An Interview with Lois McMaster Bujold
It may be that some questions simply don’t have satisfying answers. That does not, however, mean that it is time to stop asking them.
For quite a few years now I’ve been trying to figure out why speculative fiction still is one of the industry’s most gendered genres. Romance may still take the number one spot, in terms of which sex is most likely to be seen buying and writing the books, but spec fiction runs a close second. While it may be a stereotype, it still contains a nugget of truth: males tend to be overrepresented when it comes to science fiction and fantasy.
And, yes, there are exceptions. Linda Nagata pens a mean hard SF novel. Connie Willis is a perennial fave on bestseller lists and in fannish hearts. There are men who write and consume traditional romances as well. But these seem to be statistical anomalies. The fields are changing, certainly, but not with any blinding speed. Just last week, in a bookstore in the liberal hotspot of Amherst, Massachusetts, where one would think they’d know a thing or two about gender stereotypes, I was surrounded in the science fiction aisle by men in their early 20s, each of whom seemed appalled that there was a woman in their midst.
I could just be over-reacting. I do that, sometimes.
Still, experiences are different for men and women when it comes to breaking in to the field, whether as a producer or a consumer. And when it comes to awards and other accolades, women still get the wet end of the stick. This year’s Hugo’s nominations paint an interesting picture. Of the 20 writers up in the fiction categories, three are female. The Nebulas fared slightly better. Twenty-two different works were up in the fiction categories and six of those nominees were women. Of those six, half were winners by the time the awards banquet concluded.
The numbers are open to interpretation, of course. It could just be that women wrote really crappy books last year. Or it could be that the voting base is still largely male, gravitates towards stories whose worldview matches their own and consistently overpowers (unintentionally, I’m certain) the votes from women. Most likely, it is all of this and more.
But this is where my (possibly unanswerable) question springs from. In a field that prides itself on free thought and future visions, why is it so mired in the past when it comes to exploring other voices? Yes, non-straight-white-males are present, but their numbers, especially when it comes to mass recognition, lag behind their population at large. For example, for every random 20 science fiction readers, are only three of them female? I find that hard to believe.
In an effort to chip away at the idea of gender in speculative fiction, I pestered Lois McMaster Bujold, who is, perhaps, best known for her multiple-award-winning Vokosigan series and her most recent award-wining Chalion series. A few short weeks ago, The Paladin of Souls (the second book set in that universe) won the 2004 Nebula. This month marks the publication of The Hallowed Hunt, the third book. Additionally, Bujold is up for a Hugo for the novella “Winterfair Gifts,” which fits into the Vokosigan universe. By all accounts, Bjuold is a success in the field.
One can’t help but wonder, however, how her gender has influenced how her work has been received. For Bujold, it is largely a non-issue. But is her experience universal?
You are up for your third Nebula and sixth Hugo. Does that part of the gig ever get old?
Not just that, but my eighth Nebula nomination and my ninth Hugo nomination. (I had to check my own website for this information -- it no longer exists reliably in my brain.) So I’ve been around on the nomination carousel 17 times now. I’m still a long way behind Mike Resnick and Connie Willis, though...
The process is still interesting to me, but it doesn’t generate the anxiety that the more life-and-career-changing possibilities of my early nominations did. Thank heavens. Winning one’s first major award does a lot to make a new writer more visible (wasted if one does not then produce a follow-up book in short order), and winning the second helps prove that the first wasn’t a fluke. After that it becomes a matter of diminishing returns, in terms of the practical consequences or, as it were, economic utility of the things. These are not as magnificent as the average fan imagines; an award is good for generating a few thousand more domestic paperback sales and for garnering foreign sales if one isn’t getting such already; but the foreign SF markets are tiny. (Which they make up partly in numbers, if you can collect the whole set.) Over time, awards help but do not guarantee works to stay in print or get reprinted.
It is endlessly arguable (and endlessly argued) what the awards mean in terms of that tricky word “best,” applied to the subjective experience of reading. Still, they can give a writer a welcome sense of validation, if only on the “Somebody liked it! Somebody really liked it!” level. The nominations are now mainly important to me for the hope of gratifying my editors and publishers, who have put their reputations, time, work, and their company’s money behind my books. I have a sort of “Let’s win one for the Gipper!” feeling about that. Becoming a big-list (i.e., New York Times and that ilk) bestseller would do as well, but that seems to be much harder to achieve for a genre writer.
In the "photos" section of the Dendarii site, you are captured with your necklace (which is stunning, by the way) of award tie tacks. You mention looking at them in the box and thinking "thirteen tie tack and no neckties. Deconstruct the subtext of this one, grrls." It doesn't take a women's studies PhD to figure it out.
