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As Galactic Suburbia approaches our 100th episode – that’s about 150 to 200 hours of talking about specfic publishing news and chat! with a feminist bent – we’ve been working on a thing. Last week I found myself reviewing our Spoilerific Book Club episode on Joanna Russ, recorded way back in July 2011. In that episode, on discussion on a chapter in How to Suppress Women’s Writing, I made this comment about gatekeepers:

…  other than when a lot of the male gatekeepers are actively pushing women – for example the Science Fiction Mistressworks or when they’re actually talking about it – I’m still listening whether or not you’ve forgotten to talk about women, I’m still listening as a woman and I hear you not talking about women.  And I hear those gatekeepers and they meet and they review, they talk about what was brilliant this year and unless they actively switch on that “Whoops!  We better talk about women!” they actually revert back to Paolo Bacigalupi and Ian McDonald and blah, blah, blah, and you forget about women.  “And I know, … Mary Robinette Kowal she’s really good better mention her.” It’s what she talks about in The Female Man, where it’s lip service and it’s not real and I think she talks about it in this book too: unless you actually push yourself beyond your own boundaries you will stay in the centre, the dead centre.  And it’s not true that women aren’t writing, it’s that you don’t notice them because you don’t think they are as good, and that’s not changed in forty years.

We’ve been talking about this subject for a long time – I’ve been actively involved in the ongoing discussion since, I dunno? 2005, maybe? I didn’t invent it. I didn’t invent the arguments. Joanna Russ wrote The Female Man in 1970. Women have been writing letters to the editor since the beginning of the pulp magazines way back in the 30s.

At Swancon this year, I took the opportunity to have a little celebration about the Twelve Planets project. I spoke about it on the night and talked about the political motivations of the project. Back in 2009/2010, we were really having a lot of conversations about the gender imbalance of awards ballots. Here some graphs I prepared earlier.

The Ditmar novel winners by gender is perhaps the most damning. In 2009, when we were having this discussion, 4 women in the history of the award had won. And then another woman won in 2010 to make it the first time a woman won in a consecutive year. This is particularly interesting given that the Ditmars are a popular vote, determined by the community. This is what we as a community think. That in 50 years there were only 4 novels written by women that were worthy of winning.

Ditmar novel winners column

Here’s a different pie chart. This one looks at lifetime achievement awards. These can be awarded by a panel or by a single person. There are a few awards mixed up in here and each award is independent of the others.

Population of Achieve Awards

Or another way, let’s take say the Peter McNamara Award, here are the winners by gender:
Peter Mac Winners

And here is the breakdown of gender of the judges (one person is asked each year to choose a worthy winner):

Peter Mac Judges

From this, we might deduce that men really dig the career achievements of men. But actually some years a female judge has awarded a male winner.

The breakdown of the Chandler Award is even more profound:


This gives some of the context of finding myself sitting in a Mt Lawley cafe one fine day in 2009 with Jonathan Strahan discussing such things – the lack of women winners, whether this pertained to the quality of their writing or perhaps how much they write.  Maybe it’s just that men write more? The discussion has a lot of aspects to it, but on that day, this is how this discussion went, below is an excerpt from the speech I gave last month at Swancon:

This project has been quite a ride. It was conceived way back in 2009 when we were having many discussions on the male dominance of awards shortlists and whether this related to how much new fiction by women was or was not being published. Jonathan said to me, well, if you really believe in Australian female writers, why don’t you publish a whole lot of it in one go and see what happens. If you don’t think there are enough women being collected, why don’t you release a collection a month? This is when I realized I needed to stop drinking so much when I hung out with him.

And so the Twelve Planets project came into being. I chose a variety of female writers for it – well known writers, writers I had enjoyed working with before, writers I wanted to work with, talented writers I wanted to draw attention to. It’s been a really interesting project for a whole lot of reasons. Each writer was given 20 – 40 000 words that were to be in 4 stories. Some wrote to the minimum and some to the maximum word count. Some wrote a suite of interconnected stories, some wrote to a theme, some wrote entirely unconnected non-themed collections. What was interesting was what each writer wrote when given the opportunity to write *anything* they wanted and know it would be sold. Novellas that are really hard to sell became a bit of regular sight (I love novellas). Margo Lanagan gave me a very Australian work taking the chance to write something that would be less sellable to overseas markets. Someone asked me at Swancon when trying to choose a volume, which ones weren’t horror and I have to say, actually only a few. I had to coin a sales phrase of “soft horror” :P

So then, what of the experiment? The original idea was to publish all 12 in one year, one a month. I pulled back from that because I was still doing short print runs rather than POD and the whole project was costed at about $25k. It also turns out that life happens and writing takes time (who knew?). We’ve published 9 so far. And here’s the awards results tally:

  • 14 Aurealis Award nominations and 4 wins
  • 16 Ditmar nominations and 3 wins
  • a Washington Science Fiction Association Small Press Award
  • a World Fantasy Award nomination
  • 2 Shirley Jackson Award nominations and 1 win
  • 2 15th placings and 1 7th placing in the Locus Awards
  • 5 Australian Shadows Award shortlistings and 2 wins
  • 1 Tiptree Award longlisting
  • and 1 ACT Writers and Publishers Award

Though the full awards cycle relating to volumes 8 and 9 has not yet played out.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what that means, in the context of the original dare, I mean conversation, with Jonathan. The project itself, when I stand back and view the stories of all 12 volumes as one project – 50 stories in all – is a really interesting narrative.  It’s one I’m very proud of. And at the same time, we’ve seen a shift in the way the awards play out. Perhaps voters and readers became more conscious of their habits? Perhaps women suddenly started writing. Perhaps women suddenly started getting good at writing? Certainly my own project suggests that if you support women and provide avenues for their fiction, they write at a very high standard.

