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 her 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 entire 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.