The Fantasy Genre: A Man’s World? Who Are the Fans of Science Fiction and Fantasy?

WARNING: This article is crammed with unscientific observations, and has absolutely no data to back up the author’s opinions. Please take them for what they are…subjective.

The idea for this post started innocently enough. But as I jotted down notes I became a tad bit alarmed, because I realized that I was likely exposing my very narrow understanding of the fantasy genre’s fan base. See, a couple of months ago I held a giveaway of The Prince of Graves through Goodreads. The entry period was only a week, so I was pleased to see that 691 people had entered the random drawing. Now, if you’re not familiar with the Goodreads setup, I’ll just tell you that I could see the profile name and photo of the Goodreads members who entered the drawing. As the number of entrants to the contest increased, I would casually flip through some of the profiles. It was then that I realized that a fundamental assumption of mine seemed to be in error: it looked as though most of the entrants for my novella were women. This was stunning for me, so please bear with me as I explain why.

I grew up immersed in fantasy and science fiction worlds. I devoured the writings of J.R.R. Tolkien, and read all six Dune novels written by Frank Herbert while I was in High School. I loved the Sprague De Camp Conan (for some reason I never read, until recently, any of the original Robert Howard stories). Add to the mix the classic Fantasy movies (Dragonslayer, the Conan franchise, Excalibur, etc), plus the all too obvious obsessions with Star Wars and Dungeons and Dragons, and you get a pretty clear picture of me in Middle and High School: I was a nerd. And my personal experience as a well-established nerd was this: females who shared these interests, at least publically, were rare. I have a miserable dating record to prove it. Yes, there were tremendously talented female fantasy authors that I knew of – Ursula K. LeGuin and Anne McCaffrey, for instance – but that didn’t change my observation that the fans seemed to be mostly guys.

The point is this: my formative fantasy-obsessed years molded the belief that the fantasy genre was pretty much male dominated. But my recent (last couple of years) experience in the writing world has blown this perception out of the water. I have no data to back this up, but it seems that more women are writing and reading fantasy than I would have ever guessed. So my questions are simple: has this always been the case? And if not, when did the change occur that ushered so many women into the fantasy genre? And where were they when I was looking for a Prom date?

Seriously though, I wonder if there’s any hard data around this. To possibly get the juices flowing, I stumbled on these articles as I was researching “gender and the fantasy genre” (note: these three articles, written last year, are a little out of date and are specifically discussing HBO’s Game of Thrones series. The first, written by Ginia Bellafante for the New York Times, reviewed GOT. In it, Ms. Bellafante takes a jab at how male oriented the series is. The other two articles are in response to the review. None of these, I might add, have anything other than subjective observations):

A Fantasy World of Strange Feuding Kingdoms, Ginia Bellafante, April 14, 2011

Really, why would men ever want to watch “Game Of Thrones“? Annalee Newitz, 15 April, 2011

The Fantasy Genre and Gender: Who’s ‘Game of Thrones’ For? Ujala Sehgal, April 16, 2011

Now, a number of you may be picking up some misogynist vibes coming out now. Why does this matter? Well, for me as a writer, it really doesn’t. I’m not looking to do market analysis so that I can tailor my writings. I write my stories as I like them, and hope they find an audience. But I would like to understand the greater community out there.

I’m pretty sure that I haven’t started anything controversial with this post. I would love to hear from you readers and writers. What have been your observations, if any, about gender and the fantasy / science fiction genres? Don’t be afraid to rebuke me. I’m not trying to start a flame war here, so please keep things civil.

Thank you all for participating. If you would kindly forget anything I may have mentioned about how miserable my dating record was, I’d appreciate it.


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8 Responses to The Fantasy Genre: A Man’s World? Who Are the Fans of Science Fiction and Fantasy?

  1. katkasia says:

    Interesting observation. I wonder if what you’re seeing is the terribly keen, dyed in the wool, faintly asbergers fans, versus the fans with a casual interest in reading many things, which includes fantasy? I’ve no idea if this is correct, but a friend of mine who attends a science fiction club (which has an almost entirely male membership) says that some of these guys know more about scifi series than the people who starred in them. There are plenty of women who like those genres, I suspect, but perhaps not with such one-eyed dedication?
    I’d be interested to hear what other think…

    • W.E. Linde says:

      You may be on to something on this. That would actually fit neatly in to my own shifting observations. Perhaps the male fans of fantasy tend to be more exclusive in their devotion, while women tend to be more eclectic. Again, I’m not sure if there is data out there, but I’m inclined to agree with you. Thanks!

  2. For myself, I didn’t start reading fantasy until well into college, and even then I kept it mostly hidden from everyone except my friends because it didn’t seem “cool” (and let’s face it, in high school being “cool” is pretty important, at least to a high schooler). When I started writing fantasy I wouldn’t own up to it for years. It was “magical realism” (I now know the difference, and I do write both) or “historical fiction that never happened”, or “one of the characters has wings but it’s not a fantasy because it’s not full of dragons and magic”.

    Now that I no longer care if I’m “cool” or not I own up to my fantasy-loving self 🙂

    • W.E. Linde says:

      I still falter a bit when I tell my family or strangers that I write fantasy. But the more I write, the more comfortable I am with the label (although I enjoy writing genres as well). After all, fantasy is what I enjoy writing the most. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Hmmm… I started reading fantasy when I was maybe 10 or so. My dad gave me Anne McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy. I followed that with her Dragonriders series. At 12, I read the Dragonlance Chronicles, co-written by Margaret Weiss. 13 introduced me to Mercedes Lackey’s Valdemar series… Since then, I’ve read dozens of great fantasy women authors (Andre Norton, Ursula K. LeGuin, Patricia Briggs, Moira J. Moore, Naomi Novik, Jane Yolen, Janny Wurts, Elizabeth Haydon, Elizabeth Moon, Elizabeth Kerner, Melanie Rawn, Tamora Pierce, J.K. Rowling… just from a scan of my bookshelves, lol).

    As a current sci-fi and fantasy writer… I sure don’t feel like this is a man’s world. 🙂

    • W.E. Linde says:

      Thanks for your comment! I’m becoming a lot wiser on the subject. As I mentioned in my article, my observations are pulled from a singular perspective growing up. I remember when the dragonlance series was first published…now I feel old.

  4. tarunss says:

    I definitely relate! I had the same childhood interests as you (D&D, read the Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion, religiously, in middle-and-high school), though I hid it from my social groups at the time for the sake of ‘coolness’. Anyways, on topic, I also assumed for the longest time that the fantasy genre was mostly full of male fans. One of the things that solidified this in my mind was the fact that so many videogames were based on fantasy worlds, and videogames seems so male-dominated, so I suppose I thought that there was some sort of relation there. It wasn’t until recently where I noticed on goodreads and other review sites that (anecdotally, at least) more women were reviewing and reading fantasy books than men.

    But I wonder if this is at all related to the decline of book-reading among males in general? Perhaps it used to be the case that fantasy was male-dominated, but the rise of videogames stole away large amounts of would-be teen male readers from the fantasy genre.

    • W.E. Linde says:

      I can’t help but wonder if the success of JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, though neither are classic high fantasy writers, didn’t somehow abolish the notion that fantasy is for men only? As I mention in the post, there have always been fantastic female fantasy writers, but (again, purely subjective observation here) the fans didn’t seem to be very diverse, gender-wise. Other commentators on the this article have had some interesting insights into this as well. This would be a fascinating social study, I think. I wish I had time to pursue it!

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