Fri, 26 February 2010 SFX responds: a long post

After a prompt from a friend I wrote to SFX on Sunday regarding my concerns about its Horror edition. Here is my email:

To whom it may concern,

I purchased the horror edition of SFX magazine at the weekend since I’m a fan of horror literature and media, and also write in the genre.

I was surprised at the lack of representation of women in the articles in the magazine.

In particular I was stunned by the “Horror’s Hidden Treasures” piece. You found the time to query 34 men for their opinions, but neglected to ask even one woman to recommend an under-rated gem in the horror field.

Can you explain how this occurred? I’m sure female horror novelists, directors and screenwriters are equally curious, after all there are plenty of them in the genre, and I’m sure they would have been delighted to offer their suggestions.

Editor Ian Berriman claimed in his editorial that horror was “a broad church”. Unfortunately, your magazine offers the skewed impression that only men are welcome at its services.

I look forward to your response.

Regards,

Maura McHugh
http://splinister.com

Yesterday morning Ian Berriman, the editor of the SFX horror edition, sent me the following response, which I’m posting “in full” per his request.

Thank you for your email.

I hope you’ll forgive me for opening on what is a very personal note.

It’s somewhat dismaying to have the result of three months of hard work over evenings, weekends and holidays (SFX Collection: Horror was produced concurrently with my nine to five job on SFX) dismissed on the basis of a tally, especially when you’ve produced a horror magazine that does not rely on splashing half-naked pictures of blood-splattered women everywhere to garner sales. As methods of criticism go, I think that totting up the numbers of contributors or interviewees by category is very reductive, and not a reliable barometer of the politics, aims, or knowledge of the people involved.

I’d like to correct a couple of assumptions that, it seems to me, underpin your critique. Firstly, you don’t seem to consider that the features in the finished magazine might not have been the only ones we attempted to produce. To give you one example: I commissioned a five-page feature on Barbara Steele, which presumably would have ticked a box for you in terms of “alone-time in the spotlight”. Regrettably, this had to be abandoned once we found out that she was not available for interview during her appearance at the Sitges film festival.

Your second assumption is that we didn’t even consider approaching any women for the Hidden Treasures piece (you suggest they “do not register on SFX’s horror criteria”). Actually there were several women on my mental “wish list” of possible contributors that, in the end, we didn’t contact, basically for reasons of time (establishing a new contact can be difficult). I also did put in a request for a “hidden treasure” from Sarah Pinborough (interviewed about her new book in the current issue of SFX, incidentally), as Gollancz can confirm, but unfortunately that came to nought – perhaps the forwarded-on emails went AWOL in cyberspace. Now, I’m not about to claim that one feature on a female actor and one “hidden treasure” from a female writer adds up to sufficient gender representation, but I did want to counter your suggestion of total and utter ignorance/indifference.

Next, I’d like to go into detail as to how it came about that we approached those particular 34 people for their “hidden treasures”. Most of the directors and screenwriters were obtained by putting the word about to freelancers and asking them to suggest people from their address books who were likely to respond. My ideal criteria were that the interviewees should be: a. a director, screenwriter or novelist; b. strongly identified with horror (ie not a director who has dipped their toe into horror just the once); c. reasonably well known. I don’t believe I turned down any offers of interviews with women connected to horror cinema. What you can conclude from that, I don’t know. Perhaps that there aren’t that many prominent female horror directors/screenwriters. Perhaps that my freelancers don’t have many female industry contacts.

Secondly, I asked the question of a handful of people I was already interviewing for features elsewhere in the magazine.

Thirdly, I sent email requests to various authors, either directly or via their publishers. The aide-memoire I used to compile a wish list of authors was a document containing details of all the book reviews I have commissioned since issue 172 of SFX (the August 2008 edition). This includes details of many books received but not reviewed, as well as books reviewed. I went through this, looking for horror novels, and noting their authors. Only one name on the resulting list (Sarah Pinborough) was female. Having checked back, Alexandra Sokoloff should have been on that list as well, since we reviewed The Harrowing in issue 187 of SFX – her omission was an error on my part. Again, I’m not sure what conclusion you would draw from this. My conclusion is that we don’t seem to have been sent many horror novels by female writers in the last couple of years.