It does take knowing Elise Matthesen, however, a Twin Cities crafter of art jewelry and a good reader, who understands both her art and my audience. Mike Resnick has a wonderful sort of “South American Colonel” look when valiantly wearing all his rocket pins at Worldcons, but that’s just not in my style. I tried sticking them all on my name badge, which worked for a while, but I was running out of room. I originally took my box of award nomination pins to Elise last summer before Noreascon 4 with some vague notion of a charm bracelet or necklace, but she had much better ideas. We shared both a pleasure in and an understanding of the intended meaning of the pins, which are given to honor the nominees, and a lively appreciation of their subtle incongruity. The goofy glory of the final necklace design is all Elise’s doing, partly driven by technical considerations such as not attempting to cut up the pin backs, risking breakage. I’d like to think I do the same thing to genre tropes in my writing, but that’s not for me to judge.
To be fair, most male SF writers also avoid wearing neckties, a strange sartorial relic, really. The joys of being self-employed: no neckties for the guys, no pantyhose for the gals. Yay!
While each manuscript that goes out is largely genderless (and will be purchased as long as the editor thinks it can sell), the experience of being female in the SF/F field seems to be full of incongruencies. Has being a woman in a largely male field been a challenge over the years? An amusement? A little of both?
A little of both. I have to say, I have found fantasy and science fiction to be a pretty gender-level playing field on the professional end. Any slope is provided by the actual readers -- for example, on average, books with male or mixed protagonists by women writers really do sell better than books with female protagonists by women writers, because that’s the way the readers select them, but one can always aspire to be the exception. The field, by the way, seems to be about one-third women writers, so I’m not some sort of Lone Rangerette, here. I have plenty of nifty female company.
I do get -- still -- the occasional reader who misreads my name on the cover, and I have become tolerably familiar with being addressed as what I call “my evil twin brother Louis.” But for the most part, the sort of mutton-headed “You are a woman writer, oh, do you write children’s books?” that I encounter (rarely) comes from non-readers or non-genre-readers. Alarmed rejection on the basis of my being, specifically, an SF writer I can get from both genders of the ignorant. There are a surprising number of women out there who are deeply prejudiced against SF.
Recently, a friend passed along the URL for a site that purported to be able to tell by statistical word-analysis if any given sample of prose was written by a man or a woman. Curiously, although it was wrong half the time on my prose, it was right 100 percent of the time in correctly identifying the gender of the point of view character from which any particular scene of mine was written. Still trying to figure that one out.
Have you ever felt pigeonholed and/or pressured to write certain types of stories because of your gender or that of your fan base? Who do you imagine your fan base to be?
Well, I get lots of requests for more of whatever pleased that reader last. Every writer does. Front runner at the moment seems to be "an Ivan story." Everyone wants me to either torture poor Ivan or marry him off (or kill him -- a vote of one surly curmudgeon who appears to have confused “seriousness” with “body count”), although they have wildly different ideas as to how. It seems to me, thinking about this phenomenon, that it is natural -- people can only ask for what they know, what they have been shown. They mostly don’t have the words to ask for something new, although they are happy enough when it arrives, once they get over adjusting their expectations. Pigeonholing and pressuring (well, begging and pleading and whimpering) has been attempted, without much effect that I can see. I write what I want to because that’s all I know how to write.
I actually don’t have to imagine my fan base, because I get to meet them at conventions and book signings and on-line. They seem to be pretty evenly divided between men and women, and with ages ranging all over the map, from 11 to 80 and sometimes up, with a diverse array of views on practically everything. A lot of folks report reading my books in families, passing them between siblings and generations both. They’re a flatteringly bright bunch, on the whole.
What recent trends in the field excite you? Is it, for example, the rise in more SF-based romance cross-overs and the new imprints that have been formed to publish them? Is it that you can write about older women like Ista who used to only exist in the backgrounds? Or is it something entirely different?
I’m afraid I don’t keep up with the field except by reading the reviews in Locus, which are more likely to depress than excite me. So many books, so little time! It does seem to me that the range of artistic possibilities in the genre is at some sort of all-time high. I can only write the books that are in me, and not very rapidly at that, so trends are pretty much irrelevant to my own writing, if not to my subsequent sales. I did enjoy writing the “Winterfair Gifts” novella for Catherine Asaro’s wonderfully ornery anthology; that story would probably not have come into existence without her invitation.
What is the question you get asked most frequently?
At the moment, it’s “When is the next Vorkosigan book?” or “When are you going to write about Ivan?”
Does that ever get tiresome?
Yes, but it’s always so well-meant.
What is the question that you wish someone would ask?
“Would you like a back rub?” Well, besides that... I suppose something about “What’s new?” except that I don’t like to talk about new work prematurely, either. There is a lovely early stage in the process of writing a novel at which it is still mine, all mine, that I rather value. Once the first draft is bagged, I move into I move into another phase of eagerness for feedback. Before that it’s all a trifle fragile-feeling.