Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Helix SF Magazine Publishes All Female-Authored Issue. Verdict: Cookie Allotted.

The science fiction magazine Helix SF, which describes itself as publishing "controversial" stories, has posted an issue featuring all women writers.

It features fiction by authors such as Esther Freisner, Eugie Foster, Yoon Ha Lee, and Samantha Henderson. There's also a nice selection of poetry by authors including Jane Yolen and Joselle Vanderhooft.

Sanders wrote an editorial about his decision to make this an all-women authored issue. I appreciated this bit: "Certainly it's not intended to prove that women can write SF, or that they can write it well. That's something that doesn't need proving; it's been proved over and over again — anybody who needs further proof by now is beyond hope."

I was also interested in his discussion of the motives: "The truth is that all of the stories you see in this issue had already been accepted before I decided to do this. In fact that's where the idea originated: I was looking over the stories I had in stock, choosing which ones I wanted to use for the next issue, and I noticed that I had quite a lot of excellent stories by women — and had in fact already picked several of them — and suddenly the light bulb went on and I said to myself, "Self, you ugly old son of a bitch," (myself understanding this to be in the spirit of good-natured bandinage)**, "why not an all-women issue?"

And indeed, why not?

He adds, "But you know, in a way it's a pity that this should even be worth talking about. Really, if things were as they should be, nobody should think it surprising or remarkable that an SF magazine should publish an all-women's issue — any more than if, say, all the contributors were from Illinois, or all their last names began with R, or they all had red hair...Or if they were all straight white guys. That happens all the time, and nobody seems to find it strange."

When I first read that last line, I was cheering it, but then I realized that its meaning is ambiguous. It could mean that the editor acknowledges that straight white men are the default state, and that no one finds it odd when issues are all straight white men because the assumption (pre-feminism and anti-racism) is that everything everywhere will be all straight white men. He could be referring to the phenomenon whereby a group of people that is less than half women will be perceived as "all women." He could be referring to the recent study about conversation in which it's demonstrated that if women and men are forced to speak for equal lengths of time, both parties perceive the women as completely dominating the conversation.

However, it's also possible to read the statement another way: which is that no one pays attention to straight white male authored issues because feminists and anti-racists want special rights, and whites and men have "no one" arguing for their interests.

The more I think about this comment, though, I have trouble sustaining my second reading. In order for the second reading to work out, Sanders would have to believe that there are as many all-women tables of contents as there are tables of contents filled with authors who are straight, white, and male. But that doesn't seem to be the case, since he acknowledges that an all-female TOC is still worthy of comment, while TOCs of only straight white men happen all the time.

However, an editorial by Helix guest editor Melanie Fletcher reveals an unambiguous example of the condescending attitude I'd feared: "it's not a big deal that the Summer '07 issue of Helix is pretty much all female — like the almost all male Hugo ballot this year, it just shook out that way. And yet there was much hue and cry across the land about the 2007 Hugo nominees' preponderance of testosterone, so we're probably going to catch some shit about the clouds of estrogen wafting about this issue. Frankly, both complaints strike me as pretty damn stupid because it shouldn't matter what flavor of gonads a writer is packing; what does matter is whether or not they can tell a cracking good story."

Fletcher appears not to understand what is meant by systemic sexism or unconscious bias, from the way that she mischaracterizes the feminist critique of Hugo awards. She appears to be offering this issue as an example of how sometimes things "shake out" to female benefit -- but she's countered by the very fact that there was a conscious effort to put together an all-female table of contents. There was no conscious effort to skew the Hugos. Unconscious gender bias did that all on its own, as it does monthly in the table of contents for magazines like Harper's.

I am inclined to give Sanders the benefit of the doubt and say his heart was in the right place when he orchestrated it. It's harder to believe him when he says this isn't a publicity stunt since he complained about the lack of attention he received for doing it. But I'm inclined to forgive publicity stunts; he's trying to grow the audience for a small magazine.*

However, the editorial by Fletcher makes it clear why an effort like this isn't usually greeted with open arms. It's hard to tell what kinds of concealed motives people have for these kinds of actions. In this case, Fletcher seems to have been trying to hide a GOTCHA under her coat, even if it was a particularly ineffective one.

While I remain cagey, I'm going to go ahead and say this: Good on you, Sanders. Cookie allotted.

But you know what's better on Sanders than an all-women issue? The fact that (if we are to go by the statistics listed in his editorial) of the 28 stories he published in his first year, 13 were by women. Sanders, and editors like him who publish an equal or near-equal gender ratio, are definitely part of the solution.

There's one more net result that's unambiguously positive: seven female short story writers, and six female poets, have sold their work. They will be paid and their work will be read. I urge people to read this issue, and throw in a couple of bucks to the authors if they think the stories are worthy.

UPDATE: Sanders points out that there are a lot of people of color who have written stories for this issue, also, such as Eugie Foster and Yoon Ha Lee. The name that jumps out at me is N. K. Jemison who I was fortunate enough to see speak last year at Wiscon. She’s brilliant. You can find her at her personal blog, but she’s also got the keys to Angry Black Woman’s place, where she’s recently written aa guest post or two. There may be other writers of color on the TOC besides these talented three, but those are the only three I know of for sure.


*And hey, complaining worked. I wouldn't have written about this if he hadn't complained. Of course, the fact that my health issues have been mostly cleared up! meant that I now have time and attention to write, which I didn't have when the issue initially came out. (I did consider writing about it then.)

**Sanders also gets a musical-theater-related cookie for quoting Ruddigore.

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