Skip to content Skip to navigation

Blog

Saturday, March 2, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 281 - On the Shelf for March 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/03/02 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for March 2024.

The On The Shelf episodes vary a lot in terms of how much content I have. I wouldn’t have predicted that the new book listings would be the one constant back when I set up this format—they weren’t even part of the template originally! But after a couple of bare-bones months, we have a lot to talk about this month.

First off is announcing the fiction line-up for this year. One of the ways I measure the success of this fiction series is whether I've attracted a true diversity of voices and stories. This year I'm feeling very happy about that aspect! I haven’t sorted out the order in which they’ll appear, because that can depend on when I locate appropriate narrators, but in no particular order we’ll be publishing the following.

  • "The Font of Liberty" by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall - Set in 1830s France, the denizens of a publishing house deal with political activism and censorship. (And I love the little "font" pun in the title.)
  • "A Very Long Malaise" by L.J. Lee - Romantic and political intrigue in Korea of the Joseon Dynasty (ca. 1790).
  • "Follow the Monkey" by Jamie McGhee - Survival and hope in colonial Brazil during the rise of Quilombo dos Palmares, a hidden society of escaped slaves who took up arms against Portuguese colonists.
  • "Daughters of Derbyshire" by Daniel Stride - When plague sweeps through 17th century Derbyshire, what does it mean to be a good neighbor?

I’m going to need to work very hard to find the right narrators for the Korean and Afro-Brazilian stories. Ideally the narrator would not simply be comfortable with the language (proper names and some incidental vocabulary) but would also share that background. All help in leads for potential narrators will be welcome!

News of the Field

Listeners are probably aware that I’m fairly active in the science fiction and fantasy community, and wow has the chatter been going at full volume in the last month. The very short version (for those who don’t read my blog regularly) is that the nomination data for the Hugo awards that were given out last year (when Worldcon was held in China) finally was released. And it was immediately apparent from the data that something very strange had happened. In fact, several different very strange things happened. And the people who knew the most about what happened—who, by the way, were non-Chinese members of the convention committee—were not providing much in the way of useful explanation.

Now, poking at strange data and trying figure out how it got that strange is not only something I enjoy, but is also much of what I do for a living. So along with a number of other people I started poking at the data and published a few blogs about what I observed, both on my own and in collaboration with another data geek. This has taken up a fair amount of my so-called free time in the last few weeks.

At this point, it’s clear that there were several types of data manipulation going on that not only resulted in some specific people and publications being removed from the Hugo ballot, but that appear to have systematically suppressed the number of Chinese publications and people from appearing on a ballot that should by all rights have seen them significantly represented. Needless to say, there are people working diligently on making sure that nothing like this can happen again.

Book awards can get an unwarranted amount of attention sometimes. There are always many more excellent books being published than there are awards to recognize that excellence. But if the awards are going to mean anything, the process needs to be transparent and reliable. And last year’s Hugos definitely were not. It will take a while for the community to recover from this. If you want to know more, there’s a link in the show notes to the article “Charting the Cliff” which covers many of the issues.

Publications on the Blog

Given all that, perhaps I’ll be forgiven for only blogging two publications for the Lesbian Historic Motif Project in the last month. One is the pop-history book I mentioned buying last month: A Short History of Queer Women by Kirsty Loehr. As I indicated previously, it’s light and fluffy and not very solid on the history, but it could be a fun read.

The second item was the article “Mistress and Maid: Homoeroticism, Cross-Class Desire, and Disguise in Nineteenth-Century Fiction” by Kirsti Bohata, which I read when I was working on the tropes episode about employment-based romances.

Book Shopping!

Shopping netted me one new book this month: The Illustrated Journeys of Celia Fiennes: 1685-1712. These are the travel journals of a woman who traveled by herself through all the counties of England in the late 17th century. “By herself” meaning with servants, of course. I love this sort of source material for women who did things that run contrary to the historic stereotypes. Not necessarily women who are ”breaking the rules” or becoming social outlaws, but simply ordinary things that get erased from the popular view of women’s history. And, of course, this specific book will be added to the background reading for my planned Restoration-era series.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

Speaking of writing, let’s look at the new and recent books. I found five titles from the last few months that I hadn’t identified previously, five March books, and then three titles that I’ll mention in the “other books of interest” segment.

First up we have an American West romance, Above Rubies by Fyn Alexander from JMS Books.

The year is 1885 and all May Jakobsson wants is a home of her own and a woman to love. Leaving behind her poor immigrant family, she claims her one hundred and sixty acres under the Homestead Act in Dakota Territory. Life on the farm is lonely and there seems no hope of meeting the right woman, or any woman with her inclinations. That is, until an itinerant seamstress arrives in town.

When wealthy Boston socialite Temperance Lowell decides to take her sewing machine and travel the rails staying in different towns, she is seeking adventure while escaping Boston where the woman she was having an affair with is getting married. The last thing she expects is to meet a tall, shy woman wearing men’s clothes to whom she is instantly attracted.

Not only does their attachment cause an uproar in the town of Livingstone, especially among the men who were already hostile to a woman like May, and were more than interested in the beautiful and elegant Temperance, but it confuses May who, in her own words, is “as common as the dirt I dig.” Temperance, a little older and very sure of herself, knows May is the woman for her.

Can they make a life together in a rough town among farming folk? Will their love survive the challenges thrown their way?

Next is another romance with a western setting: Silver Heels: Women of the Wild West by Olivia Hampton.

Sabrina was born into wealth and privilege, but after she’s forced to run for her life, she finds herself in the newly formed Colorado Territory, and in the town of Big Antler. Becoming Silver, one of the most popular entertainers on the stage of a seedy theatre named The Pearl was never going to be Sabrina’s first choice for an escape plan, but that’s exactly where she ends up.

Maddie’s spent most of her life in boomtowns. She’s always ready to gamble, just not with her heart. No woman can tie her down. No town can keep her interest for long. A past filled with scars and a need for adventure keep her on the run.

The masked and mysterious Silver, and her devastatingly sexy high heeled shoes, gets Maddie’s attention and fast. The sparks fly faster. But love is dangerous. So is the man hunting for Sabrina. Will they risk it all for love and each other or will they fold under the pressure of their pasts and secrets?

The cover copy for this next book feels a bit over-the-top, so don’t be surprised if it doesn’t quite match the hype. Whispers in the Shadows: The Untold Story of a Love that Defied Convention by Haley Ruby

Step into the enthralling world of "Whispers in the Shadows," a captivating novel that transcends time and convention. This extraordinary tale, set against the backdrop of Victorian England, unveils the forbidden romance between Amelia, a woman of high society, and Charlotte, a spirited artist. Their story is a powerful testament to the enduring strength of love amidst societal constraints.

In the midst of London's rigid societal norms, Amelia and Charlotte's paths cross in a fateful encounter that ignites a passion both profound and forbidden. As they navigate the complexities of their hidden relationship, they confront not only personal conflicts but also the pressures of a society unwilling to accept their love. From secret meetings in moonlit gardens to the grand masquerade balls of London, their journey is one of courage, defiance, and unwavering commitment.

There’s an author’s advisory for Lies that Bind by Rae Knowles & April Yates from Brigids Gate Press that indicates it contains graphic sex and violence and potentially abusive situations.

Lorelei Keyes and Adele Hughes are content, if not entirely happy, running a sham séance business in the English tourist town of Matlock Bath. Lorelei's business savvy and Adele's gift for mimicry provide for their basic needs, but the customers are not the only ones deceived. With the arrival of a mysterious visitor, Viola, the couple finds their long-held secrets under threat of exposure and their quiet life upended. Viola pulls the pair onto a transatlantic crossing bound for Adele's homeland of New York, and the turbulent seas are nothing compared to the treacherous and tawdry happenings aboard the ship. Adele's gifts run much deeper than mimicry. Lorelei's past is more depraved than she lets on. The couple faces the end of their romance, and may stand to lose much more than that if they cannot discern Viola's true intentions before reaching their final destination. Not for the faint of heart, Lies That Bind challenges its readers as it investigates power dynamics, the nature of power, and the ways it can be expressed-whether by domination or self-acceptance; treachery or honesty.

It feels like there’s been a regular theme of sapphic historicals featuring female boxers in the last couple years. This one also tosses in some paranormal elements and is part of a series set in an alternate 1920s world with magic, but it’s the only sapphic entry in the series. Of Socialites and Prizefights (Flos Magicae) by Arden Powell.

When Deepa Patel rejects the wrong man, he curses her: every night, she will transform into a wild animal until her curse is broken by true love’s kiss. The problem is twofold. One: Deepa needs her nights to seduce shallow men into spending money on her—money she desperately needs to buy herself and her mother a better life. Two: she doesn’t believe in love. She’s never met a man she wanted to keep longer than a week, never mind forever.

She never considered her true love might be a woman.

Roz is unlike any of Deepa’s past suitors. She’s working class, with a nose that’s been broken at least once, courtesy of an underground boxing club. And she makes Deepa feel lighter and softer than she ever thought possible. But Roz can’t afford to give Deepa the life of luxury she craves.

