Note: This article was first published on the miNatura magazine. We thank Cristina Jurado and miNatura for kindly permitting us to reproduce it here. You can also read it in Spanish at Cristina Jurado's wonderful blog Más Ficción Que Ciencia.
One translator, three writers and an editor give their opinions about women's contribution to fantasy, science fiction and horror literature
It is remarkable the continuous absence of female SF writers in the genre's best-seller lists. If one includes fantasy in the picture, a handful of female authors appear, a phenomenon well known by the scholars and the fandom.
|Ana María Shua|
The problem may be the invisibility of females in SF, as if their literary projects found little support by publishing companies, specialized critics, and the readers. This is the sad conclusion one can deduce by the multiple posts and articles dedicated to this issue. Few months ago Damien Walter at The Guardian acknowledged that, from a total of twenty-nine Grandmasters of Science Fiction (honor awarded by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America), only four were women. In another post Julie Crisp from Tor Books turned the attention towards the offer: in the 502 submissions to Tor, only 32% came from female authors and most of them cultivated fantasy –epic or urban-, hardly any SF. Katha Pollitt pointed out in an article published in Slate in 2011 the absence of women in the publishing market. Ian Sales talked about this in recent post, indicating the existence of a pernicious myth by which it is commonly accepted that women do not write science fiction.
The majority of these conclusions come from a study published in 2012 by VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, a North American organization founded 6 years ago to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women. The study revealed that, even though there is almost gender parity in the number of literary works submitted to SF publications, the amount of male reviewers and male authors featured in those publication was significantly superior to those of female authors and reviewers. The magazine Strange Horizons did another analysis, arriving to similar conclusions.
There is not comparable data in Spain to confirm this trend, but nothing seems to contradict it either. That's is why we have decided to invite five women –writers, workshop organizers, translators and editors- who work in the Spanish speaking SF and fantasy market to answer a few questions for us. We asked them the same five questions to form a sort of international panel, trying to reflect the opinions of women from different geographical locations.
“The relationship between women and science is a recent one”
To the question "why do you think there are less females SF, fantasy and horror writers in the Spanish speaking market?" Ana María Shua (author) answers: “Are they less? Are we talking about the percentage of published female authors? It's true than there is less women writing science fiction, all over the world and in every language, maybe because the relationship between women and science is a recent one. About “fantasy”, I´m nor sure if you are referring to the imitations of Tolkien –in which I'm not very interested- or fantasy literature in general. The last includes horror literature and I believe there are more women dedicated to it than men. In absolute numbers, there are more male than female authors that publish in every genre, because of historical reasons. Among female authors, the percentage of the ones working in fantasy is higher than their male counterparts. I even know about essays by North American feminists trying to explain why women prefer fantasy.”
Susana Sussman (author and workshop organizer) says: “the reason is the same why there are less female fans of those genres, less female engineers and women scientists. There is something in our society teaching us that those things are for boys and not for girls. Unfortunately, ladies simply don't consider anything related to technical stuff. It's not a lack of capacity, but of even trying. The same way my grandmother never thought about learning to drive a car, the majority of today's women only consider getting married, staying at home, having children and reading romantic novels. Sadly it is a cliché but a true one, because many women live their lives in such a fashion. Why did I read science fiction? Because I tried once, before I was indoctrinated about girls not needing so complex readings. Why I'm a scientist? Because when my father told me that a woman in our days could not have a family and be a scientist at the same time, I was too stubborn to listen to him. Why do I write? Because one day, simply, I tried.”
Cristina Macía (translator) believes that “it's because those are genres in which professional writers started as fans. During many years Spanish fans were predominantly men. Today that has changed. Fandom has changed. The growing number of female authors confirms it (except in science fiction, a genre in which we are still behind). It's not only a problem about the genre but also about age of the fans. New generations of authors and readers are much more into The Lord of the Rings than into Ringworld.”
Ana Díaz, Macía’s working mate and professional freak, adds: “there is also the idea of classical science fiction books with only unimpressive or very secondary female characters, which is everything but inspirational. If up to few years ago literature in other countries was structured in genres, imagine in Spain! As a child, I used to go to the bookshop where they recommended me horrible stories with fairies. The Three Investigators was about and for boys.” About this, Macía comments: “I agree, but I would like to know if any more were discouraged to read The Three Investigators because they were girls. It did not happened to me (and I'm older). Another important topic: in the old times, and I'm afraid in our days too, if you were a woman writing science fiction, fantasy or terror they included you immediately in a panel discussion under the title The role of women in the genre. The third time this happens, you start to question your career and began to consider writing historical novels… or fabricating cluster bombs.”
