Friday, April 4, 2008

Thoughts on Feminism and SF

I apologize for the fact that the response below is dated; I began it in response to a February 29 post from Timmi DuChamp here:

The post was with reference to an article in Foundation from August 2006, apparently favorably reviewing a book that is harsh on feminists in the SF field. I have not read this book and can only comment on feminism in American SF as a relative outsider (not being familiar with too much of Campbellian SF or American SF history) but with those qualifiers, here are some thoughts.

First, I understand that the argument goes as follows: in the past, women writers may have (wrongly) assumed that editors would not publish their fiction and that this perceived bias may have prevented them from submitting stories. But why blame the feminists for this, when a reading of golden age fiction (from anthologies in my case) makes it painfully obvious that women are either absent or limited to stereotypical roles in these stories? Does the author have any data to back this assertion? And even if it were true, what about the possible compensating effect that feminist SF writers have had in terms of providing inspiration to other women writers? In my personal experience (and acknowledging that an anecdote does not a scientifically credible conclusion make) I wouldn’t be writing science fiction and fantasy for publication if it hadn’t been for the feminists. I loved the genre as a kid but read mostly Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, and as I grew older I felt distanced from it (it didn’t seem to have much to do with people of my race and gender, for one thing). When I came to the US I wanted to return to it because I loved the intellectual thrills I got from the genre, but I could not work through the distanced feeling until I discovered Ursula K. Le Guin. My brother and my husband had both read her for years and I finally read her in my early thirties, to discover with a shock of delight that someone had gone ahead and hacked a path through the jungle for people like me. And that is how I got started on writing SF.

It seems that if I can draw any conclusion from the excerpts in Timmi’s post, the reviewer is falling into a trap by accusing MacLean the way he does. Just because Campbell happened to support Merrill and MacLean does not automatically mean that he couldn’t possibly be biased against women’s writing. I went to a university in the southern U.S. for my Ph.D., where I met white people who were friendly to me, supported me in various ways, but they still held racist views. Perhaps overt racism is harder to find these days (as is, perhaps, overt bias against women) but there are still unconscious biases and institutional biases. I once talked with an SF editor, a woman I respect and admire, and said something to the effect that it was a pity there was not more fiction published by third world writers. The editor responded by saying that no, there was a lot of third world fiction published, and named a string of writers, all of whom were white Westerners. Somewhat surprised, I pointed out to her that I meant writers from the third world, and her response was as far as I could interpret it, an “oh, I hadn’t thought of that.” Here’s a perfectly nice woman who had apparently never thought that writing by third worlders would have value distinguishable from writing about the third world. It is not too hard to imagine an analogous blindness about women’s writing existing in the past.

And by the way here is an essay by Canadian critic and writer Claude Lalumiere, commenting on the dominance of Campbellian SF in American SF history:

Also of interest is this survey and statistical analysis of women’s writing in the new millenium (in the short fiction realm) by Susan Linville:

Her conclusion is that in our times there is no evidence for overt editorial bias --- the lack of women’s writing in the genre (for short fiction anyway) is because women submit a lot less than men. There are reasons for this that may be related to gender disparity. I wonder how many women writers of SF can relate to this great quote by Mary Turzillo in the article by Linville:

"Men writers frequently have to work two jobs, especially at the beginning of their careers: the day-job and the writing job (yes, it is a job!). Women work three jobs: the day-job (because most women with kids have a job outside the home), the evening job of taking care of the house and kids, and the evening job of writing. They may be able to get a few stories in print, but the time angle is crushing."

But missing from all this analysis is the nature of the stories submitted, and whether the ones published fit a certain mold that makes them recognizably and acceptably what people think of as SF. Is it easier for women who write within a certain dominant SF canon to have their stories published, than for women who are doing something truly transgressive with the genre? I can’t answer this question except anecdotally. But it is a point worth thinking about because --- who knows? --- there may be fair number of women writers for whom SF means something quite different than what it might mean for most men.

1 comment:

Ted said...

Here’s a perfectly nice woman who had apparently never thought that writing by third worlders would have value distinguishable from writing about the third world. It is not too hard to imagine an analogous blindness about women’s writing existing in the past.

In the Clute/Nicholls Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, the introduction discusses the differences between the first and second editions. One that's relevant: in the first edition, there was an entry entitled WOMEN (written by Nicholls). In the second edition, that entry was separated into three, titled FEMINISM, WOMEN SF WRITERS, and WOMEN AS PORTRAYED IN SCIENCE FICTION, all written by Lisa Tuttle.