Looking at Lists of Bests (again)May 17th, 2011 at 13:14
Last week, Tehani (@editormum) and Kirstyn (@fearofemeralds) started tweeting about the gender balance of the recent Guardian article, “The stars of modern SF pick the best science fiction“. We discussed it with some other people at the time, but I wanted to note down some of my thoughts & responses to the article, as well as the discussion.
Thought the First: I totally love that people spot this stuff now and call it to Galactic Suburbia’s attention rather than the other way around. In many cases, they parse it so we don’t have to.
Thought the Second: I totally ran my eye down the page and thought: Okay, not many women are having their work nominated here, but it does look at least like they asked lots of women their opinions. My informal survey made me think the genders of authors asked to contribute was roughly even.
Just as the conversation started getting interesting, I thought I’d better check the numbers, and before I had even got halfway down the page, Kirstyn got in ahead of me:
Best SF? Authors asked:16M/8F; Authors rec’d: 20M/4F. Only 1 M author rec’s book by F (and yes, it was Le Guin’s LHD): http://bit.ly/k5fH73
So that’s some more interesting things. Half as many women as men were included in the article as providing recommendations – and that was enough for me, an active and switched-on feminist hobbyist-Table of Contents-critical-appraiser (no, it doesn’t all fit on a business card) to think it was roughly even. When I saw what the real numbers were, I wanted to throw a cup of tea over myself.
Kirstyn presented the information that there were 16 men and 8 women surveyed, and yet 20 male authors were recommended, and only 4 women. She noted that only one male author recommended a book by a woman, and that it was Le Guin’s Left Hand of Darkness.
The Twitter conversation got a bit muddled at that point and I want to reiterate that none of us rolling our eyes meant anything derogatory at all to Ursula Le Guin, to that book (which is an acknowledged Great Work of the science fiction field) or to Kim Stanley Robinson, who chose it as his pick. It was an awesome choice, and he deserves kudos for remembering that women write science fiction too.
The reason there was eye-rolling is a carryover from many discussions we’ve (i.e. Galactic Suburbia and Friends) had about similar lists over the last year (The SF Signal MindMeld has been a common source for these) and more, which has brought up the anecdotal evidence that, when asked to recommend Great or Important or Best SF books, men are far more likely to produce lists of all male works, while women’s lists tend to be more gender balanced. In a large majority of cases where men do recommend a work by a woman, it seems to be Ursula Le Guin and particularly The Left Hand of Darkness.
I’m not saying, I repeat, that this is always the case. But it’s a common pattern, and one that interests me greatly. Why that book, in particular? Apart from it being awesome, which is a perfectly valid reason, why is that the science fiction book by a woman which seems to most often get remembered and recommended by men? More to the point, why are so many others consistently forgotten, unless the actual theme of the question specifies that we’re talking about women’s work?
Now, a list like this does not provide especially hard data about what people actually think, gender-wise. A list of one (which is what each author was asked for, individually, with no reference to each other’s picks) is not the sort of thing that calls up conscious thoughts of balanced representation. It’s only when a bunch of lists of one are put together into a list of, oh, 24, that the patterns start to look rather telling. I do think that this is at least partly how the sausagefest that is the SF Hall of Fame comes about (1 editor, 1 writer, 1 artist, 1 other, oops they’re all blokes again) – though I’m not convinced that’s much of an excuse.
On the other hand, as many of the MindMelds and indeed a lot of the last year’s themed lists in the Guardian itself (not gender specific) have shown, there are plenty of people who, when asked to make a list of many authors or works, still manage to come up with all or mostly men.
(Which is not to say that anyone who mostly remembers or values works by men, especially in a field as male-dominated as science fiction, are sexist or anti-feminist or any of those things – mostly it just means those are the books they like, and everyone is free to like or dislike books based on their own preferences. It’s just, you know, Worth Noticing The Patterns)
The information that jumped out at me from this particular Guardian list was not that almost all the men asked reached first for a male author or his work, but that 5/8 of the women also did. Again, this is not to criticise their choices. It’s an excellent article in that every choice is presented and described in very personal, intimate terms. The unfortunate gender balance is a pattern that emerges from the article, and does not take away from the quality of the article or the individual responses.
Except… well. It kind of does, doesn’t it? When you look at it as a whole. And I do wonder why only 8 women out of 24 were seen as enough. A list like this is almost always going to be male-heavy because of that old chestnut of men dominating science fiction (as if 80 years of ignoring women’s work was a justification for continuing to do so in the name of historical veracity), but while I wouldn’t have expected 50-50 in people’s answers, why such a huge disparity in the people of whom the question was asked? Even if less than half of those women themselves picked other women, the article would certainly have felt more balanced with wider diversity in the people included.
Or were the Guardian, like my subconscious unthinking inner reader, happy enough with the gender balance as published because, you know, it sort of felt about even?