Shop Talk: Gender-Bias in Book Reviews

Just time for a quickie today, which doesn’t seem to be fair to talk about something as important as gender inequity in science fiction and fantasy.

But here’s an interesting article from I09, and I have to say it doesn’t surprise me. I subscribe to some of the major periodicals covering SFF and there is some gender bias and a LOT of genre bias as to what gets reviewed. If one writes science fiction and traditional fantasy, and one is female, one might get reviewed. If one writes urban fantasy and one is not a) on the NYT Bestseller list or b) male, one does not get reviewed. That’s just the way it is.

It’s why a lot of “fantasy, futuristic and paranormal” writers tend to gravitate toward Romance Writers of America, where we get a little more acceptance on the whole.

But there’s another bias ingrained in our reviews, and I am as guilty of this as the next person.

Words we use for the male leads of novels: alpha, damaged hero, noble but misguided, strong, heart’s in the right place. If we review a book where we don’t like the male lead, he might be antagonistic or mean or evil or a jerk.

Words we use for the female leads of novels: kickass (never alpha), smart, strong, too stupid to live (have you ever seen that label applied to a male character? I haven’t). Same with “Mary Sue.” It’s never “Jimmie Ray.” Snarky. (A guy might be humorous, have a dry wit, or be funny as hell, but how often do you see him described as snarky?) Sassy? Ever seen a sassy guy? Smart and strong are good things, but usually we just assume the male characters are smart and strong without having to say it.

So I think there’s some language we use unconsciously when we read books, even in reviewing or describing them ourselves.

I’m not really going anywhere with this. It just struck me as interesting this week. What do you think? Do you see a gender bias in what books get reviewed in traditional outlets (I think blogs are an exception, as a whole)? Do you think we unconsciously create a gender bias in how we look at the characters in the novels we love–or is that just a natural difference in the way we see men and women?

As always, participants in Shop Talk will be put in the pool for a $10 Amazon (or other outlet) gift card–international, of course!

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About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

27 thoughts on “Shop Talk: Gender-Bias in Book Reviews

  1. Interesting that we do not have a very good set of descriptive words that apply to the female leads in our stories. At least not as good as the male leads. Kickass seems to gather them all into one descriptive data. I read a lot of urban fantasy and usually am drawn to the female lead or secondary character. Also, most of the authors are female. Read many more reviews from females than males. Team DJ.

    • Yes, I think the gender bias shifts once you get to urban fantasy because most UF writers are women. Where I see the real bias in reviewing is in traditional media. I adore Locus magazine, for example, and have subscribed for years and will continue to do so. But they don’t even acknowledge urban fantasy that isn’t either a bestseller or written by a (usually male) author who’s jumped over from SF or traditional fantasy. So the most reliable place among traditional review sites to find reviews of UF books now is RT Book Reviews.

  2. I think there has always been a gender bias. That is why some female SF writers used initals, instead of full name (C L Moore). I guess if you were female, you just couldn’t write SF. I remember hearing reviews saying Heinlein wrote a strong female character in Podkayne of Mars. I’ve never heard of a female writer writing a strong male character, like it is something new and different. I guess men have to “work” at writing strong female characters, but women don’t?

    • There are some women (Lois McM. Bujold, Connie Willis) who’ve broken through the SF/F old boys’ network. But not a lot. It’s readers more than reviewers, I think, that reinforce this. I did a post a while back for the Heroes & Heartbreakers blog about “Don’t put romance in my (fill in the blank),” and the male readers of science fiction, especially, seem fearful that if they pick up a book written by a woman, it will have that — horrors! — nasty romance in it.

  3. I think it’s inevitable that there will be differences in how we look at people (not just male/female differences). We are used to giving everything a place and label it. I don’t think that will ever change, only the labels might change once in a while.

    • You’re probably right. It’s just human nature. What got me thinking about it was the “too stupid to live” descriptor that only seemed to apply to female characters but not to male characters.

  4. Gender bias is one of the reasons I decided to use my initial instead of my full name. I think it does skew things. Maybe not as much as it once would have. I think there is a definite bias toward stories with more ‘female’ in them than male as far as sci-fi and fantasy go.

