The recent debate on women’s visibility in SFF has thrown up a few issues facing women in the genre, but has mostly focused on male blindspots and the predominance of male reviewers, awards judges, survey participants and so on. On the other hand August started well, with proof that the trend is not universal: out of the six novels shortlisted for a World Fantasy Award, four are by women (and three of those women are black).
There’s more to the issue than women writers, however. Women also publish, read and review SFF, and many of those books are inevitably by men (somewhere around 60%, according to various estimates). In fantasy in particular, where stories are often set in historical or quasi-historical patriarchal cultures, a significant percentage of male protagonists (written by both sexes) are going to be, well, less than enlightened in their attitudes towards women. I, and most women readers, have no problem with this; as a writer you have to be true to the setting you write about, and fantasy characters who behave and think like modern Westerners are just not very believable.
However this is a fine line to tread, as proved by this week’s debacle du jour, which appeared on Tor.com, the web magazine hosted by SFF publishers Tor. One of their regular contributors posted a review of The Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence saying that, although well-written, it wasn’t to her tastes owing to the unrelentingly brutal, misogynistic world-view of its protagonist. The review was, in my opinion, well-balanced, and admirably achieved its aim of warning away readers who might be offended by the content whilst attracting those who like their fantasy dark to the point of nihilistic.
All this would have been totally unremarkable had it not been for a comment on the post, from none other than the head of the imprint that published the book. She (and I deliberately point out the sex of the commenter) posted to deny that the book was misogynistic, her argument being that it couldn’t be because she and other women at the publishers had liked it. (And made other, deeply unprofessional accusations that do not bear repeating. Visit Tor.com if you want the gory details.)
Excuse me? So now a minority of women are allowed to tell other women what they can and cannot find misogynistic? Since when has it been impossible for a woman to be misogynistic? I have to confess that I don’t like my own sex all the time, often find them incomprehensible and would rather read about a dashing male hero than a stay-at-home mum – but that’s not the same as wanting all women to be more like me. (Although it would reduce the birth rate and over-population problems considerably!)
I think the problem is that in the effort to reduce sexism, we have become hypersensitised, not to misogyny itself but to the accusation of it. “My author is a nice guy who loves his wife and daughters,” the editor protests, “his book cannot be misogynistic.” Sorry, but it can. It might not be intended that way. The author probably was intending a brutally honest portrayal of a misogynistic culture, but got so carried away with the realism that he had no idea how it would be received by some female readers. In one forum thread I likened it to Orwell’s image of the future in Big Brother: “imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever”. That’s what it feels like to some of us to read a deeply misogynistic point of view, and that’s why we like to know which books to avoid. Telling us our opinions don’t matter is in itself misogynistic – and we won’t stand for it.
And yes, the title of this post is a deliberate play on Virginia Woolf’s essay