Thursday 28 October 2010

There are no stories by women in the next TQF...

Peter Tennant, having read literally thousands of anthologies for the latest review column in Black Static, has produced a fascinating analysis of the gender balance in them: see Women in Horror Anthologies.

Peter asked Best New Horror editor Stephen Jones about this issue in an interview for the most recent Black Static, and coincidentally I asked Catastrophia editor Allen Ashley about it too, in an interview for the last issue of Dark Horizons, and both gave pretty much the same reply: I choose stories by quality, I don't have a quota system, etc.

This stuff is on my mind at the moment: there are no female contributors to the next issue of Theaker's Quarterly Fiction. And both books by women reviewed in this issue get a bit of a pasting.

I'm a bit unhappy about how that looks, but I do think our ratio of acceptances of stories by women is pretty much in proportion with our ratio of submissions by women.

When larger magazines make that point, the answer is usually that they should reach out to female writers and encourage them to submit, but that's not really an option for a non-paying zine like ours.

And even with bigger magazines that can be awkward: asking someone to submit puts you in a difficult position if the story they submit – the one they have written especially for you! – is not their best work.

On the website of Mslexia there's a thought-provoking article on women in writing, one which I think anyone working in the field should at least read: Three Cures for Mslexia.

One thing in particular caught my eye, in the context of discussing lower submission rates from women:
"The only exception we found was for writing competitions, where for some reason women seemed less inhibited: perhaps because competitions seem more of a lottery, and so less personally threatening; perhaps because it’s easier for them to find the time to complete a single poem or short story for a competition."
My experience with the BFS bears out the idea that women submit in greater proportions to short story competitions. 43% of the entries to the BFS short story competition this year were from women, while only 15% of submissions to Dark Horizons in the same period were.

(The competition and the magazine were both open to all fantastical genres. The same person was in charge of both, and both received roughly 150 submissions in that period.)

I don't want to go very far in speculating why the difference is so huge, but I think the perception that a competition is fairer must be a factor. The short story competition rules get disseminated further, through competition magazines and websites, so that might be another. Is losing en masse more appealing than being personally rejected? Does the prize make a difference? Are men just more willing to give their work away to non-paying markets?

Trying to answer some of those questions could very quickly lead the unwary onto dodgy ground. But it does seem to me that from examining the differences in submission rates, and the reasons for those differences, a way might be found to encourage more submissions from women, and hence publish more stories by women – which would be brilliant.


  1. The Campaign for Real Fear was great in that it was open submissions and the editors read blind.

    Many anthologies are by invitation only - I've asked editors at conventions if they have an open submissions policy only to be told that they don't - the reason generally given is that they would be swamped with submissions.

    'Slush' is a depressing word for any aspiring writer to hear...

    I'd rather be personally rejected every time - but competitions offer genuine opportunities.

    I suppose that there is also a sense that a competition is an open invitation to everyone - therefore more welcoming?

    That said many editors of eZines - paying and non paying - go out of their way to offer support and encouragement to new writers and are to be celebrated for that.

    As a writer I actively seek out new opportunities - the chance to try something new and challenge myself - whether the result is a publishing credit or not. For my own sanity I look for opportunities to write the stories I want to write and I try always to have several options in mind for each story.

    I hesitate to use the glass ceiling analogy but there does come a point when you're looking to 'break through' - and then the 'no open submissions' policy can become a barrier.

  2. Yes, it's interesting to ponder the difference between women submitting to magazines and to competitions - why should there be a disparity? Clearly there are plenty of women writing, but they are self-censoring when it comes to sending their work to market.

    In my experience it's a question of confidence. An extra push is required if you want women to submit to markets that are generally perceived (erroneously or not) that they are male bastions.

    Why we need to do this is another conversation about culture and gender, but it is the situation.

    Maura McHugh

  3. I read a lot of speculative fiction written by women and frequently am dismayed at the decreasing representation of female authors in award nominations and anthologies. It is a well discussed issue and hopefully there will be a more balanced representation in the future.
    On a side note, I picked up an excellent anthology at Eastercon2009 - Myth-Understandings ed. Ian Whates (Newcon Press) - in which ALL the stories were written by women, some very high profile names too.

  4. I am currently working, as some may know, for a new publisher. I have noticed that everyone we're publishing so far is male, so this issue is of interest to me. The fact is, I have personally invited some women writers to submit, but without any result so far (I'm still hopeful). I should add - and perhaps it's interesting that I should add this - that I didn't invite them to submit because they were female. In fact, had they thought that was my reason, I would have thought they'd have every reason in turn to feel insulted. Who wants to be a 'there to make up the numbers' person?

    I'd also add that I can't imagine an editor reading a really good story and thinking, "Ah, it's by a woman, though. I suppose we'll just have to reject it." That would be insane. Why would anyone do that?

    I'm not saying it never happens, but I can't really imagine it. I also understand that the issue is that perhaps there are unconscious factors at work. There may be. Be we also shouldn't underestimate the simple factors of 'just the way it is' chance, etc.

  5. Thanks for all the comments!

    Sara, I don't like the word slush either. Having said that, whenever we've considered whether to make TQF a paying market, we come up against the problem that even a token payment would leave us totally overwhelmed by submissions, so I can understand why people take that approach – even while agreeing it can cause problems. Allen Ashley is one anthologist who always has an open submission policy, so look out for the announcements of his new projects.

    Maura, thanks. It's notable how few books we receive by women for review, too, so I've added a note to that page to give that extra push. Partly I think that's because we review so much from the small presses, where women seem to be much less visible. Much as I love PS Publishing for all the books they send us for review, only about 1 in 25 are by female writers.

    Murf61, I have that book too - one of the many print books piled up sadly around the house unread! With the BFS awards, I think the under-representation of women (and heroic fantasy, too, for that matter) is definitely an issue, but one perhaps partly explained as a by-product of their overall focus on the small press.

    Quentin, if the ratio of acceptances is more or less in line with the ratio of submissions, I think the editor doesn't need to worry too much about unconscious sexism, although I agree it can play a part. It's easy to say "Ugh, feelings!" for a book by a women, but "Ah, characterisation!" when it's by a man, and as a reviewer (albeit an inexperienced one) and editor that is something I do think about when coming to my conclusions about a book or story.

    For example, reviewing Flirt by Laurell K. Hamilton, with its weird group love-in situation, I had to ask myself, would I have been as put off by a book about a man with three girlfriends? I decided that if the girlfriends were as weird and creepy as those guys, yes, I would have, but it didn't hurt to ask myself the question.

    Looking at recent comments elsewhere, I think the Tangent Online folks are talking a great deal of nonsense when they say that there's a PC agenda to force everyone to publish exactly the same number of men and women. Asking "Why are there no women in this book?" isn't the same thing as saying "You have to publish women in this book."

    I think feminists are more interested in the entire bundle of gender issues that lead to a particular outcome, rather than the eventual decisions of one individual editor. A Room of One's Own, and all that follows. The whole sausage factory, not just the guy who wraps them in plastic.

    But if you're responsible for a line of books, or for the overall direction of a magazine, I think you do have to step back every so often and analyse the trends. If there are no, or very, very few, female contributors, you need to be aware of it, if only for the reason that, at some point, someone is going to ask about it, and the last thing you want is to be caught off-guard, because that's when people end up saying angry, defensive – and often offensive – things.