Do the “Best SFF Books of 2013” lists show gender bias?


Ladies, start your engine.

Ladies, start your engines.

An annual accounting can be a useful thing, with the year-end bringing a time to take stock and reflect on the previous months. It’s more than navel-gazing, though. Counting and analyzing trends can help illustrate bigger changes that we might not otherwise notice as we get buried in the ho-hum daily grind. 

Birders turn out for the annual Christmas count to track the health of the avian world. For women and men in the creative arts, there are a number of assessments of progress, ranging from gender disparity in family films to VIDA’s annual “Count,” which looks at how many men versus women are published by more than a dozen literary publications. 

Last year I took a look at the gender breakdown among the curated “best books of 2012” lists, and found an apparent bias toward male writers: out of 322 recommendations, men took home 59% of the gold stars. In science fiction and fantasy, 68% of 2012’s recommendations were awarded to men.  

This year, I’ve only focused on science fiction and fantasy (my favorite genres), and tallied up 113 recommendations across nine lists. The curated selections represent the best SFF books as identified by publications ranging from The Guardian newspaper to Buzzfeed.

A pleasant surprise was in store: the gender split was decidedly more even, with women representing 47% of the best-of books and men taking 53%. Sure, 2013’s curated lists of best SFF books are leaning slightly toward men, but it’s not a statistically relevant difference. To sum it up: This year’s lists indicate gender equity (yay!). 

 But there are a few issues lurking beneath the surface. For one, these lists represent the creme de la creme of SFF writers, award-winning authors such as Margaret Atwood (who made several lists with “MaddAddam”) and Yoon Ha Lee (“Conservation of Shadows.”) 

Given that these writers are at the top of their fields, they don’t exactly represent the whole wide swath of 2013’s published SFF books and thus analyzing such lists may not actually tell us much about gender bias across speculative fiction. A better analysis would be to track submissions by gender and subsequent publication. (Something that I haven’t been able to data on — if anybody knows where that can be found, please add a comment below.)

There’s at least one speculative fiction journal that does just that: Clarkesworld, the award-winning science-fiction and fantasy magazine. Editor Neil Clarke wrote in his November editorial, “Despite the slush pile favoring men 71% to 29%, 65% of the purchased stories were written by women.”  (Full disclosure: I am a slush reader for Clarkesworld.) His conclusion was that women, at least in the past year, were better at anticipating what types of stories the magazine wanted.

 The bottom line is that neither gender has a lock on quality writing. But it’s refreshing that, at least in 2013, the people putting together the “best SFF of 2013” lists apparently agreed. 


1 Comment

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One response to “Do the “Best SFF Books of 2013” lists show gender bias?

  1. Pingback: Inequality and Freelance Writing

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