true story

June 17, 2011

I was at a signing last year when an older gentleman came up to my table while people were dispersing.  During the Q&A I had mentioned Lois McMaster Bujold as one of my influences — the Vorkosigan saga is my model on how to write an ongoing series, and everything I know about writing a series I learned from her books.  So this guy comes up to me and says, “You need to thank Lois, because she’s the reason I started reading your books.”

I said, “Oh?” wondering what the line of connection was between our books, because other than me learning how to write a series from them they don’t have much in common.

He said, “Yes.  I never read books by women authors, then I read one of Bujold’s by accident because I thought her name was LOUIS.  Before that, I refused to read any book by a woman.  But hers was just so good!”

I stared at him, more than a little horrified, and I put on my friendliest smile when I said, “That’s terrible.  You know that’s terrible that you wouldn’t read books by women, don’t you?”

Guy:  “Sure, I know that now.  Now I read lots of books by women!”

So, happy ending there.  First, thank you Ms. Bujold for having just ambiguous enough a name that you converted at least one person to reading books by women.

Second, this is how gender disparity happens.  This is how more male authors get reviewed than female authors, and how more men win book-related awards than women.  Read Nicola Griffith discussing it here and here.  We can argue about access and recognition, but the truth of the matter is there are people out there who flat out refuse to read writing by women, for whatever reason.  (The gentleman above couldn’t articulate why he wouldn’t read books by women.  Probably because he realized that was a really stupid stance to take.)

If you want to read more writing by women, I have some recommendations for you, in addition to Lois McMaster Bujold and Nicola Griffith:  Robin McKinley, Patricia McKillip, Kage Baker, Holly Black, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kelly Link, Sylvia Plath, Connie Willis, C.J. Cherryh, Julie Czerneda, Sarah Zettel, Patricia Briggs, Ellen Kushner, Cherie Priest, Ekaterina Sedia, Catherynne Valente, Vonda McIntyre, Nancy Kress, Angela Carter, Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Kate Chopin, Virginia Woolf, Flannery O’Connor, Christine de Pizan, Annie Lamott, Barbara Ehrenrecih, Vicki Leon…  I’m sure you can think of a few, too.

25 Responses to “true story”


  1. This is true in ANY endeavor. Any time we exclude a group of people based on any reason, we all lose.

  2. Andrew Says:

    Didn’t JK Rowling go with her initials rather than her full name for this very reason?

    Also…Margaret Weis. Her Star of the Guardians series is one of my all time favorites.

  3. Casey Says:

    Andre’ Norto: “The Stars are Ours”. An absolute GEM from my childhood at the old Jeffco library one summer many moons ago.

  4. Casey Says:

    Gotta love posting past my vamp’ hours….”Andre Norton”. gah. 🙂

  5. LupLun Says:

    It cuts two ways. Men who write romance novels often have to take female or gender-ambiguous pseudonyms because publishers don’t think their work will sell otherwise. Or so I heard, anyway…

    Kurt Vonnegut once opined that the reason most of the Great American Authors were boozers is that society considers artistic sensitivity to be an effete quality. So a man who devotes himself to writing has to counterbalance by getting plastered and beating people in a drunken rage, otherwise he’ll be suspected of being “that most detestable of all creatures, a homosexual.”

    Of course, it’s Kurt Vonnegut, so God only knows whether or not he was being serious…

    Personally, half the books I read are by women. In fact… *count count count* of the past 20 books I’ve reviewed on my blog, only 3 were published under distinctively male names. (13 are by women, 2 are short story anthologies, and 2 are by a guy writing under a gender-neutral pseudonym. With a bio that reinforces the ambiguity.)

  6. Miss Bliss Says:

    Great list! I’m happy I’ve read a lot of books by many of the women on your list and I’m even happier to find some writers I don’t know about from said list.


  7. Anne Rice, Poppy Z. Brite

    They do manage to keep a fairly large male audience as well, so some can break through the glass ceiling.

  8. Jacqie Says:

    A similar situation happened in my bookstore a while ago. Had a male customer come in who wanted a good new science fiction author, but only a male one, since he didn’t read female authors. I asked him about his favorite authors, and one of the ones he mentioned was C.J. Cherryh. I cannot possibly convey the satisfaction I felt when I told him “You know that C.J. Cherryh is female, right?”

    And then there’s the James Tiptree fracas.

  9. carriev Says:

    Reading the commentary about Tiptree when she started writing is simply amazing. All the male critics who couldn’t believe that those stories were written by a woman.

