Boys vs. Girls: The Audience of Speculative Fiction

So, earlier this week, I wrapped the first draft of “Story of G”, and I put out a call hoping for some beta readers to provide some feedback.

I was extremely gratified by the response.  Besides my Dear Wife, I’ve got three others currently reading, and anticipate another one or two readers after that.  That’s a much better feedback response than I got with “PFTETD” last year.  Then, besides my Wife, I had a grand total of 2 readers before I went to final edits before submitting the piece.  But I noticed something curious this time around: all my latest beta readers are ladies.

That observation reminded me of this post by author Blake Charlton from last year.  In it, he asks whether the market for speculative fiction books has shifted to cater overwhelmingly, perhaps exclusively, to girls over boys.  I had wanted to blog about that, when I read it, but I guess I never quite felt up to the challenge.  It is a charged and sensitive topic.  In noticing now, however, a shift in my beta readers from all-boys to all-girls a year later, I feel compelled to consider the issue a little more.  I’m delving into some politically choppy waters here, and I know going in that I won’t arrive at any firm conclusions, but I’m very interested to explore issues like this. 

As a writer, I write first out of my own interest and love of speculative fiction – that is to say, I write to entertain myself.  But secondly, I write to be read by others.  Whether those others who read my work will be predominately female, male, or some more equitable mix of the genders will potentially matter to me, especially if the demands and tastes of the one gender group turn out to be very different from those of the other, in which case the question of how best to meet those different demands and tastes in my work becomes quite pertinent.

To dispense with the obvious: I am a boy.  Well, a boy of the somewhat grown-upish variety, but a boy nonetheless.  And I read (and write) speculative fiction – particularly of the Fantasy variety (though “Story of G” is not strictly Fantasy).  As Blake points out (I suppose him to be at most only a few years older than I), when we were young Speculative Fiction was largely the domain of boys – there was a significant gender imbalance in the field.  Spec Fic books were written by boys mostly for other boys.  Or at least, that’s how it seemed.  Certainly, the authors were predominately male: name a list of classic speculative fiction authors, those from the 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s or early 90s and there will be some women on the list, but the vast majority will be men.  Like a lot of things in those bygone days, it was a good old boys’ club – and never that for the better (I have a particular distaste for anything that can be accurately described as a “good old boy’s club”).

But then, looking around now and considering the current list of hot-new-things in speculative fiction, or my own list of links to aspiring authors, and there is a very different story.  Some of the most interest in speculative fiction is buzzing around names like Cat Valente, or N.K. Jemisin, or Nnedi Okorafor, or Mary Robinette Kowall, or Cherie Priest or so on and so forth.  Two of the hugest publishing sensations ever in the modern world are J.K. Rowling and Stephanie Meyers.  (Though I do think the audience for “Paranormal Romance” books like Twilight are somewhat different than what might be considered the “traditional” speculative fiction market, categorically the books are a type of speculative fiction.  You don’t get Vampires and Werewolves in mainstream fiction…)  Sure, there are still big hot new boy names in the field and hitting the bestseller list, like Brandon Sanderson and Patrick Rothfuss.  But let’s face it: everyone know Rowling and Meyer – in the speculative fiction world and the mainstream world both.  Not even everyone in the speculative fiction world knows the names Sanderson and Rothfuss, as yet, and nobody in the mainstream world will have heard of them.

And when I look around at my list of aspiring speculative fiction author and blogging friends – folks like T.S. Bazelli, and Barbara Tarn, and Aidan Fritz, and J.P. Cabit, and Ollin Morales, and Tiyana White, and David Sharp, and Jo Eberhardt, and Juanita McConnachie, and so on (apologies to those I left off the list) – well, a not insignificant number of these fine writers are the grown-up variety of girls.  (Usage note: hopefully my usage of the word “girls” is not taken offensively; I’m using the word “boys” in the same way, here.)  Excepting Dear Wife, every one of the fine folks who volunteered to read and comment on “Story of G” are also aspiring authors.

All of which made me think a little more deeply about the question.  For instance: where did all of these wonderful female speculative fiction writers come from, if only boys were reading speculative fiction when we were younger?  Clearly, my memories of those years are, at best, flawed.  Writers don’t form randomly out of scattered stones like something out of a Greek myth.  They aren’t just born.  Writers become what they are almost always through the medium of having read something.  All of these fine speculative fiction writers, once upon a time, they were young speculative fiction readers.  Which is to say, there were a good deal more female readers when I was young than even I knew.

