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Collateral damage

First of all, I'd like to thank everyone who has commented, and is still commenting, on my piece yesterday about sfnal futures and women. I'm reading. I'm nodding and thinking. I'm finding it hard to reply, but I am listening.

A number of people have asked what has been going on with me, that I wrote this (and my long twitter rant, which you can find storified here: https://storify.com/KariSperring/calling-out-the-men-who)
It's this. Lately, I've been feeling like all I am is collateral damage. I seem to have been fighting to be allowed to exist, to be a person and not just a thing, almost my entire life. It's exhausting and draining and endless and I never seem to make any lasting gains. Indeed, as I age, the amount of space I'm permitted to occupy gets smaller and smaller and my sense of existence is shrinking.

And it's not just me. On all sides I see other people facing the same thing. I see brilliant women writers like dancinghorse (Judith Tarr) and scifiwritir (Carole McDonnell) dismissed from the narrative of fantasy and sf because they're older, or because their books have fallen out of print, or some variation and combination of those, because genre history continues to belong to men. I see the same thing happening to QUILTBAG writers and writers of colour and writers with disabilities. On all sides there are wonderful initiatives like the Geekfest Nine Worlds, anthologies and projects promoting the work of writers who are not white westerners, anthologies of queer fiction, blog series on ableism and othering in sf. I love all of this. It's a step forward.

But what I'm also seeing is that in almost all of these, there's a group that's consistently left behind. I'm seeing collateral damage.
I'm seeing older women -- whether women of colour or white women, lesbian, bi or straight, trans or cis forgotten, or only considered relevant once they're dead or long out of print and the limelight (if they ever had any share of the latter to begin with). I'm seeing women writers who debut later -- and women writers, along with writers of colour and writers with disabilities often face additional challenges which mean that they are more likely to debut later -- being written off with no or few reviews, dismissed unread as predictable.
It's the pattern we seem unable to see when we fight for change. It's the pattern we just reproduce without thinking -- and then excuse, usually on the grounds that we -- that insidious, apparently collective sff 'we' which masquerades as all of us but all too often means only those with more privilege -- that we need to attract more new blood, more 'young fans'.
I have never once heard or seen anyone suggest that 'young fans' won't want to see established older male writers. Every single convention, including 9 Worlds, has its roster of established male pros over 40. Whenever I hear this line about attracting the young, my heart sinks. Not because I don't want to see new people in fandom -- of course I do.
Because the people who are asked to stand aside, the people whose work is deemed of little or no interest, are almost entirely older women. The older men go sailing merrily on.
Now, older men of colour are also victims in this: I would never deny that. It infuriates me that our genre is still talking about Robert E Howard but never mentions Charles Saunders, who wrote and is still writing some of the best swords-and-sorcery out there.

What it comes to is this: most women who are now over about 40 have been told their whole lives to be good, to keep their heads down, to keep on working away quietly and to wait their turn. And now, within sff, at the point when their male contemporaries are celebrated, these same women are being told, No, it's too late for you, you don't matter enough; that space is needed. Get out of the way.

We're collateral damage. If we debut later, we may well find ourselves declared over, irrelevant, not worth reading even before the print is dry on our 1st book. If we've been in the industry for years, we find ourselves forgotten or dismissed and our innovations and talents and insights attributed to others (all too often male others).
I've been making a rough list of writers who were big names in the 80s, male and female, and looking at where they are now. The biggest women writers of that period, in my memory, anyway, were Barbara Hambly, R A McAvoy, C J Cherryh, Katherine Kurtz, Judith Tarr, Julian May, Mary Gentle, Lois MacMaster Bujold, Tanith Lee, and Connie Willis.
Only three of those women are still being published regularly by major publishers (and one of those -- Cherryh -- is largely ignored). Most of the others are still writing, but in other genres, for small presses, or via kickstarter.
The big name men, though. Guy Gavriel Kay, David Brin, William Gibson, Bruce Sterling, Greg Bear, Larry Niven, Michael Swanwick, George R R Martin, Samuel R Delany, Charles de Lint....
They're pretty much all still there. They're famous, their books get inches of review space, they're talked about and promoted and cited as influences.
Now, I'm not saying there aren't male writers who have fallen out of contract or seem to be being unjustly neglected. Gary Kilworth springs to mind, along with Graham Dunstan Martin (whose work I love) and the great, great Walter Jon Williams, who does not get the recognition he deserves.
On every side, I see people telling most of those women I listed to step aside. (The exceptions are Bujold and Willis.) I see their books go unreviewed. I see their influence marginalised. Those are some wonderful, wonderful writers, writers you should be reading. There are more established women writers than LeGuin (great though she is). They deserve to be celebrated, too. They deserve their place in genre. So does Charles Saunders.
They deserve better than to be pushed aside while their male peers sail merrily on.

