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The Backstory
In mid-2011 after a discussion about diversity in reading with my partner, we agreed to focus our reading in 2012 on women by undertaking a project called She Wrote What?. The project is not focused on SF/F, but those are the genres he likes the best. To find recommendations for us I began following popular SF/F blogs for their reviews and back catalogues.

A trend emerged as I collected women writers. Women's names started to repeat while more and more new male writers emerged. This reminded me of The Count 2010 by VIDA and The SF Count by Strange Horizons (which I hope they repeat). I did two test cases on blogs I was already following, using their current reviews for a three month period. Toward the end of my test case, I mentioned it on Twitter and had a conversation, which I include here for context:

@renay: I am basically looking at SF/F blogs and counting how many books by ladies they've reviewed in 2011. SPOILER: it's depressing.
@kingrat: I've thought about doing that project. I could predict the results.
@renay: Is that why you never did it? End result too predictable?
@kingrat: When @niallharrison did the print mag review numbers this year, i thought a similar blog project might be worthwhile.
@niallharrison: @kingrat @renay I shied away from blogs at the time because so many of them are single-author it felt a bit personal.
@niallharrison: But it would be instructive to see, I think.
@renay: @niallharrison Many position themselves as professional, especially those receiving review copy.
@niallharrison: Even so, I think there's a difference in the implicit promises magazines and blogs make: comprehensiveness vs idiosyncracy.
@renay: Whereas if I sample a group of them over a one year period, meaning will be had! What kind, though, remains to be seen.
@niallharrison: Yeah, that's the level at which it gets interesting. Though I wouldn't want to be the one selecting the sample. :-)
@renay: @niallharrison I started at the Major Players and used blogrolls. I'm sure this is the most effective and least wanky solution! #doom
@niallharrison: Defined methodology is good! I look forward to seeing the results, anyway.

I'll come back to defined methodology.

The Inevitable Disclaimer
This has been such an undertaking; five months of my life were consumed by this project. An unexpected development is that after spending time with the blogs that became my sample, I feel protective of them even though all of the owners, sans The Book Smugglers, are strangers to me. Toward the end, even though KJ told me early on I couldn't hoard the data and mask the blog identities, that it would be a Jerk Move, the more tempted I became to do so. But here we are, and nothing is being hidden, but I still feel like standing on the rooftop to wave my arms and shout about how awesome these blogs are for literature, how diverse of opinion and thought, how lucky we are to be in a community and fandom with this much to choose from, and to please not go pick on them or call them names or accuse them of things based on a year's worth of numbers gleaned from narrow rules I applied to collect the information. Honestly: don't do it. That's a Jerk Move.

I did not begin this project as an expose of individual blogs, because individually there's nothing to glean from the numbers. One year of a person's reviewing habits tells you exactly zero about that person, and furthermore, not all reviews are included — only SF/F and speculative fiction, defined by me, by using Amazon and Goodreads and tags, and reviews of the work elsewhere. On top of that, a list of reviews and an actual reading list are two different things.

I'm not making any claims as to how each blog owner or contributor feels about women writers.

Although Niall had qualms about examining blogs in this way because of the personal aspect, I obviously disagreed, as here we are, on the cusp of Graphs and Lots of Data. Yes, it can be personal, but when we have review policies (most of the blogs I examined did) we're positioning ourselves as a voice for literature to other people, even if they happen to be our friends. When we tell a publisher we're willing to read and review books and then post those reviews, we're telling the world we have something to say and inviting the world in to listen. Furthermore, for me this is personal, because recommendations from mostly recreational, non-professional reviewers is how I tend to find the SF/F media I consume.

I did my best to apply my decisions equally across all reviews. I stopped at 21 blogs because of severe issue fatigue. There are hundreds of SF/F blogs and 21 barely skims the surface.

I chose my sample by using the blogs I follow, blogs from their blogrolls, recommendations from my co-contributors to Lady Business and Ana of The Book Smugglers who is active in the SF/F community (this is apparently called snowball sampling). I based my decision on whether it seemed like the blog was SF/F related and subscriber count. I did not research archives of any blogs but my two test cases beforehand and once I started processing a blog, I did not remove it from my sample.

I am not sure what I would have found if I had kept adding blogs. Maybe 50 would have been the magic number where the scale tipped the other way from what my results turned out to be. However, anyone can feel free to look over their favorite SF/F blog and its reviews and report back what they find and how it compares to my results. Google Docs is free! \o/

This survey focuses on reviews of science fiction and fantasy texts (more on sequential art below). Many blogs were good enough to note the genre. Some didn't and I had to do a little legwork. Several people came behind me and gave me advice and opinions on reviews I was unsure about and did checks on author gender for me.

In the reviews total, each book was counted M, F, or U. This project is, at its core, a binary one. I make no claims as to the gender identities of the authors or bloggers classified as Unknown.