For Chely Lima (author): “To what extent many editors expect female writers to produce love novels or stories where ordinary women play the main role of a mother, wife, lover, workers or housewife with small, quotidian conflicts firmly anchored in reality? Following my personal experience, I believe that there are certain paths whose limits you cannot trespass, if you want to come out of obscurity and have commercial success in big publishing companies. If you walk out of the path, maybe you are not what an editor, reader or even the bookshop would like to see in the shelves. A very important literary agent told me: ´You have two problems to achieve commercial success: first, your writing deviated a lot from the publishing companies prudish taste; and second, your texts are very masculine.´ What a paradox, isn’t it?”
Carmen Cabello (editor) answers: “Are there really less female writers in the genre? Are we taking into account the women writing urban fantasy, young adult, or paranormal romance with high doses of fantasy? I haven't counted the number of manuscripts that Kelonia has received, but my guess is that there is parity. Decades ago the genre was dominated by men, but things have changed.”
We asked our interviewees about the women contribution to the genre. Sussman: “women contribute the same way that any other individual. Each of us is the product of our experiences, and the only difference between literature by men or women is the role society assigns us during our early years, and that we often pass on to our own daughters. It's not important if a science fiction or a fantasy story has been written by a man or a woman. The important thing is, whoever the author, that it is well written making the characters believable. It's clear that many female authors took advantage to preach feminism, but that is also an individual decision, nothing to do with being a man or a woman.”
Cabello: “to me, it's the same the contribution of men to romantic literature, for example. Each book is its own world and I don't believe that one gender can add different things than the other. For example, the Song of Ice and Fire, could it be written by a woman? And the Terramar series, could it be written by a man? Here, I say yes!”
“I believe they bring whatever an intelligent woman writing in any other literary genre: a different look, sometimes deeper and more dramatic than many male authors, female characters more believable and charismatic, and elements that humanize and sexualize the narrative differently from the macho joke or from the plastic hero lifeless outside technology or violence,” says Lima.
Macía: “A [woman brings a] different look than a man. Sure. The same way than a woman at twenty has a different look at things than a woman at sixty. The same way that the look of a woman from Cádiz is different than that of one from Barcelona. But I bet that, when writing, there are more things in common between a man and a woman twenty years old and living in Cadiz than two women, one from Cadiz and another from Barcelona, with an age difference of forty years. I understand the need to classify, label and organize soccer teams, but I believe it´s a necessity of the marketing director and not of the writer or the critic. Readers shouldn't be concern with it, that's for sure.”
Shua: “when women imitate Tolkien, they try to highlight female characters, their desires, problems and social limitations. When they write high quality fantasy literature, very often it's impossible to know if the author is male or female. I've seen many loosing bets in literary competitions in which authors hid behind an alias. In science fiction, we have the wonderful James Tiptree to show that good literature belong to no gender.”
Genre: in crisis or on the rise?
Confronted to the question “How do you see Spanish genre literature?” Macía answers: “More alive than ever. Many peripheral voices are coming in, as well as voices from other genres. The ones emerging from the fandom and becoming professional are more forceful and interesting. There are also appearing many more voices. The new ways of publishing mean that the editing filters are getting lost in many instances (that's not an advantage, because any shitty book can end up being published in Amazon) and often times it takes a long time to find something decent. Sometimes, sales don't come along either. The number of readers has not increased that much and, if there were 5 authors for 5,000 readers with a budget of 100,000 euros, now we have 50 authors for the same population and budget. Piracy is the explanation of why authors and editors don't know how to make their numbers work.”
Shua talks about the publishing market in general: “Today, crime thrillers dominate the market. But this is subject to fashionable trends: everything passes and comes back. Ten years ago, historical novels dominated. Now, we have 50 Shades of Grey with the revival of erotic literature.”
Cabello: “We have great male and female writers. I still have hope, and readers are quite loyal, even though foreign authors dominate. Unfortunately many feel that a novel by a foreign author is better than what we do here, and that's far from the truth. Big publishing companies are starting to include genre books in their catalogues -foreign titles still dominate- but there is a shift towards Spanish genre. On the other hand, some small and independent publishing companies are emerging with catalogues 100% dedicated to Spanish speaking authors. This, in a time of economic recession, means a lot.”
