Thoughts On ‘Women in Horror Month’

Women in Horror Month is a complicated subject for me.

I have several threads of thought on this subject, which exist simultaneously, but also separately; they necessarily intersect, but may also contradict. They can be best summarised as below (in no particular order):

1) It’s a great opportunity to shout loudly about my favourite fellow women horror-scribes, which I love doing anyway. But here, I am able to draw more attention to this shouting than perhaps I might be able to at other times.

2) It shouldn’t be necessary to have a month dedicated to Women in Horror, because we shouldn’t have to be classified as a separate, gendered category – we should be considered ‘horror writers’ along with our male colleagues. However, given the clear and obvious issues re: gender representation among genre fiction writers (and there are, in my view, undeniable issues – I will touch on some of these further along) I understand the necessity of the above.

3) Related to this: it shouldn’t be necessary to have a ‘month’ for Women in Horror because people should be talking about female horror writers all year round, as they do with our male colleagues. There are websites – Ginger Nuts of Horror springs to mind – who make a concerted effort to represent female horror writers equally and regularly. There are others who treat Women in Horror month as a somewhat lazy tick-box exercise – there, I’ve met my ‘women writers’ quota, I can go back to ignoring them for the rest of the year.

4) It’s a time of year when several contentious opinions are inevitably parroted:

– “I just don’t enjoy horror stories written by women as much!” – because of course, the lack of a Y chromosome means we all write exactly the same thing in exactly the same way. There’s a related opinion, which is not quite as contentious, but bear some examination: ‘my favourite authors just happen to be male. It’s not a conscious choice!’. I’ve seen this from female authors as a means of downplaying why WIHM matters. And honestly, there’s nothing objectively wrong with your top 5 authors being male, for example, or if the five books you’re most excited about in the coming year happen to be by male authors – though if it’s the same scenario year in, year out, I might, very politely, suggest broadening your reading horizons. It’s only when this is used as an excuse, or a reason that gender representation doesn’t matter that I take offence – because then implication, unspoken, is no longer ‘this is just what I’m into this year’, but that male authors are consistently in this position because they are simply better.

– “But [increasingly famous female author] has made it big!” – which is amazing and well-deserved and I’m very, very pleased about this. But equally, that we can pick this author’s name out as the sole example is sort of proving my point.

– “Why segregate male & female writers? Surely we should all be here on merit, regardless of gender!” – I agree, and that would be a lovely thing. It’s my ideal scenario, in fact. But right now we’re seeing anthologies and ‘best ofs’ frequently dominated by male writers, and I struggle to believe that this is because the best stories are, invariably, more frequently written by men. For a far better and more insightful breakdown of this issue, I refer you to Nina Allan’s excellent blogpost over at Strange Horizons, where she dissects the above argument in a fair and rational manner:

“…But if a general bias in one direction persists and persists and persists, then a responsible editor, I suggest, will ask themselves why this should be. The photo above is enough to show that the hoary old chestnut that women writers aren’t out there, that black writers aren’t out there, that Asian writers aren’t out there, is tiring, repetitive, self-sustaining bollocks. So editors should ask themselves: are they looking far enough outside their usual comfort zone? Are they keeping up with who the new writers are—and are they looking for them in places other than their usual stomping grounds? Are they aware of changes in the zeitgeist, in literary trends, in sources for discussion? Are they paying enough attention to the “new” in Best New Horror? Are they stretching themselves, in other words—because surely editors as well as writers need to stretch themselves.”

– “I’m an editor and I put together an anthology. I hoped to be equal in my representation but women just didn’t submit!” – firstly, thank you, editor, for considering the issue of gender representation at all. It’s honestly heartening when editors are willing to even think about this issue, which is thorny and complicated and comes with no ‘one size fits all’ answer. I think what statements like this reveal is that even with good intentions – and I have no doubt in my mind that editors who strive for inclusion do absolutely have laudable intentions – it’s all too simple for us to dismiss the problem out of hand once we hit a roadblock. If women aren’t submitting, shouldn’t we be asking why? We know that there are plenty of female horror writers out there – we are the minority, but not by a huge margin. We exist in quantity.