Meanwhile, Deepa is posing as a wealthy nobleman's fiancée. There’s no love between them, but his lifestyle is everything she’s ever wanted. Caught between a real relationship and a loveless fake one, Deepa has to choose: give up on her dreams for a chance at true love, or make her dreams come true but stay cursed forever.

Due to the advance scheduling dynamics of indie books versus books from publishers, the March books are mostly the latter. First up is a historic fantasy from this month’s author guest: Song of the Huntress by Lucy Holland from Macmillan.

Britain, 60 AD. Hoping to save her lover and her land from the Romans, Herla makes a desperate pact with the Otherworld King. She becomes Lord of the Hunt and for centuries she rides, reaping wanderers’ souls. Until the night she meets a woman on a bloody battlefield – a Saxon queen with ice-blue eyes.

Queen Æthelburg of Wessex is a proven fighter, but after a battlefield defeat she finds her husband’s court turning against her. Yet King Ine needs Æthel more than ever: the dead kings of Wessex are waking, and Ine must master his bloodline’s ancient magic if they are to survive.

When their paths cross, Herla knows it’s no coincidence. Something dark and dangerous is at work in the Wessex court. As she and Æthel grow closer, Herla must find her humanity – and a way to break the curse – before it’s too late.

Pelican Girls by Julia Malye from Harper has that dancing-around-the-topic language that sometimes leads me to place a book in the “other books of interest” category if I can’t be certain of the sapphic content, but early reviews indicate that there’s a romance between two of the female characters. For those who keep track, this falls more in the literary genre.

Paris, 1720. La Salpêtrière hospital is in crisis: too many occupants, not enough beds. Halfway across the world, France's colony in the wilds of North America has space to spare and needs families to fill it. So the director of the hospital rounds up nearly a hundred female “volunteers” of childbearing age—orphans, prisoners, and mental patients—to be shipped to New Orleans.

Among this group are three unlikely friends: a sharp-tongued twelve-year old orphan, a mute ‘madwoman,’ and an accused abortionist. Charlotte, Pétronille, and Geneviève, along with the dozens of other women aboard La Baleine, have no knowledge of what lies ahead and no control over their futures. Strangers brought together by fate, these brave and fierce young women will face extraordinary adversity—pirates, slavedrivers, sickness, war—but also the private trauma of heartbreak and unrequited love, children born and lost, cruelty and unexpected pleasure, and a friendship forged in fire that will sustain through the years.

Stacy Lynn Miller’s “Speakeasy” series from Bella Books continues with a third volume: Last Barrel.

Three years after Whiskey War, Dax and Rose live the high life at the Foster House, running the poshest speakeasy on the west coast. Half Moon Bay is about to claim its place as the top tourist destination in Northern California, with a second club and the remodeled Seaside Hotel under Grace Parsons’s ownership and Dax’s management. Repeal of Prohibition is on the horizon with the prospect of making their illegal liquor businesses legitimate. Dax’s fractured friendship with Charlie Dawson is the only blowback from her battle with Frankie Wilkes. If she could fix it, her life with Rose would be perfect.

Or so Dax thinks until an election sweeps in Roy Wilkes as the new county sheriff. With the law behind him, he’s hellbent on revenge for the death of his brother in the wake of the whiskey war and puts everyone involved in his crosshairs. On day one, he wreaks havoc in Half Moon Bay with arrests and beatings. Nothing is off the table. No one close to Dax and Rose is safe, and they must leverage every resource to protect the people they love. How far will Dax go? Will beating Wilkes at his game come at too high a price? Who will survive to open the last barrel?

Another book in a continuing series is The Weavers of Alamaxa (Alamaxa #2) by Hadeer Elsbai from Harper Voyager. This series is inspired by Egyptian history, although set in a world with fantasy elements.

The world is on fire...but some women can control it.

The Daughters of Izdihar—a group of women fighting for the vote and against the patriarchal rule of Parliament—have finally made strides in having their voices heard...only to find them drowned out by the cannons of the fundamentalist Ziranis. As long as Alamaxa continues to allow for the elemental magic of the weavers—and insist on allowing an academy to teach such things—the Zirani will stop at nothing to end what they perceive is a threat to not only their way of life, but the entire world.

Two such weavers, Nehal and Giorgina, had come together despite their differences to grow both their political and weaving power. But after the attack, Nehal wakes up in a Zirani prison, and Giorgina is on the run in her besieged city. If they can reunite again, they can rally Alamaxa to fight off the encroaching Zirani threat. Yet with so much in their way—including a contingent of Zirani insurgents with their own ideas about rebellion—this will be no easy task.

And the last time a weaver fought back, the whole world was shattered.

Two incredible women are all that stands before an entire army. But they’ve fought against power before and won. This time, though, it’s no longer about rhetoric.

This time it’s about magic and blood.

We finish up with a book in Portuguese, Julieta e Cinderela by Vicky Fiorez which blends the characters of Cinderella and Shakespeare’s Juliet from Romeo and Juliet, set in 19th century Verona.

Juliet Capulet is devastated when she discovers that her family arranged her engagement to Romeo Montague, with the intention of ending the bloody feud between the families. But on her first visit to the Montague house, she meets Cinderella, the family's maid who wins her heart with generosity. Divided by class and background, the two find connection, even as the engagement progresses. But the Montagues can be brutal when crossed… [Note: This is a paraphrase of a Google translation of the Portuguese cover copy.]

While we’re talking about non-English books—and I have a couple more on the list for the near future—I’ll mention that the French translation of my book Daughter of Mystery is also coming out in March, after being pushed back for production changes.

Other Books of Interest

I put three titles in the “other books of interest” section, not because there’s any question of the sapphic content, but because they appear to fall more in the erotica category than the historic fiction category. I tread a fine balance here. One of the reasons I generally exclude erotica is because, if I don’t set my search terms to exclude it, I end up wading through an awful lot of male-gaze content that has only the barest acquaintance with historic settings. Even when written for the lesbian market, erotica rarely has a solid historic grounding, tending to fall much farther into the fantasy side of the line. But three titles popped up in my search that some listeners might be inclined to check out further.

Coming of Age (Bintanath #1) by Joan Fennelly is set in the Egypt of the ancient Pharaohs and combines the supernatural with a lesbian relationship.

Jewels of the Harem: Love's Secret Treasures by Lucilla Leigh is set in the harem of the Ottoman palace of Topkapi. In general I’d be wary of orientalist harem fantasies if you’re looking for solid representation of historic cultures.

And the same author has released Victorian Passions: Lesbian Romance Amidst Historical Intrigue which is more or less what it says on the label.

What Am I Reading?

What have I been reading in the past month? One of the books that got caught up in the Hugo award shenanigans was R. F. Kuang’s historic fantasy Babel, about linguistic-based magic and 19th century colonialism. It’s a very powerful book with an ending that found the right balance between tragedy and grim determination. As a linguist, I really enjoyed the magical premise.

An audiobook sale led me to pick up another one of K.J. Charles’ backlist: The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal. I always enjoy Charles’ work but this one didn’t grab me as much as many of her other books.

A different audiobook sale inspired me to get Courtney Milan’s historic romance The Duke who Didn't. I’m having some interesting thoughts about what does and doesn’t throw me out of a historic romance, due to listening to this while also being in the middle of Emma R. Alban’s Don’t Want You Like a Best Friend. Both books are set in the Victorian period, both are very engagingly written, and both present characters that feel entirely like modern people dressed up in costume. Usually, that’s a “nope” for me. And…it’s sort of a problem for me in both these books? Except I enjoy the quality of the writing enough that I’m just pretending they’re actually contemporaries with a few quirks. But I’m not enjoying them as historic romances. I had a similar issue with Erica Ridley’s The Perks of Loving a Wallflower and Jane Walsh’s Her Countess to Cherish, except those two didn’t sweep me up in the writing and story enough for me to be able to ignore the modern attitudes and behaviors. And the non-sapphic historical mystery Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley had solid writing chops, but that didn’t make up for the character failing historic plausibility for me. (Although in that case it was slightly different from a modern character, simply one that didn’t make sense in her own time.) So I’ve been pondering the interactions of these elements in terms of which directions a book can fail me and still leaving me glad I’d read it.

Author Guest

We’ll finish up this month’s episode with an interview with Lucy Holland.

(Interview will be included in the transcript when it has been transcribed.)

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Links to Lucy Holland Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Saturday, February 24, 2024 - 13:37

The analysis I did in two previous blogs (part 1, part 2) has been incorporated into a much broader and more detailed analysis by Camestros Felapton, and published under both our names (but be aware that he did a much larger proportion of the work). He introduces the report on his blog here, but the report and its associated data tables are being hosted by File 770 here.

While I sympathize with a certain sentiment that enough time and attention has been invested in hashing over "what happened" (to the extent we can sort that out), I feel there's still value in putting together a historic record of what we know and don't know for posterity. So I may be posting a few more, tight-focus discussions on the topic.

