Friday, May 03, 2013

Gender and genre, part one

There has been a lot of talk about gender recently in the social media that I follow. On Twitter, it’s mostly been about sci-fi and its lack of women writers, and those few that there are being ignored for awards and by critics. On G+ urban fantasy community, it was about the lack of male heroes in UF. This has landed me with a list of women writers in sci-fi and caused me to write a feminist rant about women in UF.

Gender is a longstanding issue in literature and not something I can cover in one short post. The conversation surrounding the Clarke list shows also that it isn’t easily solved issue either. Should women writers be commended simply because of their gender? One of the judges, Liz Williams, thought that they shouldn’t. Quality must come first. Others disagreed.

One argument for women being ignored is that there aren’t as many women who write sci-fi as there are men. But that isn’t true either. As Liz Williams points out in her article, “genre workshops are full of women writing all forms of the genre.” She lays the blame on publishing industry that, according to her, only gives room for one woman sci-fi writer at the time. So should there be quotas for women? It has been tried in other areas of life. In business and politics, the (best) man for the job attitude is being balanced out with quotas for women. Women have been lured in to studying engineering by giving them extra points for their gender in entrance applications. None of that has had a notable effect, however. But if there actually are more women out there who write sci-fi than it appears, a systematic showcasing of their work would go a long way to helping them.

What doesn’t help, however, is that the definition of sci-fi tends to be very narrow. As it puts emphasis on science, it often overlooks the kind of sci-fi that women like to write. So it’s not that there aren’t as many women sci-fi writers as there are men; their work just isn’t recognised as science fiction. Liz Williams found most of the books submitted for Clarke Awards to be more fantasy than sci-fi, and one comment I read on Twitter today said that they weren’t science enough. The definition of sci-fi is rather arbitrary, but it’s decisive enough when it’s time to give writers credit for their work. Women aren’t being overlooked for their gender; they simply don’t meet the requirements of the genre. Or so the argument goes.

But that isn’t always the case.

After a rant like this, the only book I can bring up, really, is The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin. Published in 1969, it’s definitely feminist in its stance. Gender is very much at its core and it has no science to speak of. Yet it is considered a very important book in the sci-fi canon.

The book is set on a remote planet that is always cold, called Winter, in a distant future. The inhabitants of the planet are genderless for most of the time, but they assume a gender in monthly cycles; the gender may be the same every time or change, depending on their partner. The main character, Genly Ai, is a human man who is on a diplomatic mission on the planet. At first, the inhabitants’ lack of gender is repugnant to him, but as he stays longer on the planet, it’s the gender based system he hails from that he begins to question. In the end, people who show off their gender all the time – humans – start to look indecent to him.

Le Guin draws many conclusions from a society that doesn’t have genders. One of them is that the planet has never had any wars because of it. While modern sci-fi is more diverse than it was when the book came out, non-conflict as the driving force of a sci-fi book is still a rather unique idea. It definitely impressed me when I first read it and the impact it made remains with me twenty years later.

The Left Hand of Darkness had a good reception when it first came out; on the heyday of feminism, it was bound to make an impact. What’s more, I’m sure it would make an impact if it were published for the first time now. Gender is very much an issue in sci-fi today, as witnessed by the conversation surrounding the Clarke awards, but it’s not exclusive of that genre. It’s an issue in all literature. And as long as we label some authors as women writers, the issue remains.