Of Swords and Breakfast

The thoroughly delightful, ridiculously talented Tansy Rayner Roberts shares her thoughts on the difference between male and female fantasy writers.

Tehani is totally trying to trap me into saying something controversial, by requesting a post about the difference between male and female writing in fantasy.

Since I first started reading Proper Grownup Fantasy at the age of thirteen, I noticed women writers and sought them out. Not necessarily because their writing offered something that male writing didn’t, but because – well. Maybe it did. I find myself drawn to female voices, though a book has to offer me far more than just a female byline to capture my attention.

Warrior women photograph Attribution Some rights reserved by Ran Yaniv Hartstein

As a reader, I particularly love deep characterisation and unusual takes on gender roles, and frocks, and humour, and smutty bits, and strange magic, and to be honest I’m far more interested in the stories that happen inside the castle walls than outside of them. None of those things are exclusive to women’s writing, but why shouldn’t I seek it out there? Why shouldn’t I assume that I’m more likely to find what I want in a book by a woman than a book by a man?

After all, it seems pretty clear that there are a huge number of readers who only seek out what they think they want in a novel from books with a male name on the cover. And I think that’s very depressing. Also, as a woman who occasionally reviews books, I do think it’s very important for me to single out and discuss books by women – or rather, as someone who reads a lot of women, I think it’s important that I keep reviewing books, as my small attempt to be part of the solution rather than the problem.

The truth is that we all filter our reading, before we even pick up a book. We use all manner of filters: what we know of that author already, what we’ve heard about their work, what we think of the cover. Gender bias often plays a part in that too. I do tend to assume that with a male fantasy author, I’m more likely to get an abundance of fight scenes, and not enough chatting over breakfast scenes, but that’s a completely unfair assumption. (look at David Eddings, his books were PRACTICALLY ALL BREAKFAST CHATTING, remember Breakfast of Magicians? It was between Queen of Elevenses and Tower of Gossip and Stew).

Some of my favourite books ever involving swords are by women: Jennifer Roberson, Ellen Kushner, Tamora Pierce. Some of my favourite books involving witty dialogue, smutty bits and pretty clothes are written by men: Simon R Green, Kim Newman, Neil Gaiman. Some books (the best books ever) have both of these things! I certainly don’t assume that a woman is going to automatically produce all the things I love best in books.

Around the fire photographAttributionNoncommercialNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by Jane Starz

But on the other hand: female voices, I am drawn to them. I seek them out, I tend to enjoy books which have them far more than books which don’t, and I choose not to feel guilty about that.


Tansy Rayner Roberts is the author of Power and Majesty (Creature Court Book One) and The Shattered City (Creature Court Book Two, April 2011) with
Reign of Beasts (Creature Court Book Three, coming in November 2011) hot on its tail. Her short story collection Love and Romanpunk will be published as part of the Twelfth Planet Press “Twelve Planets” series in May.

This post comes to you as part of Tansy’s Mighty Slapdash Blog Tour, and comes with a cookie fragment of new release The Shattered City:

Roast goat. Someone had said something about roast goat. Velody followed her nose to the spit, where two lads were slashing strips off the beast, layering them up on platters for the crowd. She found a dish of the rarest slices, oozing blood, and ate ravenously, licking her fingers. “Love a demme with an appetite,” leered one of the goat lads.

Velody wiped a smear of blood from her chin. “Don’t we all?”

Fresh meat was a rare extravagance, and her body thrummed with it as she turned back to face the crowd. The music slid under her skin, and she could feel Ashiol’s presence nearby. She could not see him in the crowd, but his animor sparked against her own, bringing mixed sensations of security and lust. You don’t want him, she told herself sternly. It’s the meat making you crazy.


2 thoughts on “Of Swords and Breakfast

  1. Interesting. I don’t think it has ever occured to me to even notice whether the author is male or female. Although I do remember being surprised that one of Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickmen was a man. Still can’t remember which one. Very girly names.

  2. The difference between female and male authors is something I don’t often reflect on. I tend to read both. If the titles on my bookshelf are dominated by male authors, IMO that’s only because there tend to be more male authors published. I adore Le Guin, Ellis Peters, Elizabeth Moon, C J Cherryh, Liam Hearn, Margo Lanagan. And probably my fav book of the last decade was The Time Traveler’s Wife.

    It is often stated that women are better at characterisation than men, and men better at action than women. But that can only go so far, IMO. The best specfic written by men is equal with the best specfic written by women, as far as characterisation goes. Take, for example, the simply wonderful Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes. However… and it’s a big ‘however’… if we discount the cream of the crop and look at more middle-of-the-road books, it is possible that there is some gulf between the quality of characterisation between male and female writers. But even there we’re only talking about generalisations. Mileage may vary in specific cases.

    As to the female voice in specfic, I’m a bit of a fence-sitter. I’ve seen too much specfic where the female voice was strong, but only by masculinising the female characters. I don’t find that interesting, literally-speaking. I’m more interested in seeing what strength means to a woman (ie in what ways is it similar to and different from the male perspective?). Also, I like to see writers explore not only strengths, but weaknesses. For example, I’m currently reading The Picture of Dorian Gray. And, touchy subject that this is, I don’t see why this aspect of characterisation should be restricted to men. Women (no less than men) can be weak, either constitutionally or just in the occasional low moments — why should not fiction explore this, just as it should explore the weaknesses of men.

    Anyway, I’ve done being horribly controversial for now… 😉

Comments are closed.