Major category: 
Conventions
Monday, February 19, 2024 - 07:00

I really really mean to get back on a regular schedule of LHMP blogs. Silly things like analyzing Hugo voting statistics and internet interruptions and processing the fiction submissions keep getting in the way. But each day is a new chance to get back on track.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Bohata, Kirsti. 2017. “Mistress and Maid: Homoeroticism, Cross-Class Desire, and Disguise in Nineteenth-Century Fiction” in Victorian Literature and Culture 45:2 pp.341-359

I read this article when working on the trope podcast about employment-related romances, but it’s taken a while to turn my highlighted copy into a useful write-up. People looking for pre-20th century sapphic-leaning fiction might want to check out some of the titles listed.

In addition to the economic dynamics of domestic employment, the mistress-maid relationship as depicted in 19th century fiction brings in themes of loyalty, devotion, and female alliance, although the last is mostly a fictional invention. When servants feature in fiction (which is rare) these conditions create a homoerotic potential. Two women, separated by class but existing in close physical proximity, invite images of unrequited love and yearning, and sometimes their fulfillment. Conversely, the appearance of an employment relationship may serve as cover for a queer relationship. Most of the stories examined in this article involve layers of misdirection, both cross-class and cross-gender.

Some novels may use the context of domestic employment in order to be able to address love between women, leveraging the allowance that women were offered for open homoeroticism (which is not to say, open lesbianism). Some authors may have intended to depict desire between women, others may have used the motif more obliquely to address other topics.

The texts examined here include Amy Dillwyn’s quasi-autobiographical novel Jill (1884), Sarah Orne Jewett’s 1897 story “Martha’s Lady”, Constance Fenimore Woolson’s 1880 story “Miss Grief”, and Edith Wharton’s 1902 story “The Lady’s Maid’s Bell.”

The potential for the hazards of cross-class intimacy was recognized in domestic handbooks that instructed on the proper relations between employers and servants. Female servants were often viewed as sexually suspect, either being available [note: this is an odd term for a situation often void of consent], or prone to lesbianism due to sharing beds, or engaging in erotic play with children in the household that they were responsible for. Outside the household, upper class people could find an erotic potential in deliberately crossing class boundaries (slumming). For women, the charitable impulse to help poor and “fallen” women might partake of this similar fascination with the other end of the class spectrum.

Within the mistress-maid relationship, several dynamics with erotic overtones are present: dominance/subservience, ritualized interactions especially around personal care access to private spaces—the ordinary activities of a servant can be hard to untangle from spying and eavesdropping.

Within the stories under consideration, the relationship between employer and employee takes various forms: unrequited desire, chivalry, spiritual sublimation, jealousy, and female marriage. The imbalance of class power within the relationship can be balanced by a tendency to masculinize the role of servant, thus creating a power dynamic at cross-purposes. In “The Grey Woman” this masculinization is overt, with the servant cross-dressing to rescue her mistress from domestic abuse, and then adopting the role of husband and protector. Servants are often depicted as stronger, more clever, and more resourceful [note: allowing the character of the mistress to fulfill the feminine ideals of passivity]. Conversely, the social power of the mistress may manifest as pressuring the employee for an unsolicited erotic relationship.

When the relationship between mistress and maid is too close, it is viewed as disruptive to the household and even sinister. The servant who dominates her employer is framed as a villain and their bond can make the danger concrete if they conspire against the man of the house. If such a bond is disrupted, then a jealous response may make the underlying nature of their relationship clear. Such boundary-crossing themes brought cross-class romance into the popular realm of sensational fiction.

Even as the vocabulary of sexology introduced ways of pathologizing desire between women, writers who wanted to address themes of same-sex love used the employment relationship as a framework to do so. In the story “Martha’s Lady” the yearning of a servant for the women she temporarily attends becomes a life-long spiritual ennoblement, finally requited when the two are reunited in old age. In “Miss Grief” the narrator mistakes a woman’s devoted companion for her maid, erasing their marriage-like relationship under the veil of a more conventional image.

The issues of how class differences stand in the way of potential romantic connections are brought to the fore in Jill, when a young runaway of good family takes on the role of lady’s maid in order to see the world. The title character is aware of her social equality with her employer, with the story focusing on the physical intimacy of their interactions, but Jill cannot take a further step or confess her desire without revealing the cross-class disguise and is left with what-if fantasies, until a dramatic and gothic climax breaks down the barriers when they are imprisoned together in a tomb. (The article returns to the motif of the servant character being masculinized, both in description and in agency.)

In summing up the themes of the article, the author notes that she has tried to avoid ahistorical assignment of lesbian identity, while noting that the disruptive potential of desire within a cross-class context allows for the subtle (or not so subtle) introduction of eroticism.

 

Time period: 
Place: 
Sunday, February 18, 2024 - 10:44

I've received all the contracts and sent off the royalty payments so it's time to announce the 2024 Fiction series! In no particular order:

  • "The Font of Liberty" by Elizabeth Porter Birdsall - Set in 1830s France, the denizens of a publishing house deal with political activism and censorship. (I love the little "font" pun in the title.)
  • "A Very Long Malaise" by L.J. Lee - Romantic and political intrigue in Korea of the Joseon Dynasty (ca. 1790).
  • "Follow the Monkey" by Jamie McGhee - Survival and hope in colonial Brazil during the rise of Quilombo dos Palmares, a hidden society of escaped slaves who took up arms against Portuguese colonists.
  • "Daughters of Derbyshire" by Daniel Stride - When plague sweeps through 17th century Derbyshire, what does it mean to be a good neighbor?

One of the ways I measure the success of this fiction series is whether I've attracted a true diversity of voices and stories. This year I'm feeling very happy about that aspect!

It does mean that I'm going to need to work very hard to find the right narrators. In particular, I'm looking for narrators for the Korean and Afro-Brazilian stories. Ideally the narrator would not simply be comfortable with the language (proper names and some incidental vocabulary) but would also share that background. All help in leads for potential narrators welcome!

 

Major category: 
LHMP
Saturday, February 17, 2024 - 16:05

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 280 – Our F/Favorite Tropes Part 12: Bluestockings and Amazons - transcript

(Originally aired 2024/02/17 - listen here)

Introduction

This rather short episode is part of our ongoing series “our f/favorite tropes.” As used in the romance field, a trope is a recurring literary device or motif—a conventional story element that carries a certain set of expectations, associations, and resonances that connect the story that uses the trope to other works that have used it. The trope can be a character type, a situation, or a sort of “mini script.”

The usual premise of this series is to examine how popular historic romance tropes apply differently when the couple are both women, rather than a male-female couple. But in some cases, you have a trope that is specific to female couples—whether it’s rooted in history or has arisen within modern romantic fiction.

Today’s episode is focused on one of the former: two character types that are specifically associated with sexually transgressive women, and that are sometimes intersected as a natural couple: the bluestocking and the amazon. In this case, by “amazon” I don’t mean the probably-mythical all-female tribe immortalized in Greek myth, but rather the “sporty” woman, the jock, if you will, who were nicknamed “amazons” in early modern Europe. As usual, I’ll add the disclaimer that my generalizations and examples will largely be drawn from western culture, so if you’re writing outside that scope you’ll need to check the assumptions.

Although this trope may feel like a special case of the butch-femme couple (which needs to be considered on its own), there are some important differences. Both the “amazon” and the bluestocking transgress against ideas of conventional femininity of their time.

The Athlete

The amazon is an athlete, often specifically associated with horseback riding, who partakes of physical activities that were typically considered unfeminine. We’re talking about women of the leisure class here, because obviously working class women didn’t have the choice to avoid intense physical activity. For those with the privilege to be physically idle, the choice to engage in sports was considered a risk to femininity—not simply on a behavioral basis, but also on a physiological basis. Too much exertion, it was feared, would damage the reproductive organs and thus make a woman unfit for her expected role.

It wasn’t simply that the active, horseback-riding woman set herself apart from conventional femininity, but she intruded herself into spaces that men might consider to be a private “old boys club.” She hunted. She raced. She drove her own carriages. She moved within male society to participate in those activities in ways that would be indecorous without the excuse of the sport. Or, in a somewhat later era, in the context of all-female schools, she might participate in field sports as part of a women’s team. She might expect to be admired and valued for her physical prowess in the same way a man would be.

The amazon often had a distinctive appearance, as I discuss in the show on the development of butch imagery. The amazon “uniform” often involved wearing masculine-style coats over their skirts. (And until the very end of the 19th century, skirts were still involved, even if a rider wore pants under them.) Even when not presently involved in riding, the riding habit was the default uniform of the amazon. This was not cross-dressing in the usual sense, but the clothing borrowed the tailoring of men’s active wear and the decorative details of military uniforms.

The amazon might be thought of as a grown-up tomboy. She might—if her social standing were solid enough—be treated as something of a mascot by the men in her social circle. Not accepted as an equal, but viewed as an approved exception, so long as things didn’t go too far.

The Intellectual

The specific term “bluestocking” wasn’t invented until the mid-18th century when Elizabeth Montagu presided over the English literary salon known as the Blue Stockings Society, named after the less fashionable blue woolen stockings of the 18th century contrasted with high-fashion black silk stockings. But women as intellectuals had been challenging gender stereotypes for much longer. As I discussed in the episode on various waves of feminist sentiment across the centuries, women who pursued learning, philosophy, and science were considered to be infringing on masculine territory and—just as with physical pursuits—might be felt to be endangering their mental and reproductive health. The intellectual world was supposed to be the provenance of men. Women simply didn’t have the chops, and if they tried—poor dears—they might sprain their brains.

