That said, I've assembled an all-female panel of writers to be my teachers.
Today's discussion is this:
Are there issues in the writing and publishing community common to women that aren't typically experienced by men? What are they, and are they merely irksome or downright systemic?
Lisa Matthews Collins: I could go on ad nauseam about that topic. :/
Alexandra Christian: And I like kissy stuff (obviously) but good stories don’t have to be devoid of relationships (kissy stuff).
Elizabeth Donald: Oh my god yes this. Nowhere was it more obvious than when I switched from writing vampire thrillers - which were dismissed condescendingly as "vamporn" - to writing zombie action-horror. "That's kind of a guy thing," I was told, and while they were half-kidding, in almost every case I was the sole woman on the zombie panel if I could get on the panel at all. The stereotypes of What Women Write and What Men Write persist.
Lucy Blue: I will never understand why a dude, reader or writer, who is perfectly enthusiastic about a detailed description of the bare-handed evisceration of a toddler by a monster, alien, or zombie gets entirely skeeved out by an even remotely realistic love scene. I can see it now, a new trend in splatterpunk - 'this one is REALLY scary - they talk about their FEELINGS!!' ;)
Elizabeth Donald: I've been to cons. I know sffh fans like sex. :) And yet when I did my first Dragoncon, I was with my then-publisher Ellora's Cave handing out cover cards at my booth for my first novel, an erotic vampire thriller about a serial killer tearing out throats near a vampire-run sex club. A man looked at the description on the back of the cover card, looked at me and said, "The only difference between this stuff and Penthouse Forum is the words, 'I never thought this would happen to me.'" Then he walked about five feet away and threw my cover card on the ground, in my full view. I wanted to yell after him, "That shit cost me money, asshole." Or possibly do something antisocial to him. I did neither, because I was mellower then. :)
Stephanie Osborn: I've had that happen a few times. My response is generally, "I try to write realistic characters with realistic relationships. Are you in a long-term relationship?"
(if yes) "Then you get what I mean."
(if no) "Do you WANT to be in one? Then you get what I mean."
|Lisa Matthews Collins|
Elizabeth Donald: Sara Harvey can talk about being on a panel with a male author who opined that women can't write science fiction. He said it outright; I've been on panels where they obfuscated it behind vocabulary: "The language of science fiction is different than the language of romance, they don't blend well."
Stephanie Osborn: I do occasionally encounter people who don't know my background who try to explain the science to me. Until they find out what I used to do. [Editor's note: Stephanie is actually a rocket scientist.] Then they tend to disappear pretty soon quick.
Anna Grace Carpenter: Male characters are seen as the default, so men writing male characters is part of the norm, but when women focus on female characters (or things perceived to be female "interests") it's shunted into niche categories. (I had a dude at a convention back in January try to convince me that I could not possibly have written my books for him because the narrator was a woman, therefore it must be a book for women, not men.) Because men are the default, when a male author writes "outside his lane" so to speak, whether it's writing female characters or in a "woman's genre" it's usually regarded and brave and insightful, while women writing in genres perceived as "men's genres" are chasing trends or playing the gender card or whatever the current phrase is to indicate that women don't really belong in that space. Also, men can write characters that are either completely perfect or so very ordinary they shouldn't succeed in saving the world, and they won't be labeled as "wish-fullfilment" or "self-insertion" but women writing characters that are competent and skilled are frequently damned by accusations of "Mary Sue" characters.
While it would be nice to think these things are really just annoyances, they directly impact access to reviewers (or rather, how many female authors are reviewed each year), general exposure for their work, and ultimately sales numbers. (Let's not forget that a survey of top-market book reviews a couple of years ago revealed that dead male authors still received more critical attention than living female authors.)
Men didn't have the same identification experience, because most of what they read had Someone Like Them at the center of the story. They didn't have to stretch to identify with a female protagonist written by a woman, because that didn't exist all that much. Without that practice as a young person, without learning that empathy and identification with someone Other, their experiences in fiction were different than ours - and I leave it to others to say how much that affected them in real life as well.
