breaking chairs to make room at the table

A recent study of the New York Times's "By the Book" feature revealed that male authors mention other men and their works four times more often than they mention women and their works, whereas women tend to mention authors and works of both genders about equally. (See: the data and an article.) These numbers made me curious about the gender distribution of recommendations in the science fiction and fantasy corner of the literary world, so I decided to take a look at the recommendations made in the Tor.com "Five Books" feature, in which contributors recommend books centered around a particular theme.

Note: On September 4, I did send a pitch to Tor.com about writing up my results for their site, but aside from the automated response confirming they received my pitch, I haven't heard from them.

The "Five Books" feature differs from the NYT "By the Book" feature in many ways, so I'm not trying to imply any sort of parallel in the content. They are columns that serve different purposes for their audiences, and a wide-ranging interview column that discusses literary influences is not the same as an often quirky and humorous book recommendation series. Nor am I suggesting that these numbers have any predictive statistical value about what a man or a woman might do in the future. I am only interested in the countable gender distribution, that is, how often men and women have, in this feature, recommended works by men and women.

As far as I know, "Five Books" contributors have quite a lot of leeway when it comes to both the subject and the books they choose. Obviously the authors chosen to write the posts are not randomly selected, because Tor.com serves a promotional purpose as well as providing broader SFF pop culture commentary, but I don't think it matters all that much, if at all. The SFF community is small enough that any broad commentary and recommendation series is going to have a lot of writer/editor/publisher overlap no matter how the lists are compiled.

I picked the "Five Books" column to count because I like it quite a lot, it has had a pretty wide range of authors writing for it, and because the posts back to the beginning of 2015 are helpfully archived. I counted every post from the beginning of 2015 up to September 12, 2018. I know there have been entries posted since that date, but I had to stop somewhere.

I wrote up some notes about how I counted, including how I dealt with multi-author posts and works and non-book works, at the bottom of this post. I explain in those notes what falls into the "other/mixed" category, which includes many different things but still makes up a fairly small portion of the whole.

I rounded all percentages to whole numbers just because I want to make the statistics nerds mad.

What do the data look like overall?

I went through a total of 245 posts containing 1240 countable recommendations. The post authors show a fairly equal binary split in gender: 121 (50%) by men, 119 (48%) by women, and 5 (2%) by other/mixed authors.

Of those 1240 recommendations, 704 (57%) are for works by men, 491 (39%) are for works by women, and the remainder (45 total) fall into the other/mixed category.

 

Who do men recommend?

Men recommend works by other men 73% of the time and books by women 22% of the time, with other/mixed recs making up the difference. That means over the course of the "Five Books" series, men have recommended works by other men more than three times more often than they recommend women.

Of a total 121 posts by men, 31 recommend zero works by women. That means 13% of total posts and 26% of male-authored posts don't name any works by women.

Furthermore, 31% of male-authored posts (38 posts) mention only one work by a female author. I didn't track who the female authors were, so I don't know if the same ones are being included over and over again. I acknowledge that probably would have been an interesting thing to track, as my impression is that Lois McMaster Bujold, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Octavia Butler showed up an awful lot--but they are popular, widely-read authors who many people love, so their inclusion is not unusual on a variety of posts. I don't necessarily think that repetition implies tokenism, but I didn't track specific recommended authors so can't draw any conclusions.

Also interesting is that the overall numbers obscure what looks like a trend between 2015 and now. In 2015, 37% of the male-authored posts included zero works by women. That went down to 24% in 2016, down again to 19% in 2017, and in 2018, thus far, it's been just one lonely dude (3%). Similarly, in 2018 only one man has written a post with a 4/1 m/w split. But even in 2018, men still recommend works by men 63% of the time and works by women 34% of the time--which is better than the four-year average, yes, but is still shows men favoring male-authored works in their recommendations.

Also worth noting: Just one male-authored post, across all four years, mentions zero men. Just one. That's David Weber's post "Five Authors With Magical World-Building Skills." It's not an incidental list, either, as he specifically states at the beginning that his goal is to highlight women fantasy writers.

