Women In Speculative Fiction...or the Lack Thereof

Let's play a game.  take the nickname that your mom called you when you were two.  Add to that your favorite band when you were fifteen.  Then, for added measure, add to that the precious stone connected to your birth month.  Add all of those together and that is now your pen name.  For men, this is absolutely ridiculous.  Sadly, for women, your odds of submitting a manuscript under a made up name like mine (Sunshine Police Amethyst) up the chances of getting published.  Why?  That pen name, while absurd, is gender neutral.  If a woman conceals that she is a woman by changing her name or writing under a pen name, her chances are far greater of publication.

In June of 2015, the Guardian newspaper published a series of articles regarding the Crisis in American Literature.  They reported that The Bailey, the literary award prize for women, was created in the last twenty years in response to the male dominated Booker prize.  Judges argued that there was no malice or intent on excluding women.  They only read manuscripts that publishers submitted to the contest that year.  The most the Booker prize ever received in one year was 40% of the total submissions by women.  If women were not being published out in the world, their lack of representation would drastically effect their chances of finishing strong in the Booker competition.

I had a similar experience.  Before submitting my first novel, I had been writing short and flash fiction stories for a web based magazine.  I used my real name and the publisher, a woman, promoted my work.  Conversely, when I began to submit to print publishers, I received the same standard letter over and over again.  "Dear Ms. Roger, we feel as though your work is good but will not meet the current demands of our core readership."

Core readership? At the time, I didn't understand what that meant.  Later, I learned that marketing and research had suggested that men made up the largest percent of readers of science fiction, fantasy and horror.  It was suggested that men required strong male lead characters, something that publishers felt women writers were not capable of writing as well as male authors.

In an act of desperation, I heard there was a publisher known for being cantankerous with new writers who published out of Boston.  His press was small but had a well known following  I decided to try that route.  I sent him my manuscript and a few weeks later I received a phone call.  It was the editor and owner.  The conversation went something like this:

"You're a new author and I want to explain some things to you.  This and this and this are wrong with your manuscript.  Frankly, I don't think that your story will sell because it it require too much thinking.  That's not what horror readers want.  If I publish you, the royalties will not be enough to take your family to McDonalds once for lunch."

I sat there dumbfounded.  "Uh, thank you for calling?"  In my head, I was thinking of the dreams he was crushing, blow by blow.  Why the hell didn't he just send me a letter.  This was a special kind of torture.

He continued, "That said, I want to offer you a contract."

Me.  "What? Why?"

"My wife likes it.  She reads a lot of the authors I publisher and said she likes your story.  That doesn't happen too often."

I remembered all the information that I had read about pen names.  Now, I had a contract, should I change it?  After all, it was only my name.  Steven King wrote under the pen name of Richard Bachman in his early work.  Louisa May Alcott wrote under the name of A. M. Barnard to get her foot in the literary door.  Charlotte Bronte wrote under the name Currer Bell in order to get Jayne Eyre published.

Yet, I heard myself reply no.  My name was my name.  I signed the contract with it in tact.  I continue to work with the same publisher who I find tough but helpful.  I am a better writer under his tutelage.  My books are selling slowly but surely.

Are more women reading horror?  Maybe.  What I hope is rather, more people, readers are giving the story the attention and looking less at the name or gender of the story teller.