Sadly, we're continuing this today. We still have children's movies aimed at girls or boys, separate toy sections where girls are expected to buy girl dolls and boys "action figures." We see children's entertainment retitled because we think boys won't see a movie with a girl as the main character, defying the entire history of Disney. :) There are parents beginning to read stories about girls to their boy children (vice versa has never been a problem), and I think that will make a big difference going forward.
Anna Grace Carpenter: I cried the first time I read "Dealing with Dragons" by Patricia Wrede because it was the first time I'd found a book that really seemed to feature a character I understood at a gut level. (And there are a lot of other "YA" books from my childhood that I love, but there was something deep in finding a character who reacted like I did, who had similar goals. Something I think a lot of men never have to contend with because so much of fiction is about male experiences.)
Elizabeth Donald: I have no studies to back it up, but when I began, nearly all my acceptances were from female editors and rejections from male editors. This began to change, however, when I got out ini the con circuit and made contacts among male editors and publishers. They got to know me, and my work, and then they came to me with opportunities or were open to my pitches. It's worth noting that "exposure" at cons is often at the whim of con organizers, so if a con is not particularly 'woke,' you'll find all women on the midnight sex panel and "why are vampires so hot?" and all men on "how to kill a zombie: gun or sword?" I know which panel I'd rather be on, but it's taken some doing.
For the record, those male editors have been almost all delights to work with, and I'd consider them all fairly open-minded, cosmopolitan folk. So I don't know how much of it is simply "we publish the people we know" (which is its own problem), and how much is, "A woman wrote zombies? Is it a romance?"
Ellie Raine: There have been a LOT of times when I tell someone I've written a book, they automatically assume it's romance. Even if I say it's fantasy, they think "fantasy romance". I've gotten into an argument with one man who insisted that women writers always use too much "emotions" compared to male writers, even though William Shakespeare, Edgar Allen Poe, Nikolas Sparks, Brandon Sanderson, James Patterson, George RR Martin, Neal Gaiman, and just about EVERY popular/GOOD author focuses on the character's emotions (which is pretty damn crucial to good story telling) and includes either a romance line or (in Martin's case) more sex scenes than 50 shades of Grey.
Lisa Matthews Collins: I was told I needed to go back to writing female lead POVs in my stories because who would want to read a male protagonist written by a girl?!
Elizabeth Donald: Oh lord... my husband writes horror romance, I write action SF and dark horror. Everyone assumes it's the other way around. He writes romantic happy endings; my books end in funerals.
Lisa Matthews Collins: This is an old thing that is still an issue... being judged by your name...not on any merit of storytelling expertise. I took a gamble on writing science fiction and pulp under my name Lisa M. Collins and not going with the safer route of L.M. Collins. Sadly, it took me awhile to make the decision to go with my name because Lisa is a girl's name.
Lucy Blue: And it's a double-edged sword. If you use your real, apparently feminine name, you get pre-judged. If you use your initials or a more apparently gender-neutral pseudonym, then when people find out you're a woman, you cheated.
Nikki Nelson-Hicks: It's the presumption that, because I have a vagina, I must write "girly horror." That I can't get deep and dirty with it. Once, at a writers' critique group, I submitted a piece and this guy kept saying, "You wrote this? YOU did. YOU?" Yeah, fucker. Me. I really never understand this idea that women can't GET horror. Sweetie, our lives are a horror show. We are a walking chemistry experiment that can explode at any moment. Body horror was MADE for us.
|Anna Grace Carpenter|
Elizabeth Donald: I got that one once from an editor. "You write action a lot better than I expected." Thanks?
I got a lot of criticism for my first zombie book, in which my protagonist is a former Marine paramilitary zombie fighter heading a group of ne'er-do-wells fighting paranormal threats. The criticism? "She swears too much." She's a goddamn fucking Marine zombie fighter, is she supposed to say "oh phooey, they're chewing his face off"? And each time I heard it - every single one from a man - I had to breathe deep and NOT say, "If she was played by Jason Statham and directed by Quentin Tarantino, you wouldn't blink at her use of the word 'fuck.'"
