Thursday, June 19, 2008

Total Eclipse

The story thus far: last year Niall Harrison published a LJ post in which he commented on the cover of Eclipse 1, an anthology of original genre shorts and the first in a series edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by Night Shade Books. In spite of the fact that the volume's table of contents was split evenly between male and female writers, Niall noted, only male names were chosen to grace the front cover. There followed a lively and civil debate--with participants arguing on the one hand that the five names chosen represented the top five bestselling authors in the table of contents, all of whom just happened to be male, and on the other hand that this argument was self-perpetuating, and that Night Shade Books were making the perennial mistake of ignoring the existence of women as a buying demographic by pitching their product only at the traditional (white, male, middle-aged) SF-reading market--which unfortunately turned sour the minute representatives of Night Shade Books turned up on the scene.

It should be stressed: the bias against women in genre publishing (and in publishing in general) is an industry-wide problem, and it is profoundly unfair that Eclipse 1 should have been singled out as its representative, especially as the actual contents of the book were gender-balanced. But from day one, the people involved with publishing the anthology seem to have been going out of their way to make the discussion uglier and less civil. Their responses to the criticisms raised in the discussion following Niall's LJ post were belligerent, condescending, and most of all dismissive--they repeatedly, for example, returned to the argument that the cover design had been strictly a marketing decision meant to maximize sales for the book, as though this were a magic bullet that would somehow make the discussion go away, ignoring the fact that this argument had been raised, and found fault with, long before they joined the fray. The Eclipse team's commitment to making a bad situation worse was apparently still in force this spring, when Strahan, upon learning that the feminist SF convention WisCon was planning to dedicate a panel to the Eclipse cover discussion and the wider issues of gender and marketing it raised, actually urged readers of his blog to boycott it (this post has since been made unavailable, with Strahan recognizing that "It’s not something I should have engaged with, and I regret that I did"). (Micole has a good write-up of the panel here, which also neatly sums up the issue and the arguments and counter-arguments involved. EDIT: Graham Sleight points out in e-mail that Jeremy Lassen from Night Shade Press was on that panel as well, which somewhat counters their earlier dismissiveness towards this issue.)

And now: earlier this week, SF Signal published the table of contents for Eclipse 2, featuring fourteen stories and only one female contributor. As I noted in a private e-mail, that's one way of making sure no one can argue that your front cover isn't representative.

The discussion has already started to heat up, with Strahan explaining the behind-the-scenes process in the comments section of the SF Signal post, and the Feminist SF blog reacting to this explanation with sneering disdain (as well as other responses here, here, and here). And, though on the issue of last year's cover I fall rather squarely on the disapproving side, this year I don't feel that the criticism of Strahan, or at least the volume at which it's already being pitched (a volume which almost certainly has something to do with the still-simmering rancor at the tone of the cover debate), is justified. When we complain about gender inequality on awards shortlists or in short fiction magazines, we have decades of data to rely on, all clearly indicating a bias--almost certainly unconscious but no less real for being so--against women. Two anthologies and less than thirty stories are not a big enough sample to constitute such incontrovertible, or even compelling, evidence. If, in five years' time, we look back on five Eclipse volumes (and I certainly hope the series makes it that far, as aside from the unpleasant cover discussion the first Eclipse volume was, by all accounts, an excellent anthology), and see a disproportionate number of male contributors then criticism of Strahan might be valid, but after only two volumes? With only one example of allegedly biased behavior? No way.

Every time the gender bias discussion rears its head, publishers and editors trot out the straw man of affirmative action. What criticism of the gender balance in their anthologies and magazines boils down to, they claim, is a demand for a communist-tinged tyranny of political correctness in which artistic considerations are trampled in the quest for a committee-approved notion of fairness, whereas really they are simply being 'gender-blind' in their selections (and if you haven't read it already, see here for a discussion of why "I'm X-blind" is not an appropriate response to accusations of bias). I don't think it does any good, in either the ongoing Eclipse debate or the wider campaign to make people aware of their unconscious biases, for feminists to use this argument in earnest, as Feminist SF blog correspondent K. Tempest Bradford seems to be doing when she says that "it’s just unacceptable to have an anthology with 13 of 14 stories by men."

