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A lady after our own data-loving hearts, KJ, awesome librarian and feminist mentor extraordinaire agreed to share with us some data related to gender and categorization within the NPR's Young Adult list from 2012. You can read more of KJ's writing at [personal profile] owlmoose or [tumblr.com profile] lifeofkj.

I have long been interested in the issue of representation of female authors on best-of lists and in different genres of writing, particularly sci-fi/fantasy. There were two such SF/F lists that caught my attention during the summer of 2011, both based on reader polls, one run by Tor Books and the other by NPR. There were some notable differences between how these polls were run, which lead to some interesting contrasts between their final lists, but both suffered a lack of female representation. Tor's list (2 of the top 10, 24% of the top 50) was a bit better than NPRs (none in the top 10, 15% of the top 100). There are a number of possible reasons for this, but I would look to two in particular: Tor's poll was limited specifically to books published in the most recent decade, 2000 through 2010, while the NPR list was all-time; and the Tor list was a reader free-for-all, while the NPR list was curated, 200-some nominees culled from reader submissions with some strict rules about what genres were to be included. And though I hesitate to ascribe any intent to the NPR editors' choices, their genre exclusions — horror, paranormal romance, and YA — are areas in which female authors tend to be better represented than in other areas of SF/F, particularly the latter two. Anne Rice, Charlaine Harris, J.K. Rowling, and Stephenie Meyer come immediately to mind, but the list hardly stops there. I was not the only person to side-eye this decision in terms of how many popular female authors this choice would leave out — NPR's own Monkey See blog even mentioned it as a reason that fewer women were represented — but at the time, the NPR poll editors promised that they would do a YA poll in the summer of 2012. So I was curious to see what would happen with that poll.

The first thing that happened was that eight books on the YA nomination list had also been on the SF/F nomination list:

  • Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Series by Douglas Adams
  • Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
  • The Princess Bride by William Goldman
  • Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
  • Dune by Frank Herbert (just the first book on the YA list, the series as a whole on the SF/F list)
  • Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury
  • The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagle

It must be said that classifying books by genre is an art, not a science, particularly in the case of YA, which means different things to different people. Is any book marketed to younger readers YA, or does it have to specifically be written with that audience in mind? We could debate many of the calls made by the NPR editors — the decision to put Ender's Game and Mercedes Lackey's Last Herald Mage trilogy on the SF/F nominee list rather than the YA list, for example, or classing Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea Series as YA rather than adult — but ultimately many of these are judgement calls with no right or wrong answer. However, once the calls were made, I think we can all agree that the editors should have stuck with them. If the NPR editors determined that these eight books were not YA, and therefore eligible for the SF/F list, then they should not have been nominated for the YA list. Period. By including them on both lists, it looks as though the editors are playing favorites and attempting to get extra recognition for their favorites. And it worked: All eight of these books were voted onto both top 100 lists.

And yes, all eight of them are written by men.

There is no way of knowing how the presence of these books on the nomination list affected the final outcome, but I wanted to mention it for two reasons: one, this is why the NPR YA poll came to my attention in the first place (since I follow SF/F publishing more closely than YA), and two, it shows a bias in the editorial nomination process that I find quite troubling.

So, with all that aside, how do the numbers look?


65% books by female authors, 34% books by male authors.



58 books by female authors, 41 by male authors, 1 male/female co-authored book.

So although both lists have a majority of female authors, the list of winners had a notably higher percentage of books by men than the nominees. If we take out the 8 books that were also on the SF/F list, and should therefore not be classed as YA by the editors own definition, we get 62% women to 37% men1, or much closer to the male/female percentage among the nominees. Now, nothing is to say that, had those books been disqualified, the final list would have had better representation of female authors; perhaps other books by male authors would have taken their place. But it still skews the list in ways I find problematic.

Another interesting factor to consider is the influence of multiple nominations. The author with the most nominations is Tamora Pierce, with 6. Of the 10 authors with more than two nominations, two are men: John Green (5) and David Levithan (4). Of the 12 authors with two or more winning titles, 6 are men (and two have titles with crossover on the SF/F list — JRR Tolkein and Ray Bradbury). Typically, when I consider a best of lists by author rather than by book, counting each author only once, the percentage of female authors goes up or stays almost the same; this list is different in that the number of male authors goes up slightly: 43% rather than 41%.

The inevitable question is: so what? What does it matter if this particular list has fewer female authors than it otherwise might? The list already includes more women than men, no matter how we examine the data. But still, it matters. It matters because when YA is perceived as a female-dominated genre, we wonder why more men don't write it and more boys don't read it; when SF/F is perceived as a male dominated genre, we shrug and accept it as the natural order of things. And it matters because we should always question lists like this and examine them for biases (of which I'm sure we could find many others), not simply accept them as unquestionable evidence of what readers want and what kinds of books will sell. Lists like this are not created in the vacuum. They are affected by the assumptions of the people who create them, just as much as the readers who vote on them, and if we don't look for those biases, we will never learn how to counteract them.

1 And one book co-written by a woman and a man.

Supplemental Material:

Date: 2013-03-06 01:53 pm (UTC)
metanewsmods: Abed wearing goggles (Default)
From: [personal profile] metanewsmods
Hi, can we link this at metanews?