Lucy Blue: Oh yeah, I've heard the "she's not ladylike enough!" comment from everybody from my mom to editors to reviewers on Amazon.
Amanda Niehaus-Hard: My experience is different, but I write under different names, in different genres and categories, and for different age-range audiences, so I've seen prejudice of all sorts, but haven't specifically been a target.
I found it interesting to read Ellie's comments, because my personal experience has been pretty much 180 degrees the other way from hers, as I mostly go to book festivals and writers conferences now (as opposed to conventions) and I've felt MORE accepted at those festivals -- but that's of course only my own experience. I really want to respond to some of what she posted because I think there's a LOT of problems in the conference (and convention) culture that is part of why I think they’re failing financially.
Ellie wrote: “Basically, my experience with formal conference culture is that a LOT of people are there to make themselves feel better about how they've been going to these things for decades yet still haven't gotten a book deal with a publisher.”
Most general conferences, with the exception of the popular fiction conferences like those done by Writers Digest, are focused around literary fiction, so that whole “literary is superior” canard is ever-present. I honestly think SOME of that bias is starting to fade, as so-called literary authors are experimenting with non-realistic fiction, or fantasy/SF situations. The bigger writing programs are turning out more authors who experiment with non-traditional situations, so when the Iowa grads from 2010 to now start getting the high profile university jobs, I suspect we’ll see a shift away from dismissing genre (or they’ll just claim they do it better.) But either way, I see the snark becoming more about the work itself and less about the shelf category.
This is essentially why I stopped going to fan conventions except for a select few that I just attend for fun. I’ve been going to conventions since the mid 1980s, when the scene was COMPLETELY different, and cons were both fun AND a way to get into the business of publishing. The panels were either professionally oriented (how to get an agent with people who had actual agents, or science topics with actual scientists) or they were fan-run and fun, discussing stuff like the sociology of Star Trek.
What I’ve seen of conventions lately is a lot of non-experts talking over actual experts (as in people who actually work as scientists for NASA) or people with no experience in “traditional” publishing sitting on panels about agent queries just so they can advertise their books. (I'm certainly not against self-publishing, as I've self-pubbed some educational materials, but that doesn't make me an expert on the industry.)
It’s only in the self-publishing and micro-press arena that I’ve EVER taken any slack over being female and writing horror, SF, thrillers, romance, YA, lit fic, whatever. My experience with so-called “traditional” publishers (and writers who are published that way) has been nothing but stellar and professional. (Again this is just my experience, and I’m sure it doesn’t echo everyone’s experience.) I could have just gotten lucky and surrounded myself with amazing people, but I can say I’ve never been harassed, dismissed, not taken seriously, or had any real negative experience with anybody in the professional horror community, the SF community, the thriller writers, and the pulp writers community. Pulp writers have embraced me and supported me, and people like Phil Athans and Sean and Tommy and the gang over at Pro Se have been incredibly supportive and encouraging. I have no idea what’s said behind my back, but to my face everyone has been professional and respectful.
The small-press horror community is two-sided. One the one side I’ve had wonderful experiences with people and presses whose work I read and enjoy. I have been treated like gold by my small press publishers and those who publish my friends and whose work I read regularly. On the other side are, frankly, people who can’t write well, and throw together anthologies just to publish their own work. Some of those people have been dismissive of me, but I don’t read their work and I dismiss them as well, so it’s even. The only group I’ve seen overt hostility from is a Bizarro press that I will NEVER buy from again and won’t recommend or review any of their work, let alone submit to them.
Ellie Raine: I'm 100 percent behind the jurying idea for workshops. We don't have freshman undergrads mixed in the same advanced classes as grad students (unless certain exceptions apply), so this solution makes way more sense.
Editor's Note: The panel includes women of various races/sexuality. The authors above were the ones able to respond by the deadline for this discussion.