The answer women found was to create social circles where they set the rules and the agenda. Within those circles, they could thrive and support each other. But creating a group identity also attracts group stereotypes, and in various ages the image of the intellectual woman became associated with certain characteristics and labels.

A common theme was that if women devoted their time and energy to learning, they must necessarily be neglecting the pursuit of beauty and fashion. So whether it was the précieuses of the 17th century, the French salon movement, the English bluestockings, or the late 19th century “new women,” such women were accused of being frumpy and unfashionable, or dull and pedantic, or frigid and undesirable. It was difficult for a woman to devote herself to learning if she married, so female intellectuals became synonymous with spinsters.

Two Great Tastes that Taste Great Together

But now let’s introduce our two characters to each other: the sporty, freewheeling amazon and the brilliant, ink-stained bluestocking. The jock and the nerd, in an earlier age. They both stand slightly outside conventional society. They both reject the norms of femininity of their time. And they both long to find someone who accepts and appreciates them for who they are and the things they love—even if they both love different things. And perhaps even more relevant, they are both considered to have poor chances on the marriage market.

What more natural pairing than to bring them together? The bluestocking will admire the amazon’s energy and boldness. The amazon will be in awe of the bluestocking’s wit and conversation. And—for that matter—there’s no reason why their attributes need be completely separate. If you introduce them to an environment such as a women’s college, it might be a natural for both women to embrace both their physical and intellectual aspirations.

In the context of these character types, I’ve regularly trotted out the example of Charlotte Lennox’s 1790 novel Euphemia with the not entirely sympathetic depiction of what is clearly a romantic couple: the Amazonian Miss Sandford and bluestocking Lady Cornelia. Once you strip away the novel’s misogyny, we see Miss Sandford in her military-style riding habit, riding to the hunt fearlessly and declaring her firm intention never to marry, and her close companion the “learned and scientific” Lady Cornelia who refuses to be embarrassed by the depth of her learning.

I confess that I’m excessively fond of the amazon-bluestocking pairing myself, as readers might guess from the characters of Barbara and Margerit in my Alpennia series. It’s a way of setting up a romantic couple who are misaligned with the conventional expectations for a woman’s life, but in a way that draws on archetypes that are solidly grounded in the culture of their times. Introduce them to each other and watch the sparks fly!

Show Notes

In this episode we talk about:

  • The archetypes of the bluestocking and the amazon and why they make a natural romantic pairing

A transcript of this podcast is available here.

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Saturday, February 3, 2024 - 07:00

Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast - Episode 279 - On the Shelf for February 2024 - Transcript

(Originally aired 2024/02/03 - listen here)

Welcome to On the Shelf for February 2024.

Since it’s February, that means that submissions are closed for this year’s fiction series. But since I’m recording this in January, it means that I haven’t started reading the submissions yet and certainly haven’t made the selections yet. So watch the blog for that news. Based purely on what I’ve seen when logging in the submissions as they come, there are some interesting shifts this year. But there’s also a bit of disappointment that the numbers of submissions are on the low side. All this will be taken into account when I decide whether to continue the fiction series next year.

On the personal side, I dodged another layoff at work but this time I’m a bit disappointed, because the layoff package would have taken me out pretty close to my planned retirement date. Ah well, still another year and change to go. Also on the personal side, I have a change to a book that was in the January listings. The French translation of Daughter of Mystery got a title change, which required pushing the release date a bit later. So now it will be coming out in March as L’Héritière des Mystères. (Sorry about my French.) I also just signed the contract for a short story in an upcoming anthology from Bella Books, so more on that when a date is set.

Publications on the Blog

After pledging last month to get back on a weekly schedule for new articles on the blog, I only managed one last month: Liza Blake’s article “Dildos and Accessories: The Functions of Early Modern Strap-Ons” which was background reading for last month’s essay show.

But if you’re one of the folks who reads the blog, you’ll also see I’ve been posting some analysis on the rather peculiar data for last year’s science fiction and fantasy Hugo Awards. If you enjoy geeking out on statistics and data analysis, you might want to take a look. But behind that data is a community upset that a process that has always previously been relatively transparent and reliable has shaken our trust in the system.

Book Shopping!

I picked up one new book for the blog, though it will probably get just a brief high-level review. This is Kirsty Loehr’s A Short History of Queer Women. Loehr’s book isn’t meant to be serious academic history—more of a satirical and lighthearted survey of lesbian icons through the ages. Don’t go to it for research, but it might amuse you for an afternoon.

Recent Lesbian/Sapphic Historical Fiction

Which brings us to the new fiction. I have a few catch-up titles from December and January, starting with Alice: A Ghost Story by Mats Evensson. Evidently this gothic tale uses the same setting as a previous book by the same author, The Beast of St Ender, however that one doesn’t have sapphic content.

1844, England. Alice Reed, a promising young reporter, is sent to interview the reclusive Baron Thornbow when her coach crashes. Barely surviving the accident, Alice finds herself in the baron’s ancient mansion, haunted by strange occurrences—and caught in a perilous game of cat and mouse with a vengeful spirit hellbent on her demise.

Amid this swirling nightmare, Alice finds friendship—and perhaps more—in the baron’s entrancing maid, Miss Poole. Together, they must stop the malevolent entity before Alice’s very soul is lost forever.

This next title appears to be erotica, which I usually filter out in my search terms, but the premise and setting are rather interesting. This is The Belle (One of the Outcasts #1) by Violet Knight.

Set against the backdrop of Queen Mary I's reign in England, this romantic tale follows Antoinette, a French gardener navigating the complexities of life in a foreign land. Battling the scars of betrayal from her homeland, Antoinette's world transforms when she encounters Lady Lavinia St. Claire, a Deaf noblewoman.

Before she ever meets her and knows her name, Antoinette calls Lavinia "the belle." Lavinia's intense beauty attracts Antoinette, but signing with one another makes her fall in love.

The Knowing by Emma Hinds from Bedford Square Publishers is a historic fantasy set in the later 19th century and inspired by real people such as Maud Wagner, one of the first known female tattoo artists.

Whilst working as a living canvas for an abusive tattoo artist, Flora meets Minnie, an enigmatic circus performer who offers her love and refuge in an opulent townhouse, home to the menacing Mr Chester Merton. Flora earns her keep reading tarot cards for his guests whilst struggling to harness her gift, the Knowing - an ability to summon the dead. Caught in a dark love triangle between Minnie and Chester, Flora begins to unravel the secrets inside their house. Then at her first public séance, Flora hears the spirit of a murdered boy prostitute and exposes his killer, setting off a train of events which put her life at risk.

Historical fiction takes a wide variety of approaches to dealing with the realities of past ages. Beards by Cheyenne Isles depicts one survival mechanism in the mid 20th century.

As soon as she was old enough to escape her prejudiced Georgia hometown, Audra Lynch ran away to New York looking for the freedom to be herself. It was there that she met the beautiful Vivian Porter whom she fell deeply in love with. Everything about her was perfect, except for one thing: she was married. The marriage, however, wasn’t what it seemed. Her husband, Nathan, was gay and in a relationship with his longtime partner William McMahon.

Five years later, in 1959, Audra and William find themselves following in their partners’ footsteps and preparing for a wedding of their own to help hide the truth about their relationships. As the date draws nearer, Audra begins to question their decision when she starts feeling as trapped as she did back in Georgia. While she contemplates her upcoming nuptials to William, Vivian and Nathan find themselves faced with a big decision: one that could impact all their lives.

Moving on to the February releases, we start with what might be characterized as “Biblical fan-fiction” in The Scrolls of Deborah (Desert Songs Trilogy #1) by Esther Goldenburg from 100 Block by Row House. I have to confess I find the cover copy to be a bit over-the-top dramatic, but I’ll read it as-is.

The Scrolls of Deborah transports us to the awe-inspiring landscapes of the past and uncovers the intertwined lives of Rebekah, a revered matriarch in Judaism, and her devoted handmaiden Deborah. In this mesmerizing tale, their strength, wisdom, and love take center stage, shaping their destinies amid a world steeped in tribal tradition.

With poignant vulnerability, The Scrolls of Deborah, a work of Biblical fiction and the first installment of the Desert Songs Trilogy, illuminates the hidden stories of these remarkable women, whose pivotal roles have often been overshadowed. Against the backdrop of the desert and the opulence of palaces, the narrative weaves a tapestry of captivating tales. Each page reveals stories filled with heartbreak and inspiration, leaving an indelible mark on the very fabric of religious thought.

Through the telling of Deborah’s day-to-day life, the book exposes the profound beauty of connection and community, showcasing the transformative power of shared experiences. It invites readers to witness the immense strength found in the bonds between women and how their choices reverberate across generations.

The Scrolls of Deborah is a testament to the enduring legacy of these extraordinary women whose stories challenge and reshape our understanding of history, faith, and the limitless possibilities of the human spirit.

In the current fashion for spinning off a sapphic novella from a primarily heterosexual historic romance series, we have Letters to Her Love (Northfield Hall Novellas #3) by Katherine Grant.

