“Ten hundred books could I write you about her…”

I don’t know much about fantasy novelist George R.R. Martin, but this New York Times review of the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones intrigued me—not because I need more pseudo-mediaevalia in my life, but because all the bed-hopping in the TV series drove the Times critic to unsheathe one remarkably blunt assumption:

The true perversion, though, is the sense you get that all of this illicitness has been tossed in as a little something for the ladies, out of a justifiable fear, perhaps, that no woman alive would watch otherwise. While I do not doubt that there are women in the world who read books like Mr. Martin’s, I can honestly say that I have never met a single woman who has stood up in indignation at her book club and refused to read the latest from Lorrie Moore unless everyone agreed to “The Hobbit” first. “Game of Thrones” is boy fiction patronizingly turned out to reach the population’s other half.

Via Facebook, a friend of mine chimed in: “Admittedly, with all its rather graphic sex and violence and other nastiness, I’d guess GoT has a lower female readership percentage than, say, The Lord of the Rings.” He’s right to be wary of contrary generalizations. Male and female SF/fantasy fans don’t have identical tastes, and some authors’ readerships likely skew either more male or more female.

That said, the Times television critic is wielding yesterday’s oxidized ignorance. Women have long driven the expansion of the SF/fantasy universe: Starting from small but not insignificant numbers in the 1940s and 1950s, women were already one-third of Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction readers by 1965 and are nearly 40 percent today.

As of three years ago, women were 43 percent of the Sci Fi Channel audience.

As of two years ago, women were 40 percent of Comic-Con attendees.

A comment on this this 2008 post about SF fandom suggests that around 50 percent of serious fans are women:

While I have no empirical data on science fiction readers in general, I can claim a bit of expertise, derived from inter alia having chaired the World Science Fiction Convention, on the narrower subject of SF “fandom”, the hard core who attend conventions, publish zines, etc. Among that group, women are as numerous as men, and a sex-specific SF vs. fantasy split is just barely discernible.

While we’re at it: 40 percent of U.S. gamers are women, too.

And although I can’t find good statistics to support the rumors, I hear women also drive cars, do math, and vote.

Regular readers know (I hope) that Quid Plura? isn’t a venue for snarking at easy targets—but shouldn’t a newspaper critic know where the culture’s at these days? Has no one at the Times read these books? The print edition of the Sunday New York Times has a circulation of 1.4 million copies (and dropping). George R.R. Martin has sold more than 2.2 million fantasy novels. Which of them, really, is increasingly mainstream, and which is increasingly “niche”?

* * *

There’s another weird swipe in this review: “The show has been elaborately made to the point that producers turned to a professional at something called the Language Creation Society.” Yes, “something called” the Language Creation Society—I like that deniable hint of disdain for a worldwide organization of scholars who study constructed languages.

The reviewer concludes:

If you are not averse to the Dungeons & Dragons aesthetic, the series might be worth the effort. If you are nearly anyone else, you will hunger for HBO to get back to the business of languages for which we already have a dictionary.

Bloggers gleefully flay the New York Times for its politics, or the phrasematronic predictability of its columnists, or because the paper juxtaposes dire warnings about poverty with adverts for indoor lap pools. For me, the issue is sadder and more simple: With this review, the Times continues the trend of general-interest publications talking down to some hypothetical idiot and sneering at the intellectuals they assume aren’t among their readership. (Similarly, the Washington Post recently spent as many articles mocking one elderly National Humanities Medal recipient than it did covering all of this year’s honorees combined.)

Reader-starved newspapers don’t get that they’re alienating people with brains, people who pursue intellectual interests without regard for social approbation—in other words, people who actually read.

* * *

UPDATE: Annalee Newitz, who’s read Martin’s books, cheekily asks: Why would men want to watch this?

12 thoughts on ““Ten hundred books could I write you about her…”

  1. Amen.

    And at the same time, numbers like the ones you cite are routinely dismissed by male fans and especially male gamers — in their minds, women can’t possibly be playing games, especially online games, unless it’s something like Bejeweled or Solitaire, which of course don’t really count.

    Witness the comments on the ESA study you linked and the uproar in the Bioware forums over the fact that the ‘romantic options’ in Dragon Age 2 show a blatant disregard of “straight male gamers” who of course are the core gamer demographic.

    DA2 lead writer David Gaider responded admirably — I didn’t plan to buy the game because they’d made changes in the mechanics I don’t find appealing, but now I’m wondering if it’s my moral duty as a chick-who-games to show my support.


  2. Nora: Thanks for pointing me to the comments on that ESA study! As a result, I found this study of gamers from late 2008 that shows, contrary to the gripes of those commenters, that surveys of gamers do take into account that men also play Freecell, Solitaire, Minesweeper, etc. Sure, a shoot-’em-up like “Half-Life 2” doesn’t even make the top 10 for women, but if we’re talking about fantasy-based stuff, the WoW breakdown is interesting: 428,621 female players to 675,713 male players. (This is where it would pay to disentangle science fiction from fantasy, but that’s beyond the scope of this post.)


  3. This is the second place today where I read a takedown of this silliness. The other one was only about the women thing. It didn’t mention the Language Creation Society swipe, which really sucks (to get all articulate on you).

    but shouldn’t a newspaper critic know where the culture’s at these days?

    Honestly, this is what gets me most about the NYT. The Styles section seems to be made up of nothing so much as anecdotes about some semi-unusual (or totally absurd) thing a friend of a friend of the writer is up to; the only culture these people seem aware of is within three degrees of separation from a New York City journalist. Still, a part of me is saying, “But shouldn’t they at least know about books?!?”


  4. Reader-starved newspapers don’t get that they’re alienating people with brains, people who pursue intellectual interests without regard for social approbation—in other words, people who actually read.

    This strikes me as a very astute observation.

    On the other hand, maybe some editors of “prestige” newspapers editors are calculating that serious readers are becoming fewer and the competition for their attention is getting fiercer. Maybe they’re right to concentrate on the folks who read the New York Times (for example) just so they can say they’ve read the New York Times?


  5. The NYT is like this about everything. It may be important for a certain too influential elite but if you care about the facts or serious analysis it will make you stupider.


  6. I can’t speak to the HBO show, since I haven’t seen it, but on A Game of Thrones itself I don’t think you’ll be enormously impressed. A lot of faux medievalism, with word orders in sentences mixed up (” ‘Direwolves loose in the realm, after so many years,’ muttered Hullen, the master of horse. ‘I like it not.’ “). Personally, I like it not when this kind of stuff is randomly sprinkled in. A lot of stuff like, “I was born a Tully and wed to a Stark [. . .] I do not frighten easily.”

    That being said, if you can plow through the first half, the second is suspenseful and fast. Will the army make it in time? Who’s going to get the axe? Unfortunately, the writing doesn’t improve.

    I’ve been meaning to write a post on GoT for ages.

    Still, the series might be better than the book. When True Blood came out—I find it fun—I started a few of the Sookie Stackhouse novels, which are best left to the small screen.


  7. My SF fan wife world certainly take offense at that critic’s tone. She’s bummed that we dropped HBO and can’t watch. In fact, in our house she’s the one more likely to read The Hobbit, and me Lorrie Moore.


  8. Aside from the let’s-flay-the-NYT goodness … when the reviewer says that (women’s) book clubs aren’t so interested in fantasy, I think she’s right; but of course there are many other venues for discussion. Like, say, teh internets, where (I know from ego-scanning) Teenage Girl Fantasy Lovers exchange opinions on what they’ve read. (Tragically, not everything they say about Withywindle’s Novels is positive.) I think I’d say that book clubs have a definite social and literary setting, and that I betcha book club members overlap with New York Times readers to a larger extent that Internet Fantasy Discussion Board Members.


  9. Thanks for chiming in, everyone! For what it’s worth, neither fantasy nor female fantasy fans need me to defend them. As far as I’m concerned, the reviewer would have been within her rights to hate this TV series or even to hate all fantasy, but her statement about fantasy being “boys’ stuff” isn’t within the bounds of subjective opinion; it’s a blatant factual error.

    I should add that my inner 13-year-old, who lives permanently in the early 1980s, takes satisfaction in knowing that despite Harry Potter, Twilight, et al., fantasy is still juuuust outsider-ish enough that lit-fic types and mainstream cultural critics don’t yet get it.


  10. I think Connie Willis is an outstanding writer—don’t know what the gender mix of her readership is, but some of her stories seem like high-quality chick-lit (which I don’t mean pejoratively but rather something reflecting a female sensibility) which takes advantage of the flexibility offered by SF…I’m thinking particularly of her story “Chance,” which I review (along with some of her other work) in this post.


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