Helix SF Magazine Publishes All Female-Authored Issue. Verdict: Cookie Allotted.

The science fiction magazine Helix SF, which describes itself as publishing “controversial” stories, has posted an issue featuring all women writers.

It features fiction by authors such as Esther Freisner, Eugie Foster, Yoon Ha Lee, and Samantha Henderson. There’s also a nice selection of poetry by authors including Jane Yolen and Joselle Vanderhooft.

William Sanders is well-known for stirring up controversy, and participating in flame wars, on the Science Fiction Writers of America site. I’m not totally sure of his politics, but I believe he’s positioned as a right-libertarian. He’s certainly a colorful figure in the SF world.***

Sanders wrote an editorial about his decision to make this an all-women authored issue. I appreciated this bit: “Certainly it’s not intended to prove that women can write SF, or that they can write it well. That’s something that doesn’t need proving; it’s been proved over and over again — anybody who needs further proof by now is beyond hope.”

I was also interested in his discussion of the motives: “The truth is that all of the stories you see in this issue had already been accepted before I decided to do this. In fact that’s where the idea originated: I was looking over the stories I had in stock, choosing which ones I wanted to use for the next issue, and I noticed that I had quite a lot of excellent stories by women — and had in fact already picked several of them — and suddenly the light bulb went on and I said to myself, “Self, you ugly old son of a bitch,” (myself understanding this to be in the spirit of good-natured bandinage)**, “why not an all-women issue?”

And indeed, why not?

He adds, “But you know, in a way it’s a pity that this should even be worth talking about. Really, if things were as they should be, nobody should think it surprising or remarkable that an SF magazine should publish an all-women’s issue — any more than if, say, all the contributors were from Illinois, or all their last names began with R, or they all had red hair…Or if they were all straight white guys. That happens all the time, and nobody seems to find it strange.”

When I first read that last line, I was cheering it, but then I realized that its meaning is ambiguous. It could mean that the editor acknowledges that straight white men are the default state, and that no one finds it odd when issues are all straight white men because the assumption (pre-feminism and anti-racism) is that everything everywhere will be all straight white men. He could be referring to the phenomenon whereby a group of people that is less than half women will be perceived as “all women.” He could be referring to the recent study about conversation in which it’s demonstrated that if women and men are forced to speak for equal lengths of time, both parties perceive the women as completely dominating the conversation.

However, it’s also possible to read the statement another way: which is that no one pays attention to straight white male authored issues because feminists and anti-racists want special rights, and whites and men have “no one” arguing for their interests.

The more I think about this comment, though, I have trouble sustaining my second reading. In order for the second reading to work out, Sanders would have to believe that there are as many all-women tables of contents as there are tables of contents filled with authors who are straight, white, and male. But that doesn’t seem to be the case, since he acknowledges that an all-female TOC is still worthy of comment, while TOCs of only straight white men happen all the time.

However, an editorial by Helix guest editor Melanie Fletcher reveals an unambiguous example of the condescending attitude I’d feared: “it’s not a big deal that the Summer ’07 issue of Helix is pretty much all female — like the almost all male Hugo ballot this year, it just shook out that way. And yet there was much hue and cry across the land about the 2007 Hugo nominees’ preponderance of testosterone, so we’re probably going to catch some shit about the clouds of estrogen wafting about this issue. Frankly, both complaints strike me as pretty damn stupid because it shouldn’t matter what flavor of gonads a writer is packing; what does matter is whether or not they can tell a cracking good story.”

Fletcher appears not to understand what is meant by systemic sexism or unconscious bias, from the way that she mischaracterizes the feminist critique of Hugo awards. She appears to be offering this issue as an example of how sometimes things “shake out” to female benefit — but she’s countered by the very fact that there was a conscious effort to put together an all-female table of contents. There was no conscious effort to skew the Hugos. Unconscious gender bias did that all on its own, as it does monthly in the table of contents for magazines like Harper’s.

I am inclined to give Sanders the benefit of the doubt and say his heart was in the right place when he orchestrated it. It’s harder to believe him when he says this isn’t a publicity stunt since he complained about the lack of attention he received for doing it. But I’m inclined to forgive publicity stunts; he’s trying to grow the audience for a small magazine.*

However, the editorial by Fletcher makes it clear why an effort like this isn’t usually greeted with open arms. It’s hard to tell what kinds of concealed motives people have for these kinds of actions. In this case, Fletcher seems to have been trying to hide a GOTCHA under her coat, even if it was a particularly ineffective one.

