I wrote the original version of the following post last winter and then decided not to publish it because, frankly, I don’t like to deal with questions surrounding the issue of women writing science fiction. Then, a couple months ago, a sudden, viral, Internet conversation started on this subject. A lot of writers in the hard science fiction field have since commented. So, emulating the group, I guess I’ll add my experiences to the conversation before the subject dies away entirely. This is an updated version of last winter’s post, describing the trajectory of my career as a woman writing hard science fiction in the nineties and early 2000s.
I haven’t done a lot of interviews in my career, but the question I least like to answer goes something like this: Do you feel it’s hurt your career being a woman writing hard science fiction?
I’m sure I get this deer-in-the-headlights expression before breaking eye contact and muttering something self-contradictory. Because really, how does one answer a question like that?
To say, “Yes, I think it has hurt my career” sounds like whining and finger pointing without any evidence to back it up, and risks offending the men who are the core readers of the genre.
To say, “No, I’m sure that’s not it” would be untruthful and would imply that my books didn’t sell because they were bad. My hard SF books may not be for everyone, but I don’t believe they’re bad.
So in my own mind I mostly ignored the question. Some writers succeed, others don’t. That’s just the way it is.
But of course the only true answer is that I can’t know. I can’t go back and change my name to Greg or David or Alastair and re-publish the books and see how things go.
But oh my how I wish I could.
Here’s the thing:
I had a lot of good breaks. (I had a lot of really bad breaks too, but we won’t go there.) I had cover quotes and great support from Greg Bear, Gregory Benford, and David Brin. I had some really great reviews. For the early books, I had great covers. I won awards. My books were offered by the Science Fiction Book Club. Some were on the Locus Recommended list. I had fantastic support from people like Charles N. Brown. Wil McCarthy was my good buddy.
Men in the hard SF field were friendly and open to my work, to the point I can say that I never met a hard SF writer who was not supportive of me, a woman, writing what I wrote. Other women will claim a different experience. I only give you mine.
And outside the pro circle? I would guess that 80+ percent of the fan mail I’ve ever received has been from men. More men read hard SF than women, so I guess it’s only natural.
What I’m trying to say is that in my personal, face-to-face (or nearly so) experiences, it didn’t feel like being a woman was any sort of disadvantage. If anything, it made me a bit more unique and interesting.
But then comes the dissonance.
“The dissonance” is my personal term for the difference between what other writers and some avid fans will say about my work (really nice things) and the value the market (and agents, publishers, and editors) have placed on my work. It’s a pretty extreme difference.
Despite all the advantages listed above, my books never sold in numbers anywhere close to what could support a writing career, and the Bantam books went out of print with impressive speed. Honestly, there didn’t seem to be much point to it all. I mean, the Nanotech Succession books together, all four volumes, brought in a total of $27,500 in advance money. I recall The Bohr Maker brought in a couple tiny royalty checks thereafter, in the hundred dollar range, and that was it. The other three books never earned out.
Meanwhile, if my memory serves me, Locus was reporting eye-popping advances for, well, other newish hard SF writers who were not me.
So why was I doing this writing thing again? Why was I knocking myself out to create another book that just a few people would read? As much as I appreciated the fans that I had, there was a mortgage to be paid!
So around 2000 I packed my metaphorical bags and moved out of the writing world—this despite that one of my best books, Memory, was still pending from Tor. I already knew it was doomed and I was right. Four years after publication it had sold only a bit more than 10,000 copies.
Did I crash and burn because I was a woman? Or was it just bad luck, a failure of nerve, giving up too soon, not appearing in enough venues, living on a remote island isolated from the writing community? Who knows? Not me.
Now I’ve gotten back into the writing game. Since November, I’ve republished all the SF novels as ebooks. They’re selling slowly. I check sales figures often, so it’s easy for me to tell when a fan from the old days discovers the books, because they’ll buy one each of the Nanotech Succession, and sometimes all six novels in a single shot. (And may I say, thank you! I want you to know how truly gratifying and encouraging that is.)
That said, seven months after they came out as ebooks, my novels are not selling anywhere near the scale enjoyed by other, well, you know, male writers whose backlist is similarly priced. To be fair, I’ve been out of the field for a long time, and these other writers haven’t. So there are no hard conclusions to be found here. The one fact I do have is the knowledge that now, in 2011, women writing original hard science fiction are choosing to use gender-obscuring pen names.
Anyone reading this blog isn’t going to care if my name is Linda or Larry. But the question remains: Does Linda or Larry matter out there in the scary real world where buyers peruse long lines of titles at Amazon, and employ an unknowable process of elimination to narrow down their selections?
I have no way to know.
But if I had it to do over again, then yes, I would change my name.