23 September 2009

The BFS Balance

(This is a long one, you have been warned…)

Another thing that happened over Fantasycon weekend was the explosion in the blogosphere over the all male content of the BFS’ newly launched In Conversation book. The book: In Conversation: A Writer's Perspective, Volume 1: Horror, edited by James Cooper is intended to be the first in a series of interview collections, with the two following volumes covering fantasy and SF.

Things were first picked up by Maura McHugh, with debate springing up on the blogs of Cheryl Morgan, Christopher Fowler and Publishers Weekly.
Then yesterday the Guardian picked up on it with an article by Alison Flood.

Commissioning Editor and BFS Chairman Guy Adams has issued a public apology and from his reactions when the issue was mentioned for the first time during the BFS AGM on Sunday, he is genuinely horrified that he didn’t notice the lack of women in the book. In Guy we trust. :->

Debate has wandered to the BFS Forums and a thread on the BFS’ Facebook page with responses switching between those that think the gender of the writers is unimportant and those that think otherwise. (Also, the phrase ‘feminist claptrap’ got used, but we won’t touch that one.)

For what it’s worth, this is my take:

When a fiction anthology is widely open to submissions, then of course, you take your chance on what stories the editor likes. Editors are quite capable of picking good stories that fall outside their normal reading comfort zone and no-one in their right mind is going to refuse a good story because of who’s written it (or who hasn’t).

When a fiction anthology is filled by commissioned pieces, then to fill it with all male authors seems somewhat archaic. (Unless that's the particular point of the anthology!) If the editor’s tastes don’t naturally run to stories that happen to be written by women (or anyone who isn’t the standard white male), then the editor needs to expand their reading or talk quietly to someone who can clue them in to what else is being written that might fit the theme of the book.

But when it’s a collection of commissioned interviews purporting to give voice to the sixteen most accomplished horror writers around, then to not have a single woman in it is just ridiculous. And this goes double when it’s being published by an organisation that, by its own constitution, is there to promote excellence in the genre.

I love the BFS. I’ve grown up with it – signing up for the first time as a fresh faced wannabe writer at sixteen and then getting quickly pulled onto various committees for things as folks jumped on my enthusiasm for helping out with odd bits. The BFS has always been filled with many wonderful people and meeting them every year at Fantasycon is one of my favourite things.

What frustrates me is two things. One of them is the apparent dominance of the male authors when I know there are plenty of female authors in the BFS. They don’t seem to get talked about as much as the chaps, but it’s from seeing them at Fantasycon that I discovered their work. Authors like Juliet E. McKenna, Sarah Pinborough, Freda Warrington, Justina Robson, Storm Constantine, Pauline Morgan (and her alter-ego Pauline Dungate), Raven Dane, Sam Stone, artists like Anne Sudworth. Editor Selina Lock produces the excellent Girly Comic amongst other Factor Fiction titles with her partner Jay Eales.

I know there must be more, but the men’s names come to mind quicker than their female counterparts. Authors, artists, editors, both small and big press. I could list twice as many of the chaps twice as quick. I’ve seen them on the awards lists every year, and they’re always getting news items and interviews and the like inside the pages of the assorted BFS publications.

(Incidentally, the other niggle is the apparent dominance of horror over fantasy, but that latter is a debate we’ve been having for years and is never one that gets resolved.)

So gender balance and the BFS - you’ve only got to look at the awards list this year. When the long list came out it was excellent, filled with a good mix of everything by everyone. I was proud to be a member of a society that produced that kind of a list. When it got voted down to the shortlist… it was mostly horror and mostly men authors. Good authors and publications, true, but nowhere near as diverse a list as I’d’ve liked.

I do think it’s particularly brilliant that out of the four women that made it to the shortlist, two of them scooped the awards in their categories… Go Sarah Pinborough and Allyson Bird!

Without seeing the current BFS membership list, it’s difficult to tell if this is indicative of the membership as a whole being predominantly male (which does make the brash assumption that the menfolks only like the work the other chaps are writing. Which I’m certain is not the case.) Or if it’s just indicative of the people that bothered to vote.
(And what’s quite interesting is that of the two juried awards, both were won by men too… and I know there was at least one woman on each list that went before the jurors…)

So Fantasycon then? How was the gender split there this year? Out of the prebooked attendees (including guests) we had 89 female vs. 167 male. On-the-day walk-ins were also predominantly male.
Panellists? Excluding the on-the-day reading sign ups & launch-ees, 50 men vs. 12 women.
Film show? Difficult to tell from the list in the schedule, but 11 films and only one listed as written & directed by a woman (with a couple of films uncredited).

Story competition – now that one was better, from the 5 finalists, 4 that made it were women. (For completeness, the first round reading panel was 4 women to 1 man, the celebrity final judges 1 woman to 2 men…make of that what you will!)

And the really frustrating thing is, none of the mis-balance is deliberate. The committees of both the BFS and Fantasycon work their asses off to keep things balanced so everything gets covered and everyone gets a voice. There are always women on both the committees, some years they’ve been in the majority, and not a one of them have ever been shy about voicing their opinion about things.

Women have edited the publications, they’ve organised the conventions, they’ve written reviews and interviews and poetry and fiction, they’ve provided cover art and internal illustrations. And yet women are still outnumbered by the men in pretty much every aspect of the BFS.

I want this to change. I’ve wanted this to change since I first joined and that was way too many years ago, and the only way things are going to change is if people keep shouting about the female professionals in our midst. Keep submitting to the BFS publications and keep their names on the radar, make it so that there’s a bigger range of names at the front of people’s minds when it comes to choosing guests and panellists for Fantasycon, when it comes to possible contributors to commissioned publications, and especially when it comes to voting on the shortlists of the awards.

I mean, seriously, the last time a woman won the Best Novel Award was Tanith Lee in 1980!!! 1980, people! And that was the only time it happened too. Come on. We can do better than that.

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