Gender and the writing of sff for the young continued

Last Sunday, I talked about the way in which women writers dominate fantasy and science fiction for children and young adults, and I indulged in some speculation about why this might be the case. The discussion that ensued (thank you all who commented!) has in turn led me to this post. I originally left it as a comment myself, but didn't want it to be buried there. I'm very curious to know what other people think (I'm know how I feel, but I'm not entirely sure what I think).

It's a great time for girls in fantasy, both as readers and fictional characters, and, for women, as writers. I myself couldn't be happier as a reader. But I can't celebrate this wholeheartedly, because I'm bothered by thought that great women writers might be being dissuaded (actively by others, or unconsciously, by subtle societal expectations and assumptions) from writing adult sff, leaving that a male-dominated field.

At Laini Taylor's blog, Grow Wings, where she was sharing the news of her upcoming YA fantasy (which sounds wonderful!) I was struck by this quote from the Publishers Weekly's announcement "[Little Brown Books for Young Readers] is promising a significant marketing push for the title, which it believes will have crossover appeal to adults." If she were a guy, would her book have been marketed straight to grown-ups?

Aside from redressing gender imbalances in adult sff on behalf of women everywhere, is there any reason to want to be shelved in the adult section??? The book would be more likely to win the Hugo or Nebula, and more likely to be read by men. But are there other advantages to the author? Do books by women in fact find a larger readership of both genders when they are marketed as adult books? And these questions add up to the big question I'm asking myself, and anyone else who cares to answer--does it matter if great women authors of sff are being published as YA and not as adult? Will the great books have staying power, no matter where they are shelved?

I have a second, subsidiary question--If a woman starts writing children's and YA sff, and develops a significant reputation in that sub-genre, is it hard, if not impossible, to be published as adult later on? Harder than for a man in the same circumstances? (Eoin Colfer seems to be doing it without a problem).

Edited to add:

And here are the finalists of this year's John W. Campbell Award (a very prestigious award, chosen by committee, honoring "the best science-fiction novel of the year"):
  • The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood (Talese)
  • The Windup Girl, Paolo Bacigalupi (Night Shade)
  • Transition, Iain M. Banks (Orbit)
  • Makers, Cory Doctorow (Tor)
  • Steal Across the Sky, Nancy Kress (Tor)
  • Gardens of the Sun, Paul McAuley (Pyr)
  • The City & The City, China MiĆ©ville (Del Rey)
  • Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (Gollancz)
  • Galileo’s Dream, Kim Stanley Robinson (Ballantine Spectra)
  • WWW: Wake, Robert J. Sawyer (Ace; Gollancz)
  • The Caryatids, Bruce Sterling (Del Rey)
  • Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, Robert Charles Wilson (Tor)
There a two women on this list, and one of them (Atwood) denies writing science fiction...

(thanks to Science Fiction Awards Watch for the heads up)


  1. Not such a great time to be a woman writer (too much competition!).

    I would doubt that women are being "pushed" into marketing their work as YA. I could be wrong, but I would think this has more to do with the increasingly blurry line between YA and adult. Many adults read YA now. Maybe more women than men read YA, maybe more women writers self-identify as YA and therefore target agents and editors and who publish YA, whereas men don't. I don't know. Adult SF/F is male-dominated historically, but there are more and more women writing in that genre now.

    Shannon Hale has crossed over into adult (admittedly women's) fiction without any trouble.

    I'm not really trying to be argumentative -- it's an interesting question. But there are a lot of factors at work -- so many things about publishing are in flux right now, it would be hard to pin down a trend and blame it on one possible scenario. Where things should go in the bookstore is a huge confusing mess.

  2. It seems to me that there are several elephants in the room that nobody is noticing, namely the prescriptive power of publishers' genres and bookstore shelving norms, and the power of the dollar (hence the ubiquitous and absurd trend towards trilogy franchises).

    I doubt that Ursula LeGuin or Alan Garner ever gave a fig about where their books would end up in the bookstore. Now it seems that those considerations prefigure the writing.