Date: 2013-03-06 06:23 pm (UTC)
renay: artist rendition of the center of a nebula (Default)
From: [personal profile] renay
Sure! Thanks for asking. :)

Date: 2013-03-06 08:23 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
'It matters because when YA is perceived as a female-dominated genre, we wonder why more men don't write it and more boys don't read it; when SF/F is perceived as a male dominated genre, we shrug and accept it as the natural order of things.' - this. And I totally agree with you about the duplication of titles in the YA list, they should not be there.

Date: 2013-03-06 11:08 pm (UTC)
owlmoose: (athena)
From: [personal profile] owlmoose
Thanks! I am glad you pulled that quote, because I think it really is the heart of the matter, not just for best-of lists but for looking at representation within creative endeavors of any type. When something is dominated by men (or whites, or any other majority group), we don't question it; if anyone else takes the forefront, we tend to either assume something is wrong or dismiss that type of creative work as "niche" and therefore not of interest to most people. And that's a real problem for getting diverse voices heard.

Date: 2013-03-14 03:08 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] chordatesrock
I'm confused as to what the issue is here. (That may be because I'm here via [community profile] metanews and don't know what you generally discuss; I've never read another post of yours.)

Are you suggesting that the difference in perception of gender imbalances between YA and SFF is because people expect that men should be writers, or think it's better or more natural for a greater percentage of writers to be male, and that, therefore... actually, I'm not sure how to relate this to the situation at hand. And therefore men being overrepresented is a problem, even though men make up less than half of the list, and, given a similar but gender-flipped situation, I'm not sure anyone would be complaining about the winners. Is that accurate?
Edited Date: 2013-03-14 03:09 am (UTC)

Date: 2013-03-14 04:22 am (UTC)
owlmoose: stack of books (book - pile)
From: [personal profile] owlmoose
That's the gist of it. In particular, the question of why more men don't write YA often comes up because girls are more likely to read than boys, and encouraging more men to write in the genre is often proposed as a solution -- as opposed to encouraging boys to read books by female authors.

The other issue, for me -- and one I probably should have called out more explicitly in the text of the post -- was the exclusion of YA as a genre from NPR's science fiction and fantasy poll in 2011, because it is almost certainly true that more women would have been on that final list if YA had been explicitly included. Add in the fact that of the eight books (all, coincidentally or not, by men) being on both lists, and I find the whole exercise suspect.

Date: 2013-03-14 05:18 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] chordatesrock
Interesting. I sometimes wish that I were able to find more writing by men, but I find that this is more of an issue in blogs and fannish circles (especially disability circles, my favorite aspect of real life and biggest beef with the kyriarchy). I am not at all certain that this is the cause of literacy problems among boys (though it may be a result of it), especially in light of what some female authors have written. For example, Harry Potter does not seem as if it should be unappealing to boys at all, and the author is female. I question whether encouraging boys to read books by female authors is the best solution; I suspect that problems with education and socialization that run far deeper than "girl authors have cooties" are to blame.

It does seem to contradict the established rules to have crossover between the lists. I find that action suspect. I doubt the entire thing was merely orchestrated as an attempt to discredit female writers, but I also suspect I may be arguing with a straw man here. Am I?

Date: 2013-03-14 06:42 am (UTC)
owlmoose: (book -- glasses)
From: [personal profile] owlmoose
No, I agree, I find it highly unlikely the NPR editors did it on purpose. But I do have to wonder what caused them to change their minds between the two polls, and why they didn't think about the implications.

It's interesting that you bring up Harry Potter -- J.K. Rowling was initially required by her publisher to use her initials rather than her first name because they were afraid that boys wouldn't pick up the book if they knew it was by a woman. So whether or not it's actually true that boys are less likely to read books by women, it's certainly the case that publishers *believe* it to be true. I agree that all this is a symptom of much deeper socialization and education issues, not the cause. But change has to start somewhere.

Date: 2013-03-14 07:21 am (UTC)
From: [personal profile] chordatesrock
I would bet that they were thinking about not wanting YA in their SFF list (because by SFF they probably meant something like "serious" SFF that tackles adult themes, or hard sci-fi and heavily-worldbuilt gritty fantasy, or something similar), but didn't really care if their YA list took a broad definition of the genre. (That is, they probably thought that YA fiction set in a speculative universe is YA, and not SFF, instead of being simultaneously YA and SFF, because, perhaps, the YA version isn't "real" to them. That doesn't explain LotR and Dune's presence on the list at all, though; how are either of those YA?)

I do know about J.K. Rowling. When I brought her up, I was thinking about the fact that the content of the stories is appealing to boys, and that she is an example of a woman whose work is not unappealing, showing that there's nothing about female writers that makes them inherently incapable of writing things boys would read. If you were actually trying to discuss the way boys are socialized to think women's writing is unappealing, then I may have missed the point. That everyone seems to know she's a woman now is probably a good thing, in that case.

I have thoughts about how to attack the deeper issues. Some parts of what feminism is doing may also prove useful as a second, simultaneous attempt to fix things. If I had to choose, I'd rather stop inculcating the anti-intellectual sentiments and constructing masculinity as a fragile thing opposed to femininity and based in not having certain feelings (instead of in responding to them constructively, and being an adult who takes responsibility for xyr own actions), but I'm far from certain that this should be thought of as a dichotomous choice.


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