Women in Horror Month: Have Women Changed What We Read?


Just in time for Women in Horror Month, I happened across an interesting statement that women now dominate the publishing industry. I also find it interesting that this has led to vocal concerns about what this change in leadership means.

Here in the genre of Horror fiction, we have been blessed with two very capable female editors for some time now – specifically Ellen Datlow and Paula Guran. They are at the top of our game, shaping and representing the genre in so many positive ways. How, I wondered, could this be a problem?

The Power of the Press, or How Many Tentacles Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?

We may not like it, but it is publishers and the editors who decide what books and stories will be found in print. They are the kings and queens of content, representing the very censorship they espouse to abhor; they are star-makers, for good or ill.

Particularly in the Horror genre, the impression has been left in many women’s minds that this is male territory. We tend to believe that we are on a slanted playing field, and that it is either men or women who work under them who are holding us back. We default to Young Adult fiction, slip over to thrillers, hide behind ghost stories. We make excuses for our failures, when maybe what we need to do is re-dedicate ourselves to fitting into the genre…Because like the footprint of Big Foot, evidence that things have not improved has been lately harder to find. Part of the reason is indeed related to changes at the top, bottom, and sides of our genre.

It may come as a surprise for many to realize that women have been historically knee-deep in the publishing industry for a very long time – as writers, editors, and publishers. But what most don’t realize is that women really were formerly relegated to working with women’s writings and/or under male supervision, and continually berated by male Critics. It is only now that women have infiltrated the entire industry. This has to mean something. Female editors – tending often to be readers if not writers themselves – have their own reasons for wanting to contribute to the evening out of that playing field. Surely this means change.

And at long last, there is more than one tentacle wrapped around that light bulb and vocal witnesses holding the chair.

According to David Comfort in his book An Insider’s Guide to Publishing (Cincinnati: Writer’s Digest Books, c2013), “Publishing today is a matriarchy. There are many reasons for this…nearly two thirds of books are purchased by women. A recent Associated Press survey found that they account for 80 percent of the fiction market” (190).

What effect has this had on that fiction market, the reader, the quality of our contemporary fiction? How has this affected our genre of Horror? The mind boggles at the possibilities…

In the earlier days of fiction, women were more often content generators – writers of specialized fiction for specialized magazines and newspapers – and support personnel for much of the same. In those days, every task, hobby, and function was sharply divided between the world of men and the world of women.  One did not stray out of one’s circle of influence; one had a role to maintain, a reputation to keep. Specific books were written largely by women, for women. Women had Sensation Fiction, men had Literature.

That in itself affected who read what, what saw print and under what circumstances. So doesn’t it make logical sense that if conditions have changed and more women are in positions of publishing and editorial power that what the reader reads and who does the reading would also have changed? Is that why more women are reading fiction than men? Or is there a more insidious reason?

According to Comfort, “[Waxman agent Jason Pinter] suggests that perhaps men read less because the titles available to them are chosen by women agents and editors” (190).

The implication is that women in publishing have pirated the genres and groomed them into – heaven forbid – women’s fiction.

Not that women don’t get it. Women have been reading what men prepared for them for years… But it sounds a bit like the shoe pinches on the other foot.

But what if they are right? What if women are changing the genres?

Is this a bad thing? Wasn’t it time to change the light bulb?

What’s Good for the Goose Fits Nicely in Tentacles

I find the question most interesting. Most genres naturally slant toward one gender or the other in content. We don’t see much male Romance nor Romance written by males, we tend to maintain male-dominated Science Fiction (both in authors and protagonists), we evenly divide Sherlock Holmes from female PI’s and police detectives in Crime and Mystery. In Horror it still trends toward male protagonists, and male-authored novels except in the traditional ghost story sub-genre, which flirts with Gothic Romance when it doesn’t go all Lord Dunsany.

Sure there are exceptions. But it is the rarity of the instance that causes the speculations to rise. One crack does not the glass ceiling break.

Who can say why – despite more women being in “control” of more published works – that more men are known by name in the genre than women? Are men performing better? Or are we simply predisposed to believe that out of habit? And if we do blindly believe it, has it affected our reading and publishing choices?

Sometimes it has to do with genre formula. Sometimes it has to do with how the Muse dictates it. Sometimes it is more a matter of convenience or character believability.

But one fact remains true: there remains a clear reluctance in men to read female-generated fiction in male-dominated genres. Why is this, and do men have a point when they interpret women’s writings as prose only women can identify with or feminist psychobabble?

When women write, are we not writing through a feminine perspective that has an exclusive feel? Is it because as women writers we automatically assume that men won’t even pick up our stories, let alone like them? In angst, do we just go on and write for that default female audience?

Audience and our awareness of it is very important – even in fiction…maybe especially in fiction. I have begun to wonder if there should be – at some point – a time when Feminist fiction is outdated, outmoded, and no longer needed. But then I am reminded that despite advances in hiring women in publishing and having two awesome women editing Horror fiction, we have not yet quite arrived in Horror, although we are ever so much closer. Some of our number are still learning to think better of ourselves for a reason. And maybe just maybe that means male readers are right, and we are still not mastering the universal voice we need to have in our entire body of female-authored fiction. Maybe we are accidentally on purpose ignoring our potential male audience.

