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.