Are women writers more open to criticism than men?

GenderBalanceThis is the second in a series of posts exploring statistics from ImmerseOrDie, my ongoing series of indie book reviews. I like to think that these ruminations cast some kind of reflected light on the broader field of speculative indie fiction, but you’ll have to decide that for yourself.

For those who don’t know what ImmerseOrDie is all about, every morning I open a new indie-authored ebook, get on my treadmill, and begin. My walk lasts for 40 minutes, and my intention is to read for the duration. But each time I find something in the book that breaks my immersion, I make a note, and when I have collected 3 notes, I close the book and then write up a report on how long the journey lasted and what it was that threw me out. I’ve done this almost 80 times now, and in the process, I’ve accumulated enough data to support some initial explorations about the nature of indie writing and editing.

In a previous article, I examined the different issues that have disrupted my immersion, and I set out to construct a basic taxonomy of writing errors, and the frequencies with which they occur. Today we’ll take a first look at gender parity issues.

Before we dive into this though, I must stress that this is an exploratory thought experiment. The number of samples are simply too low to be statistically reliable. I find the exercise interesting all the same, but instead of drawing conclusions, my intention today is to refine the questions, and to identify some further data that I might need to collect. Eventually, I hope to have a statistically rigorous sample size. And when I do, I want to be sure I’ve collected the necessary data to support a useful analysis. But for now, the results can only be called “sketchy,” and I’ll probably be asking more questions than I answer.

The Overview

As of this posting, I have now reviewed 76 indie books, from across the range of fantasy and science fiction sub-genres. Of those 76, I’ve only been able to establish the sex of the author on 73 of them. Within those, 43 of the books were written by men, while 30 were written by women, giving the IOD submissions a noticeably male emphasis of 59%.

IOD-SexThis is not disturbing in itself, but I confess to being more than a little concerned by the next measurement. From those 73 submissions, 11 survived for the entire 40 minute duration. But among those 11 survivors, only 1 was written by a woman. So while the submission ration is 59% male, the survivors are 91% male.

Does this mean that I’m a sexist pig, who only values work written by men? I certainly don’t feel that way. I can’t remember ever consciously deciding to avoid an author on the basis of their sex, or setting it down early because “some chick” wrote it. I have always read books from both sides of the gender fence, and I rank Robin Hobb and Ursula Leguin as two of the contributing influences on my own work. But if I’m not biased, then how do I explain the disproportionately poor performance of women authors in the IOD?

Camouflaged Cases

To explore this a little further, I did another quick analysis. Of the 76 authors who submitted, 14 of them used initials instead of disclosing their given name, so their sex was unknown to me at the time I reviewed the book. In preparing for this analysis, I tracked each of those cases down (through their web sites and social media, etc.) to determine their actual sex. Of the 14 cases, 6 turned out to be men and 8 were women. But when we look at who survived the treadmill from that group, that slight domination of women over men did not bear out. From these 14 “gender-camouflaged” submissions, 2 men survived the entire 40 minutes, as compared to only 1 woman.

IOD-CamouflagedEven if we ignore the dominant role random chance plays in such small sample sizes, the result is still ambiguous. We could choose to say that when I was presented with an approximately equal number of gender-disguised authors, they survived in approximately equal numbers. But we could also say that even from a sample of 33% more women than men, I still selected twice the number of males over females as survivors. So one interpretation is that I’m essentially fair-handed, while the other is that I am deeply biased. And that’s the problem with small samples. There are just too many ways to read the tea leaves. The camouflaged author test might be a useful one, over time, but I’m going to need more data before it will be able to answer the question with any rigor.


Industry Statistics

But it occurs to me to ask what’s going on in the wider publishing world. Is there even a problem here? Or are my results par for the course? To explore this, I went out to the net to seek a few numbers. According to this article in the Guardian, 83% of books reviewed in the The New York Review of Books were written by men, while books reviewed in the New York Times Book Review were 65% male-authored. And the same 65% proportion was found for books reviewed by the Guardian itself. This somewhat validates the numbers I’ve seen, in that the population of books being reviewed is dominated by men. Although in the case of ImmerseOrDie, the Guardian’s numbers seem to suggest that women are actually better represented than they should be, in terms of submissions.

Possible Explanations

So, if IOD has more female submitters than industry norms suggest it should, why aren’t women surviving the treadmill at a similarly robust rate? Sadly, I can only see two possible explanations: either I myself am biased about some aspect of female writing, or there is something inherent to the work being submitted by women that is somehow less polished. I fully appreciate how incendiary that second conjecture is, but if the bias isn’t in me, then it has to be something about the work. There is no third option. (I understand that the bias could be my own, and that I’m simply not conscious of it, but if for no other reason than to prop up my own self-image, I’m going to trust myself for now, and go where the logic leads me.)

Hence the burning question: What is it about books submitted by women for review that makes them significantly less likely to succeed on my treadmill?

First of all, I categorically refuse to believe that women make poorer writers than men. But the question I’ve asked did not suggest that they were. It was a question about the books submitted by women for review, not about all books written by women, and that makes this an entirely different kettle of fish. Maybe it has nothing to do with the quality of women’s writing at all. Maybe it has something to do with a difference in women’s attitudes toward submitting in the first place.

Notice that, compared to the Guardian’s data, more women submitted to ImmerseOrDie than is common among traditional major book review markets. But there’s a key difference there. Those major review markets receive submissions primarily from the publishers, not from the authors. I can’t imagine a publisher withholding a book from reviewers because it was written by a woman. After all, they’ve invested in the project and are marketing each book to the extent they can, regardless of the author’s sex. In one graph I saw, (here) across a number of major publishers, about 72% of the books published in 2011 were written by men, which is in approximate keeping with the proportions of reviews, reported in the Guardian article. That says (in a very hand-wavy fashion) that even if their acquisitions are biased, at least publishers seem to be sending books out for review in an unbiased way.

So when submissions are left to the authors themselves, as is the case with IOD, it appears that women are more likely to participate than men. Is that what’s going on?

Certainly, the stereotype of male behavior is that we are a competitive and guarded lot, with a deeply ingrained instinct to hide any perceived weaknesses and to project a confident, competent air at all times. On the other hand, the female stereotype is one of conciliation, acceptance, and cooperation. Women seem to share their problems with friends, while men hide behind bravado and bluster. I’m speaking very generally, of course, but if true, this might suggest a very simple reason for why so many fewer women are surviving the IOD treadmill. Perhaps it’s simply because women are more open to feedback from others. Even somebody like me. Could it be as simple as that? Are women simply less guarded about their writing?

I honestly don’t know, but I’ll be fascinated to hear what you think.



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About the author

Jefferson Smith is a Canadian fantasy author, as well as the founder, chief editor and resident proctologist of ImmerseOrDie. With a PhD in Computer Science and Creativity Systems compounded by a life spent exploring most art forms for fun and profit, he is underqualified in just about everything. That's why he writes.