Friday 7 February 2014

What's in a name?

A recent discussion on twitter with Teresa Frohock, Kameron Hurley, ML Brennan, Courtney Schafer & Justin Landon brought to light the fact that many female fantasy authors - especially when writing epic or dark fantasy - are encouraged to use gender neutral names. This pressure arises because of a perception that readers of epic fantasy are less likely to buy books by women.

More surprising were reports that publishers sometimes ask female authors to emphasize the romantic elements in their work - i.e. to add some if they're not there or to bulk up what is there.

Teresa Frohock made the case that the blurbs on the back of female authored fantasy focus on the romantic elements of the story. One might also contend that the covers of female authored fantasy books often have a different theme to them than the male authored work.

I ran a quick poll of my followers on Twitter and friends on Facebook to see if I changed the K in Mark to a Y and became Mary Lawrence ... would that have affected their decision to buy Prince of Thorns?

The results indicate that 20% of those who voted would have been less likely to have bought the book.

& here's the result after opening the poll to reddit r/fantasy where the demographic is reportedly heavily skewed toward male readers. Here the % who would be less likely to read rises to 27% ...

Being a scientist, I have a theory. It's not a justification. I will pick my words very carefully to avoid any such implication - but inevitably someone will read this the wrong way, quite possibly on purpose.

I should note here that every single person (bar one short-lived publicity guy) I've interacted with in my various English language publishers has been a woman. I understand this is not an uncommon experience. It's foolish to suggest that these professionals are in any way biased against women. They are, however, making a living in an industry where sound commercial decisions are a must if they're to succeed as individuals and if their companies are to survive where others fail. Moreover the poll is the only 'solid' evidence here - the anecdote is interesting but beyond my experience - I offer it for debate, not as accusation.

My axioms:

- women are equal to men in their ability to write dark/epic fantasy

My evidence:

- the poll suggests a small but significant bias in the readership against female authors
- anecdote implies that female authors are sometimes asked to emphasize romantic elements
- commercial pressure given the bias (or perception of it) might lead publishers to select male authored work in this area over female. [note, the reverse may hold true for some other types of fiction.]

My thesis:

- this could be a vicious circle. The perception of a bias leads to selection of male authors and to changing female authored work to be more suited for a different market. This in turn may actually fulfill the prophecy - the female authored work will be more romancey, not because that's how women write but because that's what gets selected and where they get pushed. This in turn makes the reader bias technically correct - they may be less likely to get the epic/dark feel they're after from the female authors who make it to print. This reinforces the bias that strengthens the commercial pressure and so on and so on...

I wondered what kind of blurb and cover I might have got for Prince of Thorns if I really were a Mary Lawrence. It's impossible to tell. Though people have speculated on a number of alternatives!

Joe Abercrombie directed me to the upcoming female authored Princess of Thorns by Stacey Jay:

And my editor, Jane Johnson, suggested (on the spur of the moment) that if I wrote such a book it might get a cover image like this by Tomasz Jedruszek!

I'm quite tempted to write that book now!

It should be added that the cover, blurb etc, shape our expectations about a book, even coloring what we take from it as we read. Certainly the 'dark' perception of my work causes people to focus on certain elements (say torture for example, which is not shown 'on screen' in Prince of Thorns) while ignoring them in other books that are perceived as light-hearted (The Lies of Locke Lamora contains at least one gruesome torture scene and numerous executions). So people may well over-play the romance elements in a female authored book and underplay them in male authored books... would some Jorg-Katherine reference have made it to the Prince of Thorns blurb if I were Mary? We'll never know.


  1. AS I said on twitter, I'd read a book called "Princess of Thorns" by Stacey Jay, 'grimdark' or not, if it was well written.

  2. There is a book coming out this year that will destroy any idea that women can't write great dark, non-romantic, epic fantasy -- destroy it forever, I hope. I have been lucky enough to read an early version. Watch out for the first volume of Karen Miller's The Tarnished Crown, coming--I think--in September. I thought it rivalled G.R.R.Martin in the complexity of character and politics, and the head count of characters who never made it to the end of Volume 1 was impressive!

    1. It's certainly true that the cover doesn't feature a close up of a heroine and the blurb makes no mention of romance. Good to see.

    2. "Empress" was mind blowing and disturbing. (the Stormlord books are pretty damn good too :)

  3. I find it shocking so many of your readers actually admitted a gender bias! That's actually even worse, because there are a whole bunch more who likely don't even notice a bias enough to owe up to it, and select that way unconsciously, guided in part, as noted, by blurbs and covers which emphasize some elements and downplay others based on author's gender.

    (and yes, I saw the Miller cover too, Glenda, and am eagerly awaiting that one)

  4. Yes, please do write a Princess of Thorns... I want more of Miana being awesome!

  5. Writing is never just about a genre, a setting or even the storyline; it's mainly about the characters. A storyline may have a lot of potential, but if the reader can't connect with the characters the effort is pretty much wasted.
    So, here's the thing: if the main character is male, I'd like to have them written by a guy.
    I'm not saying female authors can't get a male personality right, or vice versa; just that I find it less likely.