Or at least, not “horror” as I defined it for the purposes of SFX Collection: Horror. Which brings me to my next point. One comment on your blog, by “Harmsden” is representative of several, and worth addressing: “It’s pretty bizarre with the current boom in sales of urban fantasy and paranormal romance, a boom dominated by women authors, that there’s barely a mention of them in SFX’s horror special”. This commenter then goes on to partly answer their own question by adding “(though attention was paid to them in their Vampire special a couple of months back.)” This is true. Indeed, I’m the person who supplied the names of various authors of urban fantasy to the editor of that special, suggesting that we interview them.

I made an editorial decision not to cover this literary subgenre in SFX Collection: Horror for three reasons, none of which were anything to do with gender. Firstly, to create some clear blue water between the Horror and Vampire specials (and any future, similarly-themed specials). Secondly, because urban fantasy is getting plenty of coverage at the moment, and I wanted to shine a light on some other areas. Thirdly, because I don’t believe these books to be “horror” in the strictest sense – and I know that a great many horror fans, regardless of gender, share this view. They may employ the tropes of vampires, werewolves etc, but their primary aim is not to terrify (or chill). Obviously, the definition of horror is open to debate, and no 100% water-tight definition is even possible, but given that we gave paranormal romance plenty of coverage in another recent special, I think you might understand why I came to this decision.

Other names of potential subjects/interviewees for SFX Collection: Horror are also proposed in the comments section on your blog. I’m aware of Ellen Datlow’s fine work, of course , but I didn’t contact her for the same reason that I didn’t request a Hidden Treasure from Stephen Jones during our email correspondence on World Horror Con: she’s an editor, not a director, screenwriter or novelist. That may make me prejudiced against anthology editors (sorry, anthology editors!), but not against women. Three other names proposed are all actors (in films which, with respect, I doubt the average SFX reader has heard of), so again, they do not fit the criteria. Kathryn Bigelow is the strongest suggestion, but while she did occur to me, I didn’t attempt to chase a quote from her: she has only directed one horror film, and certainly wouldn’t self-identify as a “horror director”, and I judged the chances of getting a quote from the director of The Hurt Locker about h
er favourite obscure horror movie as extremely slim.

One of my first actions after reading your blog post was to consult a couple of female horror fans, to seek their opinion. Both have given me permission to quote their email responses. Their reactions suggest to me that while it may be a shame that more works involving women weren’t represented in SFX Collection: Horror, the most likely explanation is not egregious male chauvinism, but the under-representation of women in horror for historic reasons beyond the control of SFX. The instant response of my partner (who considers herself a feminist) was as follows: “The fact that the most famous people in horror are men is not the magazine’s fault. And it isn’t the mag’s agenda to be promoting one way or another.” A female freelancer who specialises in horror journalism responded in similar terms: “It’s not your fault; you’re just reflecting the industry. There just aren’t that many female horror directors. There aren’t even that many female horror fans, come to that.”

Having said all this, I do agree with you that it was very unfortunate that we didn’t include any quotes from female writers or directors, an oversight which arose because the list of interviewees grew organically over a period of months, and at no time did I step back to look at it in gender terms. I’m always eager to learn, and happy to have gaps in my knowledge filled. It may be that there are female horror writers/directors that we could and should have gone the extra yard to contact who simply aren’t on my radar, and who really should be. I’d be genuinely grateful to hear any suggestions you have for future interviewees. If we do produce another horror-themed special in the future, I may well run a second Hidden Treasures feature, which would give us the opportunity to correct this oversight.

