In response to the Strange Horizons analysis of male/female review statistics (spoiler: books my men get more reviews than books by women) a number of folks on Twitter have been contributing to a #WomenToRead hashtag. It’s meant to be a way to get female authors’ names in front of readers who have a habit of only buying books written by dudes, but I’m not sure how effective it is.
Reading through, it seems more like an exercise in frustration than genuine recommendations. In the better tweets, someone will say, “If you like [male author x], try:” followed by a number of names, or else writers will be listed by genre.
Unfortunately, while it’s great to point out what sort of books these women have written, they don’t really tell readers why they would fall in love with any particular writer’s work. When I see a laundry list of authors’ names scroll past, my eyes glaze over very quickly, especially when so many of them are Twitter handles.
Still, I understand the frustration: I personally feel invisible within the genre; I continue to get very nice emails from people who love my books but only discovered them well after the series was cancelled. My sales were so shitty that I don’t deserve to call myself “midlist.” To most people, I’m barely a hanger-on.
And yet I still got reviews in a number of places, and nice critical attention, too. Imagine how it must feel to not even get that much. Imagine how it must feel to work like crazy on a book for a year knowing that no magazine anywhere is going to bother reading it, let alone devote column inches to it.
There’s also this (please imagine replacing the word “math” with “writing.”)
People (mostly guys) have this weird idea that fiction written by women are all one sort of thing, as if it can all be lumped in as one type. There’s also the idea that, if a subgenre has a lot of women writers and readers, it has a yellow “Caution” tape around it to warn guys away.
For instance, two years after it was posted I still get traffic from this Tor.com article: Urban Fantasy and the Elusive Male Protagonist (let us turn away from the issues around the blog post itself, which I tried to address in the comments) and the comment section can be instructive/cringe-inducing/hope-for-humanity-destroying. To quote (copy & paste, so sic):
its come to the point where i wont touch a book with a female on the cover unless its been recommended by some friends or an author i respect.
it seems as if its all about alpha werewolves and master vampires in a three way relationship with an independant ass kicking woman, the majority of it could also be classified as soft-core porn.
For a lot of people, men write books in a genre (or in a tradition) while women all write the same book over and over with a few proper nouns switched out. What’s more, That Same Book is usually considered Someone Else’s Thing.
Anyway, I’ve been pretty up-front in the past that I don’t think reviews have much of an effect on sales figures, but it’s not just sales we’re talking about here. We’re also talking about the critical conversation within the genre (such as it is): how it changes, what’s becoming old hat, what’s offensive or wrong-headed. When women are left out of that conversation, their contributions become ignored.
So, to wrap up I want to make two points: First, if you’re recommending female authors, a long list of names, even if you break them down to five or six in a genre, are just going to make people skim. Pick one or two, give a good reason why for each. Make a specific pitch. Yes, that means people you know will be left out, but this isn’t a one-time thing, right?
(To that end, I’ll recommend Sarah Monette’s The Bone Key. I bounced off Monette’s epic fantasy series, but this story collection blew my mind. Kyle Murchison Booth is nothing like Ray Lilly, but the setting and tone of these tales are a fantastic antidote to the tentacle monster stories that dominate so much of the dark fantasy genre. And this shows why I’m crap at giving recommendations, because I’m always reading years–or decades–behind, so I’m never up on the current stuff.)
Second, if you’re one of those readers who glances at their bookshelves, sees nothing but books by dudes, then shrugs it off, it’s time to break a bad habit. There’s a wide world of great books out there to be enjoyed and no reason to hide from it. If you like awards, start checking out books written by women that win or get nominated for them. If most of your reading is off the bestseller list, start trying some of the female writers there.
The truth is, your results will be mixed just as with anything. Some writers you’ll hate, some will be meh, some will be new gotta-read favorites. Of those books by “gotta-read” authors, some will also have “a female on the cover.” Take chances. Grab things from the library or try the sample chapters on your ereader. It may take a while before you start finding new favorites, but if you’re like me, the favorites you have now took a lifetime to collect. Don’t give up quickly. Keep stretching.
Added later: As pointed out on LJ by user martianmooncrab, RT has a review section for SF/F but their numbers are rarely included in these surveys.
Added later: The Revenge: The author who started the hashtag explains her reasons.
Yeah, I spent an inordinate amount of time this morning putting Comixology on my wife’s iPad and downloading as many of the free Marvel comics as I could snag. I tried for all 700-some, but there were issues with server overload, obviously, so I’m going to try again later.