Authors can appear multiple times in the reviews total. The only exception to this was when there were multiple books by the same author in the same post. That's counted as one because those reviews are happening at the same time in the same entry. That's different than putting that author and their work in front of eyeballs three different times.

1. I took a very generous line on what I counted as SF/F and speculative. There's going to be something like Spellcast by Barbara Ashford in the same study as The Clockwork Rocket by Greg Egan. That's how I'm rolling; it's okay if you don't agree.

2. I only counted reviews hosted on the actual blog. Woe, should they be posted elsewhere with a link to them!

3. Young Adult and adult SF/F and speculative fiction were included, but not Middle Grade. If anything was unclear, I used Amazon/Goodreads based on where it was listed to make that decision.

4. Anthologies with multiple authors are treated by authors (sorry editors).

5. Writers under a shared pseud that's publicly known were counted individually. Unfortunately concerning authors filed under Unknown, it's impossible to know if those are shared and thus they are counted as one author.

6. Co-authors were counted individually.

7. Guest Post reviews were not included (unless they weren't labeled as Guest Posts, and if so, well-played blog owners. Well-played.).

6. Originally I included sequential art (comics, manga, and graphic novels) in these numbers, but unfortunately, they skewed the results too much. While all blogs included traditional texts, only a handful covered sequential art: strike one. The sheer number of men in the industry also made some blogs have wild ratios that, bottom line, annoyed me and made their coverage look terrible through no fault of their own due to my inclusion standards: strike two. It was extremely difficult to find complete lists of all artists. Including all artists — colorists and pencilers, etc. — was a requirement for me based on opinions of artists I asked. Some projects were almost impossible to find information for, which meant some listings would be complete but others wouldn't be. Because this project relies on complete contributor lists, I deemed it too time intensive: strike three. It was also like a bonus round of "wow, women sure are invisible in the comics industry, huh?" It was supremely depressing and in the end that was a discussion I simply didn't want to dive into at this time.

7. Horror that was psychological or based on gore or torture porn didn't count. Horror that was fantastical or paranormal did. This is still my most personally conflicting category; there are probably a lot of errors and missing information or additional information that shouldn't count. It still makes me unhappy. I asked for second opinions here because I don't read horror and did the best I could with research.

8. On gender of authors and bloggers: when possible, I checked when gender was not clear. I noted when it was unknown or if I couldn't find enough data to make a clear decision. I did my best to examine each. It feels pertinent to note that one of the hardest things I faced was women writing under male pseudonyms. There are so many men represented that it's truly difficult to say I researched each one as thoroughly as I could have. I did my best and erred when in doubt. If I was wrong, please tell me, and I will make the correction with apologies.

I was also dealing with hundreds of blog posts and Google Reader, which underwent a horrible, eye-gougingly awful redesign in the middle of this project (thanks Google). I am certain there are reviews I missed because of this awesome development, authors I've placed incorrectly because of lackluster research, and other fun, humiliating errors. I'm willing to update my spreadsheets and include notes in this post if the information is brought to me and presented convincingly, although the data presented graphically in this post will not be updated for a few months, as I'll let any corrections float in and request a final update of the graphs to be included alongside the current information.

Version one of my spreadsheets can be found at Coverage of Women on SF/F Blogs (I). All the data and the blogs I acquired it from that I am discussing below is contained in these sheets.

The Results
In the beginning, I was fairly sure of what I was going to find: men discussing mostly men, and women discussing both either equally or more. Does the data follow?

This is a fairly standard result that's not ideal, but is better than what it could be. Men still dominate the literary conversation, but women are in there, too. I was initially surprised by this result, because my gut back in 2011 had said it was not this even.

Even when expressed in a different way, the "overall" score seems to indicate that my gut was jumping the gun:

However, if you start rearranging the data a bit, things change. There are women being reviewed by men, yes, but there are also women being reviewed by women. My initial instinct was correct. My results highlight an interesting development here given the context of Girls as Omni-Readers, as Jodie wrote last year during an unrelated debate in the YA community, where she said,

'Omni-reader' is a term Maureen Johnson used on her Twitter feed two weeks ago. She used this word as a way of describing beliefs that girls are readers who will read about anything regardless of whether the subject matter looks traditionally masculine, or traditionally feminine. Articles like this one by Sarah Pekkanen of The Washington Post agree that girls tend to accept a broad range of books and will read a book featuring a boy on the cover [...]

If you look at the same graph, reorganized to take into account the blogger's gender (as expressed in profiles, about pages, etc.):

Here we have the data reorganized by gender of the reviewer, female, to mixed gender, to male, to the one unknown. And thus, the feeling I had turned out not to be so wrong after all: the 40/60 is an average, and that average is the way it is because the women reviewing women drive it up.