Women over 40, whatever our colour, our sexuality, our ability should not just be Collateral damage.

I call foul.

Edited to add: this isn't about expecting younger women to step aside, either. It suits our patriarchal culture to try and play the dis-privileged off against each other and to pretend that there's only enough space for a few. This isn't about women gaining at the expense of other women. This is about a system that builds in barriers for everyone who doesn't conform to that straight, white, able-bodied, male norm.


( 138 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jun. 17th, 2014 07:48 pm (UTC)
This is a problem a lot of actresses have as well...as they age, with some few exceptions, they get thrown on the scrap heap of roles, if that.

But yeah, older female writers get no traction. It's impossible to unsee, once you see it.
Jun. 17th, 2014 08:01 pm (UTC)
Any women in public life, pretty much, yes. ANd older women are less likely to be promoted, to be recommended for training and bonuses and awards, find it harder to find work.... Doubly so if they are women of colour, trans or disabled.
(no subject) - barbarienne - Jun. 17th, 2014 08:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - cathellisen - Jun. 18th, 2014 02:20 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 17th, 2014 07:55 pm (UTC)
This post feels like a call to action and a call to hope. And it's very healing. The biggest problem with a depression/melancholy caused by society is that very often we don't know it's caused by society. We feel the grief and curse ourselves or hide away because we think it's all our own weirdness kicking in. So i needed to be reminded that this feeling i get way too often is part of a larger grief.

I think your post gives me hope. I want to do great things now, even if folks are training the younger readers to still like male writers. More and more I see how the young are being trained by folks who really should know better. Young readers are trained about love, about personalities, about evil. They are taught that certain personality traits don't generally go with other personality traits. They are taught to be reductive and to standardize personality, heroism, plot tropes. Originality is not in their mindset sometimes. Stories "must" follow certain ordained routes. It's all very stressing when folks ask you why if A is present under B conditions...why isn't C occurring?

But we can hope and try to change folks. I've had terrible moments where I get weepy and jealous about other writers who are getting awards, etc. I know i shouldn't..because really there is room everywhere for all of us. But sometimes....

Anyway, thanks for the post.
Jun. 17th, 2014 08:02 pm (UTC)
Re: healing
I want a call to action: I've been watching this going on for far too long. And I see how it harms women: everyday talented, brilliant women are telling me how invisible, worthless, hopeless, isolated they feel. It appals me. And I want to try and do something, even if it's only writing about it.
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Jun. 17th, 2014 08:39 pm (UTC)
And what's frustrating is that there are many women on the editorial side of publishing, who SEE this as an issue, and can't get any fucking traction, even back in the 1980's and 1990's (although it was a little easier then because genre and publishing as a whole was healthier than it is now).

As a female writer over 40, my only weapon - other than to keep writing - is to refuse to sit down quietly and play nice. But that, too, has its penalties.
Jun. 17th, 2014 10:55 pm (UTC)
Yes! My general experience of editors is that they are hugely supportive of their mid-career and older writers. It's the money people. And the reviewers. And the fans who only see their narrow bit and the cons that chase 'youth' without thinking that through. It's the culture.
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Jun. 17th, 2014 08:43 pm (UTC)
I plan to just get on with it and fuck anyone who disapproves.
Jun. 17th, 2014 10:56 pm (UTC)
I approve of this plan.
(no subject) - joycemocha - Jun. 17th, 2014 11:28 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - xenaclone - Jun. 18th, 2014 07:21 am (UTC) - Expand
Jun. 17th, 2014 08:44 pm (UTC)
Thank you for this.