Whenever WIHM rolls around, there’s always someone whose idea of contribution is to simply put together a list of female horror writers – again, well-intentioned – and at a glance, it’s possible to see just how numerous we are. And we are diverse in our approach to the genre. Cate Gardner writes surreal, dreamlike horror peppered with wry humour (‘The Coyote Corporation’s Misplaced Song’ has an almost cartoonish bent to it, which only enhances the narrative in its strangeness); Helen Marshall’s fiction is unsettling and off-kilter (‘In The Year of Omens’ is set in a world just like ours, but where everything is a little bit sideways) whereas Thana Niveau brings an unflinching, ink-black darkness (if you don’t think women can write brutality, read ‘The Guinea Pig Girl’) and the strange magic of Priya Sharma’s stories is rooted firmly in the recognisable (‘Fabulous Beasts’ interweaves weird horror with scenes of more earthly, everyday horror – both mundane and shocking in how recognisable it is to us.) Georgina Bruce’s ‘White Rabbit’ broke my heart, and Nina Allan’s ‘The Race’ put it back together again. V.H. Leslie’s ‘Bodies of Water’ is searingly political beneath the chilling paranoia, while Carole Johnstone’s ‘Equilibrium’ is quiet and intimate and personal.

So, if we are to believe that women aren’t submitting – and this may well be the case – we ought to ask why women aren’t submitting, and how can we change this? I’m not personally a fan of ‘quotas’, and in an ideal world we could take each anthology on its own merit, regardless of its inclusivity of gender (and, to touch on another important issue which I am not remotely qualified to discuss, its inclusivity of ethnicity.) But we don’t live in that world yet, and therefore it would be negligent of us to assume that each time we see an anthology or ‘best of’ in which, say, only three out of nineteen stories are written by women, that this is a true and accurate reflection of the best horror fiction, or of the current state of the horror scene. And what’s more, we can actually prove this by looking at anthologies like ‘Year’s Best Weird Fiction’ from Undertow Publications, to give one example, or in the pages of ‘Black Static‘, where female writers appear with regularity, and without fuss. It is absolutely possible, if editors are willing to be open to possibilities, and perhaps to do a little extra legwork at times. Fortunately, some are, and it’s thanks to them that we’re seeing this small but significant shift.

Quotas are not the answer, in my view, because forcing people to include female writers to make up the numbers is not actually to change attitudes or the state of play. It’s a little like when WIHM rolls around and the aforementioned laundry list of names are laid out: we can all name female writers, but can we discuss stories they’ve written? What have they contributed that stands out? What makes them interesting to us, what makes us want to read their fiction? WIHM is a chance to spotlight writers we love and enjoy, not just name names, and if we are unable to do that then we should consider what that actually means.

If not quotas, then what? There is no perfect solution here. As far as I know there has been no real research into why female writers may submit on a lesser scale than male writers, or if this is in fact the case at all. Perhaps it’s something I may choose to look into myself. And since what we’re all hoping for is essentially a kind of meritocracy – a world in which writers of all genders and races are genuinely represented solely on the basis of the work they produce – I wonder if ‘blind submissions’ might be an experiment worth trying? Submissions that identify neither the name nor gender of the writer. Assuming that men and women submit in equal or near-equal quantity, I wonder what kind of ratio a well-organised and repeated experiment like this might produce?

Mostly, though, I believe the answer lies in a slow, sustained change in attitudes: promoting the works of female writers we enjoy, approaching them to contribute not because they are female, but because we love their work. Making a conscious effort to listen to and lift their voices in an environment where they sometimes go unheard. And if people consider this unfair to men, consider: the success of women does not have to come at the expense of male success, in the same way that one author’s success does not come at the expense of another’s. Success and respect are not finite resources. When we lift each other up, we lift the genre up. When we amplify the voices of writers we love, we make the genre louder and harder to ignore. And when we work to include those who have been overlooked, actively seeking out hidden gems and sharing them, we make the genre richer. Because ultimately, aren’t we all looking for new and interesting stories to read?

One day, I look forward to being noted as a horror writer, who happens also to be female. Until then, I’ll wear the ‘Woman in Horror’ hat, and I’ll work hard to change the status quo with it firmly atop my head.