Yours

Ian Berriman
Editor, SFX Collection: Horror

It’s useful Ian has engaged with the issue, and his last paragraph indicates that at least he’s going to pay attention to the matter in the future.

I can appreciate what it’s like when you put a lot of work into a project, and it appears like someone is picking it apart. Yet, SFX touts itself as a leading industry magazine, and it’s fair to expect it to present a full picture of what’s going on in horror at the moment, rather than a partial view.

I can only judge the magazine on what was presented, rather than what was planned. It’s a shame that the Barbara Steele article fell through, but that leaves little else in the magazine to hint that women are active or contributing to the genre.

In particular there is no excuse for the absence of women in the “Horror Hidden Treasures” article. It would have been better if Ian just owned up to the mistake. Anyone can forgive an oversight. The excuses offered only compound the error.

I’m told emails between Ian and Sarah Pinborough went astray and were never discovered, and he just plain forgot to contact Alexandra Sokoloff.

What am I and these women expected to make of that?

SFX can hardly expect me to cut it some slack because it failed to contact two women over the course of three months, but in the same period managed to collect responses from 34 men.

I see Ian examined the comments on my blogs and dismisses a number of names people suggested. I don’t believe any of the commenters were attempting to offer a comprehensive list of alternatives, but were merely making general points. Perhaps if he’d taken the time to read back some entries he’d have seen a more complete list of women horror writers on my post in September when this subject came up the first time.

It might appear great that Ian wants suggestions of women horror creators for future interviews, but I’m surprised I need to educate Ian and his staff about which women are working in the field.

Surely, as experts in the genre, they should be aware of them already?

Women horror writers are plentiful. A simple Internet search will find them. There is no secret hideout or handshake necessary. You just need to want to find them.

I’ve heard arguments before about what constitutes “real” horror, “real” science fiction, “real” fantasy, etc. It’s nearly always the preamble used to exclude a group for some abstract reason. Not all women who write urban fantasy write about vampires either.

To give an indication of the variety of female voices in the horror field, here is a small sample of authors SFX could have contacted (leaving out the urban fantasy genre):

Tanith Lee, Sarah Pinborough, Alexandra Sokoloff, Lynda E Rucker, Caitlin R Kiernan, Allyson Bird, Gemma Files, Sarah Langan, Lisa Morton, Elizabeth Hand, Helen Oyeyemi, M. Rickert, Margo Lanagan, Sarah Pinborough, Tananarive Due, Sara Gran, Cherie Priest, Rhodi Hawk, Fran Friel, Lisa Tuttle, Melanie Tem, Chelsea Qunn Yarbro, Mary SanGiovanni, Nancy Kilpatrick, Kathe Koja, Susan Hill, Pat Cadigan, Sarah Monette. Barbara Roden, Kaaran Warren, Joyce Carol Oats, Mo Hayder, Ekaterina Sedia, Elizabeth Massie and Debbie Gallagher.

My apologies to those I’ve missed: it’s because there are so many of you!

Tanith Lee is the Guest of Honour at next month’s World Horror Convention for instance, and many of the women on this list will be attending the convention.

I’m troubled by Ian’s assertion that SFX must not have been sent women’s horror novels to review. I would urge women horror writers to contact their publishers and their marketing departments to check if SFX is getting their books.

On the issue of women horror directors: figures from the USA indicate only 7% of directors are women, so the field is smaller. Women directors tend to work in other genres rather than exclusively in horror. I suspect that’s because they go where they can get the work, because it’s damn hard for female directors.

Women screenwriters comprise about 12% of the industry in the USA, so the same issues apply as with directors.

I’m amused by the criteria that demanded the directors and screenwriters pass a loyalty test to the horror genre. Especially since the horror genre has been failing recently to show any commitment to its female horror creators and fans.