I know I should not speculate about the motives of the authors of the 31 posts that contain zero women whatsoever--I am going to do it anyway--but I suspect that 30 of them did not set out to specifically highlight male writers. (The one exception is the single-author post that lists five books by Roger Zelazny.)

 

Who do women recommend?

Overall, women recommend works by women 58% of the time and works by men 41% of the time, with other/mixed works making up the difference. Women recommend works by other women more often than they recommend works by men, but not to the same degree as how often men recommend other men.

Only 3 woman-authored posts recommend no women at all. On the other hand, 19 recommend no men at all, which is 8% of the total and 16% of woman-authored posts. The same number of female-authored posts recommend only one work by a woman.

There don't seem to be any obvious changes in how women recommend from 2015 to 2017, but 2018 seems to be its own beast. Thus far, first of all, 2018 has way more woman-authored posts than man-authored posts, which has never happened before. In 2015-2017, the gender split of post authors was either even or tilted slightly toward men. Obviously it's not the end of the year, but as of September 12, 2018 we're talking 23 posts by women versus 11 by men, so unless "Five Books" only features men from here until the end of the year, it's not likely to tip completely in the other direction. I have no idea if that was a conscious choice from the editors or not, but it is such a significant difference from previous years that it's worth pointing out.

And along with that ratio comes the first year in which women are recommended at a greater rate than men: 52% of recommendations are for works by women, 39% for works by men. It looks like putting more women up on the platform results in more women's works getting highlighted in the series. Insert your own shocked face here.

 

What does it all mean?

I made this count because the information about the NYT "By the Book" series made me curious about how those patterns tracked in another context. I went into it expecting that men would mostly recommend men again, but my gut instinct was that SFF women tend to recommend other women a bit more than the 50/50 split found in the NYT column. Both of those hunches turned out to be more or less correct.

I started counting because I was curious, and because it was a question I could answer in this one limited context. But then I put off writing it up, mostly because I had a deadline, until this weekend. Then I went back to it this weekend because I could not stop thinking about all the ways in which men boost up other men, often at the expense of women, often without any realization that they're doing it.

The science fiction and fantasy corner of the literary world has been going through a swarm of status quo-shaking earthquakes over the past few years, as the community tries to figure out how to deal with its harmful reactionary members, its long history of erasing women from the literary canon, its past protection of abusers and harassers, its boys' club old guard, its convention culture, its exclusion of marginalized voices, and so much more. I do think things are improving; you can see improvement in awards, in book deals, in conversation. I even think things are improving faster in SFF than they are in other corners of the literary world (but my view is admittedly both biases and limited, sitting here in my San Diego apartment, writing novels about spaceships).

But I think there's a lot of work to be done. Leaving the work of recommending and promoting SFF books by women as a task for women is—well, okay, it's completely typical, but it's also not good enough. Because what I get from these numbers is that even on a relatively equitable platform, even when women are choosing to boost works by other women, men are so much more likely to recommend works by men that the overall result is still tilted in favor of men.

The thing is, the fact that women support other women is not really in question. It is certainly a question worth exploring across intersections of different groups of women--race, religion, sexuality, etc.--because there is also massive amounts of work to be done in all those areas. But that women in general recommend other women in general more is not a surprise, nor is it a surprise that when more women write posts, more works by women get recommended. The problem is that such a scenario still puts all the work of equitable recommendation on the shoulders of women. It doesn't require men to change anything at all.

And that's the part of this that makes me so tired. I am so tired of the fact that I knew what these numbers would look like, but I also knew I had to count them before anybody would listen or care. I am so tired of the fact that it's a notable special effort for a man to write only about the works of women but it's so mundane as to be beneath mention for more than half of men writing up recommendation posts to mention no more than one woman. I'm tired of shit like this: women are for children's and YA, men are for adults. I'm tired of science fiction panels that have no women on them, tired of having to convince men over and over and over again that their publishing experience is not the publishing experience of women, tired of men writing apologetic Facebook essays about how they just can't bring themselves to stop supporting male authors known to be misogynist, racist, or just plain assholes. I'm tired of men forcing everybody within shouting distance listen to them complain about how hard it is to be a man these days. I'm really tired.

