The thorny – but probably not horny – question of gender and genre resurfaced with the release of the contender list for this year’s UK Arthur C. Clarke Award – or rather, lists. Because this year, the organizing committee has decided to split the selection process by releasing a first all-female list of submissions ahead of a male list, to appear slightly later. This follows the controversy over 2013’s all-male shortlist. The full list is available here.

genre writing“We’ve always intended this as a great way to showcase the full breadth of titles in contention and, crucially, to allow science fiction readers everywhere the chance to have a little fun creating their own nominations, trying to second guess the final shortlist and gaining a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by the judging panel every year,” reads the Award committee preamble. “This year we’ve chosen to do this in two parts, first releasing this list of the thirty-three female authors submitted for the prize on Thursday 16th Jan, which we hope will be a positive contribution towards further raising the profile of women writers of science fiction in the UK and beyond.”

Any Award shortlist that includes titles by Margaret Atwood and Kameron Hurley is in no danger of looking shabby. And that’s one reason to conjecture that the 2013 list was such an extraordinary outcome that it must have been down to sheer blind chance, not overt prejudice. The 2013 jury itself consisted of Robert Grant, Juliet E. McKenna, Nickianne Moody, Ruth O’Reilly, Liz Williams, and Andrew M. Butler – four women to two men and hardly likely to position itself as a bastion of sexism. And the very first Arthur C. Clarke Award ever in 1987 was given to a novel by a woman author: Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

But this quick vindication of the Arthur C. Clarke Award itself shouldn’t draw attention away from the issue of gender prejudice and stereotyping in (some) genres. We’ve already seen the disastrous influence that gender stereotyping can have in comics, for instance. And Jonathan Franzen serves as ample evidence that gender prejudice is still influencing even mainstream “literary” fiction. And the debate over sexism in science fiction – well, it isn’t a debate any more as much as a sustained and brutal rearguard action by an apparently all-male rump, assisted by charming guerrilla tactics such as the #gropecrew hashtag harassment of female cosplayers and science fiction convention attendees.

In the circs, it’s hardly surprising that Tor UK editorial director Julie Crisp cited 78 percent of SF submissions to Tor as coming from men. Chicken or egg? (And no chick lit jokes, promise …)  “As a female editor it would be great to support female authors and get more of them on the list,” Crisp says, creditably enough. “BUT they will be judged exactly the same way as every script that comes into our in-boxes. Not by gender, but how well they write, how engaging the story is, how  well-rounded the characters are, how much we love it.”

That’s a laudable opinion from a respected publisher, and I applaud it as far as it goes. Compulsory positive discrimination in genre publishing is no way to fix any problem of this kind. But the question still arises: Does the submission balance work out that way because more male authors choose to write SF? Or because female authors knowingly shun a genre where they know they’ll face a harder sell?

The crossover success of a novel like Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games highlights the debate. Young adult, which is the category that The Hunger Games first snuck in on, has the highest proportion of female authors on Crisp’s list – 68 percent. And yet it’s grown into a highly influential dystopian science fiction phenomenon. Would Collins have had such success if she’d tried to sell the book as a straight SF title? Interesting question.

Do male writers have the opposite problem? Jack Nicholson’s Melvin Udall obviously didn’t face an uphill struggle in As Good As It Gets to be accepted as a male writer of romantic fiction. But it’s hard to conclude from the evidence that your chances of success in a genre, and your choices about it, will not be impacted by your gender.