Louisa Hoggart is about to leave Northfield Hall. Her charge, Miss Caroline Preston, is fully grown and hardly needs a governess anymore. Even more exciting, Louisa plans to move to London as a children’s author. She just has one major task left: help Miss Preston host her first house party.

Opera singer Elena Zilio accepts her invitation to the Northfield Hall house party for the free room and board. She also hopes to find a new protector for herself and her eight-year-old daughter. When she hears Louisa Hoggart will be at the party, she is excited to reconnect with an old acquaintance.

It doesn’t take long for sparks to fly between the two women. Yet what Louisa recognizes as attraction, Elena labels as friendship. Armed with nothing but her pen and big dreams for the future, can Louisa convince Elena to take a chance on the feelings swirling between them?

This next book sounds like it’s a fantasy set in a turn of the 20th century re-named Paris, but it isn’t entirely possible to tell how rooted in real-world history it is: The Absinthe Underground by Jamie Pacton from Peachtree Teen.

After running away from home, Sybil Clarion is eager to embrace all the freedom the Belle Époque city of Severon has to offer. Instead, she’s traded high-society soirées for empty pockets. At least she has Esme, the girl who offered Sybil a home, and if either of them dared, something more.

Ever since Esme Rimbaud brought Sybil back to her flat, the girls have been everything to each other—best friends, found family, and secret crushes. While Esme would rather spend the night tinkering with her clocks and snuggling her cats, Sybil craves excitement and needs money. She plans to get both by stealing the rare posters that crop up around town. With rent due, Esme agrees to accompany—and more importantly protect—Sybil.

When they’re caught selling a poster by none other than its subject, Maeve, the glamorous girl invites Sybil and Esme to The Absinthe Underground, the exclusive club she co-owns, and reveals herself to be a Green Faerie, trapped in this world. She wants to hire thieves for a daring heist in Fae that would set her free, and is willing to pay enough that Sybil and Esme never have to worry about rent again. It’s too good of an offer to pass up, even if Maeve’s tragic story doesn’t quite add up, and the secrets could jeopardize everything the girls have so carefully built.

Other Books of Interest

Perhaps that last book should have been put in the “other books of interest” group instead, which has several entries this month.

The Fox Maidens by Robin Ha from Balzer + Bray gets the “other interest” category because it’s entirely too coy about the hinted queer content.

Kai Song dreams of being a warrior. She wants to follow in the footsteps of her beloved father, the commander of the Royal Legion. But while her father believes in Kai and trains her in martial arts, their society isn’t ready for a girl warrior.

Still, Kai is determined. But she is plagued by rumors that she is the granddaughter of Gumiho, the infamous nine-tailed fox demon who was killed by her father years before.

Everything comes crashing down the day Kai learns the deadly secret about her mother’s past. Now she must come to terms with the truth about her identity and take her destiny into her own hands. As Kai desperately searches for a way to escape her fate, she comes to find compassion, and even love, in the most unexpected places.

Set in sixteenth-century Korea and richly infused with Korean folklore, The Fox Maidens is a timeless and powerful story about fighting for your place in the world, even when it seems impossible.

Guide Us Home by Jesse J Thoma & CF Frizzell from Bold Strokes Books is a contemporary story with cross-time elements from an old book.

Nancy and Sam have no intention of playing nice. Each aims to win the bid for the abandoned Narragansett Island Lighthouse, and compromise isn’t in the cards. It’s preservation versus profit, but the lighthouse’s dissatisfied governing board insists on better from both women.

Ironically, a battered old book at the lighthouse just might provide the key to success. Inspiring parallels are discovered in the dog-eared pages: the struggles, dreams—and love—between two Danish women braving WWII’s desperate days, guided by a valiant lighthouse they know well.

The heroic tale could navigate Nancy and Sam to success, if they stop floundering long enough to see love coming to their rescue.

And finally, An Education in Malice by S.T. Gibson from Redhook is decidedly unclear about whether it has a historic setting. The implication is there. And I think perceptive readers will spot the references to a gothic classic.

Deep in the forgotten hills of Massachusetts stands Saint Perpetua’s College. Isolated and ancient, it is not a place for timid girls. Here, secrets are currency, ambition is lifeblood, and strange ceremonies welcome students into the fold. 

On her first day of class, Laura Sheridan is thrust into an intense academic rivalry with the beautiful and enigmatic Carmilla. Together, they are drawn into the confidence of their demanding poetry professor, De Lafontaine, who holds her own dark obsession with Carmilla. 

But as their rivalry blossoms into something far more delicious, Laura must confront her own strange hungers. Tangled in a sinister game of politics, bloodthirsty professors and magic, Laura and Carmilla must decide how much they are willing to sacrifice in their ruthless pursuit of knowledge.   

What Am I Reading?

So what have I been reading? I seem to have a lot of books in-process at the moment: five different ebooks, two audiobooks, and a couple of hard copies. But only two titles that I finished in January.

First is Perfect Rhythm by Jae, which I confess I’d been putting off because I’ve had a bit of a reaction to the book being promoted as “the” book to read for lesbian romance with an asexual character. Unfortunately, I found the asexual representation to be decidedly unsatisfying. I have a lot of thoughts about this book, but I’ll save them for a different venue.

I also listened somewhat randomly to a historic mystery, A Dangerous Collaboration by Deanna Raybourn because it was in an Audible two-for-one sale and looked interesting. Alas, I found the heroine unlikeable, especially for how much latitude she was willing to give the awful male co-protagonists. So January was a bit of a wash. But somewhere in those nine books in progress, I’m sure to find something that hits the spot.

Show Notes

Your monthly roundup of history, news, and the field of sapphic historical fiction.

In this episode we talk about:

Links to the Lesbian Historic Motif Project Online

Links to Heather Online

Major category: 
LHMP
Thursday, February 1, 2024 - 10:10

Submissions are now closed for the 2024 fiction series. I'll start reading and making decisions over the next week and should have offers out by the weekend of Feb 10/11.

2024 tied for second place in the number of submissions. Based on what I've seen in people's cover emails, this may be the most diverse year yet in terms of author backgrounds and story settings. (I don't require author details in the cover email, so I'm basing this on incomplete information.) About 40% of the submissions arrived in the last 3 days of the month, which tends to make me nervous about numbers. There were 2 years when submissions came in at a more steady rate, but the last minute rush is a bit more typical.

I'll probably chat more about trends in the submissions after I've announced the line-up. And once again I swear that I'm going to work on lining up narrators well in advance, even though I know how that resolution has gone in the past.

Major category: 
LHMP
Monday, January 29, 2024 - 08:00

In addition to covering academic publications, one of the services this blog offers is to review pop culture books that present themselves as covering lesbian or queer history. In some cases, I want to warn readers off of a book, but in some cases it's jusst a matter of "Look, here's what this is. It doesn't pretend to be anything else. Be aware." And that's the current case. This isn't a bad book by any means -- it's quite entertaining -- but it's not a history book and should not be relied on for factual information. Ordinarily I wouldn't prioritize covering a work of this sort, but I was processing it for shelving and figured I could take the 5 minutes to write up an entry.

Major category: 
LHMP
Full citation: 

Loehr, Kirsty. 2022. A Short History of Queer Women. Oneworld Publications, London. ISBN 978-0-86154-284-0

This is a light-hearted, pop-culture tour through lesbian icons (whether or not they were lesbians) and key historical turning points for women who loved women. It is not a history book and one should not count on any specifics or details being “true” in any meaningful sense. It does have a “sources” section at the end, which begins by promoting a number of other superficial tertiary sources, though it does also include a few scholarly sources among popular histories of specific individuals. (I refuse to be miffed by the book’s recommendations for two other podcasts on queer history but an unawareness of the Project. Podcast visibility is a patchy thing and the two shows the book mentions have larger budgets and a bigger publicity apparatus than I do.)

All that said, the writing is witty and amusing. And as long as you have enough historical grounding that your understanding won’t be contaminated by factoids that are intended purely for humor and entertainment, go ahead and enjoy. The book doesn’t pretend to be a history book so it’s fairly harmless.

Tuesday, January 23, 2024 - 21:08

ETA: See also Part 1, link to the combined Camestos Felapton/Heather Rose Jones analysis.

ETA 2024/01/25: I've added cross-links between the related posts and will continue to update as needed. I'm not used to people actually coming to read my blog! If you like the numbers geekery, consider checking out the rest of my website. I've written some books! I run the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog and podcast! I natter on about all manner of writing and fannish things!


Introduction

Accessibility Note: I acknowledge that by using images of the graphs and of some tables, the full analysis is not accessible to the visually impaired. For this I apologize, however my time and the abilities of my website are limited.

This is a further exploration of population-level patterns in Hugo Award nomination data. While the first installment was primarily aimed at asking the question, “is there something hinky going on in this data and if so, what?” this second installment is stepping back and asking, “are there different typical nomination patterns for different categories, and are the anomalies in 2023 general or focused on specific categories?”

The spreadsheet with the data will be available on Google Drive. Feel free to play with it for yourself, but be warned that I haven’t bothered to add much explanatory apparatus in the file as it wasn’t designed for public consumption.

My analysis here is not aimed at examining nominees, although in some cases the outliers are perfectly understandable and rational once you look up what the specific item/person was. Instead, I’m interested in patterns of behavior independent of the specific content.