Lima is more pessimistic: “Between the need to glorify realistic literature and the fever for historical novels –still dominating the market- genre doesn't live the best of its times. After reading about it in articles, posts and interviews, and after talking with my writer friends I have the feeling that many readers still holds many prejudices about SF, fantasy and horror and those influence editors' choices. It looks like the stories by foreign authors -specially English speaking- dominate the market. Somebody told me just yesterday that it happens a bit like rock music in Spanish.”
Sussman agrees: “Genre is in low spirits. The same way few women show interest in the genre, fewer fans –male or female- take the decision of becoming writers, so they never will discover if they have any talent for it. Therefore, we have only a few representative authors. There is a terrible prejudice among mainstream writers about genre literature not being real literature, and so nobody really expects good quality in fantasy. That means that anybody can get self-published without caring for the style and achieving a minimum level of quality. Readers read those terrible books and the prejudice grows stronger. I'm not saying that all authors who chose self-publishing are bad ones –there are some really good self-published books. But it is important to be able to separate the wheat from the chaff. Self-publishing has removed the editor's filtering work, which also eliminated books with little commercial potential as well as the reviewing process.”
When we ask about her favorite science fiction, fantasy or horror female writers in Spanish and others languages, Lima says: “after an overdose of genre –lots of books in which there weren't many female authors- I spent several years away from science fiction, fantasy and horror, at least as a reader. Two years ago I came back to the flock and I'm getting updated. I read a lot of Isak Dinesen's works during my childhood and youth, but I haven't follow her since. Her majesty Ursula K. Le Guin still fascinates me because of the strength of her narrative, the subtlety of her poetic content, her ability to connect with the reader and the way she presents feministic ideas in her SF stories. In a time when I was stuffing myself with soviet SF authors –some were excellent- Le Guin's literature seemed to me more progressive than the one from the reds. I looked like a paradox to me, so young, naïve and ignorant. Then we have Angélica Gorodischer and Margaret Atwood, who still are two of my favorites. Recently I read Lágrimas en la lluvia by Rosa Montero, and not long ago I learnt about Lola Robles, Elia Barceló and Laura Gallego García. The truth is, when I get a book from an unknown author, I normally don't look up the name or the gender. I simply start reading and, if I'm hooked, I continue. If I finish and like it, I try to get more information about the author and his or her writings. But I guess that's the same as everybody else.”
Sussman does not have favorite female writers: “My favorite writers are all male. Why? I don't know. I guess it's because there is more variety among male authors. Another reason is that some female writers used literature as a feminist pamphlet (I'm allergic to this). But I must mention Angélica Gorodischer, who's fantasy I have always liked. Her science fiction books are not among my favorites, but Kalpa Imperial is one of those novels that stays in my memory. I recently enjoyed the novels by Gail Carriger, which is very feminine in her writing but, most of all, is funny and interesting.”
Macía answers: “Historically speaking, Elia Barceló, Susana Vallejo, Pilar Pedraza, the old guard. Susana is going to kill me for sure. Lately, I really enjoy Clara Peñalver or Concha Perea and, in the genre's fringe, Ana Campoy or Sofía Rhei (every one includes into fantasy whomever they want). About the foreign ones, I confess my soft spot for Tanith Lee and Lisa Tuttle, both inexplicably not enough published in Spain. Anne McCaffrey, JK Rowling, Catherine Asaro, Connie Willis... and her majesty, the Argentinian Angélica Gorodischer. Glorious!”
“My favorite writers are Susana Vallejo, Laura Gallego, Anabel Botella and Amaya Felices, who surprised me a lot with Hipernova”, says Cabello, adding: “I have only read a book by MJ Sánchez but she has been a great discovery with Después de ti: nobody has make me laugh so hard about labeling, because her novel is considered a romantic one, but I prefer her paranormal side with those vampires. Thanks to Kelonia I´ve discovered: Laura SB, Marta Junquera, Ana Martínez Castillo, Carolina Márquez Rojas, Victoria Vílchez, Montse N. Ríos and Irene Comendador. I will continue following their career. They are authors who write about everything, giving also everything. I have great expectations over Virginia Pérez de la Puente. About foreign female authors, I really don´t have any favorites because I hardly read any foreign fantasy.”
Shua likes: “In science fiction, of course Tiptree -or Alice Sheldon-. I loved stories of the People, told by Zenna Henderson. Obviously, I like Ursula Le Guin. In Spanish, Angélica Gorodischer is the biggest star, at least based on what I read. In fantasy we have the best female authors in Latin America: Silvina Ocampo in Argentina, Elena Garro in Mexico… the list is endless. ALL good Latin American female authors have cultivated fantasy (same as men). I must make an exception in fantasy to mention Liliana Bodoc, who has a really beautiful prose.”
