On Sexism in Publishing

Friday, June 7, 2013

On Sexism in Publishing, or Why I'm Writing this Now Instead of Two Days Ago

Highly simplified, the reason is the same one that kept me from pressing charges against my rapist: because I was scared.

When I read Ann Aguirre's words (Ann's original post here) about her struggle with sexism as a science fiction and fantasy writer, I find so much kinship with how she felt as a new writer and how she feels now. When you're just starting out as a traditionally published author, there's so much insecurity, so much willingness to put up with anything to see your book in print. As a Southern woman who was raised to be polite and respectful, my instinct is to shut up and smile, to kill 'em with kindness and hope that the audience around me will recognize that I'm fighting with class and confidence instead of whining and complaining and yelling.

But you know what? It's not right.

Being quiet doesn't get results.

I'm not a member of SFWA because I looked at their website and composition and quickly came to the conclusion that I wasn't the target demographic. Sure, I write science fiction and fantasy, but once you throw romance and sex into the mix, it's generally agreed that my book will sit on the Romance shelf instead. Never mind the intricate alternate history steampunk world that's based on the supposition that the majority of prey animals have become predators. Shirtless dude on the cover? Romance. End of story.

And I'm fine with that, because I know that romance takes up 48% of the paperback market, and I'd like to be successful in my career.

What I'm not fine with, however, is being ignored or mistreated in industry articles or on con panels because someone has taken one look at my face and my book and decided that I'm not worthy of respect or time.

Story 1:
The first con I ever attended was a small steampunk con in Atlanta. It was two months before my book came out, and I wore a steampunk costume for the first time and was really excited. I asked the con if I could be a guest, and they turned me down, politely, probably because I had no connections and no actual book in hand. I offered to volunteer, hoping to meet people, and they made me into a green room hostess-- because I'm pretty. The first person I met was a famous science fiction writer, the Guest of Honor. He asked me what I did, and I told him I wrote steampunk paranormal romance. He scoffed and said that in the grand pyramid of writers, I was the bottom level. That I wasn't worth, and I quote, "the shit on his shoe" because I didn't have quality science in my books and just wrote "vampire porn". He said that women like me were ruining his genre.

And do you know what I did?

I smiled and tried not to cry. And served him breakfast, because that was my job, and because telling the Guest of Honor at a con that he was a misogynistic dick didn't seem like a good way to get invited back or to move my career forward.

That guy was the first professional I met in my field, and I've since learned that his books are basically rape fantasies. Fortunately, I've found a community of wonderful authors who have become friends, many of whom fight tirelessly for equality in an industry that is often criticized for its inability to quickly adapt to the changing cultural and technological landscape. How ironic--a genre based on technology, science, fantasy, and the future clings desperately to the past regarding the treatment of women.

Story 2:
I was on my first panel at Dragon*Con, sitting next to one of my favorite authors, a female writer with several successful series in several genres. Also on the panel were three writers with whom I was unfamiliar and who could all be described as "old white men". Can you guess how much they let us talk? How much they interrupted us? How much they complained about women mucking up science fiction right in front of us? The author beside me turned to me and rolled her eyes and said, "Why are we even here?"

And that gave me the courage to speak up, because dammit, we were there for a reason, and that reason was that we are writers (just like them), and we have books (just like them), and just because those angry old guys shouted louder and talked longer didn't mean that they were any more entitled to our time or attention. I remember saying something along the lines of, "Well, I may be the youngest and most inexperienced one on the panel and the newest to the publishing community, but I think that means I'm the future of our industry and that my beliefs on this topic have value for the new directions taken by science fiction and fantasy."

When you're a new writer, you receive a lot of advice from people who care, telling you to stop making waves, to avoid alienating readers or making industry people angry. But for me, this is a deeply rooted issue that might be worth losing potential readers. My book is just as much of a book as any man's book, and my words are just as important as a man's words.

And the fact that there are men out there who would even attempt to argue that fact makes me furious.

When I was raped in high school by an upstanding scholar, a teacher's son, I was told to keep it quiet so that I wouldn't look bad or ruin his life. I was asked, gently, if maybe it wasn't rape, if I had goaded him on or had given him the wrong signals. I was asked if I'd been "asking for it". I was told that since we'd dated, no one would consider it rape. And he wrote a letter to me explaining that he knew what he had done but that it was okay now, because had asked Jesus for forgiveness, and maybe I should ask Jesus for forgiveness, too. I told my favorite teacher, and she told me that if I pressed charges, I would just make myself look bad.

So what did I do? I stopped talking about it.

Over time, I realized that surviving that night with his knife at my throat was, in a way, fighting back. But I've wished for seventeen years that I'd fought back physically, loudly, that I'd risked everything to avoid letting him make me a victim. I want to think of myself as a fighter, as someone who does the right thing, even if it hurts.

So when I say that I'm not going to be quiet anymore, I mean it. I'm not going to let someone talk over me at a panel or tell me I'm worth nothing. I'm not going to be told that "it's always been this way", or "boys will be boys", or "stop complaining and do something". In this case, complaining *is* doing something.

Because men who belittle women, who turns us into damsels and whores in their books, who speak over us and tell us we're ruining things-- they want the same thing my rapist wanted: for us to stop talking about it.

I'm not saying that sexism in publishing is the same thing as rape. What I *am* saying is that when you expect a woman to shut her mouth and be pretty, to not complain, to accept the fact that you devalue her and her work-- you're taking away her voice and turning her into an object, one that won't get in the way of your plans.

And I'm no longer going to shut my mouth.