And I know that there are going to be some people reading this who are thinking, what the fuck, what do you have to complain about? Aren’t their bigger problems in the world? And what about all the poor men who can't get agents/book deals/reviews/whatever? That makes me tired too, because we live in a world where women are always being asked to justify what they have to complain about, even when the answer is do you live under a rock oh my god watch the news it is every goddamned thing.

At the same time, I do actually know that a lot of that emotional exhaustion is not the fault of publishing, or even specific men in publishing. I really do think things in SFF (and in YA and children's, my other literary homes) are getting better. I think it's fucking awesome that women sweep major SFF awards regularly. It's even more awesome that women who have been working so hard and so well for years are finally getting their due. I'm delighted that other women in SFF have not only claimed their seats at the table but saved a few tables full of seats for the women who will come after them.

Yet there is still this weariness, this feeling of fighting a thousand small battles that half the world's population doesn't even notice. And that's the problem. I don't know if women writing recs lists, women voting for awards, women lifting up other women does anything to solve the problem that far too many men still don't really understand that the world we live in is simply not the world they live in, and that matters on vast scales of world politics, and it matters on small scales of whose on a panel or what’s on a bookshelf. I don't know how to put a little voice in the heads of men sitting down to recommend a book that whispers, "Have you perhaps considered not perpetuating the SFF boys' club circle-jerk this time? Have you considered, perhaps, reading a equal number of books by women? Have you considered that maybe you are missing a vast realm of human experience in your reading habits? Have you considered that your view of the world is pathologically blinkered?"

I don't know what to do except add up these numbers, and write this post, and hope it sinks in, at least a little bit. It’s not that hard to pay attention to whose books you are recommending. It’s not that hard to ask yourself what those recommendations say about what you value in the world. Unlike the garbagefire of everything else going on in this country and the world, this is a problem that has an easy, obvious solution.


Notes

1. I used the post authors' own bios on Tor.com to determine their gender, or researched elsewhere on the internet if that information was not in the bio. I did the same for the authors of the recommended books.

2. Posts that are co-authored by a woman and a man are counted in the other/mixed category, whereas those co-authored by two authors of the same gender are counted in the category of that gender. The lone nonbinary post author is also counted in the other/mixed category, as was the single post by the Tor.com staff account Stubby the Rocket. I didn't split these posts out any farther, because there are too few of them to draw any conclusions.

3. Works by authors that were in the past published under opposite-gender pseudonyms are counted under the gender of the author, not the presentation of their pseudonym. Everybody knows James Tiptree = Alice Sheldon and Poppy Z. Brite = Billy Martin, for example, so it doesn't matter now what people believed about their gender identities decades ago.

4. Works that are co-authored or co-created by a woman and a man are counted in the other/mixed category. (I call this The Saga Rule.) But I did not double-check every work to find out if it has co-creators, so it's possible that other works, especially graphic novels and comics, have unnamed co-creators. Multi-author short story collections are also included in other/mixed. There is one single-author list--that is, five books from one author--and I counted that as I would any other list.

5. Movies, TV shows, and video games are mostly counted as other/mixed with the exception of the (very) few times post authors specifically include a recommendation of the creator as part of the write-up. (I call this Have You Heard the Gospel of Joss Whedon Rule.)

6. I counted every "Five Books" post between January 16, 2015 and September 12, 2018 that was tagged with the "Five Books" label on Tor.com.

7. I counted only those works and authors lists as part of the main body of the recommendation post, that is, the 5-6 books or works in the primary list. A lot of authors list additional works at the end without discussing them; I did not count those. (I call this Hey I Read Le Guin Too Rule.)

8. I didn't count the lone non-specific recommendation of fish as belonging to either gender. See also: the Bible, the Epic of Gilgamesh, assorted folklore. The other/mixed category contains multitudes but still turns out to be a rather small portion of the whole.

9. A few authors have written more than one post for the series, but I didn't separate those out in any way, because honestly that would be just too damn confusing. I did specifically avoid double-counting posts that have been re-upped on the Tor.com site more than once.

10. Nobody double-checked my work. I probably made a few mistakes. Before you Kool-aid man in here to tell to me how that does not meet the rigorous standards of blah blah blah, please note that I don’t care. I did this in my spare time, over a long weekend, between deadlines. Have a nice day.