The free comics (first issues of new and old books) are only available for a short time, so snap them up if you want them.
I have to say that I enjoy reading comics on the iPad. For novels I think paper is better, but the electronic format works nicely with panels and art. I just wish I could afford them.
Just came back (actually, I’m writing this at night and it’ll post in the morning) from the reading described above (author Marie Brennan can be found on LJ and Twitter as swan_lake) and you know what I came away with?
Voice. Voice, people. That was the big lesson I learned from reading all debut novels for a year. The one thing they all had in common was a strong voice.
The reading itself was fun. I actually talked to people. My wife was so happy when I told her about it later that she cheered and clapped me on the shoulder.
making books reading The outside world: internet publishing
by Harry Connolly
Not authors reviewing their own work, or authors reviewing work from the same publisher. They’re pulling down all reviews from authors.
And just in case you think they might be sorta cool about it, they’re back to their usual bot-speak:
Any further violations of our posted Guidelines may result in the removal of this item from our website.
Note that they’re not talking about the reviewer’s book. It’s the book he’s writing the review for that they’re threatening to pull. So you guys out there who were thinking of paying back your writer enemies by reposting reviews to their work until Amazon yanks them, now’s your chance.
Best of all, once your enemies start to complain, the response they’ll get will be short and sweet and made of copypasta:
I understand that you are upset, and I regret that we have not been able to address your concerns to your satisfaction. However, we will not be able to offer any additional insight or action on this matter.
http://www.comcastmustdie.com is moribund now, isn’t it? Has anyone registered Amazonmustdie.com?
making books reading: a blessing of monsters everyone loves blue dog harvest of fire man bites world Twenty Palaces words
by Harry Connolly
Rachel Manija Brown posted something provocative about so-called “portal fantasy.” For those who didn’t click the link: essentially it’s a Narnia-style story, in which a person or persons from our mundane world is transported to a second-world fantasy setting. Apparently, agents reject those stories at the query stage without ever requesting a full manuscript, and the reasons described in the post (all frustratingly second-hand) strike me as extraordinarily bogus.
They’re talking about non-adult books: YA and MG, but I don’t remember seeing a lot of adult-oriented portal fantasies.
But it’s only after I read a post on Making Light that I realize I myself have been All Over Portals in my books.
Now, that Making Light post is talking about Fantasy With Portals In Them rather than Portal Fantasies, which is not exactly a subtle distinction. For one thing, modern person transported to fantasy world setting is a very specific thing. Still, Circle of Enemies and Twenty Palaces both contain literal portals in which Things Intrude Into Our World, and the other two books have implied portals.
What’s more, EPIC FANTASY WITH NO DULL PARTS is full of portals; the barely-Iron-Age society conducts trade through them and they are the center of the plot.
It’s not portal fantasy, per se, but… is this my subconscious calling to me? Has the online discussion finally made me look into my heart and realize that what I’ve really longed to do all this time was write a book about a mafia hitman transported to pseudo-Narnia? Or a pipe-fitter in Osgiliath?
Well, maybe not, but it’s fun to think about.
Something happened over the weekend that I found a little unnerving. As I mentioned on Twitter, I took my son and his buddy to Brickcon last Sunday and it was cool and all (until my camera battery died) but afterwards we stopped for a couple of slices.
On the way to the pizza place, we passed a used book store. “Ooo, books,” buddy said, and I suggested we stop off there after lunch.
We did, and my son was a complete pain about it.
The first thing I did, as always was look for a copy of my own book. Once I found it, I checked the title page; it had been inscribed to “Patty” and overall looked very lightly handled. We joked about apologizing to her and then my son was ready to go.
His buddy and I were interested in browsing the shelves, snapping up stuff by authors we had heard about, looking for books in series we hadn’t finished, all the usual stuff. But my son just wanted to joke about making messes in the valuable book section and complain about going home to play Minecraft.
It was a little disheartening.
My kid does read. Currently he’s on a tear through YA post-apocalyptic thrillers and obviously he reads for school. But his mom and I delight in books, while he doesn’t seem to care at all.
Maybe it’s a phase. Maybe he’s the cobbler’s barefoot son. Maybe it’s that I’ve been bringing him new library books every Saturday for years and he’s become blase.
But it’s pretty annoying.
As promised, here is the comic fantasy “novel” that my son wrote as a home-school project. I’ve decided to split it in half because cliffhangers are fun and ten thousand words in a single blog post is a bit much. The first half went online yesterday.
