Why I Stopped Reading Books Written By Judith Tarr

Not about Krita or KDE… Instead it’s about my reaction to a blog article or two by an author whose work I used to buy.

Some time ago I read an article by Judith Tarr on Women In Science Fiction. It sort of pissed me off. Recently, she recycled this article on Charles Stross’ blog. The gist of it is that the world is unfair to women because readers stop buying sf/fantasy books by female authors when they are no longer pretty thirty-somethings, and that that is unfair. Now I noticed these articles because Judith Tarr used to be one of my favourite authors…

Personally, I don’t care whether the authors of the books I read are thirty or sixty, have tits or balls, although, to be completely honest, I probably read more books by female authors than by male authors. Sometimes I think it’s because most readers, these days, are women, and many women strongly prefer to read books written by their own sex, so it would make sense that more books by women get published. I didn’t do any research and did’t compile statistics, of course, but then, Judith Tarr also hasn’t done the statistics, that I could find. Sometimes I think I might be reading more female authors because for some weird cultural reason, female authors put more character interaction in their books, and male authors more — dunno, stuff that bores me. Like Malazan or Game of Thrones. Bad world-building, lack of interesting people, prosiness. Sometimes I think it’s just because I get recommended more books by female authors because I know more female SF/F readers than male readers, which is back to square one. I know that when I was sending manuscripts out, I thought I’d better use a female pseudonym. I probably was wrong, since it seems agents still prefer authors with male sounding names.

In any case, the reason I stopped reading Judith Tarr is simply because her books disappointed me more and more… We bought a lot of her books, but the one that started it was Ars Magica. That book blew me away. Not because the author was a sexy twenty or thirty-something. There is no backflap picture on the paperback. But, in fact, we thought Ars Magica was so good we went on buying her books, disappointment after disappointment.

In the nineties, a book-buying expedition to the American Book Center in Amsterdam would have us first check the T’s for a new Tarr, then the K’s for a new Kurtz, then the P’s for a new Pratchett. This was before the Internet, so the only way we had to figure out whether there was a new book by our favourite authors was to go to the bookshop. After the ABC we would hit Waterstones, to check the J’s for a new Diana Wynne Jones, and then the W’s to make sure there really wasn’t one. We’d end up buying second-hand books in the English Book Exchange, and go home with a dozen paperbacks each.

So… After Ars Magica, we got Alamut. That was quite decent, the bits with the ifreeta and her human sister in the cave where Aidan was kept were great. Oodles of interesting character interaction. The whole elves/magic stuff… Well, not so much. A bit standard and not really well thought-out, I felt back then. Then, A Wind in Cairo was short enough to finish before putting it aside. The Dagger and the Cross had a few nice bits, but was on the whole rather a disjointed read. But… Ars Magica was great.

So we got The Hound and the Falcon. I never got through the first few chapters. I thought, well, maybe the three volumes in one cover was just too heavy to read comfortably, besides, an early work, reissued, so let’s get The Hall of the Mountain King. First part in a longish series, which we never bothered to get the other parts of. Lord of the Two Lands failed to grip, Throne of Isis ditto.

Still, you never know, and Ars Magica had made a deep impression. By now, I didn’t dare re-read it, for fear it would disappoint as much as the other Judith Tarr titles we bought. So, when The Eagle’s Daughter was released, we hesitated. But the idea of a novel around a Byzantine Princess in Ottonian Germany was delectable. Unfortunately, the author seems to detest Byzantium and revere Rome, something which already was apparent in The Dagger and the Cross, and that took away some of the enjoyment of what, had it been better constructed, better told and contained more interesting characters could have been a great book. To me, nobody in the book came alive, and I did give it a good chance, three or even four times.

Pillar of Fire was the last Judith Tarr we bought. Our copy is chiefly remarkable for not having a single crease in its spine. It was a disappointment from page one.

Well, that’s not quite true. We never got anything by Caitlin Brennan or Kathleen Bryan (by now the internet existed and put us wise), but after the first article mentioned above, I got her “Living in Threes” It was cheap, and, well, I remember Ars Magica as a really good book. “Living in Threes” is not a good book. It’s construction is shoddy, it’s world-building is basic, the characters are cardboard cut-outs. It reads as if it was written without any focus, as if the author had better things to do, things that took up all the brain-power.

I stopped reading Judith Tarr, not because she’s gone invisible because she’s a middle-aged woman and I’m a man who only notices under-thirty women, but because, after reading a bunch of her books I found that I’d better read books by other people.

Like… Aliette de Bodard, Virginia deMarce, Esther Friesner, Irina Rempt and a host of other people… R.A. Macavoy is surprising, Caroline Stevermer never fails to enchant, Mercedes Lackey is usually diverting, when one has flu, Karen Mills sets the standard for bickering characters, but is often entertaining, Katherine Addison has really original world-building, Genevieve Cogman’s worlds are weirder and her characters deeply interesting and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria — well, a bit mixed, the first part was far more interesting than the second part. And let’s not mention the woman everyone always mentions when it comes to SF, who is being called a “smurfette” by Judith Tarr: Lois McMaster Bujold, maybe a bit too fond of Dorothy L. Sayers, but still putting down an incredible universe full of interestingly interacting characters. Oh, and I shouldn’t forget Pamela Dean. Connie Willis, on the other hand, is a bit Judith-Tarrish, in that one book, Bellwether, really gripped me, and all the other books bored me. Well, To Say Nothing of the Dog had good bits, though there the Dorothy L. Sayers worship definitely was too much. Liz William’s SF Singapore is incredibly fascinating, and I’m saving some of her books so I’ve got something stashed away for a rainy day.

I could go on, though, mentioning authors and books, and it’s already late. Let me conclude: I’m sure women are being disciminated against, and I can be convinced men find it easier to get their SFF published. But I stopped buying Judith Tarr’s books because I didn’t like reading them, not because the author became a middle-aged woman.