Jun 6, 2012
Alex Dally MacFarlane

SF anthologies: the (almost) unending male TOCs

I am so fucking angry at this idea some editors seem to have that the best science fiction stories are those written by men. White men, naturally. Straight. Western. It goes hand-in-hand with my anger at how so much SF, even the far-future kind, is white-dominated and features gender/sexuality binaries and societies that wouldn’t trouble a diehard Republican – because this is what these men whose stories are repeatedly published and reprinted are writing, this unimaginative, backwards-looking dreck.

I was browsing Waterstones on my lunch break, as I often do, and found a new anthology in the SFF section: The Mammoth Book of SF War, edited by Ian Watson and Ian Whates. Because apparently I’m a masochist, I cracked open the Table of Contents.

Unless I have misgendered anyone based on their names (for which I deeply apologise), I count 22 male authors and 3 female authors. That’s 12% female authors.

And, you know, I wouldn’t be so fucking angry about this if it wasn’t that almost every damn time I open a Mammoth Book of SF Stuff or an anthology edited by these two or Mike Ashley or any other big editor over here, I find this kind of ratio. (The one that’s just a Mammoth version of the Dozois Year’s Best does better. If we’re counting Sean Wallace’s Mammoth Book of Steampunk as SF, then that’s got a great ToC. But this should not be fucking exceptional.) Mike Ashley even managed to get an anthology of SF Stuff that’s 0% women, because apparently no woman has ever written a mindblowing SF story or something.

Oh oh but they’re just choosing the best stories, aren’t they! Funny how EVERY FUCKING TIME the best stories are almost all by men. Funny how that sexism works.

To really drive the point home, there was also a copy of War and Space: Recent Combat on the shelf. It’s edited by Rich Horton and Sean Wallace. It’s got a strikingly similar theme to that Watson and Whates anthology, AND YET through some kind of fucking miracle process (I think it’s commonly called “not being sexist fucknuts”) they’ve managed to find stories by 11 male authors and 9 female authors, making it 45% female authors.

Meanwhile I’ve been reading several SF anthologies lately and yet again am struck by the sheer quantity of SF stories that are: Western-centric, featuring token non-white people (if that), set in societies that look not very different to our own, with gender/sexuality binaries and family structures that a Republican would love. (Also shitty aliens, but that’s not faily, that’s just dull.) What the fuck is wrong with people’s imaginations that they are writing this shit? What is wrong with editors that they are not seeking out work that goes beyond these backward-looking ideas? (Obviously editors cannot control (much) what they get in slush piles, but when soliticing stories, can they not specify that authors activate their imagination?) It’s not just about the gender and race of the authors – although that is incredibly important – but about the kinds of stories that are published and reprinted and amplified to the world. Diverse stories by diverse authors about diverse futures are sorely lacking.

So the cry of all sexist types now will, after the initial “BAAWWWW!” or “How dare you call me sexist, I have a wife and/or a daughter, I must love women!”, be that I do something about this! Yes! It is my responsibility to fix other people’s shit!

ಠ_ಠ

But I actually DO want to help fix this problem in our genre.

If anyone wants to cry “Why don’t YOU edit a SF anthology and see what YOU think the best stories are!” – I’d fucking LOVE to edit a SF anthology, whether reprints or original stories or both. I’d want there to be sufficient money involved to make it worth my while (and worth the contributors’ time, especially if they’re writing original stories) and for the publisher to have decent circulation, so that narrows the possibilities somewhat, but look: if anyone who can meet those criteria wants me to edit a SF anthology that actually treats the future as the future and acknowledges that women and non-white people and queer people can write awesome SF, I’m here.

What I also want to note is that there are stories doing this right, and I want to draw attention to them, because they tend to slip unremarked into the abyss while the aforementioned dreck gets the accolades and multiple reprints. I have a tablet now (yay!), which means I’m going to be reading a lot more online short stories, so I plan to recommend the great ones I find. I’ve only had my tablet for a couple of days, so there’s not much to rec yet, but get started on two fantastic stories by Aliette de Bodard: “Immersion” and “Scattered Along the River of Heaven”. I also really like Nnedi Okorafor’s “Spider the Artist”. Offline, Catherynne M Valente’s “Golubash, or, Wine-War-Blood-Elegy” remains one of my favourite SF stories. I also strongly recommend you look at the Science and Science Fiction issue of Stone Telling, to see many visions of the future in poetic form.

And I am writing the kind of SF I want to see, too, but that’s obviously a long-term process.

In the meantime: SO FUCKING SICK OF THIS SHIT.

29 Comments

  • We get that you hate white guys. And that you hate writing in a field where your audience is primarily pasty looking white dudes. We get that.

    We get that you really wish the audience for Sci Fi was more diverse. That you could kick all the white dudes out and get something more ethnically diverse.

    But it’s kinda like Golf. Golf attracts a certain type of fan. Even though the most awesome player in the world is a young guy of color, the average golf fan is a middle aged white dude.

