Astrogator's Logs

New Words, New Worlds
Artist, Heather Oliver             

Baby, You Were Great!

— title of a story by Kate Wilhelm

Everyone who meets me inevitably finds out that science fiction and fantasy (SF/F) occupy a large portion of my head and heart: I write it, read it, review it and would like to see it discard the largely self-imposed blinkers that impoverish it. For a while, Strange Horizons (SH) magazine thrilled and captivated me. So it’s doubly hearbreaking for me to see it regressing into “normality” and losing sight of what made it stand out in the first place.

My relationship with SH has long been ambivalent. I was happy it was a major SF/F venue brought to vibrant life by female founders: Mary Anne Mohanraj and Susan Marie Groppi after her. I was pleased it published many works by women and Others and contained significant numbers of women in its masthead (as editors, not gofers or dishwashers). I was glad it showcased non-famous writers from the get-go and cast its net wide. My second major SF article appeared there when I was relatively unknown in the domain.

However, there were some worms in the tasty apple. One was that SH seemed to have adopted a stance of “science hurts our brains” – perhaps to distinguish itself from the scienciness of Analog and Asimov’s. This was true not only (increasingly) for its stories but also for the non-fiction articles which steered determinedly clear of science, concentrating instead on literary and social criticism. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course, especially when SF/F is still struggling for legitimacy as literature. But other speculative magazines – Lightspeed, for one – manage to include interesting science articles without shedding cooties on their fiction.

So I read SH fiction less and less but continued to browse its columns and reviews. Then in the last few years I noticed those shifting – gradually but steadily. They were increasingly by and about Anglosaxon white men and showed the tunnel vision this context denotes and promotes. The coalescent core reviewers were young-ish British men (with token “exotics”) convinced of their righteous enlightenment and “edginess” along the lines of “We discovered/invented X.”

I caught a whiff of the embedded assumptions that surface when these self-proclaimed progressives relax, safe from prying eyes. One of them recently reviewed a story on his site and characterized its protagonist by the term “cunt”. He used the word repeatedly, as a synonym for “empathy-lacking sociopath”. Having accidentally read the entry, I remarked that, feminism bona fides aside, the term doesn’t ring friendly to female ears and even the canon definition of the term (“extremely unpleasant person, object or experience”) is not equivalent to psychopath. Perhaps not so incidentally, I was the only woman on the discussion thread.

The reviewer’s first response was that only Amurrican barbarians “misunderstand” the term. I replied (in part) that I’m not American, and presumably he wishes to be read by people beyond Britain and its ex-colonies. At that point he essentially told me to fuck off. His friends, several of them SH reviewers or editors, fell all over themselves to show they aren’t PC killjoys. They informed me that US cultural hegemony is finally over (if only), that “cunt” is often used as an endearment (in which case his review was a paean?) and that women themselves have reclaimed the term (that makes it copacetic then!).

So this is the core group that has been writing the majority of reviews at SH for the last few years and is now firmly ensconced not only in SH but also across British SF/F venues. This may explain the abysmal gender percentages of the latter, which haven’t really budged even after the discussions around the not-so Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF or the handwringings over the Gollancz aptly named Masterwork Series. The recent epic fantasy debate showcased the prevailing attitudes by discussing exclusively works of (repeat after me) white Anglosaxon men. Not surprisingly, the editor of SH just revealed that roughly two-thirds of recent SH reviews were by male reviewers and two-thirds discussed works of male authors, adhering to the in/famous “one-third rule” that applies to groups helmed by men.

People will argue that SH still has “a preponderance” of women in its masthead and pages. That’s mostly true — for now. However, it is significant that the percentages of works by women in SH consistently reflect the ratios and clout of women within each of its departments. Too, it’s human nature to flood the decks with one’s friends when someone takes over a ship. The problem is that, given the makeup of the current editor’s inner circle, an echo chamber is all but assured. To give one example, a new SH column does blurbs of online discussions relevant to SF/F. Although the editor in charge of it asked for input and admitted he got an avalanche of responses, its entries so far have come almost exclusively from members of the in-group.

