Monday, June 23, 2014

Gender, and what I read

The latest Rocket Talk podcast brought up the recent column from Lady Business, in which Renay runs copious amounts of data to look at the SFF blogging community and how the community as a whole reviews male and female authors.  The podcast itself is worth listening to, as it is a conversation between Justin and Renay on the survey and what it says about the community.

Project thesis: when looking at a sample of bloggers reviewing SF/F, a majority of men will skew toward reviewing more men. A majority of women will skew toward a more equal gender parity, or the opposite in which they review a majority of women. There will be a handful of outliers.

This is the third year Renay has put in the work to delve into this.  She notes,

Our data for this year doesn't support our thesis quite as strongly as in previous years, but the data still shows that unfortunately, women writers are not being reviewed at the same rate as men.

I have been periodically engaging with this for a number of years.  Less as part of the community as a whole, but more about my own reading habits.  Granted, Renay's survey has more to do with what bloggers are choosing to review, but it does start with what we're reading.  Plus, until this year, I have done very little reviewing over the last three years.  Even counting short stories and graphic novels, I posted all of twelve reviews from 2011 to 2013 (7/12 were of works written by women).  Over a three year period, that's not enough to be significant. 

I noted on Twitter in April that after pulling a quick look at my reading stats over the last six years, the breakdown of the percentage of books written by women I have read ranges between 26% and 45% each year, with a note that it is only this year that my percentage was around 45%. 

That was late April. We are not through June yet, so if I only look at what I've read from January 1 through May 31, I have read 63 books.  27 of them were written by women.  This breaks out to 42.86%.  So, the percentage has dropped a little bit since April. 

This is still one of my most successful years at reading books written by women.  I find this odd and slightly disturbing, because in previous years I had, on a monthly basis, tallied and analyzed my reading breakout. The percentage tended to fall in the 30's.  I actively think about this from time to time, and still I find myself not just reading more men than women, but significantly more men than woman.  I have no idea why this is, except to acknowledge that there is an institutional bias going on.

When I left to enlist in the military three years ago, I pulled myself off of all of the publisher mailing lists I was on, and even though I am back home (I went Reserve, not Active Duty), I am no longer receiving two hundred (or so) books each year in the mail.  If I read something, if I review something, it is because I actively sought out the book to either buy or borrow from the library.  The last four years is all me. 

If asked who my favorite authors are, at any given time, I will mention Elizabeth Bear, Louise Erdrich, and Alison McGhee before I put any thought into the question.  If asked to compile a list, you would find a fairly well gender balanced list of authors or books (depending on the list).  And yet, if you look at a list of what I actually read, you won't find that same balance.  I have no idea why this is.  I can only say that it is.  

One can say that this is about "reading what you want to read", which is both completely true and utter bullshit.  Yes, most people read for pleasure and read "what they want", but examining what you read and why you read it can be valuable, informative, and transformative.  My assumption is that most people don't like only one thing.  I know I don't.  It's not necessarily that I am looking for something shiny and new, but more that I am simply looking for something else that I might enjoy.  Something that brings excellence or beauty or a compelling reading experience, for whatever that means to me on any given day. 

But here's the thing.  I only know about what I know about.  Until I had read Elizabeth Bear, I never knew just how much I would love her writing and how she consistently writes novels that blow me away.  Until I just read Katherine Addison after years of being aware of Sarah Monette (her real name) but never reading Monette's books, I would never have known just how good The Goblin Emperor was.  Insert any writer you want there.  Until I read Carrie Vaughn, I turned away from the thought of the modern urban fantasy / paranormal romance with werewolves and vampires.  The list can go on (and on) with any number of writers in any genre, male or female, because so often you just don't know until you give a book a go. 

This isn't about everyone else.  This is about me.  Who am I reading and why have I made the choices I have?

Who am I missing today?  Who have I been missing for the last twenty years? 

I don't believe it is about crossing an artificial line in the sand for who I should read or how many of books that fit a particular category.  What I do think this is all about is realizing and remembering that no matter what I think I like to read and what my favorite books are, there are all of these other books written by a diverse range of authors that offer so many difference perspectives that, hey, these books are awesome, too.  This isn't about denying one set of books at the expense of another.  This is about embracing as much as possible.  I read Katherine Kerr for the first time last year.  I am about to read Kate Elliott for the first time next month.  I've never read Martha Wells, Trudi Canavan, Diana Gabaldon, or Mary Gentle.  How many of these women have written some of my favorite books if only I take the time to read them?

I need to do a better job of that.

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