While I remain cagey, I’m going to go ahead and say this: Good on you, Sanders. Cookie allotted.

But you know what’s better on Sanders than an all-women issue? The fact that (if we are to go by the statistics listed in his editorial) of the 28 stories he published in his first year, 13 were by women. Sanders, and editors like him who publish an equal or near-equal gender ratio, are definitely part of the solution.

There’s one more net result that’s unambiguously positive: seven female short story writers, and six female poets, have sold their work. They will be paid and their work will be read. I urge people to read this issue, and throw in a couple of bucks to the authors if they think the stories are worthy.

UPDATE: Sanders points out that there are a lot of people of color who have written stories for this issue, also, such as Eugie Foster and Yoon Ha Lee. The name that jumps out at me is N. K. Jemison who I was fortunate enough to see speak last year at Wiscon. She’s brilliant. You can find her at her personal blog, but she’s also got the keys to Angry Black Woman’s place, where she’s recently written aa guest post or two. There may be other writers of color on the TOC besides these talented three, but those are the only three I know of for sure.

*And hey, complaining worked. I wouldn’t have written about this if he hadn’t complained. Of course, the fact that my health issues have been mostly cleared up! meant that I now have time and attention to write, which I didn’t have when the issue initially came out. (I did consider writing about it then.)

**Sanders also gets a musical-theater-related cookie for quoting Ruddigore.

***Sanders has written to let me know this wasn’t an accurate statement. Sorry!

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22 Responses to Helix SF Magazine Publishes All Female-Authored Issue. Verdict: Cookie Allotted.

  1. 1
    Myca says:

    Of course, the fact that my health issues have been mostly cleared up!

    Lest this receive less attention than it deserves:

    FUCK YEAH! That’s wonderful! Yay you! That makes me so happy!

    Re: Female Authored Sci-Fi – Every year I buy the The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror, (which for years was) edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, and I’ve found it to be almost universally excellent. I ought to pull out a few of the copies and try to figure out approximately the male/female mix as compared to other yearly anthologies that do not have female editors.

    —Myca

  2. 2
    Holly says:

    The tone I detect in both of those quotes is a defensive one, probably directed at the contingent of sci-fi fans who detests anything “political” when it interferes with getting more of what they want (the authors they like, the kinds of stories they like, appreciation of what they like unadulterated by political critique). There are an awful lot of nerds and geeks in this country who are almost devoutly apolitical, or somewhat libertarian because it strikes them as the least political philosophy, somehow. Worse still are the women, people of color, etc. who feel like they have to steadfastly disavow any connection or leanings that they might feel based on, you know, being a woman and having to deal with sexism, etc, in order to make it clear that their true first allegiance is science-fiction. Although I don’t know how true this is of Melanie Fletcher, the quotes you provide certainly fit the pattern.

  3. 3
    Mandolin says:

    Myca,

    Ellen Datlow, Terri Windling, and Kelly Link (with a side of Gavin Grant) always edit excellent, excellent work in my opinion. Reading something with their names on it is a treat.

    I don’t remember how they compare to other reprint anthologies in terms of gender numbers. I do know that while awards given have reached almost parity in some fields, reprints have lagged behind, and tend to favor a disproportionate number of men.

    Holly,

    I completely agree.

    There’s also a lack of acknowledgement that “good” is a relative, culturally determined term — not to mention of course that it will vary from editor to editor. So if an editor has a subconscious bias against feminine stories, then that will factor into hir decisions about what “the best” stories are. There is no objective “best.”

    I think that many women and people of color writers have bought into the libertarian/conservative idea that being the recipient of affirmative-action type things mean that one’s work is inferior and weak and needs an extra boost based on our sex or color or sexuality. There’s no acknowledgement that the straight white dudes already have a boost for being straight and white and male.

  4. 4
    William Sanders says:

    Thank you very much for your kind and supportive remarks!

    Just one point, though – where on Earth did you get the idea I am a “right-wing libertarian”? I am most assuredly not a right-wing anything, or a libertarian either, and I can’t think how anyone could get that impression. Maybe because I own guns? In this part of the country a lot of good staunch Democrats do.

