10 June 2013

all of the above

A few months ago I took a science fiction writing workshop at the Bakka Phoenix bookshop here in Toronto. Before the session started, I wound up chatting with a woman whose first book had been bought by a publisher. She said some of the editing feedback from the publisher was making her uncomfortable. 

Not knowing the situation, I just said something neutral. Then she told me what the feedback was.

You see, she didn't have a romance subplot in her book, and the publisher said that readers expected romance to be present in books by women writers. She said it was expected at least as an element, if not the main plotline.

I have to admit, this is the last editing story I expected to hear at an SF workshop held in the 21st century, in the setting of a well-established SF bookshop no less.

Now that the SFWA flap and some other things have happened, I feel better about relating the story via blog post, because I've come to realise it's not an unusual story after all.

And that's made me wonder about a few things. 

Ten years ago, when I was re-establishing writing as something I did, a lot of people assumed I would be writing romance and/or erotica. That included people who knew what I read (science fiction, "literary" fiction, mysteries, paranormals). Because romance is what women write, isn't it?

Not this one, and not the writer I met at the workshop either.

So I'm left with two questions, which I tried Googling the answers to before I started this post, but couldn't find any references to:

1. Do male writers get the same pressure to include particular subplots in their work, regardless of genre, because it's believed readers will expect certain story elements when they notice the author is a man? It's tempting to say men are discouraged from writing outright romances, but... Nicholas Sparks. Or is that unfair of me?

2. Does this belief (that if it's a book by a woman writer a romance subplot is expected, if not a main plot) have reality backing it, or is it just another industry myth? I honestly thought this stuff would have died off around the time James Tiptree Jr. was revealed to be Alice P. Sheldon, but apparently that's not true.

What do you think?


  1. There's *some* pressure on men to include at least elements of romance in their stories, by the market if nothing else. When nearly 2/3 of book buyers are women, and a lot of them are expecting the luurrrve subplot, you don't want to shut out a demographic that big. I've sort of embraced the trend, myself. If fiction is about people, like Asimov said it is, then people are going to interact. And that's one of the ways that people interact. You can avoid it, but after a while the avoidance becomes obvious. :-P

    By the one book of hers I've read to date, Lois McMaster Bujold doesn't always include romantic subplots either

    1. It just doesn't seem to have very good, hard numbers behind it -- like I commented on one of your recent blog posts, I'm a woman reader who doesn't go gaga for romance. That doesn't mean I'll discard a book just because it has a romance subplot, though. And heck, I read Jane Austen.

      It's not so much about actively avoiding it as to wondering about an insistence on shoving it in when it didn't belong.

  2. Sheesh, I hit send a few seconds too early. I meant to continue by saying, thus it's not necessarily a requirement "even" for women.

  3. I know some male authors have had plots foisted on them, but the more onerous thing in my experience is being told certain characters don't work. A straight male who calls his mother often, for instance, is struck down as implausible.

    But of course my answer to your major question is, no, of course not, and anyone who thinks women have to include anything, be it a love subplot or a moon landing in all their books, is probably a jackass. Hey Shirley Jackson, I feel like "The Lottery" is really held back by a lack of necking.

  4. I'd be curious to see any numbers that exist on this too. I think this is one of the shockers of being in these safe little self selecting social media groups. Sometimes, I forget just how different other people can be.

    I'd tended to assume, like you, that we'd evolved past all this years ago but the more I start reading about it, the more I realise how naive I've been.


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