As a woman, I constantly ask myself: why is it that I can read a male-authored story with a male protagonist in a male situation and still identify with that protagonist and still like that author, yet many female authored stories alienate even me? What are we doing differently? And why is it that sometimes it doesn’t matter?

Maybe it has more to do with the writer’s intended audience than we want to admit. Doesn’t reading opposite gender-slanted stories seem awkward? Don’t we quickly and unapologetically put them down?

And does it make a difference if a writer believes everyone and anyone will read his or her words on a deeply subconscious, molecular level? If that belief is reinforced by an anonymous if not general consensus?

I think that men have a valid difference in their reading preferences, because as a woman writer and reader of Horror fiction, so do I. From sentence structure to pace, from content to protagonist, men prefer their fiction differently than most women. Genders tend to process experiences differently, so doesn’t it make sense that genders would read and relate them differently as well?

Women tend to prefer background and character development. Men tend to prefer action and character tests. Women are generally satisfied with the suggestion of violence, men generally want nothing sugar-coated. Women often value the details of sex, men very frequently want the whole romantic thing left to the imagination…even if every cover illustration suggests otherwise. Men are visual, women are intellectual. We’ve heard it all before…

These are all arguments formulated in earlier times that still have at least a germ of truth to them.

So what do we do with that? Does it mean that woman (by their professional ascension) have ruined men’s fiction?

I don’t tend to think so. Particularly in Horror, we have been long overdue for more Literary influence in the genre – especially in American Horror. Women have either brought that concern with them, or it coincidentally arrived at the same time as the New Critic – but either way, women have always trended toward the classics and Gothic Romance from our English Literary roots. As a result, what I see in female editing is a distinct trend of appreciation for craft and well-constructed stories which meshes nicely with male editorial preference for capably executed storytelling. We seem ever closer to the proper blend of homogenization that will truly elevate our genre.

But I do believe that we need that balance of male and female editors and publishers. Too many male editors is the reason so many women had legitimacy issues in our writing past. Isn’t it logical that at least subliminally there might be a little payback in play?

Women have been saying for years that if women are reading and writing more Horror, isn’t it at least interesting that more men than women tend to find honorable mention, if not publication?

To which many men retort, then they should write better Horror…and which may or may not be right.  It’s the statistic that is interesting. Especially if men do as Mr. Pinter theorizes and avoid female written, female-edited stories in any genre.

Horror, then, is an interesting genre in which to study the potential differences in the ways the genders read and write. Horror thrives upon the emotions that orbit violence – implied or otherwise. How that information is relayed does seem to depend on gender.

Raised By Women. With Tentacles.

One reason we shouldn’t be too alarmed by this trend of more women identified as contributing agents in the world of fiction publishing and another reason we shouldn’t feel threatened by it, is that women typically raise the bulk of us. Women teach us our first words, introduce us to books and storytelling, read to us, teach us to read and write, weave the folktales, myths and legends (both urban and urbane), even planting the seeds of our first childhood Horrors – losing Mom, not fitting in, being bullied, being chased by night monsters…

If we have any exposure to Literature, most likely we have Moms and the heavily female educational system to thank for it. We also have them to thank for the rebels who write superheroes and bloodthirsty monsters, romance and westerns, aliens and sleuths. Because whether we write to please them or to spite them, we write what we write because of their imagined presence somewhere in our minds.

And there is good news for those who fear a heavy female contingent of editors and what they might bring to the table.

Women, by and large, have been more lenient in their judgment about what people want to read versus what Critics want written. Women tend to sense that there is room for all of us on the playground. Some of this has been because women have at times found they were hazed a bit harder than male counterparts. Check any canon list and you will still find more male names than female ones. This doesn’t mean women don’t write as well as men generally, but it does mean many women are more comfortable in the subgenres and that many Critics of the past have found more to praise in men’s work Literarily than that of women.

Yet one cannot descend too deeply into that argument before one bumps up against the reality that those Critics were men of their time, and subject to the automatic belief that women did not have particularly educated thoughts, that women were not capable of critical thinking, and should not trouble their fragile minds and mental stability with complicated thoughts that distracted from domestic responsibilities. How, in their universe, could any woman write anything with Literary depth?

It has taken ever newer generations of Critics to realize the narrowness of that thinking, and to value the voice of Feminism in fiction – the inescapable cry for equality for race, religion, class, and gender, the Literary representative of the underprivileged, the marginalized, the missing and the forgotten, the children and the aged.

Isn’t it fascinating that so many women also labor in areas that resonate with equality for all? For instance, consider the field of Library Science, where there is always an endless battle against censorship, and the right of all people, all classes and all genders to read and write…

Inequality still lurks, even with the best of many men’s intentions. The proof remains in the pudding…pay discrepancies and fewer women in the board rooms are merely the most visible evidence. It is not much different in the world of writing. We still have a way to go.

Why else do women clutch at pseudonyms and anonymity in their writing if it is not a vain attempt to be judged merely upon writing talent? And if a body senses it, is not at least a ghost of it still there?