The breakdown comes out to:

  • Group blogs: 25% women

  • Female bloggers: 58% women

  • Male bloggers: 19% women

(The blogger with the unknown gender is not included in this graph.)

So no, I wasn't wrong last year to go, "hey, wait a minute..." and feel like things were unequal. If you're following popular SF/F blogs run by men I believe this is a problem you will continuously run into, except by those focused on their review diversity. Reviews of books by women don't feature as often on blogs run by men or shared by men, but on blogs run by women, it's more equal and sometimes even women as majority because culturally women are trained to read "traditionally" male things, while the reverse is not true.

Recently I linked to a post by [personal profile] coffeeandink where she examined a panel of authors talking about SF/F titled The erasure of women writers in sf & fantasy. I quoted that post then and said I would come back to quote it again because it's so insightful and says everything I wasn't educated enough to know or speak about:

I am not suggesting that the participants are consciously sexist or intend to suppress or erase the existence of women writers. I am saying that this conversation follows a typical social pattern in which (a) men talk more than women in mixed company; (b) men promote male writers significantly more than they promote women writers; (c) the criteria which determine value or worth inherently favor men's contributions over women's, which are deemed trivial or inapplicable; (d) women's contributions to the critical or cultural canon are systematically devalued, forgotten, or erased.

Are there answers in these numbers? I'm only finding more questions. There are no good, easy answers. Of course, some like to pretend there are easy answers and that's where I've watched this debate fall apart in the past whenever it's cropped up. It goes to Disasterland immediately and becomes a shame spiral. Someone inevitably shows up and starts talking about why quotas are bad and no, no, how dare you call them sexist and a game of Defensive Assholes is launched. The entire situation devolves into Don't Read the Comments™ and it's Gender Catastrophe Theater and general badness, which accomplishes less than nothing, because if we go back to the beginning, no one called anyone any names at all. I want to avoid that as much as possible. Reading diversity is a complicated subject and book selection often a process that we're not conscious of. We're impacted on all sides by a myriad of things influencing our decisions. But reviewing and talking about titles on public blogs and journals is an active decision that we're making every time we put a book down and go, "I'm going to write 1000 words about that and share it with the Internet!"

As friends finalized this data for me, made the graphs you see above and I started thinking about what to say about them, VIDA released The 2011 Count. It's not specific to SF/F like my project and and it's professionally focused, but I think it's fascinating to look and see the same trends in an unrelated sphere repeated in this one.

What are we saying to those who trust our reading choices? What are we saying to the publishers who send us materials to review about the books that deserve that kind of virtual hand-selling? Does it impact what they think is relevant and sellable? What does it mean when we review that book by a man, and that one, and that other one and pass over the women writing the same kind of story? There's worth in examining the reviewing choices we're making. There's worth in thinking about what messages we're sending when our promotional energies favor the dominant gender without letting ourselves get mired in arguments grounded in gender essentialism.

Diverse voices in literature we celebrate is incredibly important. I encourage everyone to look at their SF/F review statistics. It's not an easy task if the results are uneven, but it's a worthwhile one.

— Renay

Credit: Ira and Susan for advice, Lex for beta help (congrats on finding a typo in the 200th edit), Ana and Jodie for their support and suggestions, handholding, long chats about all the feelings this project caused and beta help, Ana from The Book Smugglers for blog suggestions, feedback and beta help, KJ for graphing the data and being a sounding-board, and Philip for derail critique, enabling and supporting from backstage with the promotion hat. Thank you all for your assistance, I will never ask you to do this again...probably. ;)

Further reading:
Sidetracks - Science Fiction Edition!
Summary of comments for SF Signal's Russ Pledge post
Everyone Can Promote Equality In Genre Writing
How to Suppress Women's Writing

eta - 3/9/12 3:15P.M.: Going forward, to leave anonymous comments on this post you must sign your comment with the name you use online or a name created specifically for commenting across this post. Any non-signed comments will be screened upon discovery. We will not engage with unsigned anonymous comments.

Re: So, I review plenty of Urban Fantasy

Date: 2012-03-09 03:47 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
Oh, I'm all for speculating as long as we remain clear we're just doing that and theorizing.

My argument is that the biggest, if not simply a big factor in what is deciding what genders are being reviewed has more to do with the subgenre which the blogger focuses on. Sadly, the other side of the coin is that I haven't seen many male bloggers give UF much attention, which is why I try to focus on it as much as I can.

But the point still remains, that if females bloggers studied here are also reviewing the female dominated subgenres, then it skews the results. And I think it's a factor that matters, particularly if there's interest in figuring out the why X female writers are not being as reviewed as the male counterparts in other subgenres/genres (Epic fantasy, sci-fi, and the likes).

It might suggest that the biggest problem might lie elsewhere than the gender of the reviewers, but in what is being published for whatever reason that may be.

