Songs of the Earth by Elspeth CooperI was in hospital recently (my gallbladder and I were in the middle of an acrimonious break-up) and as you do, I got chatting with my fellow inmates.

‘So, what do you do?’ asked the woman in the opposite bed, in the pink bunny slippers.

‘I’m a writer.’

‘Oh!’ Her eyes lit up. ‘Romance, is it?’

‘Er, no.’


I wouldn’t mind Val McDermid’s sales, I thought. ‘Actually, I write fantasy.’ I held up my copy of The Name of the Wind. ‘Like this.’

My interlocutor peered at the cover, but obviously didn’t recognise the name. ‘Is that like that Twilight, then? All vampires and werewolves and stuff?’

‘Not really. It’s more sword and sorcery.’ In the face of her blank expression, I fumbled for the one name I was sure she would have heard of. ‘Lord of the Rings.’

The shutters of indifference came down with a near-audible clang. ‘Oh. Stories for boys.’

I did try to explain, but apparently because I didn’t write about oversexed earls in pursuit of fluttering virgins, or ghastly Yakuza executions in grim grey cities, I was now off the lady’s literary radar. What she would have made of the longsword hanging up in my office I do not know.

The doctor who came to draw some blood asked me the same question, in a hearty, take-your-mind-off-what-I’m-doing-with-this-needle voice, whilst prodding my inner elbow for a vein.

‘So, what do you do?’

‘I’m a writer.’


‘No, fantasy. Ow.’

‘My son’s into all that whatchamacallit, Assassins’ Creed, on his X-Box. I’ll get some gauze to wipe that up.’

A year previously, I’d had a similar conversation with my publisher. She’d just had a meeting with the fiction buyer from Waterstones, and the author gender vs target readership issue had reared its ugly head: boys won’t buy books written by girls, and it can affect sales by as much as ten percent – the horror! My publisher and I even went so far as to toss around some gender-neutral pen names like Alex Cooper before she decided that female was the new black for fantasy writers, and that was that.

Clearly, the publishing industry is well ahead of the curve here; for the rest of the population, fantasy is just not something that girls do. It is still perceived as a very male-dominated genre, the province of geeks and gamers and lank-haired Lurches in Slipknot hoodies. The likes of Jemisin, Downum, and Cashore have not yet penetrated the wider public consciousness. Meyer has, Charlaine Harris has, but we can’t all have big-budget TV shows and movies and enough with the damn vampires already! You’re giving us girls a bad name.

I was rather hoping that the Game of Thrones mini-series would start a few more cracks in the genre glass ceiling; if anything it seems to be reinforcing it, but that’s another issue, being debated elsewhere by minds more articulate than mine.

So, a question for the floor: if a woman tells you she’s a writer, do you assume that because she’s a woman, she won’t be writing about sharp edges, harsh realities? Does the gender of the author alter your perceptions of a book as you’re browsing in the store, and make you more likely to pick it up, or less?

Written by Elspeth Cooper

Elspeth Cooper

After a 20 year career in IT, Elspeth Cooper now writes epic fantasy books for a living. She lives in Northumberland with her husband, and has a very large sword.     @elspethcooper

  • Lindsay Smith May 9, 2011 at 6:35 am

    Oh my. I just spent a weekend painfully explaining my fantasy novel to a gaggle of female relatives–avid readers all, but never fantasy. Fortunately, you’re right in that female fantasy writers are gaining traction and rapidly: Jemisin, Downum, Cashore, certainly, and Ballantine, Miller, Canavan; and slightly before them, Marillier, Carey, Flewelling, and Douglass leading the way. I don’t know how true it is that boys don’t read books written by girls (especially in this traditionally male genre), but seeing a good mix of women on the awards lists is encouraging!

  • Hélène Blanchard May 9, 2011 at 8:31 am

    When I started reading SF and Fantasy in my teens, these novels were massively “boys novels”. I’m now 54 and sometimes I feel as in that movie (don’t remember the title) living again and again the same day. In fact, the frontier did move – as in : urban fantasy for the girls and epic fantasy for the boys. There is still a frontier.
    As for the female writers, I just have to think of C.J. Cherryh to be sure they’ve long known how to write about “sharp edges, harsh realities”. Her character are always pushed to their limits, on the brink of despair or madness. And she wrote space opera !