  3. The gender data of adult sci fi/fantasy is indeed a gap in my speculations....

    And I appreciate your thoughts, mb! I don't think one can pin it down to any one Reason either, but having seen the trend, I've found it interesting to muse about it...

    Patrick--it is true Le Guin once said "I write science fiction because that is what my publishers call my books. Left to myself, I should call them novels" (Language 16). And it is true that you can't simply ignore the effects that business exigeness have on how books are labeled.

    But you seem to be implying (or perhaps implying that I am implying) that writers set out deliberatly to write what they think will sell best. Which I don't think is true, at least for the writers of the books I enjoy. I think most of them (wave to any authors reading this) are passionatly writing the stories they want to write, and keeping their fingers crossed about sales...

  4. Charlotte, I think you're right that authors are passionate about what they write and that many middle grade and YA authors aren't interested in writing adult books. I'm not sure if they'd have a problem if they did. I don't have any experience in that.

    But mb is right that the line between YA and adult is blurring a bit. Also because the adult market is softer than the YA and middle grade market, which is pretty strong, I think some adult authors are trying their hand in the children's market. James Patterson is an example, though of course all his books do well. Also Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom for Sale about adult characters started out as an adult book but is now in the YA section of our library. Actually that happened before the market changes. But I've read about adult authors moving into YA. I just can't think of specific examples.

    Writing adult fantasy is different from writing for YA or middle grade. For one thing, there are often more plot lines and points of view. One reason I don't read it is because so often the books are so long--800 to 1000 pages. They are good stories but there are so many books I want to read. Perhaps writers in the kidlit field don't want to tackle such huge projects. Or they have plenty of ideas for YA books. Some authors like Carrie Ryan and Maria Snyder have published lots of YA books and keep on writing them.

    Still the bookstores and libraries are full of adult fantasy and sci-fi, so publishers are buying them and readers are reading them. I'm not sure how many are written by men vs. women because I don't read them too much.

    This is an interesting discussion. Thanks for keeping it going.

  5. Regarding this: "Will the great books have staying power, no matter where they are shelved?"

    I think the answer is yes. Actually, I think that in many cases the books we read and love as kids/teens have some of the best staying power-- whether they are YA/MG or adult-- because they stick with us.

    Also interesting to note that at least three of the guys on the Campbell list have YA/MG sff out now (Bacigalupi, Doctorow and Mieville).

    As a writer, I have considered writing more adult sff. I have an incomplete (trunked) very early and very different version of my circus in space book that I originally wrote as adult sf. And I did deliberately recast it as YA when I came back to the idea a few years later and rewrote it. I did that for several reasons: I had new ideas that seemed more YA, the YA market seemed better, and I felt like there was a lack of YA sf (especially space-going YA sf). I definitely didn't feel like I couldn't or shouldn't pursue writing adult SF. My sf writing heros were people like Lois McMaster Bujold and Diane Duane (for both her adult Star Trek novels and her Young Wizards series) and Connie Willis.

    This continues to be a fascinating topic! Thanks for keeping the conversation going, Charlotte!

    Oh, and one other datapoint: Nnedi Okorafor, who first wrote YA/MG sf (The Shadow Speaker, Zarah the Wind-Seeker) has a new adult sf book out this month that is getting a lot of critical acclaim. So there is crossover in that direction too.

  6. Well spotted, Deva, on the adult/ya crossover. I think, actually, that as more big name men, like these guys, and Scalzi and Gaiman, publish in both parts of the bookstore, the barrier will, as mb was discussing, will become even more blurry...I hope, as this this happens, the adult readers will begin taking it for granted that they should look for great books in YA, and the slighting remarks/outright prejudice will fade into a distant memory.

    But I don't think the split is going to go away altogether, and I hope we see more women on the major adult award lists too.

    And thanks so much for sharing your own story, Deva! I'm looking forward to your new book!

  7. This isn't really the point, but I hate it that Margaret Atwood won't cop to writing science fiction. It always seems insulting to the genre, and anyway, some of her books do count as speculative fiction.


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