And yet, how could I not?  I’m an only-son who grew up in a house full of sisters.  And all of my sisters read speculative fiction growing up.  Sure, they sometimes, as I recall, ventured into more traditional female-reading-fare like Anne of Green Gables or whatnot.  But they all read Robert Jordan (though I do think I’m the most up-to-date on that series out of all my siblings). 

So, Blake Charlton sort of poses a question, in a way: have the tables turned?  Do boys no longer read speculative fiction?  Is the genre the domain only of girls these days?  Okay, he doesn’t really ask that question, but he does observe that there are comparatively fewer boys coming to signings and author events and readings than girls, which is apparently noticeably different than our childhoods.

Except, of course, our memories of our childhoods are apparently flawed.  And, well, I never went to those events as a kid, anyway.  I read voraciously, haunted the school library like a persistent poltergeist, and drooled over the racks of fantasy and sci-fi at every book-store I passed but I hardly saw anyone in any of those places – neither boy nor girl.  Thinking back, I begin to realize that my impression of the state of the gender balance in those days owes more to the gender of the protagonists I was reading than to any real knowledge about the other readers of those books.

And still, there is apparently evidence, though I cannot point to it, that boys do less reading these days than girls.  And, well, that might be a problem for the future: not because it’s bad that more girls are reading but because it’s bad that fewer boys are.  Ideally, everyone should be reading. 

And, well, at the end of the day… I don’t know.  Are boys reading less?  Are they reading less speculative fiction (which is the only kind of reading I’m really interested in)?  If so, why?  And what can we do about it?  And if not… well… then I just wasted over a thousand words on nothing.

Ultimately, Blake lays the blame for the problem – assuming there is a problem – on Marketing, and on the perception within the Marketing community that girls read books and boys have short attention spans and only play video games and watch movies.  And it’s true, Marketers can just as effectively create market realities, through their marketing activities, as they can to respond to existing market realities.

As for me, I can say only a few things.  First of all: the world is a better place for the many female speculative fiction writers in the field today, a phenomenon that was sorely lacking from the generation prior.  Secondly, I do hope that there is not a demographic shift occurring after which boys will not be readers and girls will.  I want both boys and girls to continue to read, and especially to read Speculative Fiction.  Our beloved genre will be the richer for the multitude of ideas and perspectives.

And, well, that’s just it, isn’t it.  Our genre is richer for the wider range of authors of different genders writing today.  But even so, the bar of what constitutes good quality speculative fiction hasn’t radically changed, so far as I can see, for the inclusion of broader range of voices.  Rather, it has only be raised, and raised quite substantially higher.  The kinds of stories that engage us and excite us: they’re still the same kinds of stories that have always flourished in speculative fiction.  Only now, they’re like to the nth degree.  Which is, of course, a harder act to follow, but what a wealth for today’s readers of speculative fiction!

Finally, as the father of a boy, I do hope that one day my boy grows up to be a reader, and especially a reader of speculative fiction.

How about you fine folks, ladies and gentlemen alike: what do you think of this issue?  Do you see fewer boys reading these days?  Or is the audience just more gender-balanced than it used to be?  Or is all of this a hullaballoo about nothing?  Please share your thoughts!

22 thoughts on “Boys vs. Girls: The Audience of Speculative Fiction

  1. I started reading spec fic (although back then, it was just called Fantasy) when I was 12 years old, which was an aweful long time ago. Back then, I agree that it was a genre that seemed compltely dominated by boys — boy authors, boy characters, and boy readers. I’d always just taken that at face value, but when I read your post, I started thinking back and realised… I knew just as many girl fantasy fans as I did boy fantasy fans. Much of the “only boys like fantasy” mentality seems to have come from the fact that most protags were male.

    These days, it seems like every spec fic character (especially in urban fantasy) is a leather-wearing, ass-kicking hot female detective/assassin/rogue-clone. I hate it. I’m sick of reading it. While I think it’s great that there’s more strong female leads, most of them actually seem to be hot-chick-designed-to-appeal-to-teenage-boy-fantasy female leads.

    Seriously? Skin tight leather clothing that shows off plenty of cleavage and a perfect figure? High heel shoes in combat? Kick-ass assassin skills that can only be “tamed” by the right man? And I’m talking mainstream urban fantasy here, not para-romance.

