Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Because culture, not nature, is the problem

Most readers of this blog probably know that Helen Merrick is the author of the Secret Feminist Cabal and maybe even that she was the co-editor of Women of Other Worlds, a WisCon-centered anthology of mixed fiction and criticism published in the late nineties by an Australian press. But Helen is also an energetic scholar with numerous other publications to her name, and in more than one disciplinary arena. At the moment, for instance, she's working on a book about Donna Haraway's work, and that's because she's passionately into Feminist Science Studies.

I've just read a dynamite article of hers (which she actually wrote a few years ago) published in the March/April 2010 issue of Women's Studies International Forum, titled "Science stories, life stories: Engaging the sciences through feminist science fiction." In this article she argues that feminist science fiction has the potential for bridging the "two culture divide" that persists in feminist scholarship-- the divide between the sciences and the humanities. As Helen writes,
[F]ew [feminist scholars] have followed Haraway and Rose's lead in viewing feminist SF as a space of productive convergence between the arts and sciences. Even within the specialised field of feminist SF criticism, there exists a a similar lacunae; most studies to date are firmly grounded in literary criticism with surprisingly little attention paid to the role of the sciences in feminist SF. SF remains an underutilised resource in thinking through some of the problematics of two-culture engagements, perhaps precisely because of its hybridized positioning on the two-culture border.
I find particularly interesting the parallel Helen draws between between feminist science studies and feminist sf:
In many ways feminist SF occupies the same uncomfortable discursive and cultural space as science studies itself-- an uneasy balancing between the two cultures of science and the humanities. Whilst feminist studies of science often employ humanities-based methodologies to examine and critique science, SF can draw on both literary techniques and the language and methodologies of science: creating potentially boundary-crossing "fictions of science." Like many critics in the field of feminist science studies, some SF writers are originally scientists whose feminism impels them to write different stories....And like many humanities-trained science critics, SF authors are often avid "amateur" readers and researchers of science, including [Gwyneth] Jones herself, Nancy Kress, Kathleen Ann Goonan and Nicola Griffith. Such authors share with feminist scientists and science critics a fascination for, and even love of, science....they share the impulse to "both critique and find inspiration with science's bounds."
After discussing the ways in which feminist sf is able to engage with the epistemology and practice of science, Helen then focuses on Gwyneth Jones's Life as "a vital, challenging and complex example of feminist fiction that can draw on its generic positioning and history to 'boldly go' where few realist fictions can," "speaking to two related, although quite distinct, concerns in contemporary feminist engagements with the sciences: the nature of women's work in the sciences, and the integration of the biological and material into our theorisations of sex and gender."

Probably the most fascinating part of the article (for me, anyway), is Helen's drawing on "neo-materialist feminist" theory:
Like advocates of the new materialism such as [Myra] Hird, Life reminds us that "while nature emphