Friday, June 17, 2011

Does The “Science Fiction Romance” Label Marginalize Female Authors?

At SF Signal, Judith Tarr is guest blogging about Girl Cooties: A Personal History. Her post continues the ongoing conversation happening about the invisibility of female authors in SF. More specifically, her post is a response to the recent “Mind Meld on the Russ Pledge.”

The author provides us with an eye-opening look into her “publishing history, in chronological order, in verbatim or paraphrased comments from agents, editors, publishers, and reviewers…”

To get the full flavor, you really ought to read her entire post, but here’s a sample:

And I start seeing a rash of, "Boys write hard sf. Girls write squishy fantasy." The concepts have been around for decades, of course, but remember, this is a personal history. There are rumbles. There are pushbacks. Articles are written, convention panels are hotly debated, there is even an ad-hoc, mostly comically inspired group called the FFW's--the Female Fantasy Writers, with pink buttons to be worn with pride at conventions. The Eighties ended in a draw. Fantasy was a hot property. Lots of bestsellers. Lots of whom were male. Most of whom, actually, were male.

This conversation about the invisibility and marginalization of female SF authors has relevance for science fiction romance, which I recently blogged about. However, a comment by author KS Augustin prompted me to reflect further:

As for the stuff I usually write, there is no way it can easily be categorised as fantasy, so its tag is "SF romance" but stuff that! I'm calling it "space opera". I made the same observation in a recent interview. "Why is it that the men write space opera but the women write SF romance?" Simple. It's because we can't dismiss it by calling it "fantasy", so we dismiss it by calling it "SF romance". That way, it's nice and compartmentalised in the "romance" basket and...pffffft!...what Real Man(tm) reads romance, right?

First of all, let me just say that the idea of mislabeling a story for marketing purposes happens all over the place and drives me nuts regardless of where I encounter it. It perpetuates a marginalization of settings, plots, and characters as well as the authors who write them (especially if they are anything other than a white male). In other words, it sends the very insidious messages that a) certain stories/settings/characters aren’t valid or worth reading and b) readers are stupid and we can’t be trusted to broaden our horizons.

I’ve been advocating all along for diversity in science fiction romance, but does the label itself inadvertently marginalize female authors who write blends of SF and romance?

“Science fiction romance” is a reader and author-driven label. I’m not aware of a single publisher that releases these types of stories under that label. Tags, yes, but as far as I’m aware it’s not used as a marketing label in the way “paranormal romance” is.

If I feel a story is a science fiction romance, I use that label regardless of whether the author is male or female. Even if a publisher labels a story “space opera,” I will add my own tag/label if the story contains an SF-romance mix. For example, if a publisher labels an SFR that *clearly* involves a space opera setting as a paranormal romance, and there are no traditional paranormal elements present, then I will tag the book as SFR for other readers.

It’s like a double-think of sorts—I hold both the publisher label and my own SFR one in my head, and I’m clear on the difference between the two. I use the SFR label to describe stories that speak to me regarding the SF and romance blend. Other readers/authors may have an entirely different take on the blend, and justifiably so. Each of us experiences a book in our own unique way.

That said, is there a difference between a marketing label used by publishers and a “code” or “tag” label used by readers to describe stories with certain elements? I thought there was—since readers don’t have anything to “sell” to other readers except their passion for a great book—but maybe I overlooked something.

Maybe it’s time for authors to establish themselves as the authorities when it comes to labeling what they write. In the age of ebooks and metadata and blogs and Twitter, why should publishers have the last word regarding genre label? We already know their labels can’t be entirely trusted, and until they change their tune, our only source of accurate information about the story in question is you, the author.

Authors, if you have a preferred label for your stories, then let readers know. Maybe you and your publisher are in agreement, and that's great. But if not, help us put a stop to marginalization by telling us right now.

Joyfully yours,