Here’s a brief post about the project, in case you’re aching for some background. For the record, this is his work, only lightly edited by me.
The Twin Swords of Zordain
I ran to the fire and threw the contents of my canteen over the raging flames, extinguishing them.
Cass ducked into the cabin and started casting spells through the door while Garth grabbed a shield and blocked the next blast of flames, melting the shield completely in the process.
I ran back next to Garth and drew my sword. Cass suddenly stopped casting spells. I almost turned and asked her why, but I saw the dragon land in front of us on the ship, crushing various boxes. Without the blinding sunlight in my eyes, I was able to take a look at it. It was a dark red dragon, not much bigger than me, with small red eyes that seemed to carefully inspect the environment around us. From the minute I saw it I knew it wasn’t a common dragon from Casanopala that evolved with more brute force than smarts to survive against various wars going through the area, but a clever dragon that came from far away, where you had to scare off a single knight a year to preserve your treasure and stay alive. It must have come through a portal made by one of the swords. It growled at me. Then I noticed it had an emerald green sash over its shoulder. The sash was as oversized as Garth’s helmet (which, at the moment was lying face-down in the cabin) and had a badge that said: reserved for elite team.
That told me that this dragon was very clever.
”Why do you fight for those Invastigan fools?” I asked it.
“Because they have archers locked onto me every second!” the dragon replied in a different voice than I had expected that suited a stand-up-comedian more than a dragon.
“Okaaaaaay,” I replied. “And are dragons afraid of archers?”
“Are you a dragon?”
Everyone was silent for a moment then the dragon ripped the sash off his shoulder and tore it to shreds with his claws. more »
As promised, here is the comic fantasy “novel” that my son wrote as a home-school project. I’ve decided to split it in half because cliffhangers are fun and ten thousand words in a single blog post is a bit much. Look for the second half tomorrow.
Here’s a brief post about the project, in case you’re aching for some background. For the record, this is his work, only lightly edited by me.
The Twin Swords of Zordain
Nack Town, a small village. Not a lot of interesting things happen. This seemed to be one of those very un-interesting days. more »
I started The Eye of the World weeks ago, but only just finished it this weekend. A lot of people love it, I know, but to be honest I found it a bit of a slog. However! I am keenly aware that it was incredibly popular at the time of its original release (1990) and continues to be so today after the author’s death.
It’s one of those series people complain about all the time; that’s a sure sign of success. But why was it a success?
I want to talk about what I liked, what I disliked, and what qualities it has that I believe made it popular.
ObDisclaimer: Saying: “These are the qualities that made this book a best-seller” is not the same as saying: “These are the only qualities that make a best-seller.” This may seem obvious, but this is the internet. What interests me here is the way this book is similar to mainstream bestsellers by people like Patterson, Koontz, etc.
Spoilers, obviously. more »
The column rode out of the city, armor gleaming, lances high, banners snapping in the wind. An old tinker, resting on a stump at the side of the road, called out: “Mean you to ride to the Mountains of Dhoom?”
“We do! We should arrive there just as the leaves turn. We’re going to tap those kegs, do a little fishing… you know, guy time.”
Honest to God, I do not want to see something like “The Mountains of Dhoom” written on a fantasy map unless the protagonist has a time-share there, and they love to ride paddle boats on Lake Dheath and plan to take their toddler to pick wildflowers on Dhestruction Meadow.
Eye of the World is an old book, I know, and I’m sure these jokes have all been told before, but as dull as this thing is, “Dhoom” hit me pretty hard. I took it as a personal insult.
Anyway, I’m nearly finished with it and plan to write up a post about why I suspect it was so popular. Soonish.
In other news, I’m writing this Thursday night and setting it to publish Friday am. I’ll be off the web pretty much all day, this being my wife’s birthday and all. I’ll be making meals, cleaning up, and generally making things easy on her today, and that means I won’t have much time for posting and tweeting. See you Saturday.
Over on Tor.com, Shoshana Kessock compares the portrayal of women in Game of Thrones and Girls and comes down on the side of the genre show, despite its problems.
Me, I haven’t seen either show. I have read Martin’s novels and I listened to an interview with Lena Dunham on NPR. Maybe that limited exposure should disqualify me from commenting on the topic, but this is my blog and I can be wrong if I want to.
