[April 4, 1961] Do women do it better?  (the Second Sex in SF, Part 2)

Welcome to Part 2 in this series on the women actively writing science fiction and fantasy in 1961.  This installment will be a bit different, but don’t worry — we’ll go back to the original format with the next one.

After I wrote the first part, my wife asked me why I have a preference for woman-penned stories.  That brought me up short.  Why did I look forward to seeing a woman’s name on the cover or in the table of contents of one of my science fiction magazines?  After some mental wrangling, I think I’ve got the answers:

1) I rarely see female characters, and women tend to be more likely to write female protagonists.

H. Beam Piper’s Omnilingual, starring Dr. Martha Dane in a role that featured brains and science rather than beauty and romance, opened my eyes to a new world of characterization.  Most science fiction and fantasy is written by men, stars men, and women generally exist to be romantic foils or scenery.  I wasn’t even consciously aware that things could be otherwise. 

It was like discovering Japanese cuisine.  Completely alien; thoroughly desirable.

2) Female authors tend to write in a different style and from a different perspective.

With the exception of some, like Norton and Bradley, who are deliberately composing in a male-pulpish style, women write in a manner shaped by the context in which they live.  Their work tends to emphasize emotions and relationships.  There is often the bitter tinge of the downtrodden (for who would argue that the female is the less privileged of the genders, even in our modern time).  They will write about issues unique to them; for instance: motherhood (e.g. Henderson’s The Return) and workplace discrimination (e.g. Smith’s Softly while you’re sleeping).

This phenomenon is common to all minority viewpoints (whether the group be in the numerical or cultural minority) — people write what they know.  When a White man tells a story, it is told from the perspective of power, of a world-conqueror.  Many of the more nuanced and cynical stories come from the pens of the less societally advantaged — for instance, Jewish authors like Sheckley and Davidson.  I have yet to read a story by a Black author (that I know of).  I can’t imagine they aren’t writing, so I look forward to getting another fresh perspective when they are published.

3) Female authors have to try harder.

One of my readers noted that women do not necessarily write better than men (e.g. Judith Merril’s The Tomorrow People).  But women-penned stories, on average, tend to be better than those written by men.  Why is that?  My wife speculates that the prejudice against woman authors causes there to be a higher bar, which women must hurdle to be published at all.  If the playing field were entirely even, we would see parity in the quality of stories written by men and women.

But here’s where things get interesting, and it’s a secret F&SF has probably figured out.  No matter what, any group of writers is going to obey Sturgeon’s Law: 90% of anything is crap.  By limiting the pool of authors, consciously or unconsciously, to men, science fiction publishers necessarily restrict their access to good stories.  Women may write 90% crap, too, but if only the top 2% gets published, there is room to expand.  So, when the bar to women (and Blacks, and Latins, and Asians, etc.) be lifted, my wife asserts, the overall level of magazine quality should rise.  I think she’s right.

In Conclusion

It is a truism that once you see something, you cannot “un-see” it.  Discovering the dearth of women and female characters in my favorite genre has colored what I value in it.  Stories with and by women are precious because of rarity, like anything else.  A woman’s byline is no guarantee of quality or uniqueness — but the odds are pretty good.  So I smile when I find woman-penned stories.  I am delighted when I read about well-developed female characters.  I am dismayed when I read a magazine devoid of woman authors, of woman characters. 

I am hopeful.  F&SF did offer a nearly 50/50 gender split in the April 1961 issue (to its benefit).  Moreover, twenty years ago, one rarely saw characters of non-European origin.  Now, most who write about the future tend to include Asians, Latins, sometimes even Africans, among their cast. 

Women will be next.

4 thoughts on “[April 4, 1961] Do women do it better?  (the Second Sex in SF, Part 2)”

  1. Very well put. And as a fellow xenophile, I feel the same about characters of other ethnicities. Andre Norton’s spring to mind. I only hope editors don’t feel a commercial push to put the bar lower for females.

    I might very well be wrong, but I did have an idea Matheson was black..?

  2. Hi! Since i was born on 4 april i was looking on internet ( i like to google my birthday) this title caught my attention. I always search for myself in this world, like anyone, but like no one, because we have unique paths to the same thing. Female/Male is a “concern” for me. Of finding who is the better half for a specific expression.
    Its a long introduction for wanting to say that “beware” of the female names. What really is a female expression differs from the feminine physically. In order to find it you can only bring to light the subconscious. When your outter expression is masculine for example me aries. My inner is femminine so i am a female more than a male. That happens even with a girl born with scorpio sun. Her outter is feminine but 99% she is driven automatically by her masculine inner. So who is who? I think we can have it all blended. However the game we created its hilarious! Kisses!

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