Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Are more women being drawn to epic fantasy?

Over the last six months or so, there have been more than a few issues raised within the speculative communities concerning women. There has been the whole SFWA situation, more than a few words written about sexism within the geek communities and specifically at conventions, and there has even been a call by author and former SFWA president John Scalzi for "(mostly) dudes in geek circles" to stop playing the gatekeeper for deciding who is and who is not worthy of geek entertainment. I'm sure there have been other incidents and issues raised of which I am not aware or which do not come to mind at the moment.

But I'm not here today to voice my opinion(s) about any of these specific matters. In some cases I do have an opinion but wish to keep it to myself for the time being. In other cases, I'm somewhat conflicted because I've read and heard varying reports and opinions, most of which seem to counter one another.

I will say this, I am often surprised by the amount of misogyny I see online from time to time. And I am as often surprised by the levels of viciousness that appear to rise from time to time within circles that seem to be proponents of third-wave feminism. I see a lot of juvenile silliness that crosses the borders into crudity and stupidity. I also see a lot of what are obviously personal issues being plastered onto broader, public affairs. I also see a lot of hate and misunderstanding and outright, seemingly intentional stupidity, often with only a goal of verbally and/or emotionally harming someone else, to "get a rise" out of them.

But that seems to be the world today when it comes to just about any issue. Talk is dead. Trying to understand another person is dead. Verbal, emotional and sometimes actual violence seem to be the signs of the times.

Enough about that, at least directly.

More specifically, I'd like to talk about women and epic fantasy from a writer's point of view, specifically my point of view.

Growing up as a boy in Appalachia in the 1970s and early 1980s, comic books and fantasy fiction and role playing games were always seemingly a venue for boys. Nerdy boys. Geeky boys. Girls not only did not show interest in such subjects, but they hardly ever appeared to show interest in boys who were interested in such subjects. I am not suggesting this was a 100-percent rule, but it was how things appeared to the young me.

By the mid-to-late 1980s when I was in high school and entering college, things seemed to change. There were girls and young women who showed interests in not necessarily fantasy fiction, but at least on the borders of the speculative genres and all that went with it.

By my early adult years in the 1990s, I began to see even more changes. More and more women were attending conventions, taking part in renaissance festivals, etc. It was during this time my role playing game groups began to contain more women than the groups with which I was familiar from back in my younger days.

Let me add, I am only offering my own personal experiences here. I am not suggesting that my experience was the same as anyone else's, nor that my experience is necessarily a reflection of the world as a whole during these time periods. For one thing, by the early 1990s I had moved away from my Appalachian world, so I was getting out to see other parts of the country, and some things were new to me. For another thing, the speculative genres were becoming more acceptable by the culture at large, so any perceived growth in speculative fiction interests I thought I saw in females I now realize was probably a broader growth throughout the culture at large.

Which now brings me to today, or to more recent times.

About ten years back I started taking my fiction writing seriously, mainly horror and epic fantasy. A few years back I became lucky enough to make something of a living within my writing. Not a great living, I'm not getting rich, but every little bit helps.

Until about three years ago, the epic fantasy world had mostly seemed to me to be a boys' club, at least from a writer's point of view. Most of the authors who were names within the genre were male, and for the most part they wrote about male characters.

I was well aware of a seeming handful of women writers who worked mainly in epic fantasy, Janet Morris comes to mind, but that did not seem typical to me. My thinking was that women who wrote fantasy tended to write different types of fantasy than that which held my interest.

How wrong I was.

Along comes the e-book and self-publishing revolution, and many things seemed to change (at least to me).

What first opened my eyes was not female authors, but fans. My own readers. The majority of e-mails I receive from readers are from women. The majority of reviews I receive seem to be from women.

At first, this boggled my mind. Wait a second, here I am writing about big guys with big swords laying waste to their enemies, but women are reading this stuff? And some of them are liking it?

I could hardly fathom such.

Then I began to notice more and more women writers penning and publishing their own epic fantasy stories.

It was all a surprise to me. A pleasant surprise.

I've never intentionally meant to exclude women from my writings, nor from any of my geeky pastimes. In fact, when it comes to table top role playing games, I prefer to play with women because in my experience they are generally more interested in character and story development while men tend to be more focused on the character stats and how many monsters they can smash (though this is not always the case).

Have I seen things wrong all these years? Or has the culture changed enough over the last few decades that more and more women feel comfortable stepping into speculative worlds? Or has something else been going on?

I'm not sure. Probably a mix of all of the above, and then some.

I can say I'm glad to have women readers, but then I'm also glad to have men readers. Any readers at all, in fact. I never set out to exclude anyone, and I hope I have not. My epic fantasy fiction tends to focus on men, I realize, but I do have important female characters and I hope their roles come off as at least as important as those of my male characters. Adara Corvus, for instance, is more than just a possible love interest for Kron Darkbow. Frex Nodana is more than an antagonist-turned-sometime-companion for Kron. Heldra is far, far more than just the mother of Belgad the Liar. Each of these characters is female, but they have histories and roles I hope are beyond those often traditionally associated with women.

I'm a guy. And I'm a writer. I'm not perfect. But I hope I do all my characters right. I hope I do service to them. I hope they come alive for my readers of all genders.

And I hope to keep entertaining my fans, men and women alike.


Charles Gramlich said...

Well said. I knew when I started going to cons in the 90s that there were a lot of women in horror. It surprised me at first. I still see more women writers there than in fantasy but it the numbers are growing. Unfortunately, my work has not developed a big female fan base. Maybe it's my problem. I don't know.

Ty Johnston said...

I don't think I can lay claim to having a big female fan base, or any big fan base at all, for that matter. This is just a guess on my part, but various surveys tend to suggest more women are reading than men, so that's perhaps why I hear from more women through e-mail and reviews. On the flip side of all this, those who comment on my blog lean more toward men.