Monday, October 27, 2008

Those Eyeball-rolling Moments

It's nice to see that Lyndon Perry, reviewing Nancy Jane Moore's collection Conscientious Inconsistencies for The Fix, enjoyed her stories and found their quality impressive. But as happens over and over and over again in reviews and discussions of feminist sf (and so of course in reviews of Aqueduct's books), the reviewer here confronts us with the classic provocation for eyeball-rolling that anyone who regularly reads feminist sf will be familiar with: the assumption that because he likes the stories and perceives their quality, that therefore what he's reviewing can't be feminist sf.

Although touted in the introduction as a sampling of stories influenced by Moore’s feminism, I found, rather, the four pieces of fiction (and a list of “Thirty-One Rules for Fulfilling Your Destiny”) as examples of great writing featuring fully characterized protagonists who just happen to be women. Moore’s style rises above a particular perspective and stands on its own as quality short fiction. To classify this collection as feminist literature, in my opinion, might unnecessarily marginalize these stories away from the very genre fiction scene it seeks to represent.

The introduction he alludes to, by the way, is by me. A few comments seem in order. First: it's a safe bet that he hasn't read much feminist sf. Second: Since when does any story "rise above its perspective"? Every narrative has a perspective, and to imagine that the perspective doesn't matter is naive. But third, and perhaps more to the point: I find myself wondering yet again why it is so apparently impossible for "genre readers" to recall that feminist sf has made important contributions to the genre? (Jeanne Gomoll's manifesto took this on many years ago; but it's not an issue that has resolved itself with time, and so her "Open Letter to Joanna Russ" remains relevant to the discussion.) Although our noses are constantly being rubbed in this ignorance, as I wrote in my essay (in the Daughters of Earth anthology) on Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See," I keep hoping, I keep hoping, I keep hoping--- and I do keep seeing signs that at least some feminist sf is finally being integrated into the younger critics' understanding of the genre, and that discussions of sf by women aren't always relegated to special--segregated--chapters in critical studies of the genre as they always were in the past.

I've no doubt that for as long as Aqueduct publishes books, I'll be reading reviews expressing puzzlement that a particular book was published by Aqueduct because really, it's quality fiction and not-- ugh-- *feminist.* (Why, reviewers frequently want to know, do I think that the work published as a volume in the Conversation Pieces series is a contribution to the "conversation of feminist sf"? There's nothing "feminist" about this work! It's too good to be "feminist"!) Not wanting to be an ingrate, I do my best to overlook such remarks. But I do, in the privacy of my office, roll my eyeballs (not to mention raise my eyebrows).

The flip-side of this ignorance, of course, is that when a work of feminist sf is too subtle or goes too far outside a reviewer's comfort zone, said reviewer has a habit of taking his or her simplistic assumptions about feminism and projecting them willy-nilly onto the text, ignoring everything in the work that can't be forced into the square peg of their polemic-against-their-straw-man-feminism interpretation. This also drives me nuts. (More exercise for my eyeballs and eyebrows.)

I realize this is an aspect of living in the ghetto of a genre ghetto. Ignorance is a perk of privilege. (If you don't know what I mean, just contemplate Dubya's proud flaunting of his ignorance.) Come to think of it, I was constantly being called "Little Miss Know-it-all" in my family when I was growing up. I learned early that knowing things that other people didn't know was not a virtue. (I rolled my eyeballs a lot back then, too...)


Josh said...

You know what that "might unnecessarily marginalize these stories away" reminds me of? The handsome and brilliant A White Bear, observing of her undergrads that they feel that the only way one responds to art is not even as a self-interested consumer, but as a television studio executive. The reviewer here is not so much signaling his own discomfort with the "feminist" appellation (he's not sufficiently in touch with his own feelings to say whether or not he's personally uneasy about it) but imagining it in the context of "consensus and marketability." Like AWB's students, he imagines that the stories would lack "relatability" thanks to that "crazy" categorization.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Shivering shades of Althusser! Is this the next stage in the postmodern media penetration of our lives? You're right, A White Bear's post is brilliant-- thanks for the link. To give a further sense of what she's saying here, let me quote this bit:

"It worries me that my students aren’t even narcissistic in their responses. I know they are personally moved by literature because they tell me after class, face-to-face, but before they know how to do analytical work with literature, they displace evaluation onto what they imagine would be a widespread market response. It reminds me of the way the media discusses presidential candidates, not analytically, and not through actual editorial commentary, but by obsessing about what is weird or not-weird about each, and speculating about how those spiky weird bits those candidates have might irritate the very sensitive skin of the great allergy-ridden Public, who likes everything to taste like yesterday’s dinner, but come in a new box. Who is this Public the media imagines? Or have they made us into that Public by insisting that we imagine the Public as everyone except ourselves, who don’t matter in comparison?"

The answer to that last question is: Of course! That's what "hailing" (aka "interpellation") does. & of course that's what the constant bombardment of images of what women are "supposed" to look like does to women: makes them constantly worry about what Everyone (which might as well be "the Public") thinks about the way they look. But what AWB's students are doing seems to be taking the process even further. Now they can't discuss a text without reference to what they think the "market response" is. And you know, I think you're right, that's what was going on in this review. Maybe the reviewer thinks it's the reviewer's task to to internalize whatever s/he thinks the "market response" is & represent it to the review's readers?

Jeesh. I tell ya, Josh, We're in a house of mirrors. If you ever find the door, let me know.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I won't pretend I don't have a vested interest in this review -- anytime a reviewer showers my work with praise, I am far too happy to quibble too much, even though I immediately reacted to his comments on feminism (and knew you would do so, too, Timmi).

But here's a real upside: Lyndon Perry is not my target reader and yet he both liked the stories and got what was going on in them. To me that means that I can write stories that are in conversation with feminist SF -- not to mention feminism in general, my own understanding of history (I just read your interesting post on history and events, too, Timmi), the political landscape in which I was raised and so on -- and still connect with a reader who unaware or uninterested in those things.
To me, that's important, because one of the reasons I consider fiction to be important (possibly more important than criticism, to hark back to the beginnings of a discussion at WisCon, which Josh will remember), is that the best of it provides the reader with truth and understanding of the world on a deep, often unconscious level. My own understanding of the world has been heavily shaped by the fiction I've read, and that fiction has led me down some paths I would not otherwise have found.

So if my feminist stories -- and I'm too much shaped by feminism to write stories that don't at least have something feminist about them -- can be read and appreciated by those who do not think in those terms, some of that deeper understanding is going to find a home in the reader's unconscious. To me, that's how change comes.

I'm still fascinated an observation in Chip Delany's Empire Star, where he says something about criminals and artists being the ones capable of complex thinking leading to change (I am not going to go digging through my books to find that one at the moment to get the exact line). I believe literature that challenges our preconceptions leads to change. So I very much want to be read by people who don't think in terms of feminism, as well as by those who do.