I often wonder whether I should even try to break in since I'm over 50. It seems so unlikely.
Jun. 17th, 2014 10:56 pm (UTC)
You should, you should! Please don't let all the negative messages put out by the wider culture put you off.
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Jun. 17th, 2014 08:51 pm (UTC)
*stands and applauds!*

This is how I feel about my influences, which are all women. Many are *struggling* to write today-- Judy, as you mentioned, but almost universally the writers I admired are producing but much less than they used to.

Not because they aren't still writing, but because they're "old now." Melanie Rawn has the added burden of having had Life beat her down for multiple years, and so she's struggling to rebuild her fanbase.

They are not forgotten, and I am angry at the preconceived notions that keep beating them down.

Hell, it beats me down. I had two rejections of short stories where I was told "no one wants to read about bisexual characters." Eff you, publisher. Eff you.
Jun. 17th, 2014 09:17 pm (UTC)
First off, a heads-up: Liz and Deirdre Counihan did sterling work with small press magazine Scheherazade in publishing stories by older women writers. D actually went physically in search of one woman, whom I will not name because she chose to disappear (not just from the writing scene).

It is noticeable that some of the more self-congratulatory male allies support the younger, shoutier-but-not-really-threatening women; one might speculate as to why this is so but one's speculations would not be pretty.

It is also noticeable that some of the younger aspiring women seem keen to throw anyone over 40 under the bus of being insufficiently ideological according to their self-appointed policing. This was ever thus and according to first wave feminism is a function of a patriarchal system.

That's without even getting onto the avowedly sexist men, whom I almost prefer dealing with because at least you don't have to plough through a layer of bullshit before striking the paydirt of sabotage.

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Jun. 17th, 2014 09:31 pm (UTC)
The thing that makes me sad is that some of those who are telling us older women that we are finished, no good, has-beens are younger women.
Jun. 17th, 2014 09:37 pm (UTC)
The time will come when they suddenly find that they're in the same boat. I know this is not actually a consolation, but an irony. This is why I say above that I'd rather deal with the Theodore Beales: the man is such a caricature that he might as well be a moustachio'd villain strapping a nightgowned maiden to the railway tracks. Whereas the faux allies and the more self-righteous younger women are more insidious and thus more damaging long term.
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Jun. 17th, 2014 10:28 pm (UTC)
Jun. 17th, 2014 10:42 pm (UTC)
Yes, I've felt that too, the "too old, no one cares". Here's the kicker, though: every single one of the 15 Deverry books is still in print and still selling both in the US and the UK, in ebook and on paper. I get royalties, so I know. :-) BUT when it came to trying to sell the new Deverry book -- no one wanted it, because the series is "too old, too 1980s" and the author is too much in her 60s though no one said that outright to my agent.

Does this compute? Popular series, still sells, all earned out -- BUT we don't want the new one? I notice that male authors, Tad Williams for example, get contracts when they return to their successes from previous decades.
Jun. 17th, 2014 11:03 pm (UTC)
Yes, I'd noticed that too, and it does not sit well with me at all. You have created a series that is a real landmark in terms of richness, depth and complexity. A series that, as you say, is still being bought and loved and read. While Wheel of Time, which is derivative and dull, is lauded to the skies.
For pretty much every top selling man, I can list a woman as good or better who is overshadowed and even sometimes undermined. It's not good.
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Jun. 18th, 2014 12:27 am (UTC)
Brava! Thank you for bringing this all up, from the briny mucky depths where women writers live.

