Recently, I completed the third and last iteration of Coverage of Women on SFF Blogs project that I began in 2011. The project was a nonprofit piece of fanwork which looks at the gender parity of reviews in the SF book blogging community. This year I decided that the project in its current form had done all it could do with me at its helm.
To continue making strides, the project would have to expand and change to accommodate the shifting nature of fannish SF book blogs into satellites of the publishing industry. It would also need to move past representing gender in only the binary, which has been a problem with the project from the beginning. It would need to take into account more than just reviews, because posts about upcoming releases, cover reveals, interviews of authors, and giveaways have come to matter more in the last few years. I wasn't willing to do that much work for free; this project has consumed three to four months of my life for three years. Someone give me a grant and I'm yours. Otherwise, I'm hanging up my abuse of Google Documents, with apologies to the spreadsheet function.
Now, those are all great and important reasons. But the primary reason I decided to stop is because I'm exhausted. Is this what a hard burn in a spaceship feels like? Please cancel all my space adventures immediately.
In March 2014, when the project was scheduled to go out, it was instead sitting only half finished. I looked at it sitting in my recent documents and went through extreme denial about needing to work on it. I kept trying to find the energy to finish, but it's like the project itself was sucking the life from my body. The amount of Do Not Want I experienced only grew as I imagined the inevitable reactions. These same reactions have been repeated every year. They get more fun and predictable every time: debates about reading parity (the project isn't about reading parity and never has been); complaints about quotas; complaints about how review copy is to blame; complaints that people are just reviewing for fun; rants about gender blindness. This doesn't even include the personal attacks and threats, which are definitely the highlight of the entire experience. I wasn't ready for any of this.
Intense conversations about gender were already happening in early 2014. The convention harassment conversations were ongoing. The award promotion debate with its intersection between gender and visibility was still going around. One could have looked at the community and thought that professional discussions of non-binary gender were personally harming certain corners of fandom. There were attacks and abuse aimed at people in the community for daring to start these discussions.
Both dejected and fascinated by the hoops people would jump through to discredit women's writing and interests, I also watched speculation that all the books by women being celebrated at the time weren't actually good! It was simply the Feminist Cabal shilling them as a political statement. Silly women, didn't we know the critical field saw right through our false enjoyment and celebration of so-called awesome books to our secret agendas to undermine the foundation of science fiction and fantasy? I saw these things going around as the data began bearing out what I already knew: women aren't reviewed the same as men in fan circles. I said in my first article for Strange Horizons that "I have to carve out a space and defend it viciously against people in my community," and I'm still having to do it even with the fiction I like! What miserable, tiring work this turned out to be. Like that's new, though. Get in line, self, after the women who've been here twenty or thirty years.
I imagined stepping into that conversation again, and at the time I would have rather deleted everything, chosen a new pseudonym, and vanished into a new identity. In the end, I decided not to make any drastic decisions while surfing on anxiety and stress. That's why Coverage of Women 2013 didn't come out until June. I considered whether I belonged here, in this corner of fandom specifically, what I was doing, and what I wanted from my fandom experience. Could I live with ongoing worry and anxiety and misery, just to have a voice here and talk about things that mattered to me? Was I ready to continue being terrified every time I got a new email or Twitter notification after releasing a critical piece of work?
The answer was both yes and no. Sharing and ending the project was the result of my deciding I could handle one more year. Still, I wonder how much good all my effort was. I question it constantly. Would I have been happier if I hadn't done it? Probably I would've written a lot more fanfic, that's for sure. That's a real regret.
And morosely, although I'm grateful for this year's surprising lack of abuse, I wonder how much of this year's absence of derogatory, violent reaction was the result of not writing a preceding essay challenging people's privileges and biases like I did the first two years of the project. Ha ha, I'm silent! They lose!
Then I wondered if the lack was due to my having a well-respected man in the community support my work. Justin, from Staffer's Book Review, interviewed me for Rocket Talk a week after the project went up. This is generally when the discussion has started cropping up in the past. It was great to get to discuss the project with someone who wasn't out to attempt to discredit it wholesale.
But I hate that it's my first thought: I wasn't threatened because I deliberately silenced myself and then a man legitimized my work. I wasn't threatened because I didn't rock the boat by attaching my own analysis to the data. My work was taken more seriously because it was promoted primarily in a mainstream genre venue instead of my own fannish space which, I might add, is blatantly gendered. Is it true? Maybe. Will I ever know for sure? No. But I'll always wonder, probably late, around three in the morning, when I wake up from anxiety dreams that I have about this fandom. This community destroys my confidence enough that I have random anxiety dreams. Amazing. What's it like to be a woman writing in this community professionally while engaging with these topics? Those inboxes must be full of nightmares.
In a lot of ways, what I think of SF fandom as—the WSFS, the community centered around original science fiction and fantasy, the community based around genre commentary, and related convention culture—is only one part of something much larger. But the core online community is going through some tough times. Many people have told me this constant churn is the problematic elements being shown the light and burnt out so we can heal and move on.
I suspect that's a lie we tell ourselves so we can keep pushing without getting discouraged. Because even without my tiny fannish project, next year we're going to have the same debates again. We'll hear the same rebuttals and arguments, just like we did last year and the year before and the year before that. 2014 is not a magical year of cleansing. It's just another rung on the ladder over the bog. We've still got a long journey up the rest of it and it's pretty slippery.
If I seem a tiny bit cynical, I came to the fandom I grew up in—built by women, maintained by women, populated by women—for joy and pleasure of fannish and intellectual engagement. I found it and flourished, even when criticized. I came to SF fandom because of my love for original science fiction stories and meta I wasn't getting elsewhere. I found it, but I also found a lot of other less desirable things like rampant sexism and misogyny, and rediscovered exciting new skills like sitting down and shutting up to avoid conflict. I've had a lot of great experiences and met awesome people, but my time here has been terrifying, overwhelming, sporadically abusive, and so divisive—and I wonder if I brought it on myself. I actually sit and wonder if it's my own fault and how I could've been nicer, or more polite, more ready to capitulate to avoid making important people angry. What a great lie you come to tell yourself—that you could've avoided it all by shutting up.
Coverage of Women is over because it's time to reclaim some joy from my fannish experience. I hope my project helped, at least a little; I hope it encouraged people to ask questions and think deeper about the voices we celebrate and the systemic oppressions we could be unknowingly perpetuating. I also understand if it didn't. It's hard asking tough questions of ourselves, because on the whole most privileged people enjoy the status quo, and I include myself wholeheartedly in that statement. But the experience brought me to a point where I knew it was time to choose my health over engaging in this section of fandom critically over topics of gender. Criticism here is so fraught, so laced with abuse, both emotional, mental, and intellectual in order to shut it down, that it's about as fun as coating yourself in peanut butter and walking into a bear pit.
I do believe it's important to say why I chose to end it, though, and include all the reasons, even if they're not palatable or comfortable. So often women suffer in silence, regardless of the level we're at, fans or pros, and however unimportant we might be in the grand scheme of genre history. We take our work and fade into obscurity and don't end up on the radar anymore. I can't say I hope my work falls off the radar as such, because seriously, that was a ton of work. That work is a gift.
Looking back, I'm just not sure it was one we were ready to open yet.