So yes, it's a distinction I'd like to look into if I get the time. Are the female bloggers that scored high in female author reviews did so because they did a lot of YA/UF/PNR reviews? And if the review ratio is consistent in their epic fantasy and sci-fi and how it compares then to male bloggers who focus solely in this area, and then to female bloggers who don't review those?

I think that's part of what Neth above is going about, when comparing apples to apples, and control variables.

Would you say that bloggers that review UF/PNR get more books sent to them by female authors than bloggers that don't? How does that affect the ratio of what is being reviewed regardless of gender of the reviewer?

As for the "tastes" aspect, I really don't look into what gender the author is when I pick the book. Coincidentally, the two books I've recommended the most the past two years being top reads of mine are female authors outside UF, Leona Wisoker and Kameron Hurley. I wasn't pointing out that there's a different in tastes between genders (though I think there's some), but merely books that I have picked up, be it by abundance and chance, have majorly been male authors when outside of UF.

Then we go to the time aspect. Time is limited and the amount of books one can read in a year is limited. UF and the likes are easy fast reads, so that also increases female author reviews when a blog focuses on it. So that's another factor to consider.

I think this are all good questions that might bring up a different context that is already illustrated here.

That said, the idea that male bloggers should review more female writers is a valid one, but I think the why this is, particularly if it's not true in other subgenres, it's important.


Re: So, I review plenty of Urban Fantasy

Date: 2012-03-09 04:39 pm (UTC)
bookgazing: (Default)
From: [personal profile] bookgazing
A quick point:

'But the point still remains, that if females bloggers studied here are also reviewing the female dominated subgenres, then it skews the results.'

Perhaps I'm misunderstanding your point, but it seems to me that in reality no one is stopping men from reviewing the subgenres that are full of female authors. They get free choice to pick which subgenres of SF/F they want to review and which age ranges. This project is not making a claim that women review more of a specific type of SF/F written by women, just that out of all the magnificence of the genre that's on display, female bloggers review more work by female authors than the male bloggers do.

No one has made any claims for the concious, or unconcious motivations of the bloggers. There is limited analysis of the why and wherefores these stats may have come out like this, because well, (correct me if I'm off Renay, I totally could be misreading you) it was a concern that type of post would potentially lead to a lot of speculation. I would probably say it was a concern that the purpose of this project (showing the inequality, which is very real no matter why it exists and is the thing that affects female authors very obviously) would be obscured by people guessing about reasons why the stats look as they do, without much proof (which can lead to problematic attempts to find non-sexist justifications for the results, or shift 'blame', not that I'm saying this is what you're doing here).

I totally agree that it's necessary to explore the stats (it would be really great if people would run their own projects and gather their own data, once they've thought of a hypothesis, to avoid guessing). And you find these questions interesting, so of course you're going to pose them (and hopefully look into the realities of the areas you've shown an interest in). However, I wonder if these questions would be best further addressed in a seperate space to avoid dominating the primary conversation here, now that you've stated your questions?

Re: So, I review plenty of Urban Fantasy

Date: 2012-03-09 06:28 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
All I'm trying to do is go a step beyond what was found here, not disputing the findings here. And I think it's all right to speculate and find theories of why the results were what they were, else I think the research being done here might end up being pointless to some extent.

Does the study suggest that male reviewers prefer to read male authors, and by the degree being shown here? Or if we look deeper might be a study that suggests merely a preference in subgenre and what is found in that particular subgenre?

Then I ask myself, as a blog with male reviewers who focuses on UF, why is it that our reviews are 65% female authors, which is vastly different to those of my male counterparts? Then I look at a blog like All Things Urban Fantasy and Janicu's Book Blog (studied here), and see how lopsided their review pattern is from female to male authors, and I think there's a strong suggestion that the disparity in gender reviews has a lot to do with the subgenre they're focusing on.

Then a step further, how does blog focus affect what books publishers are sent to said reviewers. And if a subgenre is dominated for reviews for a particular gender, what does that say about what is being published and its audience?

I don't know, but I find these questions entertaining and interesting to a complex issue which many seem to want to simplify.

And lastly, there are two sides to the coin.


Re: So, I review plenty of Urban Fantasy

Date: 2012-03-10 04:22 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
I have to agree with Bastard on this. It's entertaining, but I don't know that this random sampling of blogs will give us much more than rampant speculation. I'm a feminist and so is my wife, so I'm all about women's rights and equal representation, but on my review blog I've read 28 books by men this year and 3 books by women, and one of those was reviewed by a co-blogger of mine. I think it has more to do with what I read and who I relate to. There's nothing wrong with men relating more closely to protagonist male characters (which in turn are more likely to be written by male authors). This whole article was a very interesting read, and thanks for taking the time to put it together. :)

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