One variable that I can’t really control for is any differences in nomination behavior due to the combination of two different literary populations, either in the specific (i.e., different population behavior due to a specific literary culture) or in general (i.e., the interactions of combined nominations from two distinct literary cultures). To the best of my knowledge, even when Worldcons have been held in non-Anglophone countries previously, there has not been a significant presence of non-Anglophone works in the nomination pool. (On an individual basis, one can see some “favorite son” effects among the people categories, but I think these are negligible on the level I’m examining.) When I selected the comparison dates, I wasn’t specifically aiming to include or exclude non-Anglophone Worldcons. By chance I did include Helsinki (2017) because it was the first EPH year, which adds a mild confounding factor, but my perception is any unusual behavior in 2017 is more attributable to post-Puppy reactions.

Methodology

To repeat the methodology as described in the previous installment:

Using the nomination statistics provided by each Worldcon, I tabulated the total number of nomination ballots cast for each category and the number of ballots that included each of the top 16 nomination-recipients. (Note: There were not always 16 items listed. Some years reported more than 16 items, but I truncated at 16 for a consistent comparison.) I ignored the question of "disqualifiations" or withdrawals -- the numbers represent what is reported as the raw nomination numbers.

From this, I calculated the percentage of the possible nominations that each of those 16 items received. That is, the number of ballots that listed an item, divided by the total ballots for that category, reported as a percent. This data is displayed as groups of columns, clustered by category. Because the data is reported as a %, the distribution is more easily comparable between categories with different numbers of total nominations.

Scope

I selected the following years to analyze:

  • 2011 - the earliest year I happen to have data for
  • 2012 - the last year before any Sad Puppy activity
  • 2015 - the year of the most intense Sad Puppy activity with known nomination slates
  • 2017 - the first year of E Pluribus Hugo
  • 2021 - a recent year
  • 2022 - a recent year
  • 2023 - the current year

I considered adding more years into the mix, but the project was getting a little unmanageable, and sometimes larger amounts of very similar data detract from understanding rather than adding to it.

This time I’m looking at all award categories. Of those, Series, Fancast, and Lodestar have less data due to being added at various points during the scope of my data.

In addition to examining the percentage of ballots that works appeared on, I also consider the percentage of available ballot slots in each category that can be accounted for by the long-list nominees, as presented. I may also be making reference on occasion to the total nomination ballots in a category. I would have liked to compare the total number of different works nominated in each category however, as that data was not available for 2023, this was not a priority.

Review of Patterns: 2022 vs 2023

To begin with, let’s review the most obvious distribution differences between 2023 and a comparable year, for which I’ve picked 2022. I’ll put the two graphs next to each other for easy comparison.

The 2022 data demonstrates across the board the sort of pattern we expect from a population-based popularity poll. We have a consistent and continuous falling off from the most-picked nominees to less-picked ones. It isn’t uncommon for there to be one or sometimes more runaway favorites that make the initial part of the curve fairly steep. For example, in 2022 we can see this particularly in Drama-Long, in Fanzine, and in Fan Writer. In general, however, the bulk of the long-list nominees have a highly similar percentage distribution with respect to ballots having any nominees in that category. (Not shown in this graph is the significant variation in the number of ballots with data in each category, with the most popular category having 6x the participation of the least popular category.

2022 All Categories

2023 All Categories

In contrast, the 2023 distribution patterns are more variable. Some resemble the “standard” pattern (e.g., Short Story, Editor-Short, Astounding) although the overall percentages uniformly run higher. Some show an extreme “cliff” phenomenon (e.g., Novel, Series, Fanzine) where a group of nominees appear on a high proportion of the ballots, with a substantial gap in distribution between them and the less popular nominees. We still see the phenomenon where there may be a runaway favorite (e.g., Novelette, Drama-Long) but there are fewer of these than in the 2022 data.

It’s a bit hard to make out the details when all 19 categories are on display so let’s move on to look at the data from another angle.

Patterns Evaluated by Category

I’m going to group the nomination categories by my evaluation of whether they fall in the following:

  • “Typical” distribution with nothing particularly interesting going on
  • “Typical” distribution but with something else interesting
  • Extreme “cliff” distribution
  • Non-typical distribution of other types

Typical distribution – not much interesting

Graphic Work

Historically, the distribution for graphic story has been highly consistent in terms of percentages. There is a slight tendency for years with larger overall numbers in this category to also have higher percentages – that is, when more people nominate, they have a slight tendency to cluster on the most popular works. 2023 shows a skew toward the more popular works being on a higher proportion of ballots than usual, but the long tail also falls off more steeply. 2023 did not have the largest number of ballots in this category. 2023 did have the highest proportion of available slots used (37%), but this is simply another way of stating that the percentage of appearances is shifted higher.

Drama Short

As we see, this category often has a standout favorite, but otherwise the distribution is relatively consistent from year to year. 2023 is slightly skewed towards the top picks, with the tail being lower than typical, but there isn’t any obvious discontinuity in the distribution. The combination of higher favorites, but lower percentage appearances for the tail means that the percentage of nomination slots used in 2023 is in the middle of the historic range at 26%. The total number of nominating ballots in 2023 is also in the middle of the historic range.

Editor long

Editor (long form) is an interesting category, not so much for 2023, but for changes across the scope of the study. In 2015 (peak Puppy) there’s a definite skewing towards the more popular picks and a slight flattening of the end of the tail, but in the years after there’s also an increase in the proportion of nomination slots filled. People seem to be more engaged with the category and familiar with more candidates. In 2023, there’s a strong shift upward for the most-mentioned candidates, resulting in 61% of the nomination slots being filled. But the distribution is still relatively smooth and continuous.

Editor Short

The story for Editor (short form) is very similar to long-form editor, even to the slight shift upwards in 2023. The proportion of available slots filled in 2023 is highest of all the years, but not by much (48%).

Semiprozine

Semiprozine is interesting because there’s a shift in the basic pattern that is continued in 2023. Across the years studied, the concentration of interest in a group of “top picks” increases, resulting in a sort of “two mode” distribution curve – an initial higher cluster (that still trails off) then a less steep tail at the lower end. In isolation, the 2023 distribution might almost look like it’s edging toward a “cliff” distribution, except that 2017, 2021, and 2022 all have a similar pattern. I would suggest that this is a function of a relatively small number of semiprozines being exceedingly well known, in comparison to the general population. The percentage of slots filled in 2023 is, again, higher than other years (56%) but only slightly.

Lodestar

The Lodestar only began being given in 2018 so it only shows up in the three most recent years of my data. This makes comparison more tricky, but I’d say that (once more) the 2023 distribution is similar in shape to previous years, but with a shift upward in the percentage of ballots the most popular titles appeared on. One might speculate about what these consistent higher rates mean. (For example, is it the case that the people who are nominating are more “dedicated” that usual and therefore more likely to fill in more items?) Insufficient data to do more than guess.

Astounding

The Astounding nominations generally have low percentages (which makes sense, because when you’re nominating brand new authors, you tend to be dealing with a more broadly distributed familiarity among nominators). The fall-off for 2023 is a bit more convex than in other years, but there isn’t a discontinuity in the distribution.

Typical distribution – but something interesting

So let’s move on to the next group: categories where the distribution is relatively typical (no gaps or cliffs) but there’s something more interesting going on.

Novelette

In novelette, the “interesting” year is 2015. In the top group of highly similar (but still falling off) nominees, we’re seeing the effects of the slate nomination that year. In subsequent years the pattern returns to “normal.” In general, the nomination slots in this category are sparsely filled in, even though overall ballot numbers are high. 2023 has the highest percentage filled at 38%, but the trailing off from the clear favorite shows no gaps. And we can see that it isn’t unusual for there to be a standout favorite for novelette.

Short Story

Short story is notoriously a category with a very long, low popularity tail. We see the same slating effect in 2015 that we saw for novelette, but once again it simply pumps up the higher end of the distribution rather than creating a discontinuity. The distribution for 2023 is “typical” but the overall percentage appearances are relatively very high compared to previous years, even at the low end of the tail. This is striking because it suggests that people are nominating from a relatively smaller pool of familiar works (and therefore more people are mentioning the same works). In most years, the short story long-list only accounts for 15-20% of the available slots (and here I suspect that we aren’t necessarily seeing incompletely filled ballots, but lots of nominations that are farther down the long tail). But in 2023 the long-list nominations accounted for 66% of the available nomination slots for the category. (This is a place where it would be very interesting to compare the total number of individual works that got mentioned.)

Drama Long

Dramatic (long) is in the “typical but interesting” group almost solely for demonstration that having a “runaway favorite” can be part of the typical distribution. It’s more common than not for more than half the nomination ballots in this category to include one particular title for that year. Otherwise, not much to say except that 2023 once again has a slight shift upward in popularity for the most popular titles, but a suppression of popularity for the bottom of the long-list. Once again, it leads in percentage of available slots filled by the long-list (58%) but not by a significant margin over previous years.