    And why I, personally, prefer male characters over female ones, is a different topic, entirely :)

    1. If you feel that authors of one gender are not likely to be able to accurately portray main characters of another gender, might I suggest you read 'Exile's Honor' by Mercedes Lackey, 'Blackbirds' by Chuck Wendig, or absolutely anything Guy Gavriel Kay has ever done?

    2. I'm inclined to disagree with your starting assumption that a female author writing a male character automatically equals reader disconnect--but then again I'm a female reader (though typically I prefer to read stories with male main characters; incidentally most of my all-time-favorite male characters have been written by female authors). But I think it's more to do with the author's ability as an author, regardless of gender.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I think it quite possible too that those who say it would make no difference, underestimate the extent to which subconscious bias effects their choice of book/author. But that's based on my sample size of one i.e. 3 years ago I began gender auditing my reviewing and prior to nutting out the actual figures I wrote down my perceptions of my reading as a feminist friendly reader and reviewer who honestly believed that he was pretty even in his reading. The results were shocking I had an 85/15 split toward male works despite my values and my perceptions.

    " It's foolish to suggest that these professionals are in any way biased against women."

    Open, blatant bias yes. I'd hazard a guess that even conscious sexism from men in the industry is rare, but I'd be wary about saying there's no implicit/systematic bias as a result of some of the things you have said ie history, prior sales figures, how they source/obtain manuscripts etc. The publishing industry is about making money and they go with what's worked in the past.

    I am not sure that publishers are quite prepared to examine this side of things. When I made a comment on the TorUk website questioning what they do to counter implicit or subconscious bias (and I'll admit it can be hard to do this without instituting blunt measures like quotas), the comment, 1 of 3 spread out along the day, never made it through.

    One of the big 6 offshoots in my country were roundly criticized for gender bias in their last christmas promotion, and an insider blog in response(never a good idea) clearly indicated to me that neither the person writing the response nor the staff had any concept of the idea that we are all subject to subconscious bias, and that these can run counter to our values and stated beliefs.

    The answer? Become aware as readers, reviewers and authors. Keep making posts like this.

  7. It makes it very tricky for those of us who like romance and torture scenes... and, no, I'm not talking BDSM... I'm talking a romantic storyline and a "grimdark"/gritty/brutal plot... Luckily, male authors ARE allowed to include a romantic plot along with the more brutal ones... are female writers usually discouraged? I wasn't, but I have a wonderful publisher.

  8. I'm actually quite glad that you mention the gender neutral names. Or just initials! I read books based on reviews I've read, the blurbs on websites and sometimes because previous works just make me like the authors style. Not once have i been put off because someone is female! Admittedly, there have been many times ive not checked out the author until long after reading the books! Sometimes, i am pleasantly surprised to find a female author, at others amazed a male author (due to female protagonist and the pov being so near perfect! -some men clearly talk to and listen to the other sex!)
    But, being a female reader, i must admit that sometimes(mostly) the "romance" just gets in the way of a good story! I mean, yes, why shouldn't the hero get a happy ending? But do we really need to know EVERY detail?

    1. Agreed wholeheartedly. I'm a woman who reads and writes fantasy, and there is nothing more tedious to me than a bloody "romantic" sub-plot.

      I don't care. Stop shoehorning it in. Women are not a "reward" for being "the hero".

  9. I'm kind of worried about this actually. I'm writing a dark urban fantasy and my main character does NOT revolve around romance. I refuse to change her into something more 'fluffy' and cute and romantic. I refuse to make her identity fit anything but who she is. I didn't make her a freaking caveman but she isn't a bunny-rainbow-puppy-smile gif.
    And I really hope that - miracle of all miracles - I don't get a really girly book cover. It'd piss me off beyond words. Beyond imagining. Because, unfortunately, people DO pick books by their covers a lot of the time. Half the time they won't pick a book up if they don't like the cover.
    Yeah. Okay, rant over. I love this post. Thank you for this post! ;D

  10. I'm kind of worried about this actually. I'm writing a dark urban fantasy and my main character does NOT revolve around romance. I refuse to change her into something more 'fluffy' and cute and romantic. I refuse to make her identity fit anything but who she is. I didn't make her a freaking caveman but she isn't a bunny-rainbow-puppy-smile gif.
    And I really hope that - miracle of all miracles - I don't get a really girly book cover. It'd piss me off beyond words. Beyond imagining. Because, unfortunately, people DO pick books by their covers a lot of the time. Half the time they won't pick a book up if they don't like the cover.
    Okay, yeah. Rant over. I LOVE this post! :D Thank you.

    @DaphneShadows cuz stupid wordpress and blogger loathe each other.

  11. I find Japan's manga industry to be an extreme - and yet typical - example of a whole industry based upon tailoring a product and an author on the gender of their target audience. We can spend days debating on how depressing these male-reader and female-reader stereotypes are, but the reality is that they are a proven strategy to sell big numbers. It works. And the Western world is not immune either, it just uses the strategy in a more subtle format (try and give a Spiderman pencil case to a girl under 10 years of age for her birthday and you'll see what I mean). So, I am not surprised, not by the least. And I do agree it evolves in a chicken-and-egg situation, but hey-ho, businesses are well known for prioritising profit over art or progress...

