Reading this piece by Jon Del Arroz about alleged anti-male bias in SF&F made me think about two events of my life which bear on this issue. Jon’s point –and the numbers he presents seem to support his claim– is that there is an anti-male bias in some parts of the short story market (and probably also in others.) I think that’s plausible, and there are some obvious examples like Tor.com or Uncanny. However, the problem goes deeper than that, and the alleged anti-maleness may be just an unfortunate consequence of an even more indelible bias than merely avoiding stories by testosterone-poisoned individuals. Let me tell you about two things that happened when I was young, so you get an idea of what I’m talking about.
When I was young, my school had an annual art contest for the kids – literature, poetry, plastic arts, etc., the whole thing. I regularly participated until I realized it was a waste of time because the system was stacked against me. It’s true that the winners were usually girls, and I’m sure there was an unconscious pro-girl bias there, but I believe that was not the most important factor. Although both are clearly related, the problem was not my gender but my mind – it was the sort of stories I wrote and enjoyed.
Soon my friends and I discovered the problem, and so it started what for us became an annual running joke – to predict what the winning story would be about. The same way there are Oscar Baits, we had our own version of our School Contest Bait. And we rarely failed because the winning subject was always the same.
It became an inside joke that the winner would (almost) always be a girl and the story would be about something like the plight of civilians in a military conflict or (always a winning horse) battered wives. On the other hand, my stories about blowing up Nazi bunkers with dynamite sticks during the D-Day or a humorous parody of a fantasy story with talking skeletons? Well, that’s not the sort of stuff you can read in front of children. Besides, people go to a children’s contest expecting a certain level of wokeness and professionalism!
That happened years ago so I may be mixing up years, but I remember one year when the prose winner was a story about the suffering of a battered and, finally, murdered woman, and the poetry winner was a poem about a bombarded city. That one was uniquely amusing because the poem literally included the words “BOOM!” Yes, it was a bit like these:
In short, if you desired an award, you had to write about certain subjects and in a certain way, with sophisticated themes that signaled your literary and deep empathy and that the judges could award without feeling dirty and plebeian. Now, you can claim that this is just my bitterness talking, that my stories weren’t good enough. True, they weren’t, and they may not have deserved an award, but neither did many of the winners. Some were awful.
Besides, I know that my teacher liked one of my stories because he made me read it in front of the class. In retrospect, the problem was obvious – it was a good story, and it was funny, but… it wasn’t worthy of a prize because it wasn’t deep, gloomy, with literary aspirations, or infused with ennui. It was merely funny.
A similar event happened when I was 10 or 11 years old, when I accidentally gamed the system and got a 10/10 in a school project. Without realizing it, I had created the perfect Award Bait. It happened like this:
For a school project, we had to build a diorama. Being the good student that I was, I forgot about it until the day before the deadline. I was indifferent about grades, so I decided to craft something passable enough so at least I wouldn’t receive an F. I grabbed all the trash I had lying around the room, and with the leftovers from Warhammer plastic miniatures, and a bit of sand and paint, I managed to cobble together a diorama of sorts. Allegedly, it represented our city, destroyed after a pirate raid in the future year of 2012. Yes, there was even a pirate flag, and the title was exactly what I just mentioned.
I had already forgotten about the ugly thing when, a week later, the art teacher announced our grades. She called me personally so, assuming she wanted to ask me why I had crafted such a horrible thing, I started thinking excuses to tell her. To my surprise, she said she loved it (as did all the other professors) and that my score was a perfect 10. Then, she started babbling about how similar my work was to the art of some contemporary artists I had never heard about.
Nodding occasionally, I maintained my well-trained poker face during the whole experience. But there’s more because then she told me the only weakness of my work was the pirate flag. She said it was “a bit infantile” (remember, she was talking to an 11-year-old boy.) Showing a complete lack of artistic integrity, I immediately pulled out the little flag, even though that was the point of the whole diorama (someone had had to destroy the city, right?)
At that moment I didn’t understand the significance of that event, but in hindsight, I realize that was (like the BOOM! poetry) a formative moment of my life. This is what had really happened: without being aware, but probably thanks to the destructive themes of the work, I had unknowingly struck an artsy chord in my teachers, who then saw what they wanted to see – a modern piece of deep meaning instead of just a bunch of crap cobbled together. I had baited them to understand my work as Art™. Naturally, the pirate flag was an uncomfortable reminder that perhaps they weren’t seeing the work of a precocious postmodern genius but just the work of a lazy kid with many Warhammer spare parts in his room and a strange sense of humor.
Now, what does this have to do with Jon’s post? Because the artistic preferences of SF&F editors go way beyond a possible gender bias (which I’m sure exists in some places.) You could be a woman of color with an African-Asian name and a card-carrying member of the Communist Party that if you write a certain type of story, it will be ignored. If it gives off just a whiff of testosterone or sounds like an action-packed adventure yarn with a preference for honest and unironic drama and fun, without any pretense of being “mature,” it won’t be accepted. After all, they have an artistic image to maintain. They can’t just publish any pulpy trash!
And here’s where the feminine aspect comes into play. Obviously, women write all sort of stories, but there is a specific female subset that seems to be especially apt at writing the sort of sentimental Literary Bait, dripping with status anxiety and cheap progressive performances, that routinely gets awarded. It happens at all levels, from school contests to international literary awards. Call it “discrimination” or simply “preferences,” but it’s there.
That means, and here’s the conclusion of my argument, that even if the suspect magazines started employing a double blind system and ignored the writer’s name, gender, and so on, your un-literary style, themes, or aesthetics would still increase the odds that your story won’t get published or prized (in those markets, at least.) And this style is also a typically male one.