Complex systems

It’s an Irish summer and the sun is actually shining. I should be working on my thesis or one of the ten thousand things I’m behind on.

(Like reviews. Hi, difficulty focusing! How nice you should come visit…)

Instead, I’m taking a little time to mention something that I came across via Niall Harrison at Strange Horizons.

Tor UK has an open submissions policy. Editor Julie Crisp ran the numbers on genders submitting to their slushpile. In Sexism In Genre Publishing: A Publisher’s Perspective, she brings the numbers out into the light and finds that her slushpile ratio is 32:68 F:M overall, 22:78 F:M with science fiction specifically, and calls for more women to submit their work.

Leaving aside the discussions from short fiction markets which suggest that while men submit more work overall, women submit work of better quality – what good is a post that points out the disparity in subs? Renay (of LadyBusiness) calls it “a reductive, shallow look at the issues regarding gender parity and representation in genre.”

She says, “[The post seeks] to distance itself from the external criticism of the community which would hold it accountable for the decisions which have led to the low numbers of submissions from women. Instead of taking a forward-looking path to solving the problem of low submission, publicly posting the numbers to ask “How can we do better? What are the cultural and social issues that might be influencing women’s reluctance to submit? How can we reach out more and welcome women writers? How can we better support them once they’re here?”, Julie Crisp used the numbers to say, “Not it!” and complain about the blame being laid at her door.”

In the comments to the original post, Sophia McDougall writes

What is so hard about battling sexism in publishing is its so nebulous and fluid, you often cannot point to one deliberate, malicious decision and say “this is where it all went wrong.” This also means there is not one single decisive thing you can do to fix it. You’re right to say it’s not “clear-cut”. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, or that the problem is just that women aren’t interested. As the industry stands, women have good REASONS not to be interested! I know this is something that people at the publishing end can’t just wave a magic wand and fix. I know you can’t publish what you don’t receive. But publishers do have a part to play, and that has to include recognising the complexity and scale of what’s going on.

…maybe SFF isn’t worse, maybe it’s better, because at least it knows and cares that it has a problem and is trying to change. Even though it is sometimes painful.

But I feel this piece will be taken as granting SFF permission to care less.

Sexism is complex and visible disparities are the result of many intersecting factors. Showing the numbers is useful. But if one wants to change the disparity one cannot sit back and wait for better numbers to magically appear. Just because one asks nicely.

Addressing complex systems takes work.

I’ve never seen UK editions of Elizabeth Bear’s science fiction. Catherine Asaro. Kristine Smith’s Jani Killian novels. Chris Moriarty’s Spin novels. Sharon Lee and Steve Miller’s Liaden books. Hell, Karen Traviss. The time is ripe for some UK publisher to make an investment in an SFF “21st Millennium Classics” line, acquiring UK rights to SF novels published in the first decade of the new century, and putting an equal proportion of male and female authors in the line-up. If women in the UK don’t see science fiction by women on the shelves, published by UK publishers, they’re hardly going to see the point in submitting to UK publishers themselves.

If there was an easy fix, we would have stopped talking about this years ago. Constant, mindful engagement across multiple avenues of approach: that’s the only solution.

And that takes a very long time.

One thought on “Complex systems

  1. Ruth Downie had a disappointing post not too long ago about the sexism in British publishing, how her UK editors told her she had to use her initials for her books! And she writes historical mysteries set in Roman Britain.

    Now I picked the first volume up off the new books section in the library when it came out here, because the combination of author’s name, title, and subject matter evoked a favorite author, Rosemary Sutcliff, who seemed to still be pretty popular when I visited England some years ago, still in print and on the shelves in YA sections and childrens’ bookstores.

    And it’s not like either Mystery or History Mystery are traditionally known as male-dominated genres for readers or writers, in the US or UK, from the days of Dame Agatha and Dorothy Sayers on down. Backsliding? or Backlash? At any rate, the problem which Joanna Russ defined is very definitely real, widespread, and most certainly systemic.

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