    • I think it does too, and an author has to figure out whether revealing gender will work in his/her favor. It’s interesting to me that traditional fantasy author Daniel Abraham, for example, uses the name MLN Hanover for urban fantasy–leaving room in the reader’s mind to assume that is a woman. And uses James S. A. Corey for his sci-fi books. There’s also an author who’s name I won’t use because she doesn’t want to be “outed,” but she wanted her hard-boiled urban fantasy series to appeal to male readers, so she used a male pen name. Authors shouldn’t have to do that, but it’s a reality.

  5. I never really thought about it before but I have to agree that strong male characters are usually described in better terms than strong female lead characters.

    • And I have to wonder if it’s because a lot of the authors are women in these books? I know my male characters are easier for me to write than my female characters. And I’m not sure exactly why, except maybe I’m used to observing guys (um..well, yeah, that’s true) more than women? I don’t know.

  6. I totally agree… as someone already mentioned it goes back to our society’s ingrained need to “label” and categorize *everything*. Funny how the shift goes back and forth between the genders.

  7. There definitely is gender bias in reviews and to the labels we give the characters. But gender bias is prevalent in our daily lives. I’m still called the nurse by patients even after I have identified myself as the doctor ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Man, that has to be frustrating. I’m in a field that is dominated by women (educational publishing, probably because the pay sucks–LOL), so at least I haven’t encountered a gender bias on the job.

  8. A male Mary Sue is a Marty Stu and I have seen it used quite often. But I can’t say if traditional reviewers use it as I haven’t read a magazine or newspaper review for decades. Their tastes don’t match mine at all.

    • Marty Stu! I have never heard that, but it made me laugh. I don’t read many traditional reviewers either except for my own books. Then I kind of squint at them sideways until I determine whether I want to keep reading or not ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. Honestly what I see in every book I read so far I always found that the male was create as an amazing but on the contrary with female, is this happen because female writes that always hope to find a great male?

    Okay I don’t what I’m talking about lol.

    • Actually, I know exactly what you mean. The guys are always the hot, sexy, alpha dudes we want to be with, and the women are kind of an afterthought. Again, I think it’s because a lot of the books in UF and PNR are written by women, and we love our heroes.

  10. As most of the readers are females, I think it natural that we gravitate toward female leads. I also think a female writer does a much better job of writing an alpha man than a male author does, cause a female knows what turns us female readers on.

  11. I didn’t really give this much thought before but now that I’m seeing this there are certain things which we relate only to males or only to females. I actually wouldn’t mind reading about any lead male or female. Each person’s mind works differently and there’s just more to be explored ๐Ÿ™‚

  12. Snarky or strong has now become an instant turn-off to me when I’m looking for a book. I get tired of reading the same old character who runs around insulting everyone and still somehow managing to get everyone to cooperate anyway. One thing I would like to see is a woman character in a good role as a sidekick. Has a good say in the story, maybe knows some things the male main character doesn’t, definitely has a different perspective, and definitely contributes to what happens in the story.

  13. I had no idea of this fact: “If one writes urban fantasy and one is not a) on the NYT Bestseller list or b) male, one does not get reviewed.”

    For some reason most of the authors (almost all of them) that I read are female. But also many of the books I read seem to get talked about.

    I have been introduced to some authors I would not have read through netgalley.


  14. I absolutely believe there’s a significant gender bias in traditional media. The data in the io9 article supports that. Do I think it’s conscious and on purpose? Not for the most part. I think a lot of it is being stuck in a reviewing rut, and male authors tend to get more traditional exposure through marketing channels. The female authors I know who are popular in the genres are those that do a LOT of the publicizing legwork themselves and have a strong online presence. It’s definitely problematic, but doesn’t affect my reading lists personally because I seek out the bloggers and reviewers that have a more gender-equal focus anyway.

  15. Interesting and something I have never really thought much about. I do read a lot of Urban Fantasy and as I am thinking, all the books I read are written by females. I will admit that I am a little guilty of that. I have passed on romance reads that have been written by men. I have no idea why, but now that I see it, I definitely want to change that

  16. There’s definitely gender biases and I think it’s because we all have our comfort zones and love to read something we are familiar with. I wouldn’t mind trying a romance written by a man to see the difference in perspective though.