Today I’m happy to welcome Speculative Fiction author (and friend!) Anela Deen to the blog. You may remember Anela’s name from my review of her fantasy novel A Ransom of Flames, which I quite enjoyed. Today, Anela joins us to reflect on her experiences–and the experiences of women generally–when writing or working in a field dominated by men. Be sure to scroll all the way down to nab a free copy of Deviation, the Sci-Fi short at the heart of this post!
Every author will tell you critique groups are essential to the writing process. We need other writers to go over those passionate scribbles and point out the spots that need work. I tend to use online groups because you get a variety of readers and people seem to lean more towards honesty if they aren’t sitting face-to-face with each other. I’ve found them to be full of well-meaning writers looking to support, encourage, and improve each other’s art…that is until I asked for feedback on a Sci-Fi story I wrote.
No Girls Allowed
Let me back up a bit here before I tell you what happened. Last month the Twittersphere lit up with the hashtag #ThingsOnlyWomenWritersHear. Women tweeted about the gender assumptions they face when it comes to their writing. What stood out to me, having experienced it myself, is the condescension and oftentimes outright belligerence doled out to women who dare to publish in genres viewed as “belonging to men”. Like Science-Fiction.
This is not a new issue, of course. It dates all the way back to when Mary Shelley published Frankenstein anonymously in 1818. Although it gained great popularity even then, when critics discovered it was written by a woman they pumped out scathing reviews and dismissed the work entirely (Thankfully those toads were unsuccessful in shunning it from literary history). But this isn’t to say that women don’t continue to suffer under the same misogynistic yoke today. It just gets slapped with a new kind label to disqualify it from the genre.
Hard vs. Soft Science-Fiction
“Hard” Sci-Fi is a classification ascribed to books that are based more on physics and technology as we understand it. Think, Andy Weir’s The Martian. “Soft” Sci-Fi refers to books set in the future but which revolve around more social or psychological aspects rather than the technological. Some examples are The Hunger Games or Divergent. You might be thinking, “Okay, so this makes sense. What’s the problem with that?”
Well, here’s the sticking point:
There’s a patriarchal overlay on the whole issue since this “soft” classification is mainly pushed on books written by women. Think of the word “soft” itself. It denotes “weak” or “feminized” in this context whereas “hard” denotes “virile” or “masculine” (That’s a lot of quotations marks, but stay with me.) And exactly why are we using “soft” here at all for books about futuristic societies? I mean, have you read The Handmaid’s Tale? There’s nothing soft about it! The purpose, as so often is the case with labels, is to devalue novels written by women in this genre. It’s saying, “Here are the real Sci-Fi books, and here are the fake ones.”
A Hierarchy of Merit
This becomes especially clear when you take into account literary awards for Science-Fiction. Books written by women have been disqualified based on this distinction. In 2013 judges of the Arthur C. Clarke award threw out many books written by women because they were viewed as “Fantasy”, as in, “not requiring the realism of science”—exactly the type of Sci-Fi dominated by women writers.
In another example, the Sad Puppies group that haunted the Hugo Awards in 2015, angered because they felt the Hugos were being used as an “affirmative action” award, published this statement to explain their actions:
“…only those works embodying the highest principles of Robert A. Heinlein shall be permitted. Girls who read Twilight and books like it shall be expelled from the genre.”
I could put in more quotes from them but really, their entire manifesto is hair-raising.
Back to what happened at the critique group…
So, I’d submitted my Sci-Fi story to my group. It features a main character in her early thirties of South Asian descent, a wily and dry humored woman who doesn’t sit passively by when there’s trouble. The women of the group loved her, but the guys (not all of them, of course) didn’t. They hammered on about cutting any part where the MC had an introspective thought—the parts the women critiquers called out as their favorite. They jabbed fingers saying the story should focus on the science and mechanics of the situation, the technological aspects rather than the relationships between the characters. What took me aback was how angry they seemed about it and I suddenly had the impression that they felt I was trespassing in a territory where I didn’t belong. In fact, they kept saying the story was more Fantasy than Science-Fiction, popping a red flag that harkened back to those exclusionary categories occupying the genre.
“It’s a good story and well-written,” one said. “But you’re just making it up.”
Well…yeah, what with this being fiction and all.
The crux of the matter is women and men write differently. Their narratives reach for different themes within the same genre and depict issues from their own unique perspective to examine our society, our world, and our universe. The question is why are the fantasies of men viewed as legitimately belonging to the Science Fiction genre but those of women are not? When women’s writing is dismissed and disqualified, when their voices are marginalized in this venue or any other, we all lose.
Virginia Woolf once wrote, “Literature is impoverished beyond our counting by the doors that have been shut upon women.”
It’s up to all of us, readers and writers alike, to insist on change. Silence is the instrument of oppression; speech, its mortal enemy. Make yourself heard.
About the Author
A child of two cultures, this hapa haole Hawaiian girl is currently landlocked in the Midwest. After exploring the world for a chunk of years, she hunkered down in Minnesota and now fills her days with family, fiction, and the occasional snowstorm. With a house full of lovable toddlers, a three-legged cat, and one handsome Dutchman, she prowls the keyboard late at night while the minions sleep. Coffee? Nah, she prefers tea with copious amounts of sarcasm.
Anela’s current projects include the conclusion to her Sci-Fi novella series, Insurrection, and a new YA/NA Fantasy series, Sundered Kingdoms. The publication of the first novel, Dark Frost, is planned for 2018.
And… if you’re interested in the Sci-Fi story at the heart of this post…
Indra knows adjusting to life in a new town can take time but after a month she still hasn’t settled in. The gaps in her memory and her husband’s tendency to run mysterious errands at night don’t help matters. When she believes he is being unfaithful she follows him, never expecting to find an unimaginable confrontation and a stranger who knows her better than she knows herself.
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