But I still didn’t really know what it all means.

And then yesterday, I came across an article that was written about the State of Play in Australian specfic. It was split in two, one section dealing with SF and F and the other dealing with Horror. This latter half of the article was presented as an authoritative snapshot of the Australian Horror scene right now. It listed several Aussie small presses and talked about some of the writers. However, it omitted Twelfth Planet Press completely.

My response was to raise this, via a medium I regret – Twitter. I regret that as in order to get your point across you need several 140 character tweets and that is cumbersome and confronting. I’ve had great multiplayer conversations on Twitter before. I don’t think I’d rate this as one of those.

There’s long been discussion about the gender imbalance in Horror, not just in Australia, but I’ve certainly been keeping an eye on it at home. Here’s an example, Midnight Echo is the flagship magazine to showcase the writers belonging to the Australian Horror Writers Association. Here’s the gender balance of the fiction they have published. So far, no woman has edited the magazine solo and only two women have edited it at all. (However, Kaaron Warren is to edit the next issue.)

But you know, maybe women don’t write great horror? Maybe they don’t submit? Here’s some other stats from Midnight Echo,


But this is very interesting, if we look at the Aurealis Awards winners for Horror Novel over time, only 1 ballot has ever had more novels written by women than men on it:

Aurealis Horror shortlists column

Yet, the women who do make it onto the shortlist seem to write ok:

Aurealis Horror Novel winners

However, my response of pointing out that I found it “interesting” that my press and the Twelve Planets were neglected from the state of play of the current Horror scene was a kind of shock at watching exactly how women just go unmentioned and the goalposts get moved to work around them, quietly excising them from the discussion. The Horror portion of the article in quiestion has since been updated by the author to include TPP and also this particular paragraph has been reworked:

The Australian genre literary scene is full of nationally- and world-renowned Australian horror writers such as Cat Sparks, Kaaron Warren, Lucy Sussex, Sean Williams, Rocky Wood, the wonderful Will Elliott, Sara Douglass (vale), and Amanda Pillar.

My issue with this paragraph, and with the article itself, is not that it failed to namecheck women, many women were in fact namechecked. But what was interesting to me was when the adjective “horror” is omitted from the above sentence, as it originally was, it renders all the names after it as outside of the pool of “horror writers”. It’s an example of this moving the goalposts. I’m always incredulous to see that done. It’s just one word but completely changes the meaning. And sure, call me sensitive, narcissistic, ambitious, a case of sour grapes, attention seeking, (all words we like to use in the direction of women we don’t like and never used in the direction of men for similar actions) and emotional (which interestingly was how my response was characterised – decide for yourself) etc but this piece and this conversation don’t exist in a vacuum, don’t exist without a history and context.

The thing is, I came full circle back to that conversation I had with Jonathan that day in 2009. Because the argument had been – well you need to publish more women and then they will win more awards – and I set out to do and achieve that and then … women were still omitted from the discussion. In other words, it didn’t matter what I did, or maybe how many or how prestigious the awards were that women in Australia win, they are still going to be written out of/forgotten about in the conversation. (It occurs to me that Jonathan’s suggestion might work in a patriarchal world order for men.)

My discussion with the author of the article revealed that he did not do it intentionally, and I believe him. He had not in fact read our work. It’s not like this was for Wikipedia or for an academic journal or an historical assessment and recording of the scene for all time. But actually, both these things are exactly the point. The way women are rendered invisible from history is by this unintentional omission from the narrative we tell each other about ourselves and our history. Gatekeepers pass on the information and it’s heard and repeated down the line. And when someone asks you off the top of your head to name your favourite author or a great work, you’re likely to grasp at something easy to hand. And what’s easy to hand is what’s repeated over and over, from one person to the next, in one retelling of our scene to the next. (Quick name a famous brilliant SF female author that’s not Ursula K Le Guin! – Now, how long did that take for you to do?)

I decided long ago that if I wasn’t part of the solution, I didn’t get to complain about the problem. I consider myself a gatekeeper and I hold myself to this bit of what I said in that Galactic Suburbia podcast: “I’m still listening whether or not you’ve forgotten to talk about women, I’m still listening as a woman and I hear you not talking about women” and I gotta stand up and point it out because otherwise I’m a silent participant.

I’ve apologised to the author of the article for the way I went about speaking out. I’ve spoken on GS before about the limitations of Twitter and I feel I should have acted differently. I do though feel icky about feeling like I need to apologise for my tone in some way. The author and I have had a chat and I would like to consider us having walked away as friends. He has already reworked the article. And I appreciate that the publisher was open and willing to make those changes.

I feel sad that in the end, the whole thing kinda came full circle.

 Edited: Please note that the editor of Issue 9 of Midnight Echo let me know that there was one female writer of nonfiction in his issue which I had incorrectly attributed. Additionally, the cover art of Issue 9 was by a female artist. This was not previously captured. Both figures in this article have been updated to reflect those changes (originally the Nonfiction in Midnight Echo showed to be 100% by men and the artwork as 81% by men). I also added in the chart on the gender breakdown of the interviewees as this is not included in the Nonfiction chart. I’m interested in who is chosen to be interviewed, across magazines. That will be data I intend to present at a later date.

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to have my data scrutinised and errors pointed out. I consider this process integral to the robustness of my work and as part of the peer review process of my PhD and I greatly appreciate the opportunity to correct these as I proceed.

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