Monday, 25 July 2011

Women in SF: Making UK Writers Invisible

A stickwoman shoots a green jelly alien with a raygun.

Discussions of international speculative fiction tend to be very US-centric. Even when talking about diversity, it tends to be the diversity within the USA, not the diversity outside of it. This doesn't go away when a discussion is trying to be more inclusive. In fact, it causes a problem which affects me directly. The problem starts because discussions often go something like this:

"USA! US US US US US. Okay, now let's talk about somewhere other than the US or UK. Rest of the world, ahoy!"

And I'm thinking, "Wait a minute... we didn't talk about the UK."

It's not that I'm against talking about the rest of the world. It's a good thing, and I don't like to say my thoughts during those discussions for that reason (I think such discussions have already been derailed if they spend most of the time talking about the USA, so I'm not going to re-derail them). But this US = UK attitude is part of the US-centrism problem. It assumes the US represents the UK, in terms of culture, language and publishing.

The Women in SF debates have been a good example of differences between the US and the UK. In Cheryl Morgan's look at women being published in SF anthologies, the UK has a worse track record of publishing women who write science fiction than the US. When an editor was from the UK, only 16% of stories were by women. When the editor was from the US, 33% of stories were by women*.

Yet in the discussions, people were happily saying "well, if there aren't enough women writing SF in the UK, just invite some women from the US."

The problem in the UK isn't that women aren't writing science fiction, but that such women are considered to be mythical (other than a few exceptions) and that editors don't publish them very often (because they don't exist!)**. Hiring US writers in their place just encourages that invisibility. The more people say "hire US women then", the more invisible I feel, because it means the person saying it agrees with the general premise: that women writing science fiction in the UK simply don't exist to be hired.

Many prefer to focus on helping a hypothetical set of women, who might possibly write science fiction, given the right encouragement. The right encouragement being to hire women who aren't in the UK. As the hypothetical women are hypothetical, they aren't going to complain.

There aren't any easy solutions to this, but the first step is to acknowledge that there are women writing science fiction in the UK. They're just not getting published very often. Some may end up never getting published as a result. Others, like me, will jump ship and submit in other countries. The second step is to realise that importing successful women from other countries instead of hiring UK women isn't progress***. It's just reinforcing the current situation, where UK women writers are invisible.


* One question it raises: why is there a difference? I can't say I'm treated with more sexism in everyday life in the UK. I've actually found the US worse on my visits. One possibility may be that UK publishing just hasn't faced the issue directly before. There's a lot more talk going on in the US publishing industry. Which is interesting, as some say talk never works and no one ever listens anyway... this would suggest perhaps they do, even if it's not immediately obvious.

** You'll note I didn't say "because editors hate stories by women". Though I know some firmly believe your plumbing changes the way you write, I don't. About the only thing that makes me think a man wrote it is when a female character looks into a mirror and says: "I couldn't help but admire my shapely and plump breasts. I never tired of oggling myself." I'd note neither men or women are prone to male characters looking in a mirror and saying: "I couldn't help but admire my shapely and plump balls. I never tired of oggling myself."

Fortunately, all forms of mirror oggling appear to be on the decline.

*** 'Instead of' is important to note here. An anthology with stories from all over the world would be great. But hiring women from elsewhere so you can pretend UK women writers don't exist is not so great.


fairyhedgehog said...

This is all new to me and I'm glad you've brought it up. I hadn't realised that it was still difficult for women to get Sci Fi published in the UK. Do we have to use asexual or male pen names to get into the club? Of course, that would just perpetuate the myth that women aren't writing Sci Fi in the UK.

I loved your oggling comments. (And so did my family!)

Ilasir said...

I've noticed this conflation, and it really annoys me. The markets in the US and the UK are very different, and there are things you can get published in one that won't fly in the other.

And when SFF comes over to the US from the UK, most people don't realize it isn't American. That really needs to change, especially with regards to female writers.

Polenth said...

fairyhedgehog, I don't think having a gender neutral name has really changed anything for me. Aiming for US markets has. There are more markets in total, which makes it easier to avoid the ones with issues. It just seems rather twisted to have to break into the US market, in order to have someone say "hey, women in the UK do write science fiction".

Ilasir, As you've probably realised, it makes me a bit twitchy too. ;) Some of the issues overlap, but some of them don't. I wish more people realised that.

Marian Perera said...

The comment about the heroine ogling her shapely breasts reminded me of a terrible book about a woman finding out she was unexpectedly pregnant. Problem was, the (male) author had the heroine preparing for "her menstrual ordeal".

Polenth said...

Marian, "Menstrual ordeal" brings to mind preparing by laying in the hand grenades and barricading the door. More like a zombie invasion. It would be more exciting if that were true...