January 14, 2014

Women In Fantasy: Part One

This is a subject that I've read, thought, and talked about fairly often over the past few years, as it's become a more prominent issue within the fantasy community. The discussion seems to center around two issues: women as authors of fantasy, and women as characters within fantasy books. For the sake of length, I will divide my thoughts on the subject into two according to those two aspects. This first post will be about women as authors of fantasy novels.

There are two main questions that can most summarize the debating points.

#1 Can Women Write Fantasy Novels?

As far as I'm concerned, the question of whether women can write fantasy novels is very easy to answer:


Perhaps an inspiration for new female authors?
Try these names on for size: Elizabeth Bear, Robin Hobb, Elspeth Cooper, N.K. Jemisin, J.K. Rowling, Susanna Clarke, and Mary Stewart are all female authors of fantasy novels that I've personally read and love. And I love them for different reasons: some are just beautifully written, some are epic tales that pulled me in, some have marvelous characters that I fell in love with... kind of like with male authors that I like, actually.

And that doesn't take into account other popular female fantasy authors that I haven't read (yet): Tamora Pierce, Kristain Britain, Trudi Canavan, Ursula Le Guin, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Anne McCaffrey, Margaret Weis, Patricia Briggs, Elizabeth Moon, and so on. I'm sure there are at least a few authors I'm forgetting in that list as well. Some are newer, some have been publishing fantasy books as early as the 1960's. 

Not only that, but they can write fantasy just as good as male authors. Elizabeth Bear has some of the most beautifully written books I've ever read, Robin Hobb has one of my favourite characters, and J.K. Rowling has one of the best selling, most widely read books (among kids and adults) of all time. I'm not sure what the figures are, when it comes to the gender ratio of authors of fictional novels in general, but I wonder how close the ratio within fantasy comes to matching it. The popular assumption is that male authors in fantasy greatly outnumber female authors, and despite all of those names that I mentioned (and all of the ones I didn't) I still assume the same.

Which begs the second question: if women can write fantasy novels as well as men can, and those who do are not exceptions to the rule, why is there such an imbalance? Why are there so few woman authors in fantasy, compared to men?

#2 That Question I Just Asked

This is a much more difficult question to answer, because it more than likely includes a number of factors.

In recent years there's been something of a civil war, or perhaps Renaissance is a more appropriate term, in the greater world of Geek-dom. After some small circle of men launched vitriol against "nerd girls" and tried to argue for the exclusion of women from nerdy hobbies, the much larger population have fired back. This is about the same time, probably not mere coincidence, that the debate about women in fantasy heated up.

Author N.K. Jemisin
What the issue focused on is the... erm... exclusivity that some nerds tried to maintain. Google things like "fake geek girl" and you'll find things like comic book artist Tony Harris' sexist rant. Do another search for "#1 reason why" and you'll find a whole slew of tweets and articles where women in the tech and gaming industry report numerous cases of sexism and even sexual assault they have to deal with. So I think its safe to assume that some women who might have had an interest in fantasy literature had to face, at the very least, active discouragement from men in the industry if not in their personal lives.

But that's historically, and while I'm not naive enough to claim that such issues are completely gone I have already pointed out that there has been a lot of female fantasy authors in the industry in recent years. That said, there are still a good deal more male authors than there are women. The good news is that more and more we're seeing women writing fantasy novels, which will mean there will be more and more creative minds churning out fantasy books.

As a fan of fantasy, I'm very excited to see this trend continue. We could very well see the beginning of a Golden Age in fantasy literature, as more diverse minds from all genders, races, sexualities, religions, and cultures contribute to its evolution.

In Conclusion...

Women can and do write fantasy novels as well as men do, and despite a historical gender imbalance there has been a surge of new female fantasy authors. This is a good thing, and all fantasy fans should hope that the trend continues.

Profound stuff, right?

1 comment:

  1. Usual Le Guin is a bamf.

    I've noticed more female fantasy writers as well; I haven't had the chance to read much yet, but it's cool see it becoming less of a boys' club. These things take time and we're seeing positive changes. I'm happy with that. (This is observational, but I don't seem to see the same trend In sci-fi; it seems to be the same handful of women who get the nods over and again.)