  • Danny Novo May 9, 2011 at 10:04 am

    As a boy, steeped in Susan Cooper, Ursula LeGuin, Lloyd Alexander (Eilonwy FTW!), and Enid Blyton as a child, who faints at the thought of a new Paks book from Elizabeth Moon, I can honestly say that yes, seeing a woman’s name on the by line does affect my choice to read, it makes it more likely I will.

  • SQT May 9, 2011 at 10:25 am

    Just telling someone you read fantasy is enough to get this kind of reaction from people. Heck, my husband doesn’t understand me most of the time.

  • bta May 9, 2011 at 10:41 am

    Fantasy isn’t my main interest, SF is and has been for more than 50 years. I would expect them to be comparable, but thinking about it I don’t believe they are. Any half-way decent SF fan can reel off at least 10, 12 or 15 women writers in the genre – and add more before they finish their pint. And some of them have also published fantasy tomes, Elizabeth Moon and Kristine Rusch for starters.

    But perhaps you’re thinking about newer writers who’ve yet to get their voice heard. What would help is some imagination in cover illustration (assuming the contents are up to scratch). Very few fantasy books stand out, because they look pretty much the same. If a cover looks original buyers will pick it up, and if they pick it up sales will (probably) rise – and that way lies fame. Yet another cover of a dark, hooded, sword-wielding figure in a shelf-ful of d, h, s-w fs and why should one aspiring author get chosen over any other? In the potential buyer’s mind springs the thought that ‘if the cover’s much the same, the contents probably are, too’. Put the boot into your publisher, is my advice. Get him to find an illustrator who shuns clone covers.

    Oh, and one of the very best (IMO) genre authors – fantasy or SF – is a woman – I think.
    K. J. Parker. Lovely writer. Twisty, meaty and cynical. The possibility that s/he could be, might be, probably is, a woman quite possibly adds fans rather than discouraging them. Many would be disappointed if it turned out she’s a bloke.

    Hope the mid-riff has recovered.

  • Liane Merciel May 9, 2011 at 1:06 pm

    My experience in the Wonderful World of Stereotypes has been not so much that people think “fantasy is just not something girls do” but that it’s “just not something girls do WELL.” Exactly how you define “well” depends on which particular set of stereotypes the person feels like trotting out (it’s like “bad writing” in that it gets redefined with remarkable fluidity as needed to preserve the speaker’s particular preferences), but the general idea’s pretty consistent.

    It makes me wish, some days, that I’d gone with a male pseudonym after all.

  • Andrea K Host May 9, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    Since I grew up reading Andre Norton and Robin McKinley, girls writing fantasy strikes me as the norm. But I think the general public would come close to understanding if you tried “like Harry Potter” – certainly when trying to explain to my family what a mage was, “like Harry Potter” was the easiest explanation, and brings the focus on adventure rather than sexploits. And certainly as a writer of fantasy, there’s few better-known than Rowland.

    I don’t think of women as less inclined to write about life’s harsh realities (some of the most painful books I’ve read have been written by women). I can’t think of any particular sub-genre of fantasy which only men write, or only women write, though I’m sure the percentages are skewed in some sub-genres.

    And if you look particularly at epic fantasy, I can’t think of any particular approach or trope which hasn’t been taken by at least one person of either gender. Guys put plenty of romance in their fantasies, too. Women write books where the focus is on honour, or war, or ‘gritty reality’. [Isn’t Mary Gentle a forerunner there?]

    Of course, reader perception is an entirely different matter. I recall reading a forum discussion about someone who doesn’t like Robin Hobb’s books “because she can’t write men”. And another who won’t read books with a female protagonist. And probably there’s people who won’t read books which don’t have ‘happy’ endings. I can’t think of a single writer who pleases everyone in either their genre, or their gender.