    I don’t think there’s less boys reading now than girls. I think the “people who talk about it” has swung in the opposite direction, and that it will eventually even itself out. At least, I hope so.

    Note: Max Barry (not a spec fic author, but an author nonetheless) wrote an interesing piece recently about the way that girls are conditioned from an early age to be able to relate to male characters, whereas the same is not true in reverse. This is one of the reasons, I think, why so many female characters are written not as people that boys want to _be_, but as girls they’d like to _be with_.

    Note #2: Although I am very definitely a girl of the grown up variety, I write urban fantasy with a male protag. (I have an occasional short story with a female protag, but that’s the exception rather than the rule.)

    • I, too, hope you’re right and the balance evens out. I don’t even mind if that balance ends up with ladies in the majority of speculative fiction readers, just so long as there’s still a healthy boy market as well (as in, one that is not shrinking but is stable). As for the ” leather-wearing, ass-kicking hot female detective/assassin/rogue-clone”… I’m just not sure that’s fantasy that’s written for boys. As a boy, I don’t read it either. Maybe I should, just to widen my horizons, but it doesn’t interest me. My knowledge of that particular sub-genre, such as it is, suggests that mostly women write those sorts of stories. And I wonder if these too-perfect women that can only be tamed by the right man are, in fact, read largely by women. If that’s the case, maybe their overt sexuality is meant as an aspirational element? Sort of like how women’s fashion magazines feature photoshoppped-to-sexy-extremes women in scanty, revealing clothing? As far as I know, men don’t typically buy those sorts of magazines, even though the covers are very clearly sexualizing women. Somehow, it seems, that sexualization of women is used in marketing to women… Which does seem a tad bizarre to me. I may have an MBA with decent dose of Marketing education in there, but this is not something that I yet understand. Probably my sheltered childhood has something to do with that. Regardless, I think that formula: of the strong, highly-sexualized female lead who is tamed by a strong male character, is imported directly from the Romance genre, or one of its subgenres. However, I do hope that the strong female protagonists bleed over into non-sexualizing strong female protags in other speculative fiction. I think it would be healthy for young men to be introduced to female perspectives in fiction. For instance, as you point out you may be a girl (of the grown-up variety) writing speculative fiction with a male protagonist. With respect to my current novel project, I’m the opposite. (Although many of my protagonists are male, the protag of my current novel project is a female. This is actually something that keeps me up at night, so to speak, because I worry and fear that I may be unable to capture a female perspective properly… I hope that I am able to disprove my fears.)

      • You’re absolutely right about the sexualisation of women being used to market to women, and you have to wonder why that is and, more importantly, why it works.

        I think it’s interesting that you’re writing a female protag, and look forward to reading it one day. It’s unusual to find a male writing a female for exactly the reason you list: can you capture the female perspective properly? In my opinion, a good writer is an observer of the human condition, and should be able to write either gender pretty well. (And that’s what beta readers are for, anyway.) On the other hand, readers (at least in the past) tend to expect a fairly steretypic view of female characters anyway. One of the reasons that I moved to writing male protags is that I was repeatedly given the feedback that my female characters were too “butch” and when my own gender was unknown, readers assumed I was a male writing a female.

        (Conversely, I sometimes get the feedback that my male characters are too self-aware and reflective to be real men. There’s just no winning, sometimes.)

      • As to why it works: that’s beyond my current understanding… I do think that writing cross-genders is a challenge – but as you point out, that challenge might be mitgated somewhat for women writing male characters, simply because females are so conditioned to accepting male protagonists. I don’t have a lot of female protagonists or female POV characters to base my experience on – a few but not a lot. Still, I’m writing it the way I’m writing it, with a female protag, because that’s the way the story is. When I envisioned the opening scene of the story, the main character was always a girl (though I’ve had trouble nailing her age down). Switching her to a boy, just because that’s what’s normal in the Fantasy market, or that’s what I know since I am – well, it just wouldn’t work…

  2. @Jo: lol, I’m totally with you on the leather/scantily-clad ass-kicking heroines. I think my automatic blinders engage just about every time I come across those. Tried it once or twice, nope. Not for me.