    (I don’t consider myself as following any particular political orientation; if I had to write something down I’d probably say “outlaw” – I agree with Ernest Hemingway that the writer’s hand should be against the government, no matter what sort, because its hand will be against him if he tries to tell the truth. But my views probably would be considered on the left more often than not.)

    Never mind; this isn’t about me. What’s important is what you said about the magazine. There’s always a plentiful supply of people ready to complain about a given situation, but too many of them can’t be bothered to support the people who are trying to do something positive about it. Thank you again and best wishes from all of us at Helix.

    William Sanders
    Senior Editor
    Helix
    http://www.helixsf.com

  5. 5
    RonF says:

    There was no conscious effort to skew the Hugos. Unconscious gender bias did that all on its own,

    I used to read a lot of science fiction. I still pick up Analog and F&SF on the rare occasion that I’m in a bookstore that carries them (the combination being the rare state). I’m not up to speed on what authors one can depend on to tell a good science fiction story these days, as opposed to hack SF. And I’m not much of a big fan of fantasy overall. Any recommendations? I tend more towards the “hard” science fiction, but not exclusively so.

    With regards to the above quote; already having stipulated my lack of awareness of the current state of the field, is there no room to think that the best stories happened to be written by males last year? Where do you think the problem is?

  6. 6
    RonF says:

    William, I have more than one friend who refer to themselves as “2nd Amendment Democrats”. And that’s in northeastern Illinois, too.

  7. 7
    Myca says:

    I still pick up Analog and F&SF on the rare occasion that I’m in a bookstore that carries them

    Sweet god, F&SF is good.

    I’m a lucky bastard, because the folks who live across the street from my mom have a subscription, and once a year they sell all of their back issues for a nickel apiece, so I’ve got something like 8 years complete or something ridiculous.

    —Myca

  8. 8
    SarahO says:

    Well!

    As a female who very much likes to write and read science fiction from a wide-variety of authors, I was very much heartened by this recent Helix issue and Mr. Sanders’ remarks as well. And I guess I got the impression that, not only was he making a right decision, he was doing it for the right reasons.

    “Really, if things were as they should be, nobody should think it surprising or remarkable that an SF magazine should publish an all-women’s issue — any more than if, say, all the contributors… were all straight white guys. That happens all the time, and nobody seems to find it strange.” (+emphasis)

    This quote seems to me to show that Mr. Sanders recognizes that there are two different scenarios, “things as they are” and “things as they should be;” and that, in the latter one, an issue of all straight white guys truly would be unremarkable, because it really, truly (in anti-racist feminist etc. utopia) would be a genuine statistical fluke. But we don’t live in that utopia – we live in a place where an all-women’s issue raises eyebrows, and an all-straight white male, till very recently, was pretty much the everyday norm.

    That’s how I read it anyway. And now I look forward to going out and getting my hands on that issue of Helix. :0)

  9. As a matter of fact, I do understand what is meant by systemic sexism and unconscious bias. I also think that it’s moderately OTT to attack this year’s Hugo slate as anti-feminist. If next year’s Hugo slate is also 99% male, then yes, we have a problem — until then, I’m willing to consider that this year it just happened to “shake out” in the favor of testes-bearing writers.

    Melanie Fletcher
    Guest Editor and Webmistress
    Helix
    http://www.helixsf.com

  10. 10
    Mandolin says:

    Of the big three, I personally prefer Asimovs. Not that anyone should forego F&SF or Analog, but if you’ve got some spare time, I definitely recommend picking Asimovs up and giving it a go.

    Female hard SF writers off the top of my head: some of Connie Willis (Doomsday Book, Passage, many of her short stories), Nancy Kress, Joan Slonczewski, Sarah Zettel, Maureen McHugh’s _China Mountain Zhang_, Lois McMaster Bujold. James Tiptree if you like short stories. Among up and comers, Ekaterina Sedia is a biologist who has had a few stories in Analog, and I like both her and her work very much. And of course, some of Octavia Butler’s work has a root in very interesting biology.

    As to whether or not it’s possible that this year just happened to have all the best stories by men, the first thing that comes to mind is to point out that “the best” isn’t an objective term. The other thing is to say that, sure, it’s statistically possible, but since it just happens to align with the historical precedent of railroading women’s work out of the field, I’m not inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt. Plus, many of the short stories I loved best this year were by women, so I would argue that in my opinion it’s not true that all this year’s best were by men.

