On influence and bookshops and use

Tansy Rayner Roberts, “On Influence”:

The meme that the female author in SFF is somehow a rare, precious, unlikely object, persists to this day. But you know what? There were women writing SFF in the 70′s, and not just a token handful. There were women writing in the 80′s and the 90′s and the 00′s and oh look they’re writing RIGHT NOW.

And yet when booksellers (and it’s not just booksellers) put out lists or displays of what to read after George RR Martin, how often are those lists all male?

In my experience? Quite often. It’s one reason I’ve stopped shopping for fiction at Hodges Figgis – well, that and the review copies. When it comes to backlists, which is where many of my major reading gaps are these days, it’s predominantly men; when it comes to new books, the books that get display space, with the notable exception of Trudi Canavan and Karen Miller, are predominantly written by lads. All the category science fiction to get table space is normally by men, with the exception of, this winter, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice.

It’s so much easier for me to find the books I want to read online. If I order them online, it will only take a week or two for them to arrive, rather than two weeks to a month if I order with Dublin’s oldest bookshop. I like bookshops. But I like browsing to find something that’s new (or old but I’ve not seen it before) and different and interesting, rather than the stuff I’m already familiar with, and Hodges Figgis doesn’t curate a corner-shelf of New or Different or Interesting in SFF.

Also they shelve Nick Harkaway and Angela Carter in plain literature.

If I were going by their shelves, I would never have found Beth Bernobich or Martha Wells or Marie Brennan or most of anything Elizabeth Bear or Sarah Monette wrote, or Michelle Sagara or Sherwood Smith or Deborah Coates, or Barbara Hambly. I did find Kate Elliott, but not very prominently. Tanya Huff. Amanda Downum. Cherie Priest. Juliet McKenna, but not much of her backlist anymore. The Antipodean blockbuster fantasy school keep a fair presence on shelves – Canavan, Fallon, Miller, Larke, whoever it is who’s writing the series begun with The King’s Bastard (Rowena Daniels?) – but they’re not generally to my tastes. N.K. Jemisin stays on the shelves, but rarely on the display tables. Elizabeth Moon likewise. Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death was prominently displayed for a month or two, likewise Karen Lord. But Lackey has begun to disappear from the shelves in backlist, and so has McCaffrey, and I don’t think I ever saw more than one copy of an Octavia Butler novel there at all.

To judge by their shelves, there are very few women who write in the science fiction end of SFF at all.

I read a hundred-odd books in a slow year: I’m not an average reader. And I like bookshops and want them to remain an institution of daily life. But if the bookshop is not useful to me, quite aside from questions of representation on the shelves, I’m not going to patronise them as often as, perhaps, I otherwise would.

Even if buying from The Book Depository instead does mean I’m contributing to the Amazonian monopoly.

3 thoughts on “On influence and bookshops and use

  1. Living abroad really makes me wistful for physical bookshops, or ones that at least contain books I can with ease and for pleasure (i.e. in English). One of the many joys of visits home is the chance to spend a few hours in physical stores imagining what I could own and read *right now* if I fancied it. E-readers cover that to an extent, but browsing online is a hugely different experience to browsing IRL.

    However, my reading has been much more diverse since I’ve NOT had access to real book stores. That’s partly a deliberate effort on my part, and correlation is not causation etc etc, but still, I can’t help wonder how I’d have managed if I still got my books primarily in Waterstones. Books have higher financial and opportunity costs now, and given I have to expend a higher degree of effort in choosing what to read I may as well make a good choice. I’m not sure I’d be quite as aware if I could just grab whatever was on offer from the 3-for-3 table.

    Dunno if that moves the discussion forward or not, really. Sorry :(

  2. Or even the 3-for-2 table. No wonder bricks and mortar stores are dying out with offers like that…

  3. Please don’t apologise.

    I find myself in an awkward position re: bookshops because I get my recommendations from other reviewers and from publishers’ catalogues and sometimes from the odd publicist these days. I don’t feel like my experience of looking for books is representative… especially since, writing the column, I find myself in the position of advocate as much as critic.

    So other perspectives are great.

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