    And yes, I do wonder about how many “I’ll never read SF by a woman” men have Cherryh on their lists… or Andre Norton, for that matter.

  10. Thomas Says:

    Among others female authors I’ve read some of my favorites (besides Carrie of course) are Tamora Peirce, Diane Duane, Ann McCaffrey, Kristin Cashore, C. C. Hunter (newer but already great), Lisa Mantchev, Mickey Zucker Reichert, Namoi Novik, and Suzanne Collins. And this is probably less than half of the female authors I’ve read or have books by.

    I originally found Andre Norton from a book at Wal-Mart where I worked… really liked the cover, which stuck in my mind, and was interested in the story, but couldn’t get it at the time. I kept looking for it (based on the cover alone), and finally found it at a book store one day (the book is Duke’s Ballad btw). Bought and loved it. It made me interested in her other books, especially the Witch World series. It’s a shame that it seems her books are harder to find now. Always the independent or 2nd hand bookstores though.

    No need to ever worry about having a hard time finding Carrie’s books though cause I’ll just get them as soon as they come out!

  11. Rebecca Sparks Says:

    When I worked for tech support, I had two women who said, “When I heard a women answer the phone, I was disappointed. ‘She won’t be able to fix my problem,’ I thought. But you did fix it, and so quickly too! Thank you!”

    Npt yet mentioned favorite female SF authors: Moira J. Moore, Tannith Lee, Tanya Huff, Sharon Shinn, Seanan McGuire, Kim Harrison, Gail Carriger, Charlene Harris, Celine Kiernan.

  12. John Shearer Says:

    I just want to read stuff that’s good and fun. It helps that my mom was a big influence on what I read (and still read), because we swap books all the time. The only reason we look at authors is because if we like what one of them wrote, then we try and read everything else they’ve written (which is why I own, I think, everything you’ve written). Books are like moves to me – read and see everything. It gets you more well-rounded, and it can take you places you’d never thought you’d enjoy.

  13. Tim of Angle Says:

    Perhaps, in your view, he was making a stupid mistake — in the case of Bujold, *I* would certainly consider it a stupid mistake — but surely that was his choice to make? Does individual freedom count for so little these days?


  14. Although in theory I agree with you wholeheartedly, let me clue you in on some of the problems I’ve had recently, particularly in my favorite genre, Urban Fantasy:

    Started off in the genre mostly with Butcher, he had a display up in random.B&N and I grabbed the first to try it.. hooked me to say the least. Before that I was mostly a Drizzt, Star Wars books (yeah I know I lose credibility there..), top 10 best sellers reader. Point being I started the genre and loved it.

    Then I got into LKH, Briggs, your writing, Simon Green (holy crap I love John Taylor..), recently Sandman Slim, Game of Cages (read this, the guy is good).. I was happy for the most part with all of these except LKH’s descent from good urban fantasy to Vamp Porn but I digress.. so I started trying more and more authors figuring that I’d hit about 1 in 3 and 2 out of 3 would at least be read and wouldn’t end up as 9.00 coasters…

    In doing this I found numerous female authors with female mains having.. attractive isn’t the word.. slutty covers. I know this sounds WICKED Grampa SImpson but going along with this a lot of them were Romance novels either misfiled by ignorant employees or intentionally misleading. I actually wrote Patricia Briggs about this, primarily because if her first book had the cover of her 3rd book, I would have never bought it. Not because I’m a prude but because if I WANTED porn, I would have bought it and it’s disappointing to go into a book, semi-excited to read a new author, and get to page 40 and shake your head and throw it in the “donate to hospital book sale” pile.

    Point being, I think you can somewhat thank the big box book stores for it as well as marketing by printing companies, but there is definitely a reason there is a prejudice.

  15. ArcLight Says:

    I don’t remember ever really paying attention to whether or not an author’s name sounded like it might be *gasp!* a girl. Covers, titles, back-cover blurbs, yes. Names never entered the equation until I figured out if I liked it or not. And even if maybe the author’s perceived gender did influence me on some level for some period of time, by the time I was in in high school (in Germany) I was snagging every Shirley Jackson book I could find so it didn’t last long.

  16. carriev Says:

    Tim: I’m not forcing anyone to read anything. You’re right, it is a free country. Anyone is free to refuse to read books by women, and I am free to mock them.

    Ozwald: That’s a different issue entirely, I think, re: marketing and expectation. It’s also interesting how if an urban fantasy author uses initials instead of a full name, it’s often a man (TA Pratt, JA Pitts, MLN Hanover). And Rob Thurman is a woman. 🙂

  17. OzwaldEMandius Says:

    WOW I didn’t know that. Not a fan of I guess, HER writing but I didn’t know that. I really haven’t ever thought about gender when considering authors though I WILL be the first one to tell you that if it’s a woman AND the preview spends more than 3 words mentioning the male protagonist, I put the book right back down. If it’s a guy, not so much..

