Rejection Letters, Sexism and Women's Exodus from Science Fiction

I recently received an interesting rejection letter. It was nearly longer than my submission but that was not the most unusual thing about it. The short story I sent in was from the perspective of a 13-year old girl. The rejection letter waxed on about how tight the writing was, how it kept the editor’s interest, etc. BUT... and there is always one of those in a rejection letter, he couldn’t buy it because the story was about a 13-year old girl and he felt his readers would not identify with her. Could I make her a 17-year old boy?

After I stopped laughing hysterically, I responded, “No.” That was it. I decided I didn’t want to burn this editorial bridge. The rejection letter was really, one long pitiful rationalization for sexism. Obviously, the editor realized he was succumbing to a sexist view or he wouldn’t have blathered on for nearly three printed pages in his email. At least he understood that he was wrong.

I don’t know whether Mr. Sexist Pig Dog was looking for my forgiveness or absolution or just wanting to make himself feel better. But by droning on about how great my piece was and not buying it for such a terrible reason made me mad. If he had just said, “You suck” or employed the cowardly “this does not meet our needs at this time,” I wouldn’t feel as disheartened. But to attempt to defend a sexist decision with three pages of weak-minded, self-serving whining? You’re having a tough time keeping up your numbers? Really? I just checked my calendar to be sure. It does state 2011.

If I really wanted to get even, I would send a copy of his email to his wife. Then, I’d send copies to his daughters and daughters-in-law. It’s only fair that they know that he is part of the problem and not the solution.

My righteous ire is up and what do I come across next? I read
this.The Women in Literary Arts has gathered the publishing data for several major magazines. The data show male writers are published more often than female. (The ratio averages to about 2:1.) Now, as a scientist, I understand that the numbers could show a terrible bias or could show something else entirely. We know from several studies that women write more than men. But, do they submit as often? Is this number representative of the numbers of submissions they get or does it demonstrate that sexism is alive and well in publishing?

Several years ago, a single study showed that boys (who tend not to read) didn’t like female protagonists as much as male protagonists. The study found that girls got past that. Duh. We’ve had to. There were precious few female SF protagonists when I grew up. The first SF novel I read was Heinlein’s
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress. My Dad loaned it to me. I like Heinlein’s stories but it made me mad that all his women were reduced to betas. (Yes, I am mixing my metaphors with Huxley’s A Brave New World but my point is still valid.)

I got so mad that I scribbled out the “he” pronouns and wrote in “she.” I returned the book to my Dad and he threatened to punish me because I defaced a book. (Becoming a drug-addicted prostitute was a lesser offense.) That was until I complained that it wasn’t fair that all the girls were stupid and needed saving. He’s a wonderful man and he wants things to be better for his children and grandchildren. I got a pass. However, I could only write in the books if I made the hero a heroine. Because I had permission, I never had to do it again. (Note that highlighters were not allowed in the house. I didn’t even own one until I went to college. No joke.)

Note also that I did this to TV shows too. I didn’t have a crush on Capt. Kirk as a child, I WAS Capt. Kirk and my best friend Phyllis was Spock. And ironically, we grew up to be just like them. She has an MD and a Ph.D. and I’m short, fat and have big boobs.

Back to this century, I attended the SouthWest Writer’s Conference in Albuquerque in 2010. I sat in on a panel session with several editors and agents talking about speculative fiction. They all complained about two things: (1) the dearth of stories targeting boys and (2) the fact that women have abandoned Science Fiction moving almost exclusively to Fantasy. The part that amazed me was that the panel didn’t see these as interrelated with the connection being a piss poor business model. Allow me to explain.

Looking at the first issue of a lack of good SF for middle grade boys, a colleague of mine writes fantastic stories targeting middle school boys. She can’t get published because the gatekeepers claim there is no market. (She is really, really good. I enjoy her stories. A good story transcends. I digress to assure you that her issues are not related to her ability to write.) If there is no market, then how can there be a dearth? I brought this up to the panel. They admitted to the paradox. The market is clamoring for titles like hers but the suits are only looking at past numbers. Since boys don’t read, editors are discouraged from buying these types of books. (FYI: Harry Potter was just a fluke.)

This type of specious argument actually got a supermarket chain sued in the late 1990’s in Missouri. A grocery chain never put the better cuts of beef in their stores located in north St. Louis. (At the time, north St. Louis was almost exclusively African-American.) The locals sued asking why did they have to go to south St. Louis to get a decent sirloin? The chain claimed in court that the African-American community didn’t buy the more expensive cuts so that was why they didn’t have them in those stores. Why did the grocery chain lose? Because they NEVER DID put those cuts of beef in their stores and had no actual data. They ASSUMED that all African-Americans were poor and wouldn’t want to shell out for a steak.

Women don’t read Science Fiction so we must avoid purchasing anything with girl cooties.

This leads us directly to the second issue, women abandoning Science Fiction. The panel has it reversed. We didn’t abandon SF. SF abandoned us. Where are our Octavia Butlers? Ursula K. LeGuins? Vonda McIntyres and Andre Nortons? There are many women SF writers. They just don’t seem to be publishing as much SF as Fantasy. Why? My colleagues are writing SF, I’m just not seeing it in print.

At the 2010 Campbell Conference, there was a panel discussing why the main themes of SF were being co-opted by other genres such as romance, mystery and even mainstream. Examples included almost anything by Michael Crichton and
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger. Niffenegger’s book clearly targets women and it’s clearly Sci Fi. However, the sales folk were extremely careful to avoid marketing it as SF because they knew they would lose female readers. Traditional SF publishers have so narrowed what they are willing to publish that they are losing both readers and market share. This is going to get especially difficult in the coming years as the demographics of the US are changing. Women now graduate with more bachelor degrees than men and it is estimated that by 2050, the dominant race in the US will be Hispanic.

The situation has become that if you write an SF themed novel that “targets” women, you are actually better off sending it out to mainstream publishers. A panelist pointed out that a lot of what we are seeing in print in these other genres is derivative and has been done before, and arguably better, 20 to 60 years ago in SF. I reminded everyone in the room that most college kids were born after Gulf One. Right now, today, female college students avoid SF. They love Fantasy and they love Niffenegger (no accounting for taste... that book needed an editor... one more miscarriage and I’d have burned the *&^% book).

The problem is actually deeper than publishers working under ill-advised business models. SF is suffering a crisis itself. Also at the 2010 Campbell Conference, there was a different panel discussion on SF’s loss of relevance. The panel was made up entirely of older white men. I happen to read and enjoy their work but what came out of the panel really dismayed me.

They complained that there was a drought of good old-fashioned SF. (Certainly, I wasn’t the only one who thought that an oxymoron.) They complained that they weren’t seeing the kinds of stories they used to. I looked around the room. More than half of us were female with many people of color. In 1960, whites made up 85% of the US population. These “Fathers” of SF were whining that the stories were no longer targeting them! Poor babies!

Science Fiction is supposed to come out of the realities of the time: Nazism in the 30’s, Dystopias from the 40’s, Atomic war from the 50’s, Racism from the 60’s, Sexuality from the 70’s and so on. The reality is that the white male is no longer the dominant player in the US. Why should his stories dominate the SF literature? Why can’t you read stories from the perspective of a 13-year old girl? I can read yours. Has your imagination flagged so precipitously you can’t read mine?

I showed my short story to an agent friend who specializes in children’s books. She was so excited that she claims if I can successfully expand it to 35,000 words she can sell it. (It is currently 4600 words and I really intended it to be a short story.) Holy Guano Batman! Will I “abandon” SF too?