Can of Worms? Meet Can Opener

There exists, somewhere on the net, a small old-fashioned (seems odd to say it, but it’s true) discussion board. An eddy in the current of the internet, if you will, or rather a backwater. It was designed before blogging was a twinkle in the would-be pundits’ eyes, and hardly anyone goes there anymore. Except me, and  a few other die-hards. We’re a self-selected and dwindling group at this point, but we hang on, and the reason we hang on is that we can talk about things there that no one in his or her right mind would put out on the internet. This place isn’t secret, but it isn’t indexed either, and the discussions there don’t propagate or get linked, and that’s how we like it. All as a preamble to a question that rather threw me. So much so that I’ve decided to consider it here.

The question was simple: “Do you, as a male fantasy writer, ever feel isolated in a field dominated by women?”

The short answer is “no.” The notion had never even occurred to me before. I mean, it’s hard to feel like the “lone guy” when just off the top of my head I can name Andy Duncan, Jeff Ford, Robert Reed, Michael Swanwick, Lavie Tidhar, Peter Beagle, Neil Gaiman, William Eakin, Tim Pratt, and probably a dozen or two more people of the male persuasion writing short fiction. Any isolation I feel is more of the physical variety, since I live more or less in the middle of nowhere, in terms of the locations of other fantasy writers.

Well, that’s the short answer. The long answer involves examining the assumption underlying the question itself, and bear in mind that it was a woman who asked it. Do women dominate the field of genre fantasy in the short form? Is that an accurate assumption, or merely perception? I decided to find out, and remembered that one of my publishers had actually done a little data gathering recently from the magazines, and the numbers were rather dramatic. The answer to the question turned out to depend almost completely on context. If you look at the print magazines and expand the question to include the science fiction venues, Analog through Asimov’s and F&SF, the answer was an obvious “no.” Male writers still had the majority of the slots, and by a significant margin. In individual cases (you can probably guess which ones), the ratios were as high as 86/14 men to women. Even a female-friendly venue like Realms of Fantasy usually ran about 55/45 on average with male writers in the majority.

Now then, here’s where the numbers begin to tell a more interesting story–when you compare the print magazine numbers to those of the newer, strictly online magazines like Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and Lightspeed, the situation changes considerably. In nearly every case, the majority of the online stories were by women. Not at the “86/14” level, but significantly higher than 50/50. So whether I am “outnumbered” rather depends on whether I’m publishing a story in Asimov’s or in BCS. Why the disparity with the print magazines? Your guess is as good as mine. Proportion of submissions? Editorial taste? All possibilities, but I can only guess. One thing seems certain–as the print magazines (yes, I will miss them, but it’s true) continue to fade away and new publishers/editors come to prominence, the trend shown in the early numbers seems likely to continue. So even if women do not already dominate the fantasy/sf field in sheer numbers of stories, apparently they’re about to do so.

Which means…what? As my wife is fond of saying in similar situations, “And this affects me how?” I do what I do. And yes, I do get the fact that, as a male, I probably had fewer issues to deal with breaking into the field at the time and place I did than a woman might have. I can only speak from my own experience that the gender of my colleagues was never an issue, and I don’t understand why it ever would be.