As previously noted, I’m under some serious deadlines this month, and as a result, content has been sporadic around here. Yesterday, anticipating a lull in new announcements until The Cage and The Last Zombie: Neverland #2 go on sale, I posted this list of my 25 Favorite Writers of All Time. This led to a discussion on Twitter between myself, author Sarah Pinborough, and CONvergence’s Charlotte Nickerson. Sarah and Charlotte found it curious that there were no women on my list. And after they called it to my attention, I found it curious, too.
There are a lot of fine writers who were left off that list. Some readers questioned the absence of Bentley Little, Robert R. McCammon, Richard Matheson, and others. All of them are fine writers who have written some of my very favorite books. Little’s The Store is the crown jewel in satiric social commentary horror, McCammon’s Boy’s Life is a coming-of-age watermark, and if there was an American Library collection focusing solely on horror, Matheson’s I Am Legend would be the centerpiece. I enjoy reading all three (and many of the others who were mentioned) but they aren’t among my absolute desert-island favorites. That’s not a slight against them. That’s the inherent problem with lists — no matter how expansive, somebody is always going to get left off.
But even so, I did find it curious that there wasn’t one female writer on my list, so I spent much of yesterday pondering the significance of that, and what it meant. Here are my conclusions, offered as the kicking off point for a discussion amongst yourselves. As always, be polite and respectful of others.
1. That list is primarily compiled of genre novelists and comic book writers. More than half of them are people I grew up reading. As I’ve written elsewhere, it was a Steve Gerber-penned issue of The Defenders (along with a Jack Kirby- penned and illustrated issue of Captain America) that first gave me the writing bug at age six. J.M. DeMatteis, Stephen King, etc. were a huge part of my teenage years. Ditto Joe Lansdale, Skipp & Spector, etc. when I was still too young to buy a beer but old enough to know that I needed to figure out what I was going to do with my life.
But when I consider that time-period — the mid-70′s to the late-80′s — it occurs to me that there simply weren’t as many female writers working in either the genre or in comics as there are now. I didn’t discover Shirley Jackson until high school. And for whatever reason (probably the fact that my reading choices were limited to the Spring Grove Public Library — which was located in an old farmhouse — and whatever was on sale at the newsstand) I didn’t discover Chelsea Quinn Yarbro or Andre Norton until then, either. In truth, the first female writers I really remember being aware of for their gender are (in prose) Poppy Z. Brite, Anne Rice, Melanie Tem, and Yvonne Navarro and (in comics) Ann Nocenti and Louise Simonson. And I had graduated high school and joined the Navy by that point.
Fact is, I simply wasn’t exposed to a lot of female writers during my formative years, because work by female writers wasn’t as commercially available. That’s a big reason why there weren’t any on my list. But that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy books written by women, which brings me to thought number two.
2. I suspect that, to some extent, gender might influence which characters a reader identifies with, and which plot points move a reader. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a story written from a female perspective or can’t identify with a female protagonist. On the contrary. Some fine examples of this are Kelli Owen’s Six Days, Stephen King’s Lisey’s Story, or Lucy Taylor’s Dancing With Demons. And I certainly enjoy books written by women (Yvonne Navarro’s After Age and Sarah’s own Breeding Ground are among my Top 25 Favorite Books).
But reading is something one does primarily for enjoyment, and I think that enjoyment is increased when we identify strongly with a character or situation. Sometimes, our gender determines that. As I said on Twitter, a story about the special bond between a mother and a daughter is going to have much more of an emotional impact on a female reader than it will a male reader. The reverse is also true. I know I’m not the only male to sob uncontrollably after watching Big Fish or The Wrestler, and I also know that the female partners I watched them with were perplexed by my reaction. Unless you’re a father or a son, it’s hard to understand the depth of the visceral reaction many men have to Big Fish.
Men and women view some things differently. Read a sex scene written by a woman versus one written by a man. Most of the time, the female-written one will make use of all the human senses while the male-written one will predominantly focus only on the visual elements. It’s the difference between Gone With the Wind and and The English Patient versus Braveheart and The Crow. All four are romances. Two appeal more to women. Two appeal more to men.
The issue of gender and characterization is an important one, too. In the college class I used to teach, I liked using The Sopranos’ Tony Soprano and The Shield’s Vic Mackey as examples of great characterization. Despite some of the heinous, repugnant things they’ve done, we can’t help rooting for them week after week. That’s because the writers have created characters we can identify with on some emotional, primal level, no matter what our surface qualms about them. I identify with Tony — in enough ways that it would take me an entire Blog entry to go into with the depth required — but those reasons are certainly from a core, male perspective. I like the character of his wife, Carmella. I find her tragic and appealing and fascinating, but she’s not what hooked me on the show. What drew me in week after week was seeing Tony deal with fictionalized, metaphoric versions of the very same things I was dealing with at the time (being torn between job and family, maintaining a reluctant alpha dog status and wondering where the next betrayal or challenge would come from, etc.)
So, yeah… after pondering things, that’s my guess as to why there weren’t any female authors on my list of all-time favorites. It does make me wonder what my list would have looked like if I was coming of age now, in an era when women have a much more prominent role in both comics and horror fiction. And that makes me simultaneously happy for how far we’ve progressed in our field — and impatient for how far we still have to go.
It would be great, for example, if we could get to a point where transgendered writers’ books were discussed by fans online more than their sexuality is, or we didn’t have to collectively groan each week about The Walking Dead‘s treatment of T-Dog (absolutely zero characterization other than very tired racial stereotypes that should have gone out of play after Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.
But I digress. Those are conversations for another day. It’s 12:30am and I’ve been up since 5:00am yesterday and chased around after my toddler all day and am tired and need to get to work. But I thought Sarah and Charlotte’s question was something worth examining and discussing. So now it’s your turn.