So SH is inching towards a coterie of white Anglosaxon men as arbiters of value, a configuration Virginia Woolf would have found depressingly familiar. People are fond of repeating that publication ratios reflect the fact that women submit less than men. What I increasingly see at SH are stances that need not be in-your-face hostile to exert a chilling effect. If someone smirks at you constantly, the passive-aggressive condescension will eventually stop you from going to his parties as effectively as if he had explicitly barred you entry (check out The Valve to observe this dynamic at work).

It grieves me to see SH slowly but inexorably become literally a neo-Victorian club. It grieves me that one of the few SF/F venues once genuinely receptive to women’s work is resorting to smug lip-service. Perhaps the magazine is a victim of its success: once women had nurtured it to prominence, men could take over and reap the benefits – a standard practice.

I see developing patterns early, so much so that I often joke I should be called Cassandra, not Athena. Yet this once, for the sake of the genre and the women who painstakingly watered the now-vigorous SH tree, I fervently hope I’m proved wrong. Otherwise, given the attention span of the Internet, a handful of us will wistfully recall (to hoots of incredulous derision, no doubt) that once there was a verdant oasis in SF/F that women created, shaped and inhabited.

Remedios Varo, Nacer de Nuevo (To Be Reborn)

Note to readers: I am aware this will lead to polarizing and polarized views. I will not engage in lengthy back-and-forths, although I made an exception for the expected (and predictable) response by Abigail Nussbaum. People are welcome to hold forth at whatever length and pitch they like elsewhere.

25 Responses to “Baby, You Were Great!”

  1. Sovay says:

    So SH is inching towards a coterie of white Anglosaxon men as arbiters of value, a configuration Virginia Woolf would have found depressingly familiar.

    I’m still editing their poetry, and I don’t plan on turning into a neo-Victorian male any time soon.

  2. Athena says:

    I know of your position at SH and am glad of it. I did not discuss SH poetry because I read it too sporadically to have a global sense of it. Also, I said “inching” not “galloping”.

  3. Found this piece via Alexandra Erin. People who want to see the proportions of women and men whose fiction submissions have been published in SH from 2005 through 2010 can easily view the statistics; I see no reason to believe it’s becoming a less woman-friendly place.

  4. Athena says:

    As I indirectly noted in the article, fiction editors in SH are still 2/3 women. Also, what is happening is a gradual process. An erosion, not a coup.

  5. Abigail says:

    Dear Athena,

    I must confess to finding this essay so frustratingly vague, so content to substitute insinuations and generalizations where facts and figures are called for, that I scarcely know how to respond to it. Why have you not identified the SH reviewer with whom you argued over the use of the word ‘cunt’ as Martin Lewis, or linked to that conversation? Why, especially given that only a few paragraphs later, you take care to link to discussions about the Mammoth Book of Mindblowing SF, the Gollancz Masterworks list, and the nihilistic fantasy discussion, none of which have anything to do with SH? Similarly, why do you not name Jonathan McCalmont as the compiler of the “new SH column [that] does blurbs of online discussions relevant to SF/F” or link to his posts? Would it not be better to give your readers the chance to see whether your characterizations are correct? In Jonathan’s case, incidentally, they are not – though he contributes to the reviews department and is a junior editor in the articles department, Jonathan is not a columnist. The posts in questions are a series on the SH blog.

    You write that “it is significant that the percentages of works by women in SH consistently reflect the ratios and clout of women within each of its departments.” As a scientist you are surely aware of the importance of supporting theories with facts, and yet you offer no support for this claim. You made a similar claim in the comments to the SH blog post where you retrieved the statistics that show a 1:2 ratio of female participation in the SH reviews department (a post that you have also failed to link to) and were corrected when Niall pointed out that the senior editor of the fiction department, which has maintained a 2:1 ratio of female contributors for years, is a man. Here I find you repeating the same argument without acknowledging the counterexample.