Yet, women horror screenwriters and directors are hardly non-existent. Here are some who could have been contacted:

Catherine Hardwicke, Nora Zuckerman, Mary Harron, Sue Montford, Amanda Gusack, Karen Walton, Mary Lambert, Marti Noxon, Katt Shea, Karyn Kusama, Rachel Talalay, Heidi Martinuzzi, Tanya Huff, Devi Snively, Gloria Katz, Jackie Kong, Kerry Anne Mullaney, Anya Camilleri, Lola Wallace, Jane Espenson, Barbara Peters, Stephanie Rothman, Roberta Findlay, Diablo Cody, Marian Dora, Marina de Van, Jennifer Lynch, Claire Denis and Julie Siege.

I must address the opinions of the two anonymous women Ian quoted to support his magazine. I was unhappy they weren’t named. Since I was objecting to the erasure of women from the horror genre using unnamed women to support the magazine’s case seemed inappropriate.

First: the comment, “The fact that the most famous people in horror are men is not the magazine’s fault. And it isn’t the mag’s agenda to be promoting one way or another.”

Some of the women I’ve listed are famous, and that’s what makes it all the more incomprehensible that SFX didn’t know about them.

It leads on to a good question: why are more men famous in the genre than women? How does that happen? There’s the simple fact that there are more male horror writers (if you exclude paranormal romance and urban fantasy). Nobody disputes that.

But, it certainly doesn’t help if magazines like SFX forget to promote women. This is not a problem just in horror. This is a widespread issue. But, when the entir
e editorial, writing staff and art team on a magazine are men, it’s easy for an unconscious bias to slip into articles, or to forget to include women entirely.

I’ve proven there are plenty of women in the field, so it’s not the case that they’re not producing work. And if it’s not SFX’s job to address a skewed balance, then whose job is it? How is this going to change?

I would have thought magazines like SFX would be keen to highlight writers/directors/screenwriters who are marginalised. I would have thought this was an opportunity to showcase new work and ensure the genre remained vital.

I’m saddened by the second comment: “It’s not your fault; you’re just reflecting the industry. There just aren’t that many female horror directors. There aren’t even that many female horror fans, come to that.”

First, there’s an implication that SFX is somehow not a part of the industry, or that its choice of material has no effect upon the perceptions of the readers/editors/publishers/producers/authors/directors who read it.

Second, the existence of women directors is disputed.

Worst of all, the existence of women horror fans is called into question.

That last statement is simply infuriating. I attend horror film festivals, genre events, and conventions. I can assure Ian’s unnamed female supporter that there are many, many women horror fans. I’m amazed that an editor of a genre magazine would go so far as to repeat this opinion.

If this is the attitude at SFX then it is no surprise that no one on its staff can discover the phone number or email address of a woman working the horror industry.

I’m going to end on a personal note, since Ian started on one.

All my life I’ve defended the horror genre. I love it, read it, view it, think about it and write it. When I was a kid I was made feel weird because I liked it. As an adult I’ve also received my fair share of ridiculous questions about my interest in the genre. I’ve been a friend and advocate of horror my entire life.

So it’s a heartbreak every time the genre doesn’t support women.

It’s okay for us to buy the books, movies, merchandise and magazines, but somehow it’s crazy for us to expect acknowledgement of our existence when we participate in the field.

Women are told we don’t belong in the genre for reasons not determined by us, we’re ignored and then attacked when we raise an objection, we’re informed we don’t exist in significant numbers to matter, and we’re often patronised about what good intentions everyone has but somehow it rarely translates into any significant change.

Women need to be more vocal about this issue. It might seem bizarre to have to ask for fair representation in the year 2010, but nothing will change if we remain silent.

In fact, it’s tacit agreement to our exclusion.

Comment Pages

There are 24 Comments to "SFX responds: a long post"

  • Kate says:

    I was VERY disappointed by the reply you received. While Ian does engage he uses excuses which compound the error and in fact make the situation worse rather than better. I think I will need to send an email to the mag now where I was happy to let* you represent me before since you do it so well, clearly an onslaught of numbers of disappointed and offended women is required.*if you know what I mean..I was happy to sit back and watch since you say it all better and with more authority than I.

