Supporting Female Authors in Epic Fantasy and YA
Many people have been talking recently about a post on the Fantasy subreddit, discussing why it can be hard to find female authors of epic fantasy, and why people assume that those female authors who do exist must be writing urban fantasy or YA.
It led to an extended, interesting and depressing conversation, with highlights including examples of war fantasy being given romance-y cover, just because it was written by women, discussion of the pressure on female authors to switch to YA, and author Janny Wurts strongly recommending that new female authors of epic fantasy use their initials or a pseudonym in order to be successful.
And it got me thinking about female fantasy authors, and the relationship between “regular” epic fantasy and YA. As a YA fantasy author myself, I obviously don’t see any problems with female authors writing that genre, and I find it somewhat offensive that people assume a book must be bad purely because it has the YA label (those people have clearly never read books like Shadow and Bone and The Winner’s Curse). As YA is “for children,” and specifically “for girls,” it’s created a kind of safe-haven where debut female authors can receive the sort of advances, marketing budget, and attention that they could only dream of in epic fantasy — but it’s also created the misconception that women should therefore only write YA, and the prevalence and popularity of female authors and female readers has devalued anything in the genre in many readers’ eyes. In short, female authors are shunted off into another genre, and then are considered lesser because they’re there with all the other women.
Meanwhile, we’re told, “real” authors would fight to stay in epic fantasy — but face the fact that they’ll receive little support and are unlikely to have success while they’re there.
Everything about this invented dichotomy — female writers who sell out, write “bad fantasy” and succeed, and female writers who write “good fantasy” and are ignored — is irritating, to say the least. We shouldn’t need to defend female authors’ work by saying “it’s not YA!” and “it’s actually good!”, as though those were different from the norm. Women shouldn’t feel like they’re betraying fantasy by choosing to write YA, either out of preference or necessity, or like they have to define themselves as “not like other female writers” in order to succeed.
The UK doesn’t have as big a YA industry as the US, and YA fantasy even less so. In fact, many YA fantasies in the US are published as adult fantasy here. Perhaps that is a blessing in one way, as female authors are not shoe-horned into YA. But it also means that female fantasy authors lose the one not-entirely-romance fantasy genre where they aren’t shoved into the background. With YA fantasy published along with epic fantasy, authors all have to face the same issues with a lack of shelf space and promotional opportunities.
So we see things like the famous Waterstones controversy, when Fox Meadows reported that the bookshop’s fantasy book recs booklet contained 113 authors, but only 9 women, and zero authors who weren’t white. Even more laughably, Juliet E. McKenna reported that when she challenged bookstore staff about the fact that they almost exclusively recommend male authors on their table displays, she was told that “women don’t write fantasy.” Assumedly they didn’t realize they were talking to a female fantasy author at the time.
As another example, the David Gemmell Awards for Fantasy this year did not feature a single female nominee in either “best fantasy novel” or “best debut,” and only one female author has won in either category since it started in 2009.
To get a picture of how “unusual” women are considered in epic fantasy, I have an anecdote about my own local Waterstones: there’s a We Need Diverse Books table in its fantasy section, which is definitely massive progress. But We Need Diverse Books is all about diverse authors writing about diverse characters in children’s books and YA, specifically about racial diversity, sexuality, gender identity, and disabilities. Most of the books on the table did not fit those criteria. Many were books by white female authors, because that was considered a major minority group (not to mention that, assumedly, the curators did not know of any other diverse fantasy novels to include).
There has been some positive change, of course — I recently saw a different fantasy table simply titled “get hooked on a new series” that ONLY featured female authors, without any mention of their gender, for example. But there’s still a lot of work to be done. And for my part, I must admit, I haven’t read many female authors of epic fantasy. Actually, the list may be “Robin Hobb, Trudi Canavan, Jen Williams,” and at first I didn’t even know Robin Hobb was a woman. I haven’t read widely in the epic fantasy genre in general, as most of my reading time is spent on keeping up with new YA releases, but I’ve definitely read more male writers than female, and I could definitely name many male writers, and only one or two female writers.
I make no apology for prioritizing YA fantasy novels, because I enjoy them, it’s part of my job to stay current on the genre, and authors in that genre are worthy of support too. But the best way to address these issues is to buy, read, discuss and recommend epic fantasy novels from female authors as well, particularly from those who publish under their own name. I’m sure the recommendations of a female YA author who writes on a website called Feminist Fiction will mean little to anyone who already thinks that women only write YA and romance, but as these books are generally less publicized, less discussed and left off of recommendation lists, I hope that I’ll at least be able to find some interesting books, and maybe have some interesting discussions about the work of female writers in a genre that is still male dominated, in terms of both characters and authors.
So that is my challenge for the rest of the year — to read as many female YA epic fantasy authors (particularly those writing female protagonists and not using male pseudonyms) as possible, and to discuss them here. “As many as possible” is not going to be a deluge, because epic fantasy is time consuming and my “to read” list is already a bit jammed, but I’m going to do the best I can!
And if you have any recommendations of epic fantasy written by female authors, and particularly ones that deserve more attention than they’ve received, please share in the comments! I’d love to hear everybody’s thoughts.