    And yes, I’m an amazing cranky pants about this subject, sorry if I come across a little snarkish. When I was DINK it was ok to blow the cash, now it’s a little tighter (if you can get my son to eat books instead of formula I’d be a MUCH happier daddy)


  18. Thanks, Carrie.

    I had a similar conversation with my father ten years ago, but less successful. “What are you reading?” “This great book by J.A. Jance set in your new home town, Seattle.” Followed by five minutes of how excellent they are. “Cool,” I said, “if you like Jance’s books you might like X, or Y, or Z.” “Oh, I don’t read books by women.” “But Jance is a woman.” Silence. “She is?” “She is.” And he stopped reading her books.

    Ah, well. Can’t win ’em all.

  19. carriev Says:

    Ack, that’s just… Wow. Talk about cutting off your nose to spite your face.

  20. Joe Says:

    I am a 64 year old retired trucker, i started reading SF as a little guy back in the 50’s, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Andre Norton. Found out before I became a teen that “Andre” was Alice Mary. I asked the librarian about it and she told me the truth. A lesson that has served me well in life. Joe

  21. Cat G. Says:

    At this point, I feel required to note that there are some phenomenal writers of all genders, but there is a perception that the audiences won’t read a book by an author of a specific gender – for example, the hardcore SciFi fans can’t read a book by a woman, Fantasy is vaguely open to female authors, contemporary “urban fantasy” seems ambivalent, etc. Which completely underestimates most of the people buying books I think. Some, definitely, have bizarre ideas that the level of estrogen or testosterone somehow impacts the creative process. But only half of all potential customers are men. Likewise, only half of all potential authors are men. (And a man can write a horrible book just as easy as a woman – I’d almost say it’s easier for a man to write a horrible book.)
    But, if you want the gender to be a factor in your book purchase, you may be looking for the wrong thing to start with – a story is good no matter who writes it because it is good. Did it bother me to find out that Rob was really Robyn Thurman? Heck no. She writes brothers better than I’ve seen written by a lot of people. (That is a blatant plug for Rob Thurman, BTW; the Leandros Brothers, the Trickster novels, and even her Chimaera series are all worth a read.) And, love her or hate her, Laurell Hamilton’s early books were really good too. (I don’t think her gender has any relation to where Anita Blake has gone.) Devon Monk – wonderful. Anne McCaffrey. Jane Lindskold. Women can, have, and do, kick as much ass as men. Possibly more, because men can be idiots and need to get their ass kicked a bit more to get the point.

    (Disclosure: My real name isn’t Cat, and yes, I have a Y chromosome.)


  22. […] standards, Carrie Vaughn picks up on the recent discussion of women writers in SF and fantasy and offers a true story of a man who refused to read novels by women until he accidentally picked one up…. This is how biases develop and how we get “best of” lists featuring 90 percent […]

  23. carriev Says:

    Just to clarify, the discussion isn’t about which gender writes better, or whether people should favor one gender over another.

    It’s pointing out that a bias exists and doing what we can to counteract it.

  24. Bob Says:

    I remember Norton’s “Operation: Time Search” which introduced me to the time travel genre while in Jr High. Elizabeth Moon’s “Hunting Party”- whose character being a disgraced former naval officer who STILL expected any order of hers to be obeyed. Her attitude & thought processes were so RIGHT
    that I could only “marvel at the waltzing bear”: how did a woman get it so gosh darn perfect? (I did not say ‘mere woman’ although I came pretty close)
    then I read her bio: Officer, USMC 10 years…Oh…Yes, I’ll pay for that vowel and thank your Ma’am, may I read another?


  25. Gender roles are cultural constructs based on the expectations of the power-brokers in each social grouping. It’s only recently that authors have been sufficiently free from discrimination to take the commercial decision to be honest about their gender. Although, truth be told, many writers still fear to disclose homosexual or transgender status. Beautiful writers like Jan Morris are very much the exception rather than the rule. So, in the spirit of equal treatment for all, I would like to propose that all writers good enough to find a publisher should be published using surname and initial(s) only and no identifying photographs. Anything and everything that might encourage discriminatory behaviour by the buying public should be positively excluded from the marketing. That way, authors can be judged on the merit of their work and female authors can minimise the risk of being patronised for having produced something that’s merely “good for a woman”.


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