Thursday, 6 March 2014

Realising My Reading Habits are Unusual

My reading habits are not the norm. Not because I read fiction about hedgehogs in space (though I totally would if that was a thing) but because the majority of the books I have read in my life are by women writers. After reading a great piece about the lack of women writer's represented in bookshops, not to mention in literature generally, I realised I am not typical in my reading choices.

When I first took those tentative steps into the realm of Fantasy and Science Fiction I was blessed to have a mum who loved these genres too. And who also had an unusual habit of picking stories by women. She did this for the same reason I now do; they tend to write about women main characters. It's not that I will discriminate against male writers. In fact I'm currently reading my fourth book in a row written by a man. And in all those cases the main protagonists have, in the main, been male. Again this isn't a problem but I begin to feel a bit under represented if I carry this on too long. Tellingly the next book I've chosen to read is written by Tanith Lee and is based around a female main character.

Mum's collection has definitely had an influence; growing up it never crossed my mind that women writing Science Fiction or Fantasy was unusual, or even something that would present any hurdles. I know better now. In any bookshop, in any genre (apart from Romance) it's a tough task to try to find new books written by women. Seriously, go count them the next time you're in a bookshop or online. It's thoroughly depressing. And yet women appear to make up the majority of readers. So what's going on?

Personally I see a great many women writers on my Twitter feed, but then again I would wouldn't I? It's classic subjective bias. In the industry itself we have women editors saying they'd love to sign up more women writers but find they just don't get the same amount of submissions as they do from men. We also have existing women writers (particularly in the Science Fiction & Fantasy genre) stating they've experienced discrimination because of their gender. I'd add that it's no coincidence that "Joanne Rowling" went with the moniker of "J. K. Rowling" when she came to having her fantasy series published that features a little boy as the main character. Because industry logic seems to be that boys won't read a book if it has a women's name on it and boys/men are the target market (despite not reading as many books as girls/women). Hell, it's no coincidence that I go by my initials rather than my name on the interweb - I get less hassles that way. I also want to use it as my writer name, but mainly due to liking the opportunity to use my otherwise forgotten initials and liking my privacy, rather than because I think it will help sales. Though I do admit, it crossed my mind.

A lot of this boils down to issues far larger than just the literary sphere. In Europe and the USA we still have deeply entrenched gender roles going on, along with the usual stereotypes this brings. If anything, I think we're becoming more obsessed with gender division, not less, if the current trend in gender segregation of toys is anything to go by. What it all means though is it marks women who write Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, or any genre other than Romance, as unusual (and the resultant curse of always being called a "woman writer" *shudder*) and it marks boys who read as "soft" or "wimps" *deeper shudder*. All thoroughly depressing but what can we do about it? Here's my plan:

1. Ignore it utterly and write the best stories I can in whatever genre I like.
2. Encourage everyone to read. Every. One.
3. Never be put off from doing something just because it's deemed "unusual".
4. Call out anyone who says otherwise, as long as it's safe and productive to do so.

It's not that we should read books because they're written by a woman, or not read them because they were written by a man, but we should, at the very least, notice if we tend to swerve one way or another and think about why. In fact, most choices we make in life could do with us stopping to notice if there is some bias in what we're doing that we weren't even aware of. But, for me, the most important thing is to keep being as unusual as possible.

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