    A lack of supporting evidence, in fact, dogs this essay. You write that the posts Jonathan highlights in his blog posts “have come almost exclusively from members of the in-group,” but you don’t demonstrate this, nor have you defined this in-group except in the vaguest terms. Towards the end of the review, you unleash a flurry of gloomy predictions for the magazine. It is “inching towards a coterie of white Anglosaxon men as arbiters of value.” It is “slowly but inexorably becoming literally a neo-Victorican club.” Where are your numbers? Is the simple fact that Susan Marie Groppi has stepped aside as editor in chief and been replaced by Niall Harrison really enough to support all these claims? You have hard data for one department – data that cannot support the theory of a drop in female participation, because Niall only crunched the numbers for 2010, so for all you know the 1:2 ratio has been holding steady for years – and vague impressions of other departments, each of which is run separately and with no influence over the others. From this you concoct a narrative of the magazine’s increasing masculinization for which you have no evidence, and present it as fact.

    Finally, and at the risk of sounding egotistical, what I found most dismaying about this article was how completely it elided my existence and my role as SH’s reviews editor. You cite the behavior of individual reviewers, of junior editors in other departments, and of the whole of British fandom as determining factors in the magazine’s alleged slide towards male domination, but you do not mention my influence at all. I have said this to you twice, once in the comments to Niall’s blog post and a second time in the comments to the Aqueduct blog, where you made similar claims, and received no response, so I will say it a third time: none of these people have any effect on who writes for the reviews department and what books are reviewed. Neither, these days, does Niall, though as former reviews editor his influence is of course still felt. The only person who has the power to steer the department as a whole is me. If you have a problem with female representation in the reviews department, then your problem is with me, and I would dearly love to hear it so I can try to address it. If I have said or done anything to make you believe that I am unwilling or incapable of addressing the issue of female representation in the reviews department, please tell me so that I can amend my behavior. But I am the address here. Not Niall, not Martin or Jonathan, and not the guy who wrote the Nihilistic Fantasy post.

    There is no question that a 1:2 ratio of female participation is not where I want the department to be (though in keeping with this article’s selective presentation of facts, I note that you have neglected to mention that Niall’s statistics crunched the numbers for nearly all the review venues in the field, and that SH emerged as being in line with the rest of the field in one metric, and ahead of the pack in the other). I’d like to take this opportunity to reiterate my commitment to increasing the number of books by women reviewed by the department, and to invite anyone who has perhaps felt that SH might not be a welcoming place due to their gender or race to submit their reviews to the department.

  6. Athena says:

    Abigail, I applaud your loyalty and hope it’s reciprocated by your SH colleagues. The reason I didn’t mention you is simple: past statistics at SH are not your doing, since you became reviews editor very recently.

    The rest I won’t discuss, I already wrote the article. I didn’t name names because I’m discussing general trends. Let’s simply say I’m not the only one who has noticed this trend — and frankly, there’s been enough compiling of pie charts and handwringing. I addressed the fiction editor point [ETA: confirmed by the fiction editor himself], and to say that SH is “as good as the rest” is not good enough, given how “good enough” the rest are.

  7. Niall says:

    Just on this point:

    the non-fiction articles which steered determinedly clear of science

    I hope Vandana Singh’s new column, which started earlier this month, will help to fill this gap for you. The focus will be environmental and ecological science, but I know Vandana has ideas for other science topics as well.

  8. Asakiyume says:

    I’m a little unsure about whether you are worried about a trend in reviews, in fiction, or in the overall magazine.

    It sounds as if the reviews editor is eager to have diverse reviews, so perhaps in that regard it’s not so bad? And as for fiction, I have to say that the stories I’ve happened to read or notice in Strange Horizons have all been by women, and have been by women from a variety of backgrounds (i.e. not all white Anglo-Saxon women). My sample’s not random, of course, but my general impression has been favorable.

