Friday, January 9, 2009

Not Even Wrong. . .

A few weeks ago I responded to Niall Harrison’s call for items for his Year’s Best of 2008 column, over on Strange Horizons. As an opening, I made a comment some readers may have found either puzzling or inflammatory: “too many ever so clearly labelled girl-books and boy-books; too many notable books that I know I must not review, because I'm prejudiced, and my views (which were always leftfield, and I didn't mind) have become not even wrong....

Timmi’s asked me to expand, so I’ll try. You see, I’m what’s known as a “seventies feminist”. (I didn’t have an sf novel published until 1984, but I can’t seem to shake the label). What was different about the genre’s “seventies feminists” was that they didn’t write for feminists. They claimed to address the whole audience. Yes, this story, this novel, is about sexual politics; or has a sexual politics strand. No, it isn’t a form of chick-lit, no, it’s not just for bleeding-heart girlies. It’s the mainstream. Those days are gone, and I don’t regret them. There’s a limit to my desire, as a writer or a reader, to concentrate intensely on any single topic. What I do regret is the polarisation that has replaced our hopeful attempts to reach a new balance, so that (sigh) absolutely anything I write gets read as “feminist”, just because the whole genre has shifted so far over towards the masculine.

But there’s another point, which isn’t about feminism (honest!). As a critic, these days, often I can’t admire the books that are the height of fashion, but I no longer feel I should be the one taking them apart. There’s a younger generation, negotiating different boundaries, or negotiating the same boundaries (eg feminism) in different ways. There comes a point when you realise you could be stomping your horrible old elder statesman (or woman) dinosaur foot on the really interesting, different, and fragile blue-sky research of the genre, the kind of work that will never be mass-market but instead will nourish and inspire the mass-market. . . just because it doesn’t look the way you think it ought to look.

So that’s what I meant by “not even wrong”.

And maybe in 2009 I’ll teach myself how to recalibrate.

I do that trick all the time with music.

It can’t be rocket science.


Timmi Duchamp said...

Your sense, Gwyneth, of needing to "re-calibrate," I get. But I'm not so sure I agree with your take on the polarization caused by a newly fierce tendency to gender texts. Yes, it's true that much of the recent marketing of f/sf seems to be aiming for primarily either "girl" or "boy" audiences. But as I noted in the paper I gave at the Delany Symposium not quite three years ago, there's been a promising shift in science fiction criticism (mostly of the academic variety) away from segregating criticism of texts written by women from those written by men. I find this heartening & significant. The example I cited was the Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, but I could name several other works that discuss women's texts alongside men's texts. Numerous scholars now integrate women's texts into their discussion of the entire field (& not in separate paragraphs or chapters).

On a more personal note, I am confident that few men would have been willing (or able) to read the Marq'ssan Cycle back in the 1980s when I wrote it-- the whole idea of making women the protagonists and depicting them as powerful and competent and complex while casting the male characters as mates, relatives, subordinates, & antagonists-- the reverse of the usual gender arrangements in narratives of the 1980s-- would have been intolerable to most male readers. (& what now strikes some readers as unbelievably nasty bits of sexism back then were perceived as perfectly acceptable behavior, such that male readers tended to find characters' objections to such behavior "shrill" and "hysterical.") Twenty years later, the matter's quite different. I have no idea what the breakdown is, but I've had positive feedback about it from numerous men-- who've actually stuck around for all five books. (&, conversely, encountered rejection from some women readers.)The men who find it worth reading don't think of it as addressed only to women.

I'll also note that a significant portion of Aqueduct's core patrons are men, who buy every (in a few cases, or almost every, in several more cases) book we publish.

But perhaps I still haven't understood your point? This is such a complex subject that it's easy to misunderstand what someone else is saying.

Anonymous said...

Lovely phrase Gwyneth: 'on the really interesting, different, and fragile blue-sky research of the genre, the kind of work that will never be mass-market but instead will nourish and inspire the mass-market.'
I think it applies to other kinds of research as well.

Lucy Sussex

Anonymous said...

I'm a late 80s/early 90s feminist. Queer - caught between lesbian and less defined gender. Definitely a white girl but not totally whitebread- from a racially mixed family, from actually inside D.C.

Like I always feel caught between racialized political groupings (especially in this last little electoral moment - my little brother wanted to be the first Black POTUS, when we were kids), caught between the past and present of racialized thinking...

I always end up feeling caught between ties to 70s feminists and the beyond-the-Third-Wave crowd that hasn't yet defined her terms in the ways the waves before her has had a chance to do, though it's swirling all around us. (Not so tied to the Third Wave, just listening.)

70s feminists for me were the women who organized the sister space I enjoyed as a young dyke, and those tough, fierce women who taught us how to get stuff done, define targets and aim with precision - to win the winnable battles - in activist groups. The somewhat-hidden older lesbians behind ACT UP's success, in particular, for me.

But the political and personal boundaries 70s feminist have held fast to, the lines they have drawn in the sand, they have always left me spanning those lines, one foot stuck in the past, one foot dangling over into the future.

I always feel profoundly ambivalent in spaces like this blog, and Wiscon. Caught between, doing too much translating between 'sides,' lost in my own thoughts to the point of silence. Making weird, random, 'off the wall' comments just to say something, because I appreciate the conversation, how it makes me have to think.

I was just reading an anthology of (staged) letters by young activists to older activists, friends, parents, governments, teachers, lovers, same-age-group activists. (Letters from Young Activists, Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, Kenyon Farrow, eds. 2005)

The thing that stuck most in my head was one man's call for older activists to be more open and honest about their mistakes, their insecurities, their doubts - to be radically self-critical and compassionate towards the current participants and commitments of activism in this era.

It's really cool to see someone doing that - questioning, out loud, the gap between where things are right now, where they are heading, and where they were - and her places, positionings in that gap and in the now.

That kind of questioning (C.R., feminist meeting process, larger theory and praxis), and speaking out - the fierce desire to do that, again and again, in public and even high stakes situations, that's what I learned from 70s feminists in the first place.

Refreshing and promising; yet another unsubtle hint of great things to come in this next moment in critical and political (and fictional) time.

Just saying.

-Carrie Devall

Kathryn Cramer said...

That fragility aspect is I guess what we NYRSF folk are talking about when we say that people's likes are more interesting than their dislikes. It's why we run many more favorable than unfavorable reviews.