Times change. And part of that change is the reconsideration of genre writing as a potential source of some Literary writing. This is good for women and men. It means we are a little bit closer to looking at writing instead of who wrote it… (Pardon me, my Post-Structuralism is showing…)

But the most important thing is that if women have raised the bulk of all writers, why wouldn’t most of them edit with the same broad considerations? Is there a difference in a female editor who doesn’t like your work and a male editor who doesn’t like it? Aside from the occasional exception, I doubt it. Power of any kind has the added power to corrupt. There are good editors and bad, regardless of gender. Just because they don’t like your style or your particular story doesn’t make them evil…just human…

And if history has shown us anything, it is that women in any industry like variety. They appreciate capably written stories more than gender or subject. They defend the right to write, the right to be read, they loathe censorship.

I’m not sure I philosophically agree with Mr. Comfort. I don’t think we are more female-dominated in the publishing industry, but we are certainly more evenly infused. This cannot help but mean that women do indeed influence what we read. Perhaps they are also improving it. But we also need the input of male editors and agents to complete the transformation. Isn’t that sound biological reasoning?

Change is indeed everywhere. Who is to say if women are behind it, in front of it, or just running alongside? Change is good. And all genres seem in the midst of some kind of elemental metamorphosis that involves the whole publishing animal…

Horror seems to be…and like a pesky wet gremlin, it appears to be growing and getting better because of it. Can’t you feel it in the tentacles, slipping around your legs? Does it really matter if they are girlie tentacles?

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11 thoughts on “Women in Horror Month: Have Women Changed What We Read?

  1. Firstly, this is the second article/essay I have read by you and I am quickly becoming a fan.

    Secondly, again your article has addressed a lot of things I’ve often thought about in my publishing ventures. I can say that in my experience and observations that there IS a certain out look to publishing in which women are judged as “women writers” while men are judged simply as “writers.” In that sense though, I do not find this wrong.

    For instance, the highest compliment I have received in a rejection letter for a past horror novel when I was a teenager was “you have excellent story telling structure and characters, I would have never guessed you were a woman.”

    I found it complimentary because my experience in women’s fiction — especially in my attempt to read horror written by women — is that there’s something lacking I suppose. Now this is only my opinion as I was raised on H.P. Lovecraft, Poe, Richard Matheson’s I am Legend and more modern Stephen King, Clive Barker, and Peter Straub.

    At the time I’ve only been a fan of two women within horror of today and that has been Anne Rice and Charlee Jacob though Jacob feels as though she tries a bit too hard to be extreme horror (as far as gore and violence go and I admit i am much guilty of the same)

    So with my role models being men not because they were popular but because in art and talent they were in my opinion masters of their craft, I try my best to tailor myself to that sort of methodology while infusing it with my own style and creativity. I put to my perspective that my audience is everyone who indulges in a good story but I think that few women I have read in horror are missing that lovely bite that some truly amazing horror has or worse, are trying too hard to shock you.

    I honestly can’t tell if its in the gender or the craft, but I can honestly say that there is a difference. I hope it doesn’t offend to admit it but honestly, its as though when sitting to write a horror story it would seem women are almost subconsciously afraid to be too scary or lack an understanding of what constitutes horror and thus miss the nail entirely.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Lol, I accidentally pressed post before i finished. In either respect I hope my opinion isn’t offensive. I just went by what I’ve experienced moreso than anything. I simply wonder if you have noticed that something missing or if it is just me.

      Also, I would also like to know if you have some suggestions of women in horror that I could read that you consider very well written in the genre. If you don’t mind indulging me.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My own preference leans toward the ghost story subgenre, but I have found the following to be highly influential writers:

    Earlier writers: F. Marion Crawford; Charlotte Perkins Gilman; Mary Wilkins Freeman; Edith Wharton…

    Modern Writers” Gemma Files, Caitlin Kiernan, Evangeline Walton, Joan Aiken, Sarah Langan, Tanith Lee, Melanie Tem, Ann Schwader, Kelly Link, Audrey Niffenegger, Joyce Carol Oates, Kelley Armstrong, Elizabeth Bear, Angela Slatter, Nadia Bulkin, Yoon Ha Lee, and Ekaterina Sedia…

    If you have not read Perkins’ “The Yellow Wall Paper” by all means do so…. it is available free online as a short story… You will not regret it, and it will open your eyes as to how women use the genre for Literary purposes… Kiernan is a modern favorite of mine, Tanith Lee a favorite of the 1980’s (and who has since moved more to dark fantasy).

    Happy haunting…

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Oops. And I don’t think it is a matter of women missing the mark in Horror, but having a traditionally different mark that we have aimed at. This may come from anticipating how our writing will be received instead of JUST writing, but historically women have written with social issues framing their fiction — making it more Literary and less likeable by the masses…

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Excellent post. Would love to write a thesis on this topic! Interesting how female protagonist has changed over time in monster movies too: think, Tippi Hedren in The Birds, leading to Sig Weaver in Alien and finally Female as Monster in Fatal Attraction ( in my opinion the ultimate monster movie!)

    Like

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