Are “Best Books of 2012” Lists Biased Against Women Writers?

About half-way through the animated movie “Tintin,” I asked my daughters if anything struck them as odd about the film. They didn’t notice anything strange, they said. I pointed out the film lacked female characters, and my youngest, 8, noted the (male) detectives Thomson and Thompson had fallen into a female passerby on the street. Meanwhile, the only other woman was the opera singer Bianca Castafiore, who in the film acts as a plot device.

So two women — only one of whom could remotely be considered a real character — in a film populated by dozens of men and boys who run about pirate boats, fly airplanes and solve mysteries. As the parent of two girls, it’s concerning that a world depicted as dominated by men would be accepted by them as the norm, even though women comprise more than 50% of the population.

One might argue that “Tintin” is based on a comic book series written in the early- to mid-20th century, when women didn’t hold the same influence in the public sphere as they do today, yet there are dozens of examples of television shows and movies today that depict a male-focused world, with only a token woman or two in attendance. (Check out this recent study from USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which found that only 22% of primetime shows depicted stories with gender-balanced casts.)

A few days later, I was reading through the top 10 books of 2012, as picked by the New York Times reviewer Michiko Kakutani and noted that nine books on the list were written by men. Were other “best books of 2012” lists depicting a “Tintin”-like world? One in which women (or books by women) were absent?

Inspired by Vida, a grass roots organization supporting female writers that counts the percentage of bylines and books by women represented by literary outlets such as the New York Review of books, I started looking at the gender breakdown of “best books of 2012” lists.

I considered lists that were curated — that is, a reflection of a personal choice, rather than bestseller lists — and published within the last few weeks of 2012. In all, I tracked 21 “best books of 2012” lists and broke down the composition by gender. Anthologies, which presumably included both male and female writers, were excluded, and there was one writer whose gender is unknown (K.J. Parker).

Men dominated the lists, which together included 322 recommendations, with 59% of those gold stars given to titles written by men. Only 41% of the recommendations were given to women writers.

Next, I looked at seven lists for the best scifi and fantasy books of 2012. (It’s my favorite genre, and I write speculative fiction as well). The gender difference was even more pronounced: out of 57 recommendations, 68% were by male authors, with only 32% of nods given tofemale writers.

The huge “to be sure” in this analysis is how it compares to the percentage of books published annually by men versus women. For instance, if 70% of published books are written by men, then the year-end “best books” lists would illustrate a bias toward female writers. I couldn’t find this statistic, though, so if anyone knows this breakdown, please let me know.

December blog post from Clarkesworld, a top scifi and fantasy magazine, suggests that the quality of writing from women isn’t lacking. The magazine looked at its slushpile by gender, and found that while men submitted more fiction (69% of all submissions), stories by women received more recommendations from its slush readers (9.7% of stories by women were recommended, versus 3.9% by men.) While a small snapshot, it does suggest that male writers are simply writing more in the speculative fiction genre, but it also raises the question of whether genre fiction from women should be more equally represented in “best books of 2012” lists, if  the quality is generally viewed as stronger.

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Are “Best Books of 2012” Lists Biased Against Women Writers?

  1. jdowds

    Hey Aimee, new to the site, but I like what I see. I think it’s an interesting point you raise about gender bias among the literary community. If you’ve ever seen the Sci-Fi/Fantasy Grandmaster list, you’d see that the majority are men. By chance, have you ever been to Worlds Without End? They’ve got a really great 12 month challenge where you read 12 women authors and talk about their books. It’s a great way of spreading the word about women genre authors. You should check it out!

  2. Thanks for the great comment. Actually, I just saw the Worlds Without End 12 month challenge this week and signed up for it — there are so many great (women) writers on the challenge that I’ve been meaning to read, so it seemed like a terrific way to reach my goal and support more women in scifi/fantasy. Are you doing the challenge, too?

  3. jdowds

    Yeah, I read Typhon’s Children by Toni Anzetti for January, and I’m looking to read To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis for next month. It’s pretty interesting to see just how many books are out there by women authors that I’d never even heard of. Makes for quite a long reading list.

  4. Pingback: Do the “Best SFF Books of 2013″ lists show gender bias? | Aimee Picchi, Freelance Writer

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