All that said, and while still acknowledging that is profoundly unfair for the Eclipse series to remain at the center of this tempest when so many other publishers and editors are just as problematic if not more so, I'm glad that this discussion is starting up again. When SF Signal first posted the Eclipse 2 table of contents there was very little response in the genre blogosphere, and I thought we were in for a repeat of the Hugo gender gap debate: in 2007, a huge brou-ha-ha because only two out of nineteen nominees were female; in 2008, almost no response to four female nominees out of nineteen. Sometimes these discussions just seem to burn themselves out, any maybe become so fractious and unpleasant that people just can't stand to get into them again. I'm glad that that doesn't seem to be the case this time around, and I hope (frankly, against hope) that the tone of this discussion can avoid alienating its participants. In the grand scheme of things I think it ought to be an automatic reaction--on the part of both readers and editors--to scan a table of contents for gender balance, and wonder when a publication consistently fails to supply it, and I think discussions such as this one are as good a way as any to get us to that point.

19 comments:

K Tempest Bradford said...

While I take you're point that one cannot argue a trend with only two volumes, I'm not necessarily arguing that it's a trend of bias. What I'm saying is that having an anthology with 95% white male contributors is wrong. It's 2008. That kind of blatant bullcrap isn't (or shouldn't be) acceptable any more. Whether it's one volume of the anthology or five or ten. If an editor can't find a decent number of women or people of color to submit so that the pool he has to choose from is varied and diverse, that editor is not trying hard enough.

This argument that you and others keep making -- that you can't point to a small sample and call it bias -- is also complete bullpucky. If one guy calls me the N word, that guy is racist. It doesn't matter that he didn't call ten other black people the N word, he said it at all. People who *aren't* racist? Don't do that.

Folks seem to be under the impression that gender bias and sexism are nebulous concepts. That it's hard to tell when a person is engaging in them. Well, it's really not. If one things that it's perfectly okay to choose 95% white men for an anthology, that's not neutral, that's not nebulous. And one doesn't need further data. It doesn't make Strahan a "barefoot in the kitchen" jerk, but his past volumes don't absolve him of whatever stupidity he's engaged in now. Particularly that gender blind stuff.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

What I'm saying is that having an anthology with 95% white male contributors is wrong

I know, and as I said in my post I disagree. I don't think it behooves editors to maintain a gender balance in their publications at all times, and I certainly don't think they should place achieving that balance at a higher premium than their editorial choices, which is what you seem to be arguing for. Last year, when Jeremy Lassen was making the argument that his job was to sell books, not be an instrument of social change, I disagreed strongly, but I'm less inclined to do so when artistic considerations are at the heart of the matter.

There could be any number of reasons for the way Eclipse 2 turned out, some valid and others less so. Maybe, as you say, he didn't try hard enough, and maybe he did and this is just how things turned out, but I'm reluctant to either make assumptions about Strahan's thought process, or back-seat edit the volume. What you're saying is that there are no valid reasons for such an outcome, and that avoiding it should have been Strahan's highest goal. I don't agree.

Anonymous said...

I was recently invited to participate in an all-female fantasy anthology, and I declined. I am not in favor of exclusion, and it seems to me that what's bad for the goose is also bad for the gander.

On the other hand, I am not in favor of applying affirmative action to short story collections. I just finished editing my first anthology, LILITH UNBOUND. My goal was a good mix of tales: literary, fantasy, dark fantasy, and so on, with a variety of tones and styles. I did NOT go into the process thinking, "Okay, I have to include a certain percentage of women, black writers, Native American writers, gay writers, older writers . . . "

As it turned out, there seems to be a pretty broad demographic mix among the writers. I say "seems to be" because I have no idea what age or race to assign to some of the contributors, and in one or two cases, I couldn't tell you if the writer is male or female. The sole criterion was the story.