Anyway, while listening to Dunham on NPR, she specifically addressed the whole “Voice of my generation” bit, making it clear that the character was ridiculous even when she wasn’t stoned and that she hoped viewers would recognize it wasn’t to be taken seriously. In fact, she made it clear that she was making an effort to portray a character who was not admirable at all–she admitted that others involved in the show had to make her pull back on the amount of humiliation heaped on her.
And my first thought was “She’s writing to literary protocols.”
Years ago when I was studying everything I could find about writing, someone (I’ve forgotten who) said that genre characters always (or nearly always) operated at the best of their ability. Whether it’s Conan fighting a giant snake or a CPA who discovers that her daughter has been kidnapped by a motorcycle gang, the characters may not always have skills and competence in a particular situation, but they do the best with what they have. If they do make mistakes, it’s either like Peter Parker letting the crook escape (a lesson that needs to be learned/kick off the story) or it’s the cop who arrests the wrong person (a mistaken action based on a misunderstanding of the evidence at hand).
When a character persists in their error, the way Neo continues to resist the idea that he’s living in a computer simulation, the instinct is to become exasperated with them. The same is true for stories where the audience wants the protagonist to operate at their best but they don’t (or don’t appear to be) such as addiction stories.
But in stories aimed for a literary market (at least the ones I’ve read) the characters rarely operate at their best. They’re feckless, selfish, self-delusional, or flawed in all sorts of ways. They don’t get out when they should. They don’t address their problems in a way that would fix them. It’s like Joe Gillis in Sunset Blvd: The movie starts out with him shot to death, and you see the long awful comedy of errors that led him to that fate.
Obviously, there’s overlap here; you can’t make large generalizations about groups of books (or readers) without begging exceptions or edge cases, but to me it looks like a clash of two conflicting artistic impulses.
I’m going to turn my computer off for the rest of the evening. It’s World Book Night, supposedly, so no Twitter, Netflix, email, whatever. Just my family and their books.
See you on the far side.
So, Forbes is reporting that JOHN CARTER has earned back its budget overseas, partly by topping the box office for two weeks in a row in China.
Of course, there’s still the marketing budget, but never mind about that. DVD preorders are strong and I like to imagine that quality will out.
But this does give me an excuse to revisit the film, just a little, in a way I couldn’t before.
After seeing it a few times, I think I might have worked out one of the reasons people didn’t go for it in large numbers. The ending. [Spoilers, obvs] In most movies, the big fight scene/marriage would be the end of the film. It feels like an ending.
Then you cut to Dejah waking alone in bed, and Carter walking around the tower deciding to throw away his amulet (wouldn’t it have been nice to take Dejah to Jasoom at some point to see the sailing ships, assuming she could survive in Earth’s gravity?).
Then he’s back on Earth, and we return to the journal and ERB, and…
Okay, here’s where I make a confession: One of the tropes I completely fucking hate to see in a book or movie is “Death will reunite you with the ones you love the most.” I seriously hate it, because to me it seems to be objectively pro-suicide.
There was a novel–I thought it was written by Dan Simmons but a scan of his bibliography doesn’t show anything familiar–that ended that way. His family died at the start, he traveled around like Kwai Chang Caine until he finally jumps off a bridge and is reunited with his loved ones. God, how I hated that ending! I hated it so much that I felt queasy at the finale of GLADIATOR.
But the ending of JOHN CARTER is pretty similar: the protagonist happily walks into his own tomb and shuts the door, then lies back with the lilies around him. He smiles speaks the words that take him out of the this world and into the one he calls home.
And as much as I love this ending, I think it’s the reason people were soft on the movie. Lawrence Block tells the story of a time he sat on a plane while the man beside him watched the movie BURGLAR, which is based on one of Block’s novels. As he tells it, the man was engaged throughout, laughing often. When the film ended, Block asked him: “What did you think of the movie?”
The reply: “It was okay.”
Block believes it was because the ending was soft. The guy enjoyed the whole thing, but it didn’t have a strong ending so his last experience of it was a let down. And what about the people who see JOHN CARTER, expecting a typical action movie denouement? So many folks complained about the nested flashbacks (always with the tone of “Some other people might find this troubling, but not me) that I think the real source of the objection is that ending, where things feel like they’ve been wrapped up, but there’s a whole frame scene story that everyone’s forgotten about.
Did I mention that I love the way it ends? I love fantasy novels and movies. I love adventure stories. And the end of the movie seems so like the way I enter into a fictional world that it felt like falling into a story all over again. Very powerful. Yeah, the movie is flawed, but for me that ending was quite strong.
And now I’ll stop writing about this movie for a while.