    • Maura says:

      Kate, I agree the response is disappointing. I also think women should complain, especially given the weak nature of the excuses offered.Stating that there’s aren’t really that many of us… that makes me furious.I hope SFX learns not to ignore a large portion of its market in this manner.

  • Pat Cadigan says:

    While I’m sure it was disappointing for Ian Beniman to have three months’ hard word taken to task for what he calls a tally, I can also say that it’s even more disappointing to have thirty years’ hard work ignored because someone writing an article that purports to be an overview of a field isn’t well-read enough in that field to know that women don’t write only vampire romance.And I’m extremely disappointed in his prejudice against anthology editors, who are key to finding new talent. His prejudice actually cuts out a major aspect of the horror field. I mean, does he think that writers like Tanith Lee, Margo Lanagan, Caitlin R.Kiernan, Joyce Carol Oates, and Lisa Tuttle just magic their stories into print? Oh, wait, I forgot–these writers don’t actually register on him. My bad.

  • Harmsden says:

    “There aren’t even that many female horror fans, come to that.” Thanks for that, anonymous pundit. Word of advice? Next time you’re at a horror film festival: open your eyes.I enjoyed SFX’s horror special. A lot of time and effort went into it and a lot of the writing is entertaining and informative, but it just saps me when I see women artists having so little coverage. I’m not weeping into my keyboard or anything. I just expected more from a magazine purporting to be an ‘Ultimate Guide’.Doesn’t help that I’ve just come out of 100 minutes of Radha Mitchell being told what to do in ‘The Crazies’ remake. Feels like there’s two horror communities struggling to share the same body: a community of people and a community of men.

    • Maura says:

      I adored the beer mats!Yes, that’s the problem isn’t it. The magazine showed a lot of thought and attention… but only for one segment of the market. If only that could be directed a little evenly.Every year at London FrightFest I see one or two movies that makes me feel that the horror industry hates women. But the really stand-out films bring me back from the brink of despair. Thank goodness!

  • Alex says:

    Oh lawd the same old nonsense again and again and again. “It’s not my fault, there just aren’t any women in horror worth talking to”, “I have found two [unnamed] women who agree with me. Therefore you are wrong.”It’s enough to make you a little bit irritated.

  • Maura, I want to thank you for being proactive about this issue, which bothers me not only as an author but as a fan of the genre who would be even more of a fan if it were easier to get access to and information about the books I love, many of which are written by women. I’ve always found the female take on horror to be particularly elegant and thought-provoking as well as deeply, deliciously disturbing, and I’m an avid reader of many of the women on the fine list you’ve generated above (to which I would immediately add Mo Hayder and Rhodi Hawk.)I would just like to point out, for anyone who may be laboring under the – illusion – that authors are difficult to contact, that I’ve e mailed many an author on your list simply by going to their websites and clcking on the “Contact Me” form. I may not respond to my own website e mail for several days, but I don’t believe I’ve ever missed a request for an interview that came through my website, of which there have been dozens, and I would actually prefer that an interviewer contact me directly rather than through my publisher or publicist as it just saves a lot of steps for everyone involved.I would be willing to bet any amount of money that my friends and colleagues on your list would concur.We’re all dying to talk about our genre with people who care about it.And I would love to get your address for review copies, to make sure my publisher is sending ARCs directly to you.Thanks again for your advocacy – and taste! ;Alexandra Sokoloff

  • Most of the response seems to reduce to, “We didn’t talk to women because we don’t normally talk to women.”As we say on this side of the pond, well, there’s yer problem right there.