What a concept, eh?

If an editor can't find a decent number of women or people of color to submit so that the pool he has to choose from is varied and diverse, that editor is not trying hard enough.

I respectfully disagree. My experience as an anthology editor is very limited, but in talking with long-time editors I have some idea of how difficult the selection process can be, and I'm willing to accept the explanation the editor of ECLIPSE gave for the 95% male lineup. You can invite people to participate, but you cannot publish their stories if they don't turn them in. What do you do if the submission deadline comes and goes and five or six of the people you've invited do not turn in stories, or turn in hurried first drafts, or send you inappropriate trunk stories? Do you extend the deadline? Do you even have that option?

A couple years back, health problems made it impossible for me to finish a novella I'd agreed to write for a fantasy anthology. The editor has to scramble to fill the spot. The new authors were male, which resulted in an anthology with only one story by a woman. It would not occur to me to view this an an example of gender bias, nor do I think the publisher had any obligation to find a woman to fill those pages. I am a WRITER, damn it, and I expect to be treated as one--not as a novelty act that must be replaced in kind.

ec
www.elainecunningham.com

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Hi Elaine,

I should stress that I don't think striving for gender/race/whatnot balance is the same thing as affirmative action. While I don't, as I've said, believe that achieving that balance should be an editor's primary concern, it shouldn't be unimportant to them either. Decades of editors selecting stories 'purely on their merits' have given us a disproportionately male, white, etc. field, so I think it's safe to say that there are problems with this approach.

(I'm also not sure I agree that all-female anthologies or awards are the equivalent of sexism, but that's a different discussion.)

All that said, I do agree that it's unfair to focus on this specific scenario and second-guess Strahan's choices based on limited information.

Rackstraw Press said...

I don't quite have the energy (or time) to do this myself, but one could compare Strahan's record in terms of the other anthologies he's published. I haven't read all the year's best, but the YA collection was pretty gender even.

He is also reviews editor of Locus and while I do not think he is responsible for the really awful gender imbalance of reviewers (made worse when you also calculate in how much space each reviewer gets) and the books reviewed--here I'm using figures from Broad universe-- which acieved its gender balance mostly because the YA section prints a lot of short reviews), he also hasn't done much to challenge it that I know of.

But I think on he available evidence we can absolve Strahan of being in someway deliberately discriminatory in his selections for Eclipse 2.

Blue Tyson said...

So how do you tell from a story submitted what race someone is?

Practically, is an editor supposed to ask?

Plenty of writers seem to hide behind initials (and there will be some pseudonyms, too, presumably) to obfuscate sex, let alone have to guess both?

You could have something bizarre happen: 'hi, are you Asian by any chance? If you are, can't use you, need Africans instead'.

The particular anthology in question is full of well-off types from the Northern Hemisphere, at that.

What is a 'decent number'?

Out of 10, approximately how many should be female, how many should not be American, how many should not be white, etc?

Do you have some sort of sensible guidelines written up for editors to aim for? Is aiming for a ratio of how much of the actual work exists ok, or do you advocate more than that?

I have seen many editors say women write less and submit less - at least for SF (your 2/3 to 1/3 type thing) - so making it long run equal at random won't happen, you'd have to deliberately pick work out ahead of some others to do this.

Mike Taylor said...

Among the many sad things about this kind of discussion is that I fear even getting involved now having been burned previously. Best just lie low and let others sort it out.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Blue Tyson:

I imagine that it is often possible to know, or at least make an educated guess at, a person's race from their name. What race do you imagine that Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu is? How about Ted Chiang?

Other than that, you are making precisely the straw man 'you're just asking for quotas!' argument that I mentioned in my post.

Blue Tyson said...

Abigail, yes, I woul suggest those two are rather obvious, if you had to get.

What about Charles Saunders then? C. J. Ryan?