When we asked the interviewees “what needs to change in the publishing world to achieve parity between men and women in the genre”, Macía answers: “Nothing. Nothing at all. Changes have to come from the reader's pool, where the authors come from. I don't believe that anybody can accuse publishing companies of discriminating female authors. Maybe, in some instances, there is less promotional support for women.”
Shua follows the same line of thought: “Nothing needs to change. On the contrary, the same tendency that we witness must continue: more female authors must get involved, just as it's happening right now. I admit that many women choose commercial viability, as in romance, but I believe that the same success can be achieved in fantasy, horror or science fiction.”
“You already know what I think :)”, says Cabello, while Lima affirms: “I think it's a matter of time, of evolution. It's something nobody can really force. Surely good quality female authors will prevail. When the presence of women in the culture scene becomes stronger, their works will arrive in greater numbers and in easier ways to the public, whatever the genre they cultivate.”
For Sussman: “I believe that the origin is not in the publishing companies, even though I admit I could be wrong because I don't know the market that well. I think there is simply less literature by female than by male authors. Some publishing companies forced themselves to market female writers' novels to tip the scales in their favor, and end up publishing not very good books because there is a lack of offer. Anyhow, I don't see the need for gender parity. The most important is good literature excluding gender, genre, sexual identity, sexual preferences, race, country of origin, and abilities or disabilities of the authors.”
We would like to thank all the participants in this conversation for their time and willingness. Now we know more, directly from the sources.
Ana María Shua was born in Buenos Aires in 1951. She published her first poetry book in 1967, El sol y yo, obtaining two literary awards. Since then, she has cultivated all genres. In 1980 her novel Soy Paciente won Editorial Losada's award. Some of her others novels are Los amores de Laurita (adapted to the cinema), El libro de los recuerdos (Guggenheim scholarship), La muerte como efecto secundario (Premio Municipal) and El peso de la tentación (2007). Critics consider her micro-stories as some of the best in Spanish. Her works in the genre are La sueñera, Casa de Geishas, Botánica del caos and Temporada de fantasmas (included in Spain in the book Cazadores de Letras) and Fenómenos de circo (published in 2011). She has also written short story anthologies: Los días de pesca, Viajando se conoce gente and Como una buena madre, included in Que tengas una vida interesante. She has been honored for her young adult and children's literature in Spain and Latin America. Her writings have been translated into ten languages.
Carmen Cabello was born in Seville in September 1977, although she has lived in Meliana (Valencia) for 10 years now. An Advertising and Public Relations Professional, since a young age she has been a big fan of all aspects of fantasy: literature, cinema, comics, manga and anime. Founder and President of Federación Española de Fantasía Épica, she has participated in the organization of two Hispacons (Mislata 2011 and Urnieta 2012) and in the Festival Fantasía de Fuenlabrada (2013). She currently works in Kelonia Editorial with Sergio R. Alarte publishing fantasy, science fiction and horror books.
Chely Lima is a storyteller, poetry and theatre author, journalist, photographer, editor, and screenplay writer for TV, radio and cinema. She was born in North America, from Cuban origins. She has published more than 25 books (novels, short stories, poetry and children literature) in USA, Cuba, Mexico, Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador. Since 1992 she has lived in Ecuador, Argentina and USA, where she currently resides.
Susana Sussman is a writers of fantasy and science fiction stories, editor of Cornices de la Forja, coordinator of the literary workshop Los Forjadores, organizer of Tertulias Caraqueñas de Ciencia Ficción, Fantasía y Terror, science fiction activist, super-strings and string theorist, mass analyst, quality auditor, and happy mother and wife.
Cristina Macía (Madrid, 1965) says about herself that she translates fantasy books, lives with a science fiction writer and gets into problems all the time. Her whole live is a genre story. We know that she started Philosophy studies, leaving them to dedicate her life to translation. She began translating comics before fantasy and science fiction novels. She is well known for translating into Spanish A Song of Ice and Fire by GRR Martin and coordinates Festival Celsius in Gijon (Spain).
About the author
Cristina Jurado Marcos writes the sci-fi blog Más ficción que ciencia. Having a degree in Advertising and Public Relations by Universidad de Seville and a Masters in Rhetoric by Northwestern University (USA), she currently studies Philosophy for fun. She considers herself a globetrotter after living in Edinburgh, Chicago, Paris or Dubai. Her short stories have appeared in several sci-fi online magazines and anthologies. Her first novel From Orange to Blue was published in 2012.