So, true story: I’m a professional speculative fiction writer.
It’s still weird to write that sentence, but there it is; by the standards set by most you-must-be-this-tall-to-ride professional authors’ associations, I qualify. I’m a professional. Writing books about queer anthropomorphic archaeopteryx Viking gods is a thing someone actually pays me money to do. Which is, for the most part, extremely great. Yay for living the dream!
It’s great… and then I have to have conversations about it. Specifically, conversations with men. With male fans of speculative fiction.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before.
Set the scene, author: It is a dark and stormy Sunday afternoon. I’ve been out for most of the day with my mother, running between hardware stores looking for a waterproof cover for one of those outdoor heaters that looks like a 1950s UFO glued to the top of a pole, and also a pH meter so I stop killing shrimp in my aquarium with our pH <6 apartment water.
My husband, meanwhile, has been back at home, hosting a whiskey tasting party with work colleagues. I have recused myself from this event, not because I don’t like whiskey, but because I like whiskey a bit too much, and recent events have lead me to try and rediscover the joys of sobriety. Sobriety and an afternoon of watching people I don’t know get drunk don’t sit easy with me, hence the adventures in Bunnings.
It’s about 4pm. We’ve found the cover, if not the meter, and have taken the dog for a walk along the lake to top it off. Mum’s gone home, so it’s just me and a wet, muddy pomeranian left to brave the wilds of the social gathering upstairs.
Said gathering is arranged around the dining table; the big one my husband bought specifically to host large parties, and had to crane in through the third floor window. I mumble hi, then something about putting the dog away, and scurry away into the back room to do so.
When I turn around, A Man has followed me.
“I was admiring your bookshelves,” he tells me, gesturing to the librarium. (A study nook converted to host both bookshelves and fishtanks. Library, plus aquarium. Librarium.) “Your husband tells me you’re a fantasy author.”
“Urban fantasy,” I say.
“I love fantasy,” says The Man. And then proceeds to grill me for the next fifteen minutes on whether or not I’ve read his favourite authors.
The answer, for what it’s worth, varies between “no” to “yes, but I wish I hadn’t” to the ever-popular “I wouldn’t read it if it were the last book on Earth and contained the secret to immortality within its pages.” I don’t want to be having this conversation. I don’t actually like being the killjoy feminist hipster who hates everything other people love. I especially don’t like some random guy I’ve never met before giving me a fake geek girl test over my own fucking profession in my own fucking house after looking at my own fucking bookshelf. Except what am I gonna do, alone with this slightly drunk work colleague of my husband’s?
As I’m contemplating my exit strategy, The Man finally asks me The Question. The Question goes like this:
“So why haven’t you read any of this stuff! Don’t you write it? When I thought I could be a writer, I read everything I could in the genre. As research.” A beat, then, “Admittedly, all I ended up with was a hundred thousand words of crap. But I read a lot of cool books.”
“Firstly, I write urban fantasy”–most of the authors The Man have been describing are of the epic and grimdark sort–“Secondly, you need about three to seven more of those piles of crapwords to get a publishable novel. And thirdly, well. I just don’t really like reading books written by men.”
The Man looks like I’ve just confessed to murdering puppies and roasting babies in their blood.
“What do you mean, you don’t read books written by men?”
It’s hyperbole. I mean, The Man should know that, having looked at my bookshelf. If nothing else, there’s an entire row there dedicated to Terry Pratchett sitting at eye height. Pratchett who was, last I looked, very definitely a dude.
“Well,” I elaborate. “It’s not so much that they’re men per se. It’s that I don’t like reading the sorts of books men often write.” These books, I go on to say, tend to combine one or more of the following elements:
- graphically described rape
- women introduced by the size and/or shape of their breasts
- male main characters who are nasty, whiny, unpleasant losers and yet who I’m supposed to like for some reason
- more graphically described rape
- women who are awesome at something… until said loser main character comes along to show them how A Real Man does it
- women who only exist to be the wife/girlfriend/mother/rape victim (pick one or more)
- dead women, dead women everywhere.
So maybe it’s an unfair assessment, but I’ve found that, in general, books like this tend to be written by men more so than women. Hence my reticence around male authors, and male-author-driven genres like grimdark epic fantasy.
The Man looks both disgusted and fascinated by this explanation. He says:
“Well. I don’t really think about an author’s gender like that.”
“I know you think that,” I tell him. “But, if so, why was every author you were asking me about before–every author you consider your favourite–male?”
The Man looks dumbfounded for a second. Then, “That’s not true! I read heaps of books by women.”
“Okay,” I say. “Like who?”
“Like, uh… you know. That, uh…” The Man struggles for a bit, then pulls out his phone. “Hang on. Let me check my library…” He does so, and we start the Fake Geek Girl Test again, this time with female authors.
“How about,” I say, “someone who’s had her debut in the last fifteen years?” This isn’t, I think, an unreasonable request, given it’s true for many of the male authors he was asking me about before. “Or someone who isn’t white.”