  • Dave Wagner May 9, 2011 at 9:55 pm

    Admittedly, I’ve only been reading fantasy for the past couple years, so I am still pretty much a newbie to the genre (though I have read fantasy almost exclusively during this time). I’m sure there are great female fantasy writers out there (I’ll definitely try your work out, Ms Cooper, now that I know of you), but I haven’t read any that have really grabbed me yet. Of course, I love KJ Parker, who may or may not be female, so perhaps there’s the exception…

    I’m certainly open to new authors, regardless of gender, and I’ll keep sampling, but at this point, all of my favoritest fantasy books/series have been written by men. Of course, I’ve read some real stinkers by men as well…

  • Elspeth Cooper May 10, 2011 at 12:14 am

    @Dave: This is interesting. You haven’t found any female fantasy writers that really grabbed you, but you love KJ Parker, whose gender is not made clear. I’m curious: did the gender of the author influence the not-grabbing, or did you make a list of books that didn’t grab and then notice that they were all written by women? In other words, do you see the name on the cover and subconsciously expect less of the book?

  • Fredrik B May 10, 2011 at 2:29 am

    I think I’m seeing a lot of female writers that have a female protagonist and I don’t read books with female protagonists. Maybe I not the only male in the world thinking like this?
    I read the back cover of a book and if I get the impression it’s about a girl/women I just write it off as non-interesting, won’t be giving it a second glance.
    Because of that I’m more likely to take a gamble with a book by a male writer, if it isn’t clear what the book is about.

    But I do read books written by females like, Gail Z Martin, Karen Miller, Lorna Freeman, Rachel Aaron and Fiona McIntosh to name a few.

  • Justin May 10, 2011 at 5:39 am

    I will say that there are quite a few female writers I’ve really been able to get into – Robin Hobb, Janny Wurts, CJ Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold… That said, I’ve also read a lot that I felt were writing fantasy *for* women to compensate for the lack of heroines or female centric works in the genre.

    Is it possible that there are so few women in the genre because there are less barriers to entry in the vampire/paranormal/YA market (read publishers are more responsive)? Or that they’re less likely to get a multi-book deal? Shelf presence is a big part of how people have chosen their fantasy over the years. 10 books taking up a whole row in the J’s, certainly did a lot of Robert Jordan. Same goes for Piers Anthony, David Eddings, and a host of other authors that I never found particularly good, but had such a huge presence on sheer volume of published work.

    Under that argument we’ll start to see female authors get more attention now that the internet is beginning to replace bookstores (and publishers for that matter) as the selection mechanism for what we buy. Time will tell.

  • Dave Wagner May 10, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Honestly (and rather sadly), I’m more drawn in by cover design and reader reviews than author name. And admittedly, if I read a book that doesn’t do much for me, I don’t normally try another title from the same author — I mean, why read more from an author I didn’t like, whether male or female? Perhaps I may try other titles from these authors in the future, who knows.

    As far as name bias, of the female authors I’ve tried that I didn’t like, only Jennifer Fallon was obviously female… the others (CS Friedman, JV Jones, Robin Hobb, etc.) gave me no indication of the author’s gender… and frankly, it wouldn’t bug me either way. I’m just looking for good reads.

    I wasn’t curious about KJ Parker until I read The Folding Knife and loved it. Then I bought the Engineer trilogy and thought I’d check out the author’s website… no such luck!

    Again, there have been male authors that have not grabbed me – even popular ones (Bakker, Weeks, Abhraham). Maybe I’m just overly picky. I love me some Abercrombie, Rothfuss, GRRM, Sanderson… etc. You know, the mainstream stuff… but I do have Jemisin’s debut on my Kindle as well, waiting its turn, along with many others…

    Anyway, I’ll definitely check your book out when it’s released. Will there be a Kindle edition, by chance?

  • Elspeth Cooper May 10, 2011 at 1:00 pm

    @Dave: I can’t get away with Robin Hobb either, as it happens, but I love Abercrombie & Rothfuss, and Jemisin and Abraham are both in the TBR queue. Might have to add Parker too!

    As for Songs of the Earth on Kindle: Orion’s website says there will be an eBook version, and there’s an Amazon link leading to the Kindle store…

  • Josiah Cadicamo May 11, 2011 at 3:25 pm

    Absolutely. Not on purpose and i don’t even stand behind the reaction in any way but the sex of the author has a lot to do with how i choose books. I loved Robin Hobbs stuff even, and yet it still does. I’m far less likely to pick up a book written by a female author then a male one. However i will say this for myself, it’s gotten less so over the last couple of years.

