Thursday, June 16, 2011

Aaron's Take on the Russ Pledge

SF Signal ignited a debate with yesterday's "Mind Meld" post on the "Russ Pledge," which was Nicola Griffith's suggestion that everyone "pledge to make a considerable and consistent effort to mention women's work which, consciously or unconsciously, has been suppressed."

The debate stemmed from the fact that when The Guardian asked readers to name their favorite science fiction novels, the readers' list was dominated by male writers. (It was originally suggested that only 18 of 500 writers mentioned were women, but commenters on the SF Signal thread quickly discredited this calculation. A more plausible tally showed that 20 out of 160 authors named were women, or 12.5%.) Pro-Pledge commenters found this appalling and some accused any defenders of the status quo of sexism. Anti-Pledge commenters quickly took offense at being labeled sexist.

As is often the case with these Internet slugfests, I disagree with both sides.

The pro-Pledge side of the debate begins from an invalid assumption, that gender imbalance when people name their favorite books translates to existing gender bias in the SF/F field. When you ask people their favorite book, they will take that to mean their favorite book ever, which tells us very little about what they are reading and enjoying now. It is an unfortunate fact that for most of the history of the SF/F genre, there was a gender disparity among the authors. As a result, most of the all-time classics of the field were written by men. We may expect that lists of readers' all-time favorite works will reflect that disparity.

That does not necessarily mean that gender bias remains pervasive in the field. I suspect reasonable measures of readers' current favorite works would show far less disparity. For example, this year's Hugo ballot includes 10 works of fiction by women and 9 by men. The genre seems to have made commendable progress in this area.

Meanwhile, the anti-Pledge side of the debate is bristling at a suggestion that strikes me as entirely innocuous. What could be the objection to mentioning works by women when discussing science fiction and fantasy? You would have to circle pretty far out of your way to avoid doing that.

When I make story recommendations on this blog, I apply only one bias: I am particularly on the lookout for good stories by newer authors and from smaller publications, which readers might easily overlook. I pay no attention to the authors' gender (or to their race or religion or sexual orientation, etc). Yet to date I have given 39 story recommendations to stories by women, compared to 23 to stories by men (including a number to writers who are black, Asian, trans-gender, etc). There are just that many excellent new female writers out there.

So on the one hand I don't think it's instructive that my list of all-time favorite SF/F works is a male-dominated group (which it is, although it certainly includes some women authors, beginning with Ursula LeGuin, Octavia Butler, and Connie Willis). Nor can I see any difficulty with pledging to mention women authors when discussing SF/F, given that they are such a vital part of the field today.


Amy said...

I'm pretty much in agreement with you on this issue, Aaron.

The past can't be changed. Lists of people's all time favorite SF books reflects the past, when the SF/F field was dominated by male writers, and works were marketed to male readers.

Instead of getting angry and making proclamations, although that does get attention, I think these women should trumpet the fine SF/F works of women today and in the the past. Recommend books and stories.

In an earlier post on this blog, I mentioned the book The Many-Colored Land by Julian May. She got a 1982 Hugo Award nomination for the novel. Have you read it?

Aaron Hughes said...

No, I confess I haven't read that. But one of my favorites from that period, The Snow Queen by Joan Vinge, was the Hugo winner the year before that.