    Hmm…I have to say I don’t really know whether guys read less than girls because for the past five or so years I’ve been overwhelmingly surrounded by females, lol. (That’s interior design for you.) However, I do know that my male friends actually read quite a bit (both inside and outside of spec fic), though they are all like top-1%-to-2%-of-their-class types, lol, so I have to wonder if that doesn’t factor in somehow.

    In comparison to girls…I can’t say. It seems more dependent on their upbringing than anything else, but that’s just been my experience. And I wouldn’t be surprised if it varies between generations, as well.

    • But now… are your female spec-fic-reading and/or writing friends not also top-1%-to-2%-of-their-class types as well? Maybe I’m off-base, here, but in my experience most readers of spec-fic, in general, regardless of gender, are among the more academically successful groups. That’s painting with a pretty broad brush, sure, but I just always imagined that spec-fic fans are a tad “smarter” than the general population. To be perhaps a little less near-sighted with regards to genre fandoms, it might be the readers, regardless of preferred genre, tend to be smarter. Certainly, reading is a more cerebral sort of entertainment than, say, watching television… It requires a little more mental energy (i.e. engaging of the imagination), at the very least.

      • Well, I’m hesitant to say because I don’t mean to imply that my academically top-tier lady friends are any less smart than those who didn’t graduate top in their class. Their talents just tend to lie in different areas. While my more “academic” lady friends do tend to talk more about books they’ve read, the others tend to be more, well, extroverted and out-going and spend less, if any, time reading (though I also know some who are amazingly well-balanced).

        So I guess the same pattern amongst my male friends seems to hold true for the girls, heh. Though, this is a small sample of people we’re talking about here. Not sure how true this is amongst other people’s circles.

      • Yeah, you can’t draw true generalizations based on small samples… by it’s enough to generate some testable hypotheses. For instance: I hypothesize that there is a strong correlative link between academic success and likelihood of reading as a passtime for pleasure. I further hypothesize that there is also a correlative link, albeit weaker, between academic success and preferred genres (more specifically, that higher academic success will be predictive of a preference for speculative fiction). In theory I could test those hypotheses… but I lack the ability to do so, presently.

  3. It’s certainly an interesting trend but now that I think about I definitely know more female writers than male. One potential reason there’s a lot more female writers is a lot of them are stay-at-home mums. While dad is out doing the regular day job, there’s a lot of mums who find themselves with time to fill between childcare and housework and writing it quite often a nicely shaped hobby to fill it. I should probably clarify that I take no issue with this at all – mums are the most valued profession in the world and they turn great fiction at the same time then ever more kudos to them.

    Also – I missed your original post about the Story of G. I’ll happily beta read for you! It’s been awhile since I’ve read any of your fiction but I’ve always thoroughly enjoyed it in the past.

    • You know, I’ve thought about how awesome it would be to be able to be a “stay-at-home dad“, who takes care of the kids before and after school, but mostly has all day to write in between (okay, yeah, there’d be housework I’d have to do, too). How much could I write, then? Realistically speaking, I don’t know if I could do that, unless I was making good money with the writing part of that equation. For one thing, there’s a good number of years where the kids aren’t in school, and being a stay-at-home parent means taking care of them during that time period – like until the kids are 4 or 5 or somesuch. A bigger deal, however: I’m somewhat a traditional male, in that I really believe a man needs to be making a substantial contribution to the household income. And the writing and publishing worlds being what they are, I imagine it would be tough to do that for the foreseeable future based on my writing…

  4. You’re correct in that your memory of girls reading spec fic is incorrect. One of the first stories I remember reading was about an alien who had a number instead of a name. I was probably influenced towards liking spec fic by my mother, who’d been reading it a lot longer than I had. So we’ve always been there, but I think until the last generation or so, our voices have by and large been marginalized. (As well as in most other things, I fear!) The author’s experience at signings might just be a nature of how the girl-types prefer to interact with their fandom, compared to the boy-types. Maybe girls favor a more social interaction with the author, compared to the boys? I don’t know.

    And it can’t be that boys are all playing video games, because if you look at the dialog about girls and video games, you’ll find that there are lots and lots of girls playing video games, but hardly anybody seems to care–most games are marketed to teenage boys. In fact, there’s a fair bit of anti-women dialog in game discussion (talking about “raping” the other team, for example) that seem designed to keep computer gaming as an all-boys club.