    I don’t view women as inferior or any of that bull shit, i think it’s just that i’ve had pretty bad experience with women writers. (I’ve enjoyed far more books written by men, and put down many more written by women.) Now to clear the water, the sex of a writer doesn’t affect how i read the book or how much slack i cut the author, it only affects how likely i am to pick it up.

    As for me liking books written by women less then books written by men, i feel like that is simply my experience with particular books. I should probably get over this issue and look for some more written by women just to rid myself of this bias.

  • Locusmortis May 12, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Women writing fantasy novels isn’t exactly a new thing, the likes of Anne McCaffrey, Ursula Le Guin and Katherine Kurtz have been putting out successful novels for decades. When it comes to buying books the authors gender is the last thing that I’m worried about, the most important consideration is whether the book is good or not and has an interesting hook to distinguish it from all the other books out there. As another poster said, reviews and cover art are more likely to be a factor in whether I get something.

    As I work in IT its not by any means unusual for someone to be reading fantasy in their downtime, however you do get funny looks if a regular joe q citizen is around….but something tells me thats more because of the actual reading of a book rather than whether its fantasy or not.

  • BT May 12, 2011 at 11:35 am

    In addition to authors mentioned above, I have also read Jennifer Roberson, Carol Berg, Phyllis Eisenstein, Deborah Chester, Louise Cooper, Mary Stewart, Margaret Weis, and Sara Douglass (there’s probably a few more I can’t think of off the top of my head). Maybe I didn’t like everything, but of the ones I did like, I bought more of the author’s work, which is true for male authors as well. I guess what I’m saying is that the author’s gender makes no difference in my decision as to whether or not I should read a book.


  • Sam Adamson May 17, 2011 at 6:18 am

    I can honestly say author gender makes absolutely no difference to me in my choice of whether or not to pick up a particular book. I have a good female writerly friend who is a really lovely person, the sort of person your fellow inmate and doctor might also assume, wrongly, who writes romance novels. In fact she writes noir and crime fiction, and some of the characters she writes about speak and behave in ways that would make a docker blush! They’re all cracking tales though. It’s the story that decides it for me, not the author’s gender.

  • EMoon May 21, 2011 at 6:02 am

    What’s funny (and it is funny) about the notion that women don’t write [whatever kind of] fantasy, is that back in the late ’80s/early ’90s there was a sudden outburst of ire from certain male writers and fans claiming that there were too many women writers coming into the SF/F field and diluting it with the “fluffy” fantasy they wrote…and selling too many books, too Remarks were made about ‘all these female fantasy writers’ with much antler-rattling by the angry men. Real men, it was made clear, read only hard SF (which only men could write) and real men wrote only SF. At one convention, the very avant-guard male writer Toastmaster chose to characterize all woman-written fantasy as “fluffy” with “sparkly unicorns.” This has softened, at least among genre readers, but you will still find a critical and review bias in which the same elements present in a book by a woman and a book by a man will be weighted differently, discussed differently, and judged differently.

    The general view of the non-fantasy-reading public is that fantasy is a) for people under 25 or those who refuse to grow up, and b) much more attractive to male readers unless there’s a sexy vampire in it. This continues an older attitude, in which adventure stories were about, and supposed to interest, boys and men, while domestic and relationship stories were about, and supposed to interest, girls and women. When I admit to being a writer in non-genre circles, the first assumption is that I write children’s books, then romances, then mysteries…I love to see the eyes widen (even if they later glaze) when I tell them no, it’s epic fantasy, military SF and hard SF, and space adventure (they don’t know the term “space opera.”)

  • kev mcveigh June 5, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Fredrik B: maybe you’ll be more interested in women characters when you’re older and want to get laid?
    Seriously though, I just don’t understand how anyone who loves books would not want to choose from as wide a pool as possible? Why deliberately avoid 50% of potential great books?

  • SorchaRei June 20, 2012 at 8:44 pm

    Wow. Your understanding of the romance genre is about as informed as the woman in the hospital’s understanding of fantasy, and just as much of a problem. If you really think that romance fiction is “oversexed earls in pursuit of fluttering virgins”, then you are just as much of a problem as people who think fantasy is only for boys.

    If your point has anything to do with the depth and width of genres and how frustrating it is when these dimensions are not acknowledged, I don’t understand why you think it’s okay to stereotype other genres, even ones you don’t care for.