Not that I'm particularly great, or prolific, or anything, but I've discovered something else: I'm now someone's wife. And I edited his upcoming collection. I'm not sure I'll ever be just me again. Interesting position to be in.
Jun. 18th, 2014 07:08 am (UTC)
Karen: *argh!* I love Chaz. I love Chaz's work. But I also love you and *your* work.
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Jun. 18th, 2014 01:28 am (UTC)
Tanith Lee can't get a bloody contract with major US publishers. Cherryh's still being published, but I suspect because she's mostly only writing in the Foreignerverse, and it's such a long series (dear god, so long), people don't want to get involved for fear it will never end. Both Lee and Cherryh are two of my favorite authors. I usually order one or two Lee books for the holidays, but slim paperbacks for $$ is a big issue - I live in a very small town, not a major city, people just don't have the money to spend $20 on a novella from a small press. (even though I have a great store discount, I can't afford them either, and if the book is non-returnable to the publisher...)

As the SFF orderer for the bookstore I work in, I struggle with ordering quality books when I have limited shelf space.

Finally, as an unpublished WOC over 40, this thread is breaking my heart a little. But hey, that's what self-publishing is for, right?

ETA: happily, the sales have really picked up in the SFF section of the store. Some of our big sellers (who aren't GRRM) include Ann Leckie, Jacqueline Koyanagi, Jo Walton, Madeline Ashby, Nnedi Okorafor, Violette Malan, Nicola Griffith (okay, we shelve her in fiction and GLBTQ fic, but still!) - this makes me happy.

To be honest, I order the books that look interesting (and well written) and have people talking. I'm very proud of my customer base, who want to read new and exciting books as well.

Edited at 2014-06-18 01:33 am (UTC)
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Jun. 18th, 2014 03:27 am (UTC)
Speaking truth to Reality
Kari, thank you so much for your words.

Liz, Laura Anne, I love you!

Jun. 18th, 2014 03:27 am (UTC)
This is a cultural thing that I have observed in the UK over decades. It is not (in my view from where I sit, very far away) a society that has ever embraced the concept of meritocracy or equal competition, or even the basic idea that human resources shouldn't be wasted. I suppose it comes of having enough people that large chunks of the population can be regarded as disposable. I can think of no other explanation for sink estates and the general educational system or indeed, the attitude towards women.

Jun. 18th, 2014 09:15 am (UTC)
We're a plutocracy and always have been. Same in the US. Toxic late period capitalism combined with an equally toxic legacy from puritanism.
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Jun. 18th, 2014 05:37 am (UTC)
In my corporate world, there are indices and measures and judgement on the boards found lacking, and so we have a huge raft of resources going into equality.

This is partly because it is the right thing to do, and partly because it facilitates much better decisions being made.

I am not sure what the motivator for publishing houses is. We speak of our organisation "reflecting the society we serve." Which is just good sense.

I wonder how the view of the SFF society can be broadened? I don't know. I've all but given up on public SFF, and I am the over 40 women of which you speak. I am fed up of the minority of really irritating men intruding on my leisure time.

But, there has to be a market in the post menopause pound, somehow. The pink pound achieved such a lot!

Edited at 2014-06-18 05:37 am (UTC)
Jun. 18th, 2014 09:20 am (UTC)
I find it heartening that there are areas out there that are taking action on this. Because yes, society contains all of us, not jus men and the young and pretty.
Publishing contains many many women who are committed to supporting women of all ages, and who commission books from writers of all ages and backgrounds. We need more non-white, non US/UK/Australian writers to be published and the pressure for that is growing. The problem seems to be that the wider culture of sff writes out and pushes aside the older women, ignores them in discussions of genre, forgets or derides their work, denies them space save on 'women's issues' etc. We need more reviewers, critics, readers and Big Name Opinion Shapers to speak out and help out.
Jun. 18th, 2014 07:11 am (UTC)
I will just add that it greatly saddens me to see writers contributing to this thread whom I read and admired when I was starting out. I'd love to see another Deverry book, for instance.
Jun. 18th, 2014 09:20 am (UTC)
I wanted to live in Deverry in my teens. I'd still rather like to!
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