems to be that there’s a genuine problem, attempts to fix it go overboard, a grievance industry arises around the attempts to fix the actual problem and perpetuates excessive solutions for so long that they become the source of the next backlash.

        You got hit by the grievance industry because by 10 years ago, the guts of the actual problem was pretty much sorted in the Western world. The grievance industry can’t be having with that, as it were, because they’d be out of a job and out of an industry (it probably isn’t quite that cynical or self-serving from their perspective – most of them seem to believe that today’s world is as bad as the 50s or the 1900s or…)

        Add that to a kind of fluffy-bunny equal outcomes ideology, and you get the current mess. Yes, I’m horribly worried that the backlash will wipe out real and necessary improvements, but I’m not delusional enough to think that there won’t BE one.

  2. Curse you! You have awakened my inner statistician! Now I’m going to have to read skewed political polls until he goes away in disgust!

    In all of your surveys, you filtered by ‘Most Popular’. It would be interesting to see if there is a difference between your numbers for popular SF and Fantasy books and the gender % of a pool not biased by popularity. In other words, looking at your numbers, women write the majority of popular fantasy books. Is that because women are better at writing for the readers of that genre (an equal # of submissions for both men and women in the general pool), or is it because more women write for fantasy than men?

    1. Pete, I can’t remember source, but the female2/3:male1/3 fiction buying by readers is close to the demographic for readers, and the offerings are possibly even more skewed. I certainly don’t want LESS women to to read or be published. It would be good for all of us if more men found reading attractive though.

  3. Sheldon was trolling, or at least, playing with people. Her mother did a lot of deliberately weird things, and so did she. She liked disguises and pseudonyms, as many people from her segment of government jobs (intelligence agencies) do. Look at Cordwainer Smith/Felix Linebarger. And once people (okay, Silverberg, IIRC) started saying stupid things about her manly manliness, it was inevitable that she’d let people run their mouths a bit more, just to see what would happen.

    Of course, nobody mentions that a lot of manly men have used female pseudonyms to sell to the romance market, and have chortled when their writing was described as particularly feminine. For example, IIRC, O’Donnell, the guy who wrote Modesty Blaise, also wrote a Seventies bunch of bestselling Gothic romances under the name Madeleine Brent. (They’re darned good, full of far places and interesting things. A lot of that weird Seventies Gothic trope where the man waits for a girl to grow up and then marries her, though “Brent” makes the man work for it.)

    A lot of women in the old days had success in sf under their own names, or with most of the readership knowing that the unisex name was that of a woman. Even in very early sf, there are a fair proportion of woman writers making dough. Certain fanboys had difficulty remembering more than the women writers of their own generation, however; and until the Seventies, there weren’t many collections of stories by women. (However, author collections of any kind were pretty scarce until the Seventies, unless you happened to have your own small press or huge popularity.)

    1. I must see if I can track down Madeleine Brent. (I’ve been toying with this myself, partly to prove I could do it). I suspect you’re right about Sheldon (er. I do the same thing, in different ways), but that’s a very un-fashionable view.

  4. Here’s another for you: Andre Norton – I had no idea ‘he’ was a she until I was well into my 20s. And David Weber still occasionally deals with people who assume ‘David Weber’ is a woman’s pen name, because “no male can understand women well enough to create Honor Harrington.” [insert peeved eye roll here]

    I wonder if the division between science fiction and fantasy shifts the gender balance. More men then women tend to be interested in the hard sciences and engineering, so right there you get a few more males then females who would write hard sci-fi. Once that happens, a guy who likes dragons and spaceships looks over the shelves and decides that he’d rather be known as a sci-fi writer and goes that direction. A gal who enjoys both planetary science and psychic horses is told by an agent or publisher or mentor that more women read fantasy and that is where the market is, so she goes into fantasy. Heck, if someone told me that the only way to write about were-creatures and vampires was to write paranormal romances, I’d flee from the very idea of shape shifters. *shrug* The pendulum striking again?