Argument? I was just asking.

It is fine to criticise editors for not doing x, y and z.

However, you aren't very useful if when you say there should be more of x you have no idea how much more. i.e. Has anyone written about this that people can see or be linked to, beyond the garden variety complaint level?

Raz Greenberg said...

I don't know enough about fiction submission, but when it comes to academic material, "blind review" is pretty much a standard practice when trying to judge submissions. Authors are required to submit their work without any identifying details. And while "blindness" may not be the best way to solve the world's problems, I believe it is the best way when trying to judge what to publish, exhibit, or whatever (and I'm saying this as someone who has had a fair share of rejections as a result of such blind-reviews).
With regards to the case discussed here, particularly in the LJ post (thank you for the link, by the way - very interesting), I certainly disagree with the publisher's response - if only for the fact that it reflects the popular-but-still-wrong notion of marketing being some kind of accurate science - but I also understand his pain at being made an example for everything that is wrong with genre publishing today.
I'm not much of an anthologies reader, so I don't know - how often do you see the name of women writers on the cover of genre anthologies? I do remember that, back when I was an Interzone subscriber (about seven years ago), women writers would regularly get mentioned on the cover (sometimes first), and their stories would often get the cover illustration.

Unrelated: though it's been a year since, I gathered from your reply to the LJ post that you haven't read anything by Garth Nix. I have only read "Sabriel", and I liked it alot - it's high on my "thinking people's Harry Potter" list, along with Johnathan Straud's books.
And since you mentioned nostalgic memories for the "Last Unicorn" animated feature, you might be interested in a double novel-film review I wrote a year ago (it's in Hebrew, in the nick-link).

Jackie M. said...

Tempest: the "calling you the N word" argument is actually flawed logic when applied to the Eclipse Two magazine table of contents: calling someone a nigger is fundamentally active, whereas as failing to include women on an anthology is fundamentally passive. It’s the different between intent-based, conscious racism (or sexism) and unintentional, unconscious actions which nonethless have the same racist (or sexist) effects.

Strahan’s crime, in the case of this anthology, is one of passivity--or, more accurately, of progressive action without sufficient follow-through. The result is the same; it still has the same effect of alienating female readers of SF. True. But. However dire, effects are still just symptoms--and in this case we’re talking about a fundamentally different underlying ailment. Which calls for a different treatment.

And so I think we have to distinguish between sexist/racist individuals and sexist/racist actions, between sexist/racist intentions and sexist/racist outcomes. You know how the guidelines for How Not To Be An Insane White Person When Accused of Racism emphasize the importance of remembering that accusations of racism(/sexism/homophobia) are not in fact about you, the insane white person(/male person/straight person)? I mean, it’s only possible to insist that the privileged individual remember that distinction if the unprivileged minority making the accusation remembers to make it as well...

(cross-posted to Tempest's blog)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Blue Tyson:

The discussion of gender imbalance in genre publications has been going strong for several years. It peaked most recently when last year's Hugo nominations were announced, and you could probably find lots of discussions by searching Torque Control's archives from around that time. As for what editors can do to achieve gender (and racial) parity in their publications, editors can solicit stories from female writers, keep their ear to the ground for new writers' names, encourage female writers by providing them with feedback, and make it clear that they want to achieve gender parity in their publications (replace race wherever it applies above). See, for example, Sean Wallace from Prime Books on this issue just today.

(I don't, for the record, agree that it isn't useful simply to 'complain' about a problem. I don't have solutions for massacres in Africa, destabilization in Iraq, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Does it follow that I should keep my mouth shut about how fucked up those situations are too?)

Raz:

Per my response above, I suspect that most of the work involved in achieving gender parity happens long before the editorial process, either by seeking out contributors or by making sure that those contributors feel comfortable submitting to your market. Blind review might be a good idea (if only as an experiment to see whether it has any effect on the final result) but I'm not sure how many problems it would solve.