  9. Athena says:

    Yes, I am looking forward to this particular development.

  10. Athena says:

    The specifics I quoted were not for fiction, though the trend in the reviews was unmistakable. As for the future shape of reviews and SH overall, we only have to wait, after all.

  11. Rose Lemberg says:

    From where I stand, which is on the very outskirts of this discussion, the balance and content of fiction is great – work by women and newcomers across genres is regularly featured (however, I am not a hard SF reader; so my experience and viewpoint here is different from Athena’s). The poetry improved (the addition of Sonya to the poetry masthead is an enormous boon, from where I stand). The articles are stellar, with recent work by Silvia Moreno-Garcia and JoSelle Vanderhooft.

    I am an avid reader of SH, but I am not a regular reader of the SH reviews column, although I do occasionally read a SH review column of the books that interest me, such as Jo Walton’s Among Others, recently reviewed by Michael Levy.

    However, looking at the list of the reviews as they appear on the SH page, I note that out of 13 reviews, only one is written by a woman (Hannah Strom-Martin), and one by a non-American non-Brit (Raz Greenberg). I note that out of 13, 8 articles have been contributed by 7 different reviewers currently living in Great Britain.

    It is my humble opinion that a greater diversity in the reviewers’ pool – and a better gender balance – would be a great idea. I am quite sure that if the Reviews department issues a call for submissions, reviewers will come. People love SH and want to see it continue as a stellar magazine that stands out from the crowd.

    Again, just my 2c.

  12. Nick Mamatas says:

    The SH reviews section has been a mess for years, and Athena is hardly the first person to notice the many problems with it, whether it’s fannish handicapping, the obvious bias toward UK authors in positive reviews, the inability of non-fiction editors to correctly define obscure literary terms such as “plot” and the hilarious defensive nitpicking of any criticism. My new favorite has to be from this very thread: “Jonathan is not a columnist. The posts in questions are a series on the SH blog”

    Those columns aren’t columns, they’re a series of publications!

  13. Athena says:

    Rose, Nick, thank you. There is no question that SH will get an immediate and overwhelming response if it issues a review call or taps people for reviews or articles. So let’s see if this happens, instead of pie charts and endless dissections about what “is” is.

    As the Greek saying goes, Those who don’t want to bake bread spend the whole day sifting flour.

  14. Jed Hartman says:

    Just a quick side note about fiction:

    Rather to my surprise, it turns out that an sf venue having female fiction editors doesn’t necessarily correlate with publishing high percentages of fiction by women. For example, Sci Fiction, and Asimov’s under Sheila (last time I checked stats, which was a while ago), and Kris Rusch’s run on F&SF (twenty years ago) haven’t resulted in unusually high percentages of stories by women. (There was a period in the early ’90s, iIrc, when Gardner was publishing a higher percentage of stories by women than anyone else was.)

    Realms of Fantasy has traditionally published an unusually high percentage of stories by women, and has been edited by a woman. But I don’t think there’s a strong correlation across professional sf venues between female editors and high percentages of stories by women.

    Which brings me to SH: it’s true that two of our three fiction editors are women; and although I am officially the “senior” fiction editor, I don’t have more of a say than my colleagues in deciding what to publish. However, looking at our internal discussions, I don’t see a strong correlation between the genders of our editors and the genders of the authors of the stories each of us advocates most strongly for. There are, for example, a bunch of stories by women that I’ve liked more than Karen and Susan have liked, and there are a bunch of stories by men that they’ve liked more than I have.

    So although I think the subject merits continued discussion, I don’t think there’s a simple or easy correlation here.

    It’s also worth noting that SH has always had two female fiction editors and one male, but for our first couple of years, the percentage of stories by men was over 50%. See for stats on our first six and a half years. I think the stats for subsequent years are scattered through my personal-blog entries about SH stats, but I don’t have time to go look them up right now. If you want details, drop me a note in email and I’ll put something together soon.

