Selection Bias

Out here in science fiction land, there been a lot of agitation over the last week concerning gender bias, with the particular focus being Fantasy & Science Fiction, one of the “Big Three” science fiction magazines (the other two being Asimov’s and Analog). The basics of the issue are that it was noted over on SF writer Charles Coleman Finlay’s blog that the number of women published in that particular magazine was low relative to the number of men (between 15 and 20 percent of stories published over the last four years were from women). This created a lot of commentary. Finlay then suggested a “submission bomb,” in which 100 women would simultaneously submit to the magazine; this created a ton of commentary in itself, some of which accuses Finlay basically of being a patronizing prick. And from there topic metastatized all over the place.

I don’t really have an opinion as to whether F&SF has a gender selection bias, or whether “submission bombing” will do any good in correcting that. But since I did guest-edit a science fiction magazine recently, the controversy caused me to go back to look at my own table of contents to see who is in there and in what proportion.

As it turns out, I bought 18 stories/articles for the magazine, seven of which were written or co-written by women. That’s about 39% of the stories. I’ll note anecdotally that this percentage of stories seems to be in line with what I remember being the overall proportion of submissions from women and from men; about 40% were from women and about 60% were from men.

(The actual percentage of xx-generated material in the issue is lower because I wrote a short editor’s note, Bill Schafer wrote a publisher’s introduction, and the book reviewer, who came pre-installed, is a guy. However, in my selection process, that’s the percentage. On the other hand, from the Subterranean submissions I bought a story for my own site, by Nick Mamatas and Eliani Torres, so the number of stories I bought featuring women writers is higher than appears in the magazine. Ultimately, it’s sort of a wash.)

I don’t recall having any intentional selection bias for or against women (or for that matter, for or against men) in any particular round of cuts; I focused primarily on what I thought were good stories, and then later on what stories best fit an overall flow of material — what stories gave the best balance of story topics, writing styles and etc. Despite all the stories having the same overarching theme (science fiction cliches), I wanted the writing of the stories to have a wide range of styles and topics, both to highlight that cliches could have life in them if executed well, and also because having a magazine wherein all the stories sound alike is kind of boring, and I didn’t want this issue to be boring. When the dust cleared, these were the stories that remained.

Having no intentional gender bias in the selection is not the same thing as saying that gender didn’t play a role in the nature of the stories. I can think of stories in the magazine where I suspect the gender of the writer mattered materially for the story’s focus and point of view, and was part of what made the story worth reading. If it mattered more than other aspects of the writer’s personal experience and writing craft is something the individual writers would have to answer, not me. Suffice to say that I was looking at how each story worked as a whole, and then how it worked as part of an entire magazine.

If I had finished my selection process and I had only a couple of stories by women, would I have gone back and tried to find a few more? I suppose I might have, but if I had been happy with the selection of stories I expect I would have stuck with it and just said “these are the stories I thought were the best.” I suspect I might have done the same thing if the situations were reversed. I will say that early in the reading process I had substantially more women-written pieces on my “yes” and “maybe” lists than male-written pieces, and I remember wondering if I was going to find male-written pieces that I liked. As it turned out, this was an artifact of the submission process — I had a one-month submission window, and rather more women submitted earlier in that timeframe, and rather more men submitted later. Whether this was a random occurance or indicative of larger trends in male/female submission protocols I leave to people other than me to winkle through.

While I had no intentional sex-oriented selection bias, I did have one intentional selection bias, which is that I wanted to try, if at all possible, to have the issue debut writers new to the science fiction field. Four of the writers in the magazine are being published in SF for the first time; as it happens two of them are women. There’s also another writer for whom this is the first time she’s published in a North American short story market, and another for whom, while she is immensely well-known in SF circles (and indeed, is a multiple Hugo nominee), this nevertheless marks her first “prozine” sale. Again, this was not an issue of being conscious of, or working from the intention of, striking a blow for women in SF, or for making sure I had a chromosomally ideal proportion of debut authors; I just liked their work and wanted to publish them, and was pleased to be able to give them their various debuts.

This contributor list is reasonably gender balanced, but it’s clear to me that if one wanted to pick apart the contributor list in terms of bias, one easily could. For example, the contributors are almost entirely some strain of white; I’m only aware of one of them being of something other than purely European descent. I couldn’t tell you how many of them are heterosexual, homosexual or bisexual, so if it were to turn out the magazine has an unusually high (or low) number of queer or bi contributors, I can’t take much credit for that (or blame for it, either). The contributor list is heavily weighted toward North Americans, I know that for sure. I suspect the contributors tend to be more liberal then conservative, but I since I didn’t ask to see voter registration cards, I can’t know for sure. And finally, the list here is almost appallingly homo sapiens-centric (that is, as far as I know).

In the end, there are probably many things this list of contributors has too much of, or not enough of. What I definitely know it has the right amount of is people who write stories I wanted to buy, and that I think other people would want to read. That’s what I saw my job being, and I think I did it well enough. You’ll have to read the magazine for yourself to see if I managed the latter part of it well enough for you.

My Progeny, Her Self

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Yeah, this picture just about sums it up. Also, contrary to what you might think, owing to this being my child, she is not actually flipping the double bird here in the picture, she’s merely propping up the eyebrows. Really.

One of the things you know about fatherhood going in is that you’re going to love your kid. That’s a given. What’s a bonus is when you genuinely like your kid, which is to say that your kid is a human being that you think is interesting and fun and someone you’d like to know both better and for a nice, long time. I’m always constantly amazed how much I really like Athena, not just for all the things we share in common but also for the things that make her singularly herself; she’s my kid but she’s becoming her own person, which seems about right.

As she’s growing into that person, I have a daughter, a friend, a co-conspirator in various goofy pictures, and an inspiration, both practical (gotta send her to college) and ineffable. That’s a good deal for me, no matter how you look at it. I feel pretty lucky to be able to know her. For Father’s Day, my wish for all you other fathers is that you get to feel the same way about your own kids.

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