    It’s possible that, in another generation, there will be a “take-over” of video games by girls in the same way it’s perceived for in the reading of speculative fiction, and our kids will be having this discussion about “are video games only for girls now?” 🙂

    • You’re absolutely right that there’s a large, active, and vibrant community of girl gamers. I don’t think my experience in that regard is unusual either: there seems to be a good but imperfect amount of overlap between the gamer communities (both male and female) and the spec-fic reading community. There are surely many gamers who don’t read regularly and vice versa many spec-fic readers who don’t game, but the two are a related breed. But I’m not sure I buy the argument that the balance at signings and other events has shifted in favor of girls because of girls preferred method of social interaction. A large number of the big speculative fiction fan conventions – Dragon*Con and Comic-Con and Gen Con and so on were frequently first organized by groups that almost always included men in their number, and have historically been attended by many males as well… Which is to say, that male fans, at least historically, seem to appreciate that aspect of their fandom that involves gathering together in groups and collectively appreciating the works of their favorite writers, game-creators, comics writers and artists, and actors and so on just as much as ladies do. If that’s changed more recently – if men no longer enjoy this as much as they once did – one wonders why?

      • “Which is to say, that male fans, at least historically, seem to appreciate that aspect of their fandom that involves gathering together in groups and collectively appreciating the works of their favorite writers, game-creators, comics writers and artists, and actors and so on just as much as ladies do. If that’s changed more recently – if men no longer enjoy this as much as they once did – one wonders why?”

        It’s possible that the various social aspects around games could be substituting for that role, especially in younger readers, where the boy/girl separation is very strong. As a society in general, when things become more female-oriented, they can become something that guys are embarrassed to do or use. (See the many once-boy names that now belong firmly to girls, from Leslie on down.) I would hope it’s not something like that, as it just means prejudices are just changing locations, rather than actually being removed, but I’m a cynic sometimes.

      • I’m not typically that cynical, myself, but that’s a disturbing idea that guys may be eschewing some aspects of reading and interacting around speculative fiction simply because girls do it, too. Howbeit, your example (with regard to boys versus girls names) say more about the parents of those who possess those names than it does about those who have them – meaning that if boys aren’t named with the sorts of names that used to be considered boy names but now are largely girl names, that’s not because boys have chosen differently – rather they parents have chosen differently, and that typically includes both a male and female decision-maker (though I’ve no illusions that it is rare that a boy be named anything that the father disapproves of). That’s neither here nor there, I suppose… As to the topic at hand… I guess I think there’s a ways to go before we have to get worried about that possibility just yet, and I’m hopeful that boys and girls both will continue to enjoy speculative fiction in large numbers in the years to come.

  5. Pingback: Why are thrillers held in higher esteem than speculative fiction? « manbehindthecurtain

  6. Interesting observation! It’s funny because, I had the opposite problem. Most of my beta’s are men, and out of my small writing circle, there are only two female spec fic writers (Tiyana and another friend). I can’t recall who was reading when I was a child, because like you, I’d often not see anyone in the library or the bookstore. I also didn’t just read spec fic. I read anything and everything: Sweet Valley High, Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden. I made no distinction between genres when I was younger, though by the time I hit high school I loved fantasy best. However most of the protagonists of those stories I read growing up were boys or men. As other people mentioned, maybe that’s where part of the perception comes from. Most of my offline female friends are mostly into romance, or chic lit. Most of my male friends don’t read at all, which I think is sad.

    I’ve heard studies about the educational system (in Canada) showing that boys literacy has become a problem recently, and the numbers of male students entering universities have been dropping. This is something I did see in my very small high school. Out of about 100 students, only 4 boys went on to university directly from high school…

    • We have the same trend in the US, with an increasing majority of college students now being female (the majority used to be male but that shifted sometime in the last decade or so). If I recall my high school correctly, like the whole top-5 of the graduating class was dominated by male students (yours truly included). However, if you stepped away and looked at the bigger picture, the population of those graduating with some type of honors shifted away from the males and toward the females. It’s funny that as a female writer of spec fic you have the opposite situation that I appear to have as a male writer… I’ve been surrounded by female writers for much of my adult life. Before I started this blog I could name a half-dozen aspiring authors of spec fic, and of those only one was a male. Since starting this blog, it’s been largely a similar demographic balance.

  7. Pingback: More “Boys vs. Girls”, Fewer Books from Borders… « The Undiscovered Author

  8. Pingback: Gender Gap « The Undiscovered Author

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s