  15. Athena says:

    Thank you for the offer, Jed. As you indirectly point out, my focus was on the reviews (my complaint about the fiction was of a different nature, and almost tongue-in-cheek — I like most kinds of SF/F fiction). I was aware of the fiction staff details at SH, including the consensus part, and of some of the statistics you quoted. Twenty years ago things were different; also, Sheila inherited a very different situation at Asimov’s than the SH setup.

    I agree that having a woman editor does not guarantee gender parity, especially in fiction where additional/distinct criteria apply; however, the gender ratios of women editors are generally better if only because they tend to be aware of the issue.

  16. Caliban says:

    I don’t read the SH reviews, but this whole thing smells like something I have encountered again and again:

    If it’s a woman (a la Athena), she needs to get a sense of humor and perspective.

    If it’s a man, lo and behold, it’s always the other person who needs to get a sense of humor and perspective.

    I know this because I write using genderless initials, and have been attacked for being a shrill, humorless and presumed female feminist. Which I find hilarious. When this was pointed out to be a wrong assumption (well, maybe I am a feminist, but I find that most men who boast about being feminist usually, within ten minutes, undermine their own claim, so I shy away from making a fool of myself), well, guess what, it wasn’t the (male) reviewer who was wrong, but all the women (and me) who pointed out the problem. This was at a different feckless online publication than SH, but the symptoms are the same.

    Which I why I find it perfectly fair of Athena to link to other fiascos. SH surely is not responsible for the circus of the Mammoth Book of Egos or the war over nilpotent fantasy. But to point at them and saying, “Hey! They’re worse!” is hardly justification for one’s own tepid actions.

  17. Athena says:

    As you say, Calvin: Don’t like the message? Shoot the messenger — and back to business as usual.

  18. Nick Mamatas says:

    One note: Rusch’s F&SF published more women than van Gelder’s F&SF, which is notable even if Rusch’s record in itself wasn’t unusual. Of course, many of the stories by female authors Rusch published were her own stories.

  19. Athena says:

    Interesting point, Nick. It fits the general trends of editors’ publishing patterns that I mentioned in an earlier comment.

  20. Sue Lange says:

    I’m not giving up on SH just yet. It’s good to let publications know we are watching though, if for no other reason than they will in time start to watch themselves.

  21. Athena says:

    Sue, I agree. And as I said repeatedly, in the case of SH in particular I very much want my fears to be proved wrong.

  22. Matt Denault says:

    Athena, to add to what communications you’ve already had with Strange Horizons reviewers, let me say publicly that as a somewhat regular reviewer for SH I am most definitely aware of and concerned with the underrepresentation of women (along with other imbalances) among both reviewers and authors reviewed. That said, I would not review for SH if I did not think that those in charge–Abigail for the reviews, with all the support Niall can offer as editor in chief–see underrepresentation as a problem they must work to address, just as you do. So aside from all the refutations of characterizations presented here, that should be stated clearly: there may be disagreement here about SH’s trajectory, but I don’t believe that anyone is satisfied with where it is now.

  23. Athena says:

    Matt, I’m glad to know the representation(s) issue is on people’s minds. Good intentions are excellent; concrete implementations, even more so.

  24. Sheila Williams says:

    I think it’s important to point out that Ed Ferman told Kris Rusch he had to have first pick on her stories when he hired her. That’s why Asimov’s only got one of her stories during her tenure at F&SF. Her publications could hardly have skewed the F&SF statistics because only six or seven of her stories appeared in F&SF during the course of her six-year tenure as editor.

  25. Athena says:

    Science journals do the same, for the same reasons: editors can have their work published in journals they edit, but another editor shepherds their papers through the peer review process. In the case of science journals it’s easier, because they tend to have several editors.