  12. Leave writing to the writers and marketing to the marketers. One positions the business according to the market not the sensitivity and political agenda of activists, who usually are bad at business anyway. After John Scalzi defined himself as Science Fiction's Professional Feminist At-Large, there is no evidence that it has ever helped actual women sci-fi authors, John Scalzi (except for a very short lived popularity bump and support from a very few feminists), Science Fiction writing (which should be the actual goal by the way not gender issues), or any actual suffering women. Spreading this brain disease to Fantasy writing will probably have a similar result. One should hope anyway.

  13. '... publishers sometimes ask female authors to emphasize the romantic elements in their work...'

    No question.....I was once asked by an editor to change a scene in Master of Whitestorm (with a mercenary protagonist) and make it over as a romantic encounter - when it clearly was not, and clearly demonstrated another psychological make up - and to eliminate a later scene that was pivotal to the plot itself - to make it fit an entirely different standard, in short, make it into a different story altogether. I refused, bought the book back from the first publisher, and re-sold it to another without the ridiculously silly makeover. That was a terrifying step to take, and not one many authors may be prepared to make, particularly at the start of their careers.

    And to add fuel to the fire: If I had to make my way again, absolutely and no question, I'd have selected for a gender neutral byline - because in my opinion, the bias is worse today than it has ever been, the shift largely due to the rise in popularity of urban fantasy that leans toward paranormal romance, and the massive upswing of YA. (Nothing wrong with those books, just, the trend has exacerbated certain prejudices).

    I would be remiss not to mention that another editor later in my career suggested I should STOP writing epic fantasy with adult concepts and write for the 'more lucrative' YA market as so many female authors were doing. I refused, flat out, once again, to abandon (effectively silence) my voice for a bias or a trend.

    Come what may....Mark, thank you for your admirable effort to spotlight the issue, and to go where few of your counterparts have dared.

  14. Great article, which I'm only just stumbling across now. I think you make some very good points. However, I am wondering why there's a general perception that 1. Romantic arcs make epic fantasy less marketable overall (romantic arcs have been commonplace in fantasy written and read by both genders for decades), and 2. If romantic arcs really do turn off more fantasy readers than they attract, why one earth would marketing people ask women writing epic fantasy to shoehorn them into stories where they don't fit?

    It leaves me scratching my head. As someone who is striving to write novels that contain both dark and romantic elements with characters who are flawed but not evil (and who has beta readers of both gender who are cheering me on), I don't understand some of the assumptions people make about the the differing tastes of male and female fantasy writers or readers. I do think I'll be using my initials if I ever get published, though. I hate to think my gender is something that must be hidden from casual scrutiny, but if there's truly such a double standard, then ugh.

  15. I hadn't heard the romance angle played in this debate before, but that does sound valid to me. Generally, I prefer murder and bloodshed to romance [which may explain why I'm single...], so the romantic aspect rather than the female author name might put me off.

    It's also worth noting this isn't an SFF-only matter. Male authors do often change to female pseudonyms if writing romantic fiction.

    A little bit OT, but Joe Abercrombie wrote something a few years ago now about how Best Served Cold would come across if every female character became male, and vice versa. It was pretty thought-provoking.

  16. I'm happy to report my editor actually had me tone down the romance in the one slightly romantic scene in my dark epic fantasy. Nor did they ever bring up using my initials or going with something other than Michelle. Given that 27% wouldn't give my book a chance just because of my gender, I wonder if that was the right choice. But maybe the women who write dark fantasy and do use their names will start to bring about a change in the perception.

    A number of book bloggers did mention they were pleasantly surprised Grudging wasn't full of romance. I'll bet they wouldn't have assumed that if I was Michael Hauck.

  17. I read pretty widely and the way I look at it there is 2 sets of bell curves for male and female writers, grit/lightness and no romance/romance which overlap but have different peaks.
    The male peak is definitely closer to the grittier harsher side and less romantically inclined of 2 curves and the female peak is closer to the lighter side and the more romance side of the curves. Female authors can be gritty, males romantic but there is an overall trend. I dont know how much the editors pushing contributes but I do think its not the only factor.

    I would personally enjoy it more if the editors would butt out more as the romantic side is something I feel I have to endure to enjoy the rest of the story, which can be otherwise very good, so I'm probably more likely to assume a male author will be closer to what I like where I dont have to put up with that. Lightness and grit I readily read both but overdone romance just irritates.

  18. I think the publishers are still struck in 00s when these mattered and woman were still mute and subjugated to sexist stuff all day. Times are a changin and I'm loving the new female fantasy authors and hope the big publishing houses put more energy looking for more female authors. Teresa Frohock, Luis Bujold, Ursula Le Guin, Janny Wurts are some of my favorites.

    1. It has to be said that everyone I know in publishing is a woman. A professional, skilled, highly educated woman with a personal interest stamping out any hint of sexism. So whatever it is, it isn't a bunch of old men sitting around the desk of power chomping on their cigars...