I woke up recently with a feeling of overwhelming fear, convinced I never want to self-publish my forthcoming novels. It took me some time to figure out exactly why, and I’m going to attempt to put it in words, but not without some significant caveats. As part of this explanation, I also need to describe my experience with something that’s been circulating the blog- and twitter-sphere a lot recently: the harassment of female writers at conventions.
Here’s the generic part of my fear: garden-variety reluctance to face bad feedback. When Confidence Game was released ten years ago it was getting an average rating of four stars on Amazon; now it’s down to two-and-a-half. One review I stumbled across recently described it with the hilarious (and possibly misremembered) phrase “some lame attempt at post apocalyptic steampunk.” Clearly the long tail isn’t working for me. It makes me dread the clever cutdowns people will come up with for the new books – and this time I won’t even have an editor on my side to balance out the negative feedback. But this is simply part of writing, and every writer needs to grow the thick skin necessary to face it. Not everyone will like your book. There is no book that’s universally loved. I can put on my librarian hat and follow Ranganathan on this one.
But I anticipate some more specific criticisms, and facing them may be more difficult. The new books are largely about sexism in society, and how different societies clash when their different views on sex and sex roles collide. Many of the characters are victims of sexism and sexual assault; some are the perpetrators. And I’m planning to publish this in an online environment that has become a hotbed of sexism-related debate: from people prefacing their posts with “trigger warnings,” to infamous Kickstarter campaigns, to women reporting widespread sexual harassment by not only random guys but by industry professionals at conventions. I almost think I’ll be lucky if no one reads these books (which is, after all, likely); otherwise I could find myself at the center of the latest firestorm.
Which brings me to my personal experience at science fiction conventions. Frankly, I was astonished to see so many reports of sexual harassment at cons. I couldn’t recall anything like that happening to me in my years of con-going experience. When I thought more carefully, I realized some things could be interpreted less innocently than I remembered at first. At one con, I was introduced to a well-known male author, who pointedly ignored me, refusing to shake my offered hand or even to acknowledge that we’d been introduced. At another, I was ignored by an entire trio of men, two writers and an editor, all of the “old guard” – and I was on a panel with them. The moderator (also a man, it should be noted) kept trying to give me an opportunity to speak, but every time I paused the old guard went back to their conversation as if I’d never said a thing.
Was this really sexism? At the time I just assumed I was too new, too young, and too insignificant to merit their attention. Had I been an award-winner or bestseller, they might have treated me differently. After all, Connie Willis was at one of these cons and was treated with great admiration by the old guard. But perhaps it was easier for me to be dismissed because I wasn’t just a young, new author, but also because I was a young, new female author. Or as one writer said in her blog post about sexism in publishing, women writers today are assumed to be writing nothing but vampire romance and therefore are “messing up” the science fiction/fantasy genre. Speaking of which, I did have another experience on a con panel where the male moderator, in a discussion of science fiction versus fantasy, accused me of writing erotica. Yes, he presented it as an accusation of wrongdoing. No, I don’t write erotica.
I’ll never know what actually motivated the men in the first two incidents to ignore me. I know that the man in the third incident was convinced of the superiority of science fiction over fantasy; I don’t know whether he was also convinced of the superiority of men over women. I’m reluctant to describe these incidents as sexism – not because I’m convinced they weren’t, but because it seems like we’ve been talking about nothing else but this culture of fear and oppression.
Now, this is where the caveats come in. The many recent reports of sexism and sexual harassment are deeply important – I am absolutely not trying to say that these reports are unimportant or that women should silence themselves. But fear and oppression create a feedback loop. A few weeks ago I didn’t feel the least bit afraid of going to a con. Now I’m not only worried about being accused of being just another woman writer who’s ruining the genre, but I’m reconsidering publishing my books because of the potential for negative reactions.
The problem with dwelling on negativity is that it breeds negativity. The more we tell women that publishing is a terrible place to be, the more women will fear being there. And the more they will withhold their voices from the genre – ironically accomplishing just what their most sexist critics want. This does not mean that there are not warnings to be issued, and this does not mean that we should stop talking about sexism, but I do believe we need to be aware of how we contribute to our own culture of oppression. We need to be cautious that we don’t scare ourselves into inaction. And I’m saying this as much to myself as to anybody.