“Like who?” says The Man, and I get to play his game back at him for a little bit. I throw a bunch of softballs: N.K. Jemisin, Mira Grant, Catherynne Valente, Cherie Priest, Kameron Hurley. No hits. He counters with Cassandra Clare, but mixes her up with E. L. James.
“See,” I say, “you think you don’t take gender into account. And maybe you don’t, but everything else does. Male authors get more marketing. They win more awards. Get reviewed in more prestigious places. Are socially conditioned be more able to self-promote. Get more boosting from other successful male authors. What that all adds up to is a system where, if you aren’t conscious of who you’re reading, the books you default to will be by, more often than not, white men.”
I feel a weird sense of déjà vu. Not because I’ve had this conversation before, but because I feel like I’ve fallen into one of those blog posts on the internet. The ones I’ve read by all the other female SFF writers who’ve had this conversation before. And because of that, I know exactly what comes next.
The Man says:
“Well, okay. But I’ll read books by anyone. I don’t care about who the author is. I only care if the story is good.”
“Really,” I say. “Well, see. I read a lot of urban fantasy about men fucking each other. You say you like urban fantasy, so I can recommend some of those to you, if you want.”
The Man is on the back foot, now, but counters gamely with, “Well. If there’s a good story, a good world–”
“No, see,” I say. “You don’t get it. The men fucking part, that is the story. The rest of it is window dressing around that narrative core. You say you only care about a ‘good story’, but have you ever really thought about what you consider a ‘good story’ to be, and why? The ‘good stories’ you were telling me about before, they all have a few things in common, don’t they? They’re almost always about men. About white men. About heterosexual white men. About heterosexual white men who enact some sort of savior/hero narrative. You might consider that to be a ‘good story’, and that’s fine. But it’s not a neutral consideration. It applies to you, personally, because you are a heterosexual white man and when you read your ‘good stories’ you feel validated in your identity. When I read those stories, too often I see people like me reduced to rapable chattel. These stories are not validating, and thus I don’t consider them ‘good stories’.”
“I… hadn’t thought about it like that before,” The Man eventually says.
“I know,” I say, because I do. He hasn’t thought about it because most male SFF fans haven’t thought about it because most male SFF fans haven’t had to think about it. Not in the ways women and people of colour and queer people have had to think about it, even before they had the words to articulate what they were even thinking about.
So I say:
“Have you heard of the Tempest Bradford Challenge?”
“Bradford is an African American woman,” I say, because apparently I have to explain this from first principles. To a guy who considers himself a SFF fan, and can recite minutia about the career details of his favourite white male authors. But throw him a woman or a person of colour or, heaven forbid, a woman of colour, and suddenly he’s lost. “Her challenge is to, for one whole year, not read any book written by a straight white man.”
“Why would anyone do that?” The Man asks, earnestly baffled.
“To challenge their assumptions,” I say. “To do that thing you were talking about before; read more broadly, read outside your comfort zone, read the words of people you normally wouldn’t. To find more good stories.”
The Man blinks at me; a slow, confused, deer-in-headlights look. “I don’t know,” he says. “I still think the identity of the author shouldn’t matter.”
“I know you do,” I say, because there’s no point saying anything else. I know exactly what he thinks and why. I’ve heard his talking points reiterated over and over and over again, in blog posts and articles and keynotes and conversation. This is what happens with a dominant ideology. I already know all the rationales and the justifications. I’ve already rejected them a thousand times. I’ve said what I wanted to say in turn. There’s no point arguing over the semantics.
“But you’ve given me a lot to think about,” The Man adds. I try and be gracious–be the Good Ally doing Awareness 101–but I won’t lie; the comment stings. It stings because it implies The Man thought I wouldn’t have thought about this stuff. Wouldn’t have thought about my profession, my career, and my place in it. Wouldn’t have thought about my place in the world, wouldn’t have thought it different.
I try not to let it get to me. There are cupcakes on the kitchen counter and I eat one and thank the friend who made it. We talk about the dog, then I talk to her husband about my problems with the pH levels in my fishtank, and I don’t have to think about gender or justifications or well-meaning mansplaining.
An hour or so later, most people are leaving. The Man comes back.
“Thanks again,” he says, all bounce and positivity. “I could talk about this stuff all night.” I feel mentally and emotionally exhausted, but I just smile. He leaves.
After he’s gone, one more straggler is hanging around. Same demographic as The Man, but this guy I’ve met before. We’ve had conversations about the business applicability of management techniques learnt leading raids in World of Warcraft. He, too, is looking at my bookshelf.
“Is this your Pratchett collection?” he asks.
“I love Pratchett,” he says.
“Me too,” I say, my voice breaking a little. Because if there’s one thing that makes me choke up a little every time, it’s talking about Sir Terry. “I started reading him when I was a teenager. Witches Abroad was the first. I was trying to get into fantasy at the time, but a lot of it wasn’t clicking. But Pratchett, he writes these stories that are just so human. His books are about regular people, not heroes or chosen ones. Just normal people trying to live normal lives, even if they’re trolls or vampires or”–women–“witches. They’re all people. It was hard to go back to reading ‘regular’ fantasy, after Pratchett.”
“Yeah,” says the straggler, nodding. “I know what you mean.”