Jackie:

I saw that post on Tempest's blog, and I agree 100%. The last part, in particular, strikes me as something that's worth remembering.

Jackie M. said...

Abigail: Yeah, sorry! I posted it over there, then started thinking, wait, should I have posted my response back in the thread of the original comment? Aw, heck..

Um, but I've been also thinking about your statistical argument. It's a valid argument, obviously, but only if what we're concerned with is measuring Mr. Strahan's underlying editorial bias. And, yes, given the current gender breakdown of recently-published FSF authors, and based on the combined sample of Mr. Strahan's Eclipse and Best-of-the-Year anthologies, I think we can pretty well clear him of most allegations of conscious or unconscious gender bias.

And, sure, from a purely statistical point of view, one would expect that a random sampling of 40%/60% female/male authors would occasionally result in a 5%/95% ToC--for the same reason one occasionally expect to roll boxcars or snake eyes at dice. And if we were talking about an unbiased genre in an unbiased culture, we would simply dismiss that ToC as a statistical anomaly.

But we can't do that so easily, because we don't live a gender-blind culture. We live in an world society full of unconscious bias and implicit assumptions, where "gender blind" (except perhaps in the case of blind orchestra auditions) simply means "inattentive." And so every single anthology, every individual ToC and every cover is a message to its readers--in this case, a message about which readers are being targeted, and which readers are too unimportant to make any effort to avoid alienating.

None of which I think you disagree with, and some of which is simply rephrasing what you've already said above. It's just that the statistical argument is only useful for measuring bias, not for interpreting marketing effect--so while it may be unfair to have dogpiled Mr. Strahan, there are still some pretty good reasons to have gotten bent out of shape over the impact a single anthology.

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Jackie:

No, don't apologize. I'm glad you cross-posted.

while it may be unfair to have dogpiled Mr. Strahan, there are still some pretty good reasons to have gotten bent out of shape over the impact a single anthology

Oh, absolutely - my issue is more with the vehemence of the discussion than with its substance. As I said, I think it's a good thing for people to raise a skeptical eyebrow and ask pointed questions when they see a table of contents this slanted. I think the default assumption should be that such a scenario requires explanation - I just don't believe that it is impossible for that explanation to exist.

Foxessa said...

For me, an anthology of any writing that is predominately or exclusively male isn't going to catch my interest.

Unless there was a stated reason that the toc is all one gender, or all one race, etc.

For instance, an anthology of new writers from Africa will, of course, interest me, and if it is an anthology of new young African writers I would not expect or want writers from, say India -- though, I'd rather expect to find at least one of these African writers to have an 'Indian' name, due to the history of Africa.

But if the toc is all male, I'd be very sceptical of the motivations of the editor, because I know there are so many talented young African women writers out there.

Well, you get the idea. Any editor who is publishing only white males in an anthology is likely hurting his / her sales.

Love, C.

Anonymous said...

"Other than that, you are making precisely the straw man 'you're just asking for quotas!' argument that I mentioned in my post."

Would it be possible to get some more elaboration on why this is a straw man?

The argument seams to go as follows.

there should be more female writers printed in anthologies the generally given reason is so (young) woman readers will not be alienated....and will hopefully in time incrse the number of female writers witch will incrse the number of female readers....there by correcting the marginalization on woman in genera fiction.

The correct ratio of male to female is to be arrived at by if not the general demographic brake down (ie, by percentage )then how?

Also at what point in the in the content review process should the demographic info of the respective writers be looked at (should they be required to provide it)?

David Moles said...

Hey, Anonymous, there are answers to all your questions, but I expect people would be more inclined to provide them if they knew who you were.

Jackie M. said...

(hey, is your netvision account your primary e-mail?)

Abigail Nussbaum said...

Anonymous:

As David says, this is a subject upon which a great deal of discussion has already taken place. See above in my answers to Blue Tyson and Raz for a few reasons why the affirmative action interpretation is false.

Jackie:

Yes, that's my primary e-mail.

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