    1. It does appear so – that hard sf has more male readership. Personally I want every capable person to be scientist, but fair enough, it’s not for everyone. I seriously don’t want anyone excluded as a matter of gender/color etc. but judged on the story. I certainly don’t think (as several militant feminists I’ve met do) that lack of knowledge and ability should be ignored to up a quota. But I think there probably is some general slant in one or another direction, by interest and money. I write fantasy rather than sf for money. I wouldn’t write it at all if I didn’t enjoy it, but I am more on the sf side.

      1. My two cents here — I came into the field to WRITE SF — space opera and time travel SF specifically. That’s what I read then with few exceptions, like DWJ and Pratchett. In my pitch to editor FIRST TIME I offered Darkship Thieves (completed) Years Undone (the still unfinished Red Baron novel) half done, and Ill Met By Moonlight, in concept. She picked the fantasy because DST wasn’t “a logical extrapolation” and because “Well, the Red Baron fought Snoopy.” For the next … thirteen? years I was locked tight into fantasy and received as excuse that “Ladies rarely can write effective sf or space opera” — THIS FROM THE MOST “LIBERAL” of the “liberal establishment.” Baen finally brought DST which has done better than ALL my other books COMBINED.
        The NYC publishing mavens who complain of gender imbalance are also startlingly and amazingly sexist. They think they’re in the fifties and they ACT like it. The buying public? THOSE are going indie.

  5. I chose a gender-neutral name because my real one is distinctly masculine, and I’m too solidly respectable and Midwestern to enjoy the doubletakes.

    Well, that, and also playing with names is fun, and I never outgrew it.

      1. Kali was my username at a software company I used to work at–the Indian programmers always got a chuckle out of it until they realized I knew what it meant 😉

  6. Dave,

    Good luck fighting this. I’ve been told by many that it’s time for a women’s takeover and that men will be useless soon. The scary part is that for the most part, these were female college professors and graduate students. One was actually a professor of “women’s studies” another wrote a book about the history of women in the US and the effects of Constitutional Law. Another was a graduate student studying the affects of

    At any rate…

    I would be honored to help you proof your novel. All I ask in return is a chance to read it first. Err… As I understand it, that would pretty much have to be included anyway. My email address is thatjimboguy at yahoo dot com. I’ll be honest in stating that I’ve never assisted an author like this before, at least outside of a classroom, but I’d love the chance to help. Let me know what you think.


  7. Err…

    That would be studying the effects of gender discrimination in the US Auto Industry. You think she, at least, would know better.

    Then again, there is a reason that “feminist” has become nearly synonymous with “man hater” in some circles here in the US.

    1. The trouble with that is that it tars a lot of uninvolved people with the same brush… and when the pendulum swing the other way… they get caught up with the ‘man-hater’ label too. As most men who’ve had the whole ‘you’re a man = you hate women’ (rather than believe and support equal work for equal pay, equal opportunity etc.) know, it’s not much fun. I think ‘feminist’ is going to become a pretty nasty term across the world in the next 20 years – which in some ways is unfair.

  8. Yeah, the term “Feminist” started downhill almost as soon as it was coined, and it’s somehow managing to keep going down . . . Some times I wonder if it’s not just another expression of the self-hatred of so many progressives, similar to the anti-americanism I see so much of. This thought brought to you by the NPR report today by a male administrator type about the enormous strides his Bio-medical sciences department has taken against gender prejudice, with 65% of the student body female. :: sigh :: No, Professor. That’s not “strides against” that’s over-shoot and that pendulum is coming back sooner than you’d expect.