    Science Fiction attracts a certain sort of writer and reader. Just like Romance does. Do Romance writers tie themselves in knots about all the female authors in romance anthologies? I doubt it.

    Connie Willis has won more Hugo awards than any other writer. The Nebula and Clarke awards were won by women this year. There are great women writing – but just as romance doesn’t tend to attract male writers (and a male audience) as much as it attracts female writers (and a female audience), scifi doesn’t attract female writers (and a female audience) as much as it attracts male writers (and the despised white male audience).

    • Have you ever considered, Zobz, that rather than attracting white readers science fiction repels readers of color, and maybe authors and editors could change that by actually, you know, publishing stuff that isn’t just about a bunch of white dudes.

    • The problem is, “Zobz”, is that that just isn’t true: http://www.cheryl-morgan.com/?p=6133
      http://www.cheryl-morgan.com/?p=11041
      http://www.cheryl-morgan.com/?p=6007

      The problem isn’t that men are men. The problem is that men are (often unconsciously) sexist. Keep on trucking with that denial-train, though!

    • There ought to be a fandom trope, “The Connie Willis Exceptionalism Clause, or, How SF Learned To De-Rail Discussions of Sexism by Engaging in Self-Aggrandizing Tokenism.”

      Kind of unwieldy, I guess.

      But seriously, I love Connie Willis, I have every Connie Willis book ever, and yet, I think it is no accident that in many of her short stories and books outside the time travel historian series, there is a fairly palpable air of “ugh, women, so irritatingly feminine and silly!” which is “camouflaged” by putting it in the mouth of a female protagonist. Connie is an awesome writer but she doesn’t rock the boat of the Old White Boys’ Club by actually, you know, addressing sexism or anything – in fact her “ah, Pee-Cee run rampant, how droll” stance is very placating to the OWBC.

      I mean, not placating enough to not get publicly groped by Harlan in an effort to steal her spotlight, but placating nonetheless.

  • I thought this rant was hilarious. Yes I know what you mean, hence why I have gone down the route of being an Indie author.

  • Can I point and laugh at Zobz? (Because really. Golf? Seriously, that’s a terrible simile on so many levels.)

    I have Thoughts about this which I hope to come back and articulate later, but (since I’m supposed to be doing research at the moment and not reading the internet) right now, I just want to say: Amen.

    • Oh, do, by all means. I am, over on Twitter. CONNIE WILLIS WON SOME AWARDS SO YOUR ARGUMENT IS INVALID or something lol idk GOLF.

      I look forward to your thoughts when you’ve got more time.

  • Obviously editors cannot control (much) what they get in slush piles, but when soliticing stories, can they not specify that authors activate their imagination?

    I’m going to disagree with you on this point and I’ll going to use an example from ancient days: John W. Campbell, Jr.’s notorious fondness for Awesome Psi Power stories meant putting APP into short stories meant he was much more likely to buy them and so authors did.

    I’ve been tracking f/m ratios in various venues and it seems clear to me particular editors are the ones driving the sausagefestification of F&SF anthologies. Dozois, for example, is a lot less likely to notice an outstanding work by a woman than is Horton.

    http://james-nicoll.livejournal.com/tag/f%2Fm

    • I don’t think we’re disagreeing much, if at all. I may have just been unclear when typing angrily.

      I agree completely that editors play the crucial role in driving diversity in anthologies and magazines. When soliciting stories, it is within their power to ask authors for certain themes/approaches; it is within their power to approach certain authors; it is within their power to decline stories that fail to meet high standards (although this can be a bit fraught if, say, Gaiman turns in a crappy story, but that’s why editors should be soliciting diverse, good authors). The slush pile is a bit more beyond their control, but they certainly can write submissions guidelines that highlight certain themes/approaches, state outright that they welcome diverse authors’ submissions, and, of course, they can choose better stories than some of them are currently doing.

      (And, oh, that I wound up citing Dozois as an example of not doing so badly? JESUS THIS GENRE IS FUCKED UP.)

  • Well, Dozois isn’t good re: sausagefestery but if you’re in the UK you’re directly exposed to editors who are much much worse. Dozois looks good if the alternative is Ashley.

    • Yeah, I’m in the UK, where the SF scene is pretty much a mess right now.

  • Ashley’s Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF was a horrendous exclamation point about the status quo. The UK is even worse off than the US — many established, recognized SF women writers cannot get publishers for their work.

    The big houses just want more of the same, the small ones lack money and clout. Some of us point out these problems (and get called gendered insults as a result). We also try to address the issue constructively by editing SF anthologies that feature non-whiteAnglomen as both writers and protagonists.

