Elspeth Cooper

Purveyor of fine fantasy adventures

A selection of book covers

Beyond the Boys’ Club

When I was but a wean, maxing out my library card every week, I never noticed the gender of the authors I read. There were just books, and new friends to be found within their pages who would take me on amazing adventures.

Then I grew up, and eventually started my own adventure. Round about the time I  realised I had an actual book on my hands, whether or not I was prepared to speak its true name out loud, I looked up and noticed that all the other fantasy authors seemed to be men. Men on the shelves at the bookstore. Men on posters for signing events, men being raved about, men being recommended to me. All men, all the time.

Fantasy was a boys’ club, it said to me. Don’t even try.

So I didn’t, for a long time. Almost as long as it took me to figure out that Julian May and Robin Hobb were actually women.

Fantasy was a boys’ club, it said to me. Don’t even try.

But then I did try, and got published, and learned about the various studies of representation across spec fic, like VIDA’s The Count, Ladybusiness and Strange Horizons’ annual SF Count. This showed me that fantasy only looked like a boys’ club, because of systemic biases on multiple social and professional axes that gave the boys better PR.

By better PR I mean the boys are talked about more. What’s talked about gets recommended more, sells more, gets talked about even more, and round and round we go. Then we end up with “What should I read next?” requests that are too often answered with a combination of the same dozen or so names, or all-male lists (bar a token le Guin or Hobb). And if you ask why there aren’t more non-male authors being mentioned, the recommenders say “Well, there’s just not that many women writing fantasy.” *


This is one of the most pernicious genre myths, along with “fantasy written by women is full of romance” (but that’s a rant for another day). And it’s just not true at all. There’s a roughly 55:45 male:female split in SFF author gender, 1, 2 which is a very long way from “not that many”.

Yet I still keep running across that argument. It’s everywhere, and defies eradication, like Japanese knotweed. So I decided to start making a list of every non-male fantasy author I could think of, and called it Beyond the Boys’ Club. As of today, it’s at about 280+ names and rising. You can find it here.

About the list

Obviously, it’s incomplete. I’m updating it as and when I can, but I have zero time right now as I have a book to finish. I don’t even have time to be writing this post, yet here we are.

I haven’t de-duped it, so there is bound to be a couple of authors on it more than once. Neither have I broken it down into sub-genres, or by type of publication. There’s a mix of trad, indie, novels, novellas, classics and upcoming releases. I don’t discriminate, and as I said, time is an issue.

So why create it at all?

Because I wanted to. Because I was tired of hearing bullshit “everyone knows” being repeated so widely and so uncritically that it acquires the status of fact. Because it makes me sad that so many great voices in fantasy are overlooked because of stupid genre myths and unsubstantiated assertions. Because whatever I do or say to try to counter those myths is never enough**, so I went for something big and colourful because I have to keep trying anyway.

Why use Pinterest when it’s a horrible, no good, very bad website?

Well, I’d already made a start there, with my own books. It seemed like the easiest and quickest way to build a list that would let me include cover pictures instead of just dry text – I’m as weak for a pretty cover as the next person.

Pinterest has problems – the charming habit of not showing you any content unless you first sign up being just one of them – but I was primarily creating the list for myself, so wider accessibility wasn’t a priority.

One thing I have done, though, is ensure all the pins on this board link to Goodreads when clicked – even the ones that use my photos. Not everyone on Pinterest does this, thus contributing to its reputation, but I don’t have the spoons to worry about others abusing what is, after all, a free tool. Over my years in IT, one thing I have learned is that the users of any system will find a way to misuse it – especially if they can do so for gain. It’s human nature.

Maybe one day, when I don’t have a book to finish and an editor very patiently waiting on it, I will convert my list into another format for wider dissemination. Maybe I’ll even be able to tag the entries with epic, YA, #ownvoices etc to make it a searchable resource. For now, it is what it is. If it proves useful to someone besides me, that’s a bonus.


* I think what they really mean is “there’s just not that many women writing my type of fantasy, which is epic and manly and full of battles, treachery and blood.” Which would be fine if they just said what they meant in the first place, but yanno? Still not true.

** No list is ever long enough. No stats are ever authoritative enough, because industry-wide hard data is difficult to come by, sub-genre definitions are blurry, and whatever you quote will be nitpicked, rules-lawyered into irrelevance and ultimately dismissed. Which is also human nature: people would rather believe bullshit that supports their worldview than facts that challenge it. Just look at Fox News.


1: Strange Horizons’ The Count for 2013 showed a 55:45 male:female gender split over the whole of spec fic (closer to parity in the US, more 60:40 in the UK, and don’t even get me started on Australia and New Zealand which produce scads of top-drawer fantasy by women). I would love to have more up-to-date data, but the most recent SF Count for 2015 doesn’t show this figure.

2: On Reddit, author Courtney Schafer did an analysis over 9 months’ worth of Tor’s Fiction Affliction new release roundup posts in 2016, and noted very similar figures: 44% women. This link goes to her results post and discussion, which includes a link to her data.


Silhouette of couple kissing against the sunset

Let’s talk about sex

Sex in fantasy books, that is. Settle down at the back.

The other day, I was tidying up my notes folder and found some scene fragments I’d written a while ago. One of them featured two of my characters having sex. At the time, I made a funny tweet about it and let it go, but this is actually something I feel very strongly about. Strongly enough to go back and expand my funny tweet into a threadlet:

And then when I still had Thoughts, to write this post.

So what’s the big deal?

There is a sector of the genre readership that doesn’t like sex in their fantasy. Some find it uncomfortable or embarrassing to read. Some view it as boring, unnecessary and a distraction from the plot. Some just feel sexual encounters are as much a part of the character’s everyday life as trips to the bathroom, and therefore have just as little reason to be on the page. After all, if the reader just needs to know two people have slept together, that can be shown with dialogue, contextual cues and other narrative devices, without describing the act in any way. The “how much detail is too much” question is one for another day.

I’m firmly in the opposite camp. I think that building a character without taking into account their sexuality leaves out a huge amount of information about them and how they relate to the people around them. Sexual desire is a powerful motivator in humans, as is sexual jealousy. It can skew a character’s priorities, make them willing to take risks. Who they choose to love and what opposition they may face for it reveals much about their society and social role. Think caste systems, religious divides, the effect of wealth or public visibility vs a private life and that old favourite, forbidden love.

Intimacy makes people vulnerable in a way that combat does not, and characters with vulnerabilities are interesting.

Everything I include in a book has to have a purpose – often more than one. That’s true of the sex scenes too. They’re not there for titillation. Intimacy makes people vulnerable in a way that combat does not, and characters with vulnerabilities are interesting. It also reveals how their upbringing has shaped them: what they want, what they expect, how much they give and receive when no-one else is watching. Even characters’ reasons not to have sex are intriguing. Asexuality, shyness, fear, disability – it is all relevant and worthy of exploration.

There are other reasons to include a sexual encounter, too. It’s a change of pace. A chance for the reader and story alike to catch their breath. To snatch a moment of joy in a highly-charged situation. For separated lovers to reconnect. Or maybe just for the protagonist to remember what it is they’re fighting for.

Sex is a very human – and humanising – thing. It’s another dimension to the character, another colour on the palette with which to paint them. The more colour, the more texture, the more real they become, and that’s what I’m striving for. Realistic people in a made-up world.

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