    1. Kathryn, what is the title of this blog piece? What is a pendulum? What is it that you don’t understand about the concept of momentum? Have you grasped the idea that this is a long-term process, or did that get missed? Let me try and explain (and most of this is fairly obvious from your broad universe stats, if you looked analytically at them). Let’s give you a simple example which demonstrates the mechanics of the problem. Jenny Author, age 30 back in 1980, notices there are few other female fantasy writers, among 10 000 (for the purpose of example, and only the top 10% – 1000 get reviews) and she starts pushing Galsgalaxy, which acts as a pressure and support group providing extra resources for women. Writers take a long time to build a following, and have long careers, many only reaching apogee of reach in their 70’s or beyond. Jenny is nearly now there and has done well. And so has her organization – every year each member gives a 5% advantage to other female authors, and brings on board 1 other member. 1% of whom succeed because of this, 20% of whom will have 40-50 year careers. Calculate: After 10 years, there are now 5 female authors, and 2 of them will reach apogee in 2020 and 2030 – at which point reviews, and awards will be their norm. fast forward 10 years to 2000. There are now 524 – still a tiny fragment of the 10 000, but enough to really do some pushing, so the organization expands and gets a lot of clout. And 2040 – assuming the original founder and the 2 who reached apogee in 2030 are dead, still only 101 – of 1000 are regularly reviewed and have made a great career of this. Fast forward (without adding the extra momentum that reality says is going to be there) to 2010. Uh. There were 10 000 to start with. Assuming that galsgalaxy added the same number of unserved readers who just loved female written fantasy… call it 20 000 authors that business can support. Only the 1% chance now adds up to… 536 870. If the 20% long term success was to hold good… in 2050 there would be 10 K or so reviewed award winning female authors. Even if the pool has increased to double (2000) that’s too many and totally dominant – and Joe Author will will be starting Guysgalaxy. Of course many other factors will start killing the momentum of Galsgalaxy long before this, but the actual point that the organizer should have disbanded the organization was about half way through 2003 – or 5 years earlier, because momentum takes a while to damp. The pendulum falls quite slowly at first, but once it has built up that acceleration it goes very fast. By the time a pendulum gets to the balance point… it’s TOO late. It has huge momentum and will overshoot. At the moment… well I reckon its overshot and still being pushed.

      Now yes it’s not a simple mathematical progression, and there other limiting factors, and this is a gross simplification. I could model it properly if I cared enough. It’s still a good approximation/illustration. But because of the lag factor in career build times, a simple thing like ‘number of reviews’ is totally misleading. Redo the stats, number of reviews per age cohort – and by the age of the reviewers and very different picture starts to emerge. Yes, more men 60+ get reviews. Yes, they get 80% of the reviews. Yes, older reviewers tend to review more older writers, and more men. They WILL die. More 30 year old women than men get reviews, and they will age. If you actually want fair representation you’ve got to start being equal per cohort, or you simply pass the problem down to your children. BTW, the stats on your site point out that these include older works – I deliberately set out to get a current picture, and published all the sources and methods used.

    2. Your reply BTW also put me in mind of the woman prof defending the massive imbalance in gender in students. ‘Women still face the glass ceiling … There are more women solicitors but fewer judges.’ The average age of solicitors is 42. The average age of judges is 60. Work out what happens in the next 20 years, and, if you leave the situation as is (because it takes 18 years for judge numbers to reach equilibrium, and your proportion of female students rise 1% a year) what happens in another 20. Now apply that to reviews. Yep. What will happen, one day, is there will 20% males writing fantasy… and they’ll demand equal reviews. Work out what the impact of that is female writers.

  9. Well, I think that anyone who feels there is a bias about women in the publishing industry is correct. I just think that the bias is the other way. Women seem to be pushed as better authors, and title with female authors are certainly more available. I really don;’t care as long as the individual author is good but, I fear SF/.Fantasy is going to go the way of the western. None available outside the romance category and that mere trappings for bad romances.At least half the SF I see is either bad romances or issue books. Another sector is gay SF which seems to comprise a significant fraction of the market. I am really tired of people who look like me (white heterosexual competent male) being the villains or patsies.

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