    You know that I’m doing so even as we speak: The Other Half of the Sky will consist of original SF stories with women protagonists who are full humans; 80% of the participating authors are women and a significant portion is non-white. However, it will be a near-impossible feat to get a big publisher to pick it up, even with the names it will sport in its TOC. I will be paying the authors and artist pro rates out of my own pocket — which means that I will be able to do such a thing at most twice unless the anthology sells like hotcakes. But it will not do so if it doesn’t get decent distribution, which is possible only with big(ger) publishing houses.

  • “Oh oh but they’re just choosing the best stories, aren’t they!”

    The best SFF story I can think of at the moment is Immersion by de Bodard. So that can’t be the case at all.

    • Published by Neil Clarke, who is good at publishing diverse authors, and is not one of the editors regularly chosen to edit these big UK anthologies. What Neil Clarke does at Clarkesworld is definitely important, but I don’t know how much of an impact (if any) it’s having over here.

      • Thanks! I think the magazine and anthology worlds tend to be a bit disconnected from one another. I’d be surprised if we’ve influenced any anthologists in the UK or anywhere else. As for editing one myself, I’ve never been asked. Maybe someday. Would be fun.

    • And remember that the Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF by White Dudes didn’t contain anything by Ted Chiang, who is widely considered the mindbllwingest of living SF authors.

  • “I’d fucking LOVE to edit a SF anthology, whether reprints or original stories or both. I’d want there to be sufficient money involved to make it worth my while (and worth the contributors’ time, especially if they’re writing original stories) and for the publisher to have decent circulation, so that narrows the possibilities somewhat, but look: if anyone who can meet those criteria wants me to edit a SF anthology that actually treats the future as the future and acknowledges that women and non-white people and queer people can write awesome SF, I’m here.”

    I’ve been considering a fundraiser because several people have asked me about this (mostly in private) after my Best of 2011 virtual anthology. I am booked full until the end of June, but I’ll have more time later (G-d willing).

    Also, you’re familiar with Expanded Horizons, right?

    (BTW I recommend you make your own virtual anthology too – if not now, then eventually -, it only takes as much time as making a blog post, if you already have your favorites. And you already have a reader ;] )

    • Inspired by your virtual Best of 2011, I’m already planning to make a virtual Best of 2012 (with a big focus on free online content), as I think I’ll read enough short works this year to give a broad enough listing. =)

      As for anthologies, I’d prefer to do it big (ie: with a commercial press) or not at all. This may not happen any time soon, as I’m not a big name at all, but I can wait until the time is right – years, if necessary. My concern is that a lot of the smaller press anthologies, as fantastic as they are, are not especially noticed by the people who need to notice them.

  • I’m going to co-edit an SF anthology.

  • [...] here, Alex Dally McFarlane writes about the sexism that happens in collected anthologies of science fiction stories and how most anthologies that are published predominantly feature stories that are written by [...]

  • [...] SF anthologies: the (almost) unrelenting sausagefest | Alex Dally MacFarlane “Diverse stories by diverse authors about diverse futures are sorely lacking.” [...]

  • [...] From Alex Dally MacFarlane, “SF anthologies: The (almost) unrelenting sausagefest“: [...]

  • Hmmmm… I feel there is a point where whining about how hard you have begins to seem like proof of inferiority.

  • How much would you need to do this project? If you did a Kickstarter, I would definitely donate. I think the geek-o-sphere would have your back on this. It’s an easy fit for Kickstarter, because you can offer printed books, signed books, early drafts in digital form, etc. Lots of possibilities to get people amped about it.

  • “If anyone wants to cry “Why don’t YOU edit a SF anthology and see what YOU think the best stories are!” – I’d fucking LOVE to edit a SF anthology, whether reprints or original stories or both. I’d want there to be sufficient money involved to make it worth my while (and worth the contributors’ time, especially if they’re writing original stories) and for the publisher to have decent circulation”

    The time and place for a Kickstarter project is NOW! There was one recently that I’m absurdly excited about.

    • The problem with Kickstarter-funded projects is that it’s not just raising the money: it’s having the connections and know-how to successfully (and single-handedly) promote the anthology. I don’t have that and I don’t currently have the time to develop all those skills. That’s why I’d like to work with a publisher, to share the burden of tasks and leave the stuff that’s not in my skillset to someone who has the necessary experience – and will be able to get the book on chain store shelves, where it might actually be noticed.

      The VanderMeers have a good publisher on board, not to mention years of experience and a tonne of contacts. I’m really excited about their project – but I couldn’t replicate what they’re doing, not right now.

      I’m patient. :>

      • Makes sense – it’s a shame, because I’d love to read that book. I don’t have those particular skills either or I’d be falling over myself to try to make it happen. But yes, someone with the knowledge and experience of anthology contracts would be critical at the very least. It would be amazing if we could find an experienced editor to jump on and assist, and/or a publisher for the heavy lifting of promoting and printing.

  • Landed on this completely randomly while searching for a general piece on anthologies. Of course, knowing your recent news, I was grinning like a loon throughout the rant. Well done you!!!

    • It did turn out rather splendidly, didn’t it? =D

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