  • Jennie says:

    I have been having this argument with people about female political writers and analysts for a while; I have some fellow feeling with you, therefore, and that is oddly comforting, but it’s so irritating to see this happen in everything I hold dear. Sci-fi, horror, politics and everything else feel like they are solely men’s games. Maybe we need a hub…

    • Maura says:

      Alas, yes it’s not just a problem in horror.But, it always hurts more when what you love turns its back on you at a party, laughs with its other friends, and says, “Oh her, I just let her hang around, for show.”

  • Cassandra says:

    I am appauled by the response you recieved from Mr. Berriman. I have always been in love with the horror genre, as a twenty year old going into SFX makeup school I have to say that there’s no facking way that “there aren’t many female horror fans” I love horror, I know so many female horror fans, I’d like to meet the anonymous woman that Ian spoke with and punch her in the face, or at least have a long discussion about the modern day horror genre over a nice cup of tea.Secondly just because they are female horror authors does not mean they all write about vampire eroticism! I am horrified he would implicate that in a response to anyone!

    • Maura says:

      A good discussion over a strong brew of tea is always the better long-term solution for change. :) We are all part of the system, and at some point we either come to understand that and try to make changes, or we just settle back into conformity and let the dust shut up our mouths.Women love the horror genre. If you just look at the slew of shows on TV: Supernatural, Ghost Whisper, True Blood, Medium, etc. they are supported by a massive female fan base. It’s shocking SFX pretends not to know this.By the way, best of luck with your career in SFX makeup. If you’re looking for a woman in the industry for inspiration then check out the work by Beth Hathaway, if you haven’t heard of her already of course!

  • Rosel says:

    Ouch. A female horror journalist who hasn’t read about women and horror? there are reams of scholarly books on the subject. The add insult to injury Recognition of Women in Horror month has just finished and there has been tonnes of blog posts, film makers and such promoting women in horror. http://womeninhorrormonth.com/

    • Maura says:

      Hi Rosel, I’ve been promoting Women in Horror Recognition Month on my blog during February. I doubt SFX was aware it was going on, and they should have known. It’s a pity, because it would have made perfect sense to have an article about it in the horror edition since it was released in February.

  • Christina Colombo says:

    culture is a form of technology Through history, the reason people have killed each other over cultural concepts is, quite simply, because it WORKS. Perception and dominant ideas drive cultural change. WELL DONE in your interaction — I suspect once past the knee jerk impulse expressed the editor will be far more conscious and careful from here on out because of your letter and this exchange. Several years ago Greenleaf had a conference where all the published speakers were men. The response to my note was similar to what you received here — but they have had near gender parity ever since.

  • Lisa Morton says:

    Thank you for addressing this, Maura. It is disappointing, especially coming just six months after the British Fantasy Society’s similar omission of women in its collection of horror author interviews.At the risk of sounding hopelessly egotistical, I’ll just point out: 1) Aside from my prose work, I’ve made much of my living as a screenwriter, with three horror films in 2005 alone; 2) I’ve written articles on horror screenwriting, including one in a popular “how to” book just released last year; and 3) like Alex Sokoloff, I’m easy to find and contact, and I return all requests for interviews and questions (why, look – I’ve even included my e-mail address here!). Of course I never heard from SFX. I’d like to think it has more to do with me being an American (and working in the low-budget end of things) than being a woman…but after repeatedly hearing on various message boards that “women can’t write horror”, I can’t help but wonder.Hopefully a few more blog posts like yours will move us all a little further down the road to recognition.

    • Maura says:

      Hi Lisa, thanks for commenting. Several women on the list are screenwriters and prose writers, which probably reflects that writers need to be versatile to survive these days.The best thing about this fracas is that it forced me to re-educate myself about the numbers of women in the horror genre. I cannot deal with anyone asking “where are the women writers of horror?” any more. There are so many of them! However, their profile in the genre is still very low, and that is a crime. That’s why getting better coverage in genre magazines is so important. I can only hope that by pushing this issue we can stop the trend to just ignore the fabulous contribution that women have made and continue to make to the genre.

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