  11. 11
    Blue says:

    I can’t wait for the day when having a preponderance of female authors in any given issue of a magazine doesn’t create a brainstorm for a “special issue” and editors don’t feel the need to defend it in anyway.

  12. 12
    Mandolin says:

    Hi Melanie,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Obviously, I disagree with you. We’ve got the years of evidence of bias — if not specifically in the Hugos, then in many other aspects of the science fiction field in specific, and life in general. If it’s a coincidence, it’s an odd and suspicious one. Occams razor in this case suggests to me that this is just another incidence of business as usual.

    SarahO,

    That was my first and final reading, too. I just had an intermediate moment of seeing it another way.

  13. 13
    William Sanders says:

    Just as a factual point, Brenda Clough is also Chinese.

  14. 14
    Doug S. says:

    I second Nancy Kress. “Beggars in Spain” is on my all-time favorite novels list.

  15. 15
    RonF says:

    Mandolin, thanks for the recommendations. I’d forgotten about the Good Doctor’s magazine; I get to pick that one up on occasion as well. I probably should just bite the bullet and subscribe. I’ve read some Connie Willis and Lois McMaster Bujold, but the others I haven’t heard of. When I travel I like to go into the bookstore and pick up something to read on the plane and in the hotel, but I never know what authors to reach for. This should help.

    As far as bias in the field, what level of influence does the preponderance of males in science and engineering (those professions being the source of many of the field’s authors) have? How much of this is women’s writing not being accepted and how much is not as many women writing? And is there an issue with acceptance of womens’ writing by the reading public, acceptance by editors and/or publishers, or both?

  16. 16
    Mandolin says:

    Well, since there are similar issues with acceptance of women’s writing outside the genre — no, I don’t think the problem is the demographic.

    Personally, I think the bulk of the problem is on the editorial/publishing end, although people do talk about some men’s unwillingness to pick up a book with a female name on the cover.

  17. 17
    mythago says:

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say the entire problem is the demographic, but yes, there is a certain level of “girls don’t understand science”. Less than there used to be than in back in the day. (Who can forget all the prattling about how James Tiptree Jr. was obviously a man, from the style of his writing?)

  18. 18
    Mandolin says:

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say the entire problem is the demographic, but yes, there is a certain level of “girls don’t understand science”.

    Definitely, there is. When Ron asks if the problem is the demographic though, I read him as not only asking if there are prejudices against women, but also if there aren’t women around. The latter is untrue; there are lots of us vulvaed creatures XXing around the place.

    Even the first part is only part of the story, IMO, as I said earlier. Margaret Atwood writes about how when she did her MFA women writers were scoffed at because they could never have lived gritty lives, since living gritty lives required fucking women. There are some overt nastinesses in genre (for instance, the recent incident on the Asimovs message board), but the ratio of male to female names in Harper’s Magazine is appalling — worse tham any of the well-known SF mags, IIRC.

    Still, the flavor of the problem is very different between the two communities, in my experience.

  19. 19
    RonF says:

    Yes, I was asking both a) might there not be as many women writing SF due to the gender imbalance in the science and engineering fields and b) is there predjudice against those women who do write SF?

    Furthermore, should the latter case exist, how much of it comes from editors/publishers being predjudices against female-written SF and how much of it comes from publishers making the economic decision of not wanting to try to sell SF that will not be accepted by the reading public due to reader predjudice against female authors?

  20. 20
    Mandolin says:

    I don’t feel that either is acceptable.

  21. 21
    mythago says:

    Ron, your question assumes a) a science or engineering background is necessary to write SF and b) the perceived gender of an author makes such a difference to sales that a publisher must make an economic decision as to whether to publish SF written by a woman.

  22. 22
    RonF says:

    Mandolin, maybe so, but it’s hard to solve a problem if you don’t know the cause.

    Mythago,

    a) unless things have changed drastically from when I followed SF closely, the overwhelming majority of authors have some kind of science or engineering background. Whether or not that’s necessary might be worth a discussion, but I’d be surprised if what I’ve stated isn’t still a fact. I’m presuming that there’s a gender imbalance in the science and engineering fields; I’m wondering if that’s reflected in the gender balance of SF authors.

    b) That’s not my presumption; that’s my question.