This article was published in January 2010.
The end of the year means one thing for magazines: lists. Lists of bests. Lists of worsts. Lists of tops. Lists of bottoms. Lists of lists. Publisher’s Weekly caused an uproar when they released their list of Top 100 books for 2009. Only 29 female authors made the cut, and none of them cracked the top ten.
The Washington Post reacted with an article called “The key to literary success? Be a man — or write like one.” Salon.com responded in kind with “If you want to be a great writer, be a man.” Both articles were written by women, recalling advice from former college professors.
As I was reading both (valid) arguments that women get the shaft in publishing circles, I couldn’t help but compare the experiences of those women to the experiences of women in the fantasy genre. Sure, fantasy is full of epic male authors: Tolkien, Lewis, Jordan, Gaimen, Pratchett, Dahl. But fantasy also has its share of celebrated (and well-paid) female writers: Kurtz, Rice, Rowling, Weis, Bradley.
Is the fantasy genre simply more friendly to female writers?
I think so.
Let’s start by looking at the biggest bang (and bank account): J.K. Rowling.
By now, her personal journey is as well-known as that of of The Boy Who Lived. For example, that “K” in “J.K.” is not even her real name. When Bloomsbury bought Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, they feared that young boys wouldn’t want to read a fantasy tale by Joanne Rowling, so she adopted an androgynous “K.”
By the time Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire hit shelves, Rowling was the highest-profile author in the world, and everyone knew the “K” was for Kathleen. It didn’t matter that J.K. Rowling was a woman; what mattered was that she hurry back to her office and start writing about Hogwarts, Year Five.
Rowling also did another thing for female writers in the fantasy genre: she blurred the lines between children’s fiction and adult fiction. Women have always been trusted with cooking, cleaning and kids; so, the children’s publishing industry has historically been more accessible to females. During Harry Potter’s off-years, many adults went digging around in the children’s sections at their local bookstores, looking for an equally entrancing fantasy fix. And publishers paid attention.
But Rowling wasn’t the first woman to enjoy monetary success and critical praise for her fantasy writing. Before her, there were vampires — and three women who, er, brought them to life.
Marilyn Ross‘ Barnabas Collins series, Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro’s Saint-German series changed the vampire genre. Under their pens, vampires became brooding, tragic, poetic heroes. And unlike the implicit sexual themes in vampire stories before theirs, Ross, Rice and Yarbro made it overt.
What they did for vampires, Marion Zimmer Bradley did for Arthurian Legend. Her Avalon series boldly turned Camelot on its head and examined it from the perspective of female narrators.
And what Bradley did for Arthurian Legend, Katherine Kurtz did for Medieval fantasy lit. And what Kurtz did for Medieval fantasy lit, Tanith Lee did for sorcery.
I think fantasy is more receptive to women writers because it has a long, proud history of financially successful female authors in nearly every subset of the genre. While most writers will tell you they want to bring fresh, engaging concepts to print, they will also tell you that it is much easier to get published if there’s a record of success with what you’re writing. To that end, it would be disingenuous to tell a female fantasy author that men won’t read her books simply because she is a woman.
Of course, financial success and excitement from publishers isn’t synonymous with critical acclaim. Even with the accomplishments of the women I mentioned — and the dozens I didn’t — last year’s Hugo Awards were awfully slim on female nominees. [Editor’s Note: This year was better.) But I’m still not going to cry sexism.
If you want to be a great fantasy writer, they key isn’t writing like a man; the key is writing rich, textured, deeply-imagined stories. As women continue to do just that, it will only be a matter of time before full parity comes to the genre.
Or you could take a shot at writing your main characters sparkly genitalia.
Stephanie Meyer isn’t exactly celebrated, but she certainly hasn’t gone broke writing about vampires.