Fan Writer

Fan Writer, much like several previous categories, has a similar “shape” of distribution in 2023 compared to earlier years, but the percentages are significantly elevated, resulting in the long-list accounting for 61% of available nomination slots (compared to a more typical 30% or so). In some years, Fan Writer has a clear favorite, but just as often no specific candidate stands out.

Extreme Cliff

Now let’s jump over to the most anomalous distributions – the ones with a “cliff” or “gap” in the distribution. When I posted my previous article, I had narrowed the analysis down to the fiction categories and the fan categories simply because it felt like they’d make a tidy comparison group. But as it turns out, all the “cliff” distributions are in these two groups.

Novel

Compared to some other categories, novel usually has a rather flat and low distribution. My interpretation would be that this is an expected outcome of a large number of titles and a very wide range of tastes in nominators. It’s rare for there to be a clear favorite, and even the slates in 2015 only gave a slight bump to the top end of the group. All that makes 2023 highly unusual. Rather than the most commonly mentioned titles barely making 20% of the ballots, seven titles each showed up on 47-21% of nominating ballots in this category, with the next title down only appearing on 9%. In previous years, the novel long-list titles accounted for 26-37% of the available nominating slots, but in 2023 they accounted for 77%. If you subtracted 600 nominations from each of those seven titles, you’d get a typical-shaped distribution that is elevated above the historic percentages about the same as for other 2023 categories. Seven unusually high titles, and with one invalidated, that gives us the six finalists.

Novella

Novella has been fairly consistent in the past, with the most commonly mentioned titles appearing on more ballots than the most common novels. This makes sense, given that fewer novellas get published than novels, so we wouldn’t expect the distribution to be quite as flat and long-tailed. And it’s a little more common for the most frequently mentioned novellas to stand up a bit above the crowd. But in 2023, five titles break away from the (otherwise typical) crowd, leaving a distribution gap of around 450 nominations. The 2023 long-list titles don’t take up quite as much of the available space as for novel, only 61%, but far and away higher than any other year. As only five titles are in this abnormally elevated group, all of them are finalists.

Series

Series (for which I only have 4 years to compare) is the most extreme example of the cliff phenomenon. The three prior comparison years are all highly similar (differing only in the popularity of the top contender). But in 2023, we have six items each appearing on 58-66% of the ballots for this category. The gap between that group and the next item is around 750 nominations. And the 2023 long-list accounts for 81% of the available nomination slots. (For that matter, those top six items account for 77% of all available nomination slots in the category.) Coincidentally (?) “six” is the number of available places for finalists.

Fanzine

If you discount 2015 when slating more than doubled the expected numbers for a group of titles, and you discount 2023 (which we’ll get to), Fanzine nomination distribution is remarkably consistent, with a nice easy slope and usually one stand-out title at the top (though rarely the same title repeating). And then we get to 2023, where we have a whopping 7 items elevated above the crowd with a gap of about 150 nominations between them and the next candidate. Unlike the fiction categories, this group doesn’t quite dominate the available nomination slots, accounting for only 54%. But the “cliff” is still striking. And because none of the seven were invalidated for any reason, one of them didn’t get boosted onto the finalist list by that effect.

Fan Artist

Fan artist is the last category that I identify as having a significant “cliff” in the distribution. As you can see, the nomination distribution is usually very consistent in percentages, the only unusual thing about this category being that it’s not uncommon for a couple of people to be stand-outs at the top. Although absolute nomination numbers tend to be low, the percentage of available slots taken on the ballots that do address this category tends to be a respectable 20-35%. In 2023, the 6 “elevated” candidates (all of whom end up finalists) push that percentage to 41% of the available slots, but due to the overall low numbers, the gap is only around 35 nominations. This is one of the curious aspects of this “cliff” phenomenon: the gaps aren’t consistent, either in absolute magnitude or in proportional relation to the number of nominating ballots in that category. The “cliffs” are clearly artifactual, but they don’t give a good clue to the nature of the underlying cause.

Non-typical, Other

This brings us to the final analysis group “not typical, but interesting for other reasons than having a distribution cliff.”

Related Work

Related Work has Seen Some Things. In 2015, slating gave it the closes thing to a distribution cliff seen in previous years. I think part of this is that Related Work – being so diffuse in concept – has similar patterns to Novel in having a fairly vast field of candidates, is susceptible to stand-outs for whatever reason. We see this in 2017 when one particular work is massively popular relative to the rest of the field. But even so, 2023 has a discontinuous distribution, thought the high end of the field is a bit more sloped than in many of the “true cliff” distributions. The gap is only about 80 nominations, and overall the percentage of available slots taken isn’t vastly more than in other years.

Pro Artist

Professional Artist is somewhat similar to Related Work, in that there is a slight discontinuity in the distribution (with a gap of maybe 60 or so nominations) with 8 people in the upper group, but that group has a clear gradient, rather than being tightly clustered relative to the whole. The shape is reminiscent of the slate pattern in 2015, but more exaggerated.

Fancast

Fancast only started in 2012, so we’re missing one of my comparison years. At the beginning (including the 2015 slate effect) there’s a very subtle “cliff” pattern, but in more recent years (and presumably with a wider range of familiar and popular podcasts) the pattern has settled down into the much more typical “gradual tail.” So 2023 stands out as unusual, even though it has some similarities to the first two examples. To the extent that 2023 has something of a “cliff” it consists of a gap of around 40 nominations, with five items above the line, but as you can see, that upper group has a definite slope to it – so, not a true “cliff.”

Conclusions

Once again, I get to the end of this and don’t have any clear conclusions. Possibly I should stare at this data for a while longer, listen to what other people say about it, and then come back for some final thoughts. At this point, I’m no longer setting out to “prove” anything, but only to present the data in a form that might spark other people to come up with interpretative inspirations. A couple things that I wanted to jot down in the mean time:

  • When there is a significant "cliff," the number of entries above the cliff is "around" the number of slots on the final ballot. Plus/minus. I counted seven categories that I classified as having a "cliff", with 5 (x1), 6 (x2), or 7 (x4) items above the cliff. Of those, there was only one category where, after invalidations, not all the "clifftop" entries were able to fit on the final ballot. However both in terms of the magnitude of the cliff and the type of category, there was no thematic consistency.
  • Another interesting thing that happened in the voting phase is that, in six categories, the first place winner was obvious in one or two rounds (and if it took two, the item only needed a few votes to go over the finish line). Those six categories were all either in my "typical but interesting" group or my "non-typical for reasons other than a standard cliff" group. I have no idea whether this is meaningful. It's just an observation.

Note that I’m posting this late on a Tuesday evening and Wednesday is my “work on site” day. So I won’t have much opportunity to participate in discussions or moderate pending comments until tomorrow evening.

Major category: 
Conventions
Saturday, January 20, 2024 - 23:22

See also: Part 2, link to the combined Camestos Felapton/Heather Rose Jones analysis.

ETA: Some have requested a copy of my spreadsheet in order to work with the data further. With the caveat that the data hasn't been proofread and the spreadsheet is poorly documented, I've uploaded the folder with the spreadsheet and the graphics used below into Google Docs here. I will not be further modifying or updating the version in Google Docs. I have also corrected some typos below, thanks to the proofreading assistance of readers.

ETA: See some further thoughts at the bottom of the post, marked with the date added.

ETA 2024/01/25: I've added cross-links between the related posts and will continue to update as needed. I'm not used to people actually coming to read my blog! If you like the numbers geekery, consider checking out the rest of my website. I've written some books! I run the Lesbian Historic Motif Project blog and podcast! I natter on about all manner of writing and fannish things!


Regular readers may be aware that my day-job involves pharmaceutical manufacturing failure analysis.This job often involves seeing an anomalous data pattern and then slicing and dicing the data and throwing it into pretty graphs until it starts to make sense. So when I looked at the newly-released 2023 Hugo Award nomination data, my reflexive response on seeing anomalous data patterns was to start slicing and dicing the data and throwing it into pretty graphs to try to make sense of it. (Other people are focusing on questions of why certain nominees were disqualified with no reason given, but large-scale data is what I do, so that's what I'm doing.)

The Observation

The anomaly that caught my attention was the "distribution cliff" in multiple categories, where there was a massive gap between the number of nominations for a small group of items, versus the "long tail" that we normally expect to see for this type of crowd-sourced data. The first question, of course, is whether this is truly anomalous. The second question is what a typical range of distribution patterns looks like. The third question is what the specific nature of the anomaly is. The fourth question is what the root cause of the anomaly is. I won't be able to do more than make a stab at some possible hypotheses for the fourth question.

Methodology

In order to make the data processing more manageable, I decided to focus on only two groups of categories: the length-based fiction categories (novel, novella, novelette, short story, and series) and the fan categories (fanzine, fancast, fan writer, fan artist). My expectation was that these two groups might well demonstrate different behaviors, as well as there potentially being different behaviors within the fiction categories.

Using the nomination statistics provided by each Worldcon, I tabulated the total number of nomination ballots cast for each category and the number of ballots that included each of the top 16 nomination-recipients. (Note: There were not always 16 items listed. Some years reported more than 16 items, but I truncated at 16 for a consistent comparison.) I ignored the question of "disqualifiations" or withdrawals -- the numbers represent what is reported as the raw nomination numbers.

