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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Realms of Fantasy: now for Ladies!

January 6th, 2010 at 11:01

There’s been some reaction to Realms of Fantasy’s recent announcement of a women’s special issue in 2011. Celebrating women in fantasy, it will contain fiction and art entirely produced by women, and preference will be given to stories that engage with gender, sexism and um “other areas important to feminine speculative literature.” Across the internet, some women are welcoming the issue, while others are decrying it as an anachronistic way of dealing with a real problem (or indeed arguing that there is no need for it at all).

Sarah Monette posts on the issue here, with some very valid points. The comments are worth reading, too. Likewise, the comments on the Rof blog, which include Douglas Cohen explaining a bit more about how the issue came about – in a way far more sympathetic to me than the initial call for submission, which frankly rubbed me the wrong way with its patronising tone. Meanwhile, Cat Valente has an awesome post up that pretty much sums up the way I feel – that is, torn between responses.

Here’s the thing: I believe in affirmative action in the spec fic short fiction scene. I’ve gone back and forth on this one, but I do. I think the only way we’re going to get a better and more diverse mix of quality, interesting short fiction in the scene is by a) having and supporting the editors whose tastes automatically skew towards a diverse mix of authors and fictional themes, and b) challenging the best and most respected editors in the field to look beyond their automatic taste response to see the value in some stories other than those written by straight white men, or those which largely feature the problems, concerns and imaginary futures of straight white men.

Publishing is a meritocracy. But merit is subjective, and it is fluid. Editors who read “without considering matters or gender, race or author background” and yet consistently publish work which is about the default white male gaze do need to be challenged by their audience, if that audience has an interest in diversity in fiction. Sometimes affirmative action, of whatever kind, is necessary to help editors (not necessarily male editors) find value in stories that they might have missed out on otherwise – not because they are deliberately creating a culture of sexism (or racism, etc, let’s stick to sexism for now) but because their actions and to some extent their personal taste are unconsciously supporting said culture.

Which, you know, if you’re only interested in an (aging) readership of a certain kind of bloke, is just fine. Slap a label on the magazine which says ‘SF/Fantasy for Men’ and be done with it. (or just put a cover on it where a madeuppy woman has her boobs falling out of chain mail, this has a similar effect) Sure, you might lose some audience – both male and female readers – but at least you’re being honest about where your priorities are.

I am in two minds about Realms of Fantasy. On the one hand, celebrating women in fantasy is an awesome thing to do. In anthologies, particularly those dealing with the history of the genre, this can be a very constructive theme. There are many potential benefits of such an issue. If the editors are specifically reading for women writers, they may find some new blood, good authors who previously might have been overlooked. Also, this is an overt invitation to female authors, and may encourage more women to submit to the magazine. (lack of submissions is definitely an issue in the ‘sexism in SF magazines’ debate though without examining the question of why women don’t submit much to particular markets, it’s not the argument-winner some people think it is) Hopefully the effect will not be, as I know happened once in the old days at ASIM, that the slushpile will be robbed of its best female stories in one go, leaving the next year’s worth of issues to be even more imbalanced than previously…

And that’s the problem with a women’s only issue. It’s the very definition of tokenism. It acknowledges that there is an imbalance – indeed, it acknowledges that the default story/author of Realms of Fantasy is not “feminine” – and the proposed solution is a one-off issue, scheduled for publication nearly two years away. Because, you know. Women are actually not a minority in fantasy fiction, even if they are regularly treated/discussed as if they are. A women’s only issue appears to be addressing the problem, while not actually making any changes that will have a long term effect on the gender balance of the magazine.

As Cat Valente says, it’s a bone, thrown.

If you’re going to bring affirmative action in to try to change the diversity levels and particularly the gender balance of your magazine, then trying to regularly publish a 40-50% balance of female authors would be a far more useful contribution. Or making sure that no issue of Realms of Fantasy ever, from now on, has less than a 25% contribution by women. The same goes for art – you wouldn’t need to have a women’s only issue of artistic contribution (the impetus for this particular special issue apparently) if you made sure that 40-50% of your art was always produced by women. It also helps if you run your art past the ‘is this demeaning to women’ test, ideally by someone who knows what those words mean.

Or hell, if you want to address feminism in SF? That’s a much more interesting theme. Why not open it up to male authors/artists too? Just addressing a theme that is naturally of more interest to women than men should help with the balance of submissions, and it means you get a variety of perspectives.

All in all, I think I share the response of many women in thinking, really? We still need this? We still need the segregated space to be seen/heard at all? That’s sad. But you know, maybe we do need it, for the same reason that we’re still having this conversation, this very same conversation, over and over. Not because women aren’t as good writers and artists, but because that sneaky old subjective merit thing means that our work (and the work we love to read) is consistently overlooked on a day to day basis.

UPDATES:
Alisa Krasnostein of Twelfth Planet Press on gender balance in TOCs.
Doug Cohen has been educated on why his vocabulary in those sub guidelines was inappropriate and has apologised (though his post does suggest that he still Doesn’t Get It)
Copperwise, one of the art writers for RoF, talks about how the issue came about

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2 Responses to “Realms of Fantasy: now for Ladies!”

  1. Livia Llewellyn Says:

    Jim Hines started a thread on his Livejournal about this issue – while he currently isn’t giving his opinion (not because he won’t as much as he’s probably still thinking about it), the comment thread has spawned some thoughtful and interesting discussions.

    http://jimhines.livejournal.com/484506.html

  2. tansyrr Says:

    Thanks for that! I had seen it already (heh mostly cos people kept coming to my blogpost from there) but I’d forgotten to include the link.

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