REVIEW: Gender in Genre

By Press Room Contributor Bridget Lutherborrow

Friday – 3:30pm – 4:30pm, Elderly Citizen’s Centre

There’s always a certain awkwardness at a roundtable. The moderators and artists talking amongst themselves while fishing for ways to include everyone else. People take a while to warm up to each other. So it was sitting in on the Gender and Genre roundtable in the Elderly Citizens Centre on Friday afternoon, which – unlike some of the roundtable discussions this festival – really was at a table and really was round-ish.

We’re introduced to Tom Albert and A.E. Doolan. Tom is a writer and performer working in cabaret and theatre, while Doolan is a writer of speculative fiction that explores overlooked genders and sexualities. Tom opens the discussion by asking for a definition of genre. Is it separate from literature? At this time it’s really useful to have festival co-director Sian in the room because everyone else is being shy. Sian says she thinks of genre fiction and literature as disparate things. But there’s a general consensus that literary fiction is it’s own genre as well. We discuss expectations and how being able to categorise things is really great for selling books, but as writers we need to be aware of how genre can work for us.

There’s a lot of sexism not only within genre writing, but in the fandoms surrounding it. Doolan gives the example that googling women in Star Trek brings up sexiest women lists, while googling men brings up character analysis. There are genre fans who come across Doolan’s work and get angry about the stories she tells, despite being up front about what she writes. Some genre fans feel a certain ownership over the conventions of their favoured form and get up in arms about “social justice” writing.

Over the course of the hour the rest of the table begin to join in. One participant notes how weird it is when people write about aliens and still default to binary genders. In a genre that can invent whole worlds, why do people return to the same constraints of mainstream society? Doolan notes that even switching things up can be lazy. Using overdone tropes but changing the gender is often no more satisfying a narrative.

Another participant (who from some careful stalking is NYWF artist Sarah Gates) asks if there are other genres we can discuss. The issues surrounding gender in more realist genres are often quite different to speculative ones. Romance writing, for instance, is widely written, read and marketed to women. Doolan notes that romance is often not taken very seriously. This is a problem with a lot of genre writing, but with realist genres the divide between what’s romance or women’s fiction and what’s literature can come down to the gender of the person who wrote it. As the resident romance expert, Sarah notes here that the romance writing community itself is extremely positive, providing a safe space to work through issues of gender.

We round out the session by discussing how criticising something doesn’t mean you can’t like it. In a room full of open-minded genre fans this isn’t a surprising takeaway. For a crowd like this, it would be impossible to like anything if it meant you couldn’t be critical. But being discerning is a tool for better writing, especially when breaking out of genre conventions is easier said than done.

It took a while for this discussion to warm up, but by the end it felt like some headway had been made. This topic could have worked well as a panel, with more speakers more strongly representing different genres. But the roundtable format, as awkward as it can be, does reflect one of the great joys of NYWF – that programmed and unprogrammed writers occupy the same space. What was possible here was for a larger number of people to share their expertise. Be that in publishing or comics, lived experience or fandom. When it comes to the topics of both gender and genre there is so much more we can learn from talking to each other.