From this, I calculated the percentage of the possible nominations that each of those 16 items received. That is, the number of ballots that listed an item, divided by the total ballots for that category, reported as a percent. This data is displayed as groups of columns, clustered by category. Because the data is reported as a %, the distribution is more easily comparable between categories with different numbers of total nominations.

I selected the following years to analyze:

  • 2011 - the earliest year I happen to have data for
  • 2012 - the last year before any Sad Puppy activity
  • 2015 - the year of the most intense Sad Puppy activity with known nomination slates
  • 2017 - the first year of E Pluribus Hugo**
  • 2021 - a recent year
  • 2022 - a recent year
  • 2023 - the current year

**Because I'm looking only at "how many nominating ballots included this item" the difference in how those nominations are processed pre- and post-EPH should not be significant, except to the possible extent that it affects how people nominate.

Note that Fancast and Best Series were added at various times during the scope covered by this study and so are not present in all the graphs.

"Typical" Distribution

I take the data from 2011, 2012, 2017, 2021, and 2022 as potentially representing a "typical" distribution to use for comparison purposes.

2011 2011 Hugo Nomination Distribution

20122012 Hugo Nomination Distribution

20172017 Hugo Nomination Distribution

20212021 Hugo Nomination Distribution

20222022 Hugo Nomination Distribution

As we see from the above, it's not uncommon for one or two most popular items to extend well above what is otherwise a relatively consistent distribution curve. Although there are significant differences in the number of overall nominations in the different categories (not indicated in these graphs) the distribution by % is remarkably consistent across the categories in any given year. Perhaps more so in the recent years than the earlier ones, when the shorter fiction categories tended to have lower maximum distribution numbers.

If the "initial peak" numbers are excluded, the maximum % of nominations in these categories tends to run in the 10-20% to 10-30% range, with the maximum (including the peak outliers) ranging from 25% to 41%. Overall, let's consider the above to represent the typical distribution we'd expect across years and across categories.

Test Comparison: The Puppy Year

The past year that we might expect to represent the most atypical nomination behavior is 2015: the year most significantly impacted by slate nominations associated with Sad Puppy (and adjacent) nominators.

20152015 Hugo Nomination Distribution

We do see a difference in that--rather than the occasional one or two initial "peak" nomination percentages in a category, some categories have several items with significantly higher percentages than the bulk of the distribution curve. But although the initial slope of the distribution curve may be steeper, it's still identifiably a curve. And the range of results is solidly in line with the group we're considering "typical", i.e., with peak percentages ranging from 15-36%. Overall, the data does look consistent with a subset of nominees being "pumped up" above the expected shape of the distribution, but it doesn't seriously distort the overall picture.

The 2023 Anomaly

Now let's look at the 2023 distributions.

20232023 Hugo Nomination Distribution

Having previously answered question #2 (what does a typical range of distribution patterns look like?) we can now move on to question #1 (is the 2023 distribution anomalous?) and the answer is clearly "yes." In terms of the shape of the distribution curve, novelette, short story, fan writer, and possibly fancast look more or less like our "typical" pattern, even allowing for the initial "peak" outliers in novelette and short story. But novel, novella, series, fanzine, and fan artist all have a large group of highly similar % nominations, followed by a sharp drop to the "tail" with lower percentages. (This is what I'm calling the "distribution cliff.") The gap in each category falls between:

  • Novel: 47% to 9%
  • Novella: 44% to 11%
  • Series: 58% to 4%
  • Fanzine: 33% to 8%
  • Fan Artist: 25% to 10%

Furthermore, the maximum % of nominations across the board is double what we've seen in the "typical" distributions: 30-66%. So we have two obvious anomalies: the "distribution cliff" and the most frequently nominated items appearing on twice the proportion of ballots relative to any other year studied.

What's Going On?

Now we've answered questions 1-3. We've seen what the range of "typical" distributions are, even in a year with known manipulation of the nomination numbers. We've seen that 2023 distributions are clearly anomalous. And we've identified at least two measurable features of that anomaly. Now we come to question #4: What's the underlying cause of this pattern?

The best I can do is suggest some hypotheses and poke at possible support or contradictions for them. In no particular order...

Hypothesis 1: Large numbers of nominating ballots drew from a small "slate" of prospective choices, resulting in both the high percentages for the top nominees and the sharp drop to the remaining members. Pro: the "distribution cliff" does look somewhat similar to the slating dynamic in 2015, but in much more exaggerated form. Con: In several categories, the cluster of very high % nominations is larger than the number of nominees per ballot, and it would take massive coordination to create this tighly-clustered effect across the number of ballots involved for the fiction categories.

Hypothesis 2 (hat tip to JJ): The "distribution cliff" represents a significant range of nominees that have simply been omitted from the published statistics, leaving only a group of the highest nomination recipients and a set with relatively low nomination numbers. Pro: The data to the right of the "cliff" look like a typical "long tail" distribution. This hypothesis would be consistent with the omission of fiction titles that we might well expect to see in the long list, given the specific titles that are present in the high-percent group. (In some years, the statistics include the total number of different items nominated in each category. This would be useful data for evaluating hypothesis 2, but is not available for 2023.) Con: The math doesn't add up for there to be a chunk of missing "mid-range" nominees. For this, let's introduce another anomaly.

% of Available Nominations Accounted for by the Long List

For this, I calculated the number of "hypothetical available nomination slots" by multiplying the number of nomination ballots for each category by 5. Then I added up the number of nomination slots accounted for by the long list (as presented). The slots accounted for are presented as a percentage for each category. Note that in most categories, the proportion of available slots accounted for by the Long List data is about twice the typical proportion. It's typical for people not to use up all their available nomination slots in every category, so this data suggests that many more people use up all or a majority of their avilable slots (and--as we've seen above--used them to nominate from a relatively small selection of options).

Percent of Nominations Accounted For

When you look at 2023 categories like Novel and Series, there simply isn't room in the numbers for a substantial number of "missing mid-range nominees" from a normal distribution curve. That leads us to...

Hypothesis #3: The math is bogus. That is, the reported nomination statistics include large numbers of nominations attributed to the "top group" that do not arise from an actual nomination process. Two possible methods (related to hypotheses 1 & 2) could be at play. Either a fixed number of false nominations (proportional to the overall true nominations in the category) have been added to a variable number of the top picks, or the actual nomination numbers from a "missing mid-range" have been added to the items that are reported as the top picks. A third possible sub-hypothesis here is that there was a massive programming error in the software that was processing the nomination data that moved nomination counts around. I'm not going to do pros and cons on this one because I've introduced too many variables.

Conclusions

Well, there really aren't any conclusions other than the ones that were immediately apparent from the raw data. The 2023 Hugo Nomination Statistics are implausible and anomalous and as a result we don't actually know who should be on the Hugo Long List. (And--based on factors that I haven't discussed here--we don't entirely know who should have been on the Hugo Short List.)


ETA 2024-01-22

I had some further thoughts on timing and the reasons given for timing of the nomination stats. This was originally posted on Bluesky, and then expanded slightly as a comment on File770.

One quoted phrase [in an article at https://mrphilipslibrary.wordpress.com/2024/01/21/hugo-nominating-stats-rascality-and-a-brief-history-of-where-it-all-started/] got me thinking more deeply about something. One reason for the delay in releasing the nomination stats was quoted as “this delay is purely to make sure that everything I put out is verified as correct (and the detailed stats take time to verify, there’s lot of stuff going on there.” [McCarty]

But remember that unexpected delay when announcing the finalists, way back earlier? Surely that was the point when everything needed to be verified as correct? Like: making sure titles and names were correct and consistent so that nominations were tabulated and processed correctly? And an extensive verification process before the nominations were tabulated to generate the finalist list makes sense and is understandable. And that was what we all told ourselves at the time and tried to be patient because of it. But the Long List is not a separate entity from the Short List. It’s just a peek at a larger part of the same list.

That’s why the nomination stats are usually able to be released immediately after the award ceremony: the work should have been complete months before. The nomination stats document should be ready to release at the time the finalists are announced. [Note: "should be" in the sense that all the data is fixed and known at that point. But obviously the question of whether the people authorized to know that data and the people preparing the voting/nomination stats for release are the same people has an impact.] So what possible verification and correction could still be pending after the date of the announcement of the finalists? Much less after voting is complete? Much less for three months after the awards are given out? It doesn’t make sense.

Any errors or inconsistencies whose correction contributed to the 3 month delay after the con would be errors and inconsistencies that existed at the time the nomination data was processed to generate the finalist list.

Therefore, even if it were true that the long delay in getting the nomination stats out (not just 3 months, but 3 months plus the time between release of the finalist list and the time of the convention) were due to the need to correct errors and inconsistencies, that in and of itself indicates that the data generating the finalist list was deeply flawed.

On the other hand, I could propose a “hypothesis #4” to add to the ones above: The finalists were a semi-arbitrary selection–perhaps based on actual nomination data, but not determined by the prescribed nomination process–and the long delay was due to the need to create long-list data that supported the published finalist list. (Note that none of my hypotheses are intended to be taken as being solidly supported or being what I believe, they are simply models that could be consistent with the observed data.)

Major category: 
Conventions

Pages

Subscribe to Alpennia Blog