LonCon3 #21: Gender and Genre

Panellists: Francis Knight, Jenni Hill, Melanie Fletcher, Justin Landon

Are genres gendered? Truisms like “women don’t read science fiction” or “men hate romance” abound, but to what extent do these sorts of assumptions determine what we see on the shelves? How have certain sub-genres become strongly associated with writers (and readers) of a single gender? What are the difficulties faced by a writer trying to work in a (sub)genre traditionally associated with a gender other than their own? What role(s) can publishers and booksellers play in creating, reinforcing, or challenging such bias?

Mark Lawrence did a poll earlier this year. How many would buy Prince of Thorns with Mary Lawrence on the cover? 27% of largely male fantasy readers were less likely to buy it, for 68% it made no difference, and 5% were more likely to buy.

It’s surprising how honest these readers were, though there may be many who claim the author’s gender wouldn’t make a difference but are actually unconsciously sexist in their reading choices. Justin Landon himself admitted to sexism by reading only male authors but had read Robin Hobb not realising that she is, in fact, a woman. Foz Meadows is one of the reasons why his views changed.

I’ll be honest and say that I’m more likely to read a book if it’s written by a woman, especially fiction. I’ve had to create a ‘male authors’ shelf to encourage myself to read more by the opposite sex. Character development seems to be the main reason. I often can’t connect with characters written by men. Mike Mullin’s Ashfall series is a wonderful exception.

Lawrence also called attention to gendered covers by comparing his cover to Stacy Jay’s Princess of Thorns, both of which are fantasy with the latter being described as Game of Thrones meets Grimm fairy tales, so it’s not exactly sweet and fluffy.

Prince of Thorns vs Princess of Thorns

Hooded figures on covers are almost always male.

A couple of months ago, Maureen Johnson called for an end to gendered covers when she tweeted:

This then inspired an illuminating coverflip challenge.

Originals are on the left.

A Clockwork Orange
by Anthony Burgess

Coverflip by Brandy/peombles tumblr

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Coverflip by Hannah/justthatgirl tumblr

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian
by Sherman Alexie

Coverflip by Gillian Berry

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

Coverflip by Book Revels

More of the amazing results can be found in this Huffington Post article.

I absolutely love Kelley Armstrong’s genderless UK covers by Orbit for Women of the Otherworld.

Counting female fantasy authors on the shelves and on the tables in Waterstones is depressing. “Women are delicate sensitive flowers,” Francis says. “Clearly we use our plumbing to write.” This gender bias is why authors like Francis Knight use male pseudonyms or reduce their forenames to initials to seem male as that’s the default when gender isn’t obvious from a name. A perfect example of both is J.K. Rowling with her pseudonym Robert Galbraith. Some authors also use separate pseudonyms for different genres. Melanie’s Nicola Cameron when she writes paranormal romance and erotica.

There’s the perception that certain genres are gendered. That romance is written and read solely by women. That romance is somehow lesser than other ‘more serious’ genres. Men do read romance, they also write it but under female pseudonyms to prevent that pesky gender bias again.

Older women as characters are marginalized. They’re invisible. Older men are distinguished. Look at crime. How many older women detectives are there in comparison to older men? How many can you name? Many belong to the sub-genre of the cozy mystery and are usually well-educated amateur detectives, but where are the professionals?

Epic fantasy is perceived to be male wish fulfilment while urban fantasy is female wish fulfilment. Women want to be the woman on UF covers and men want to have her. However, author Jim C. Hines is famous for mocking the laughable and physically impossible poses these female cover models make by replicating them himself and posting the results.

Jim C. Hines cover pose

Young adult is probably the most gendered and stereotyped category. A book is either targeted at boys or girls, rarely both (unless they’re marketing it as a would-be bestseller). This is usually based on the author’s gender. If a book proves to be a bestseller then other covers are created to appeal to a wider audience. American audiences tend to get the gendered covers more so than in the UK.

Throne of Glass, for example. The American cover is a close-up of an airbrushed pretty girl in make-up with a dagger strapped to her upper arm. The UK cover is an illustration of a female warrior about to do battle with two swords in her hands – a far more accurate depiction of the story. A version of the latter cover was released eight months later in the States.

LEFT to RIGHT: US, UK, US, coverflip for the Johnson challenge by Ardawling

Erika Johansen’s Queen of the Tearling is being marketed as ‘Game of Thrones for women‘ which implies that Game of Thrones isn’t intended to be watched by women and that there are no female fans. Really?

Marketing can be more flexible these days as urban fantasy and paranormal romance are often misshelved in bookshops and libraries. They can appear on horror shelves, general fiction and even in the young adult section. Margaret Atwood says she doesn’t write science fiction yet you can sometimes find her on those shelves. Isaac Marion has said Warm Bodies isn’t young adult but again you can find it shelved as just that on Goodreads by hundreds of people. As it’s basically a YA-friendly zombie version of Romeo and Juliet, a Shakespeare play studied by millions of teenagers around the world, this isn’t surprising.

Pre-panel discussion while waiting for other panellists to arrive: Melanie’s from Texas so she’s used to big places. She’s a 25-year veteran of WorldCon. This is the biggest building it’s ever been in. ExCeL is 1km long so she’s doing alot of walking. She’s also done some tourist-y things like visiting the Tower of London to see the poppy exhibit commemorating the soldiers who fell in WWI.

Jenni has worked at Forbidden Planet for a year and is now a commissioning editor at Orbit.

Recommended Reading

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