The other day I came across this article, published earlier in April by The Guardian. It’s well worth a read. The central point is that for the first time women are rivaling men in science fiction and fantasy, both as writers and as fans. As Sarah Hughes puts it: “A generation of readers raised on Harry Potter has had a knock-on effect on demand for fantasy fiction, and left publishers scrambling to sign up women.”
“There’s been a real sea change in the last five or six years. Not only are more women buying into and reading fantasy but we’re also seeing more female fantasy authors get recognition,” said Julie Crisp, editorial director at Tor UK, Pan Macmillan’s science fiction, fantasy and horror imprint.
I have been reading sci-fi and fantasy books for as long as I can remember – over 20 years, and it is refreshing to see that the publishing industry is no longer afraid to publish a book in a traditionally ‘male’ genre. I wonder how many manuscripts were passed over in the last 50 years because of the belief that men wouldn’t read a sci-fi or fantasy book written by a female author. JK Rowling published the Harry Potter series using the initials ‘JK’, rather than her actual name of Joanne Rowling (no middle name) because her publisher thought that her audience would be largely male and would be put off if they knew she was a woman. (Source: interview with Oprah Winfrey). The irony is that the Harry Potter series has an almost universal appeal, and just as many (if not more) female fans, with JK Rowling herself being a vocal advocate for equal opportunities of all kinds.
And it’s not just female writers that we’re seeing more of. More and more books are featuring female characters as the lead. Again, this is all for the good – but this is where I have something to add to the Guardian article. I think that we need more than just more female authors and more female protagonists. What we need are books that have whole supporting casts that feature woman just as often as they feature men.
Take, for example, the Black Magician Series by Trudi Canavan. Now, I absolutely love these books. I think they’re brilliantly written, exciting, and they were one of the first fantasy novels I ever came across to openly discuss homosexuality in a positive way – AND the lead character is female. That said, Sonea is the only well-rounded and complete female character in the book. The supporting cast is almost entirely made up of men – and the few women who do make it into it are shells of characters, or stereotypes. It doesn’t negate the value of the book – Sonea’s story is powerful precisely because the world is against her, and that includes being an isolated woman in a male-dominated world. I’ve not read any interviews with Canavan, and don’t know if she made a conscious choice to set it up that way or if it was an unconscious development.
If I look through the books I’ve read in the last year or so, I can see the same pattern repeating itself: the Throne of Glass series by Sarah J Maas; The Emperor’s Edge series by Lindsay Buroker; the True Blood series by Charlaine Harris (the books, rather than the TV series), the Divergent series by Veronica Roth, all feature strong female lead characters, written by female authors but surrounded by a largely male supporting cast. Where there are other female characters they far too often end up as stereotypes or caricatures without a developed sense of personality.
This is by no means an exhaustive analysis – do any of you know of books that contradict this? I’d love to read them.
My point, more than anything, is that we can’t just stop at having more female writers and more female heroes – we need to have a variety of characters who are well-developed, and not automatically assumed to be male. This goes for any men writing sci-fi and fantasy too – don’t stick to writing men because that’s what you’re comfortable with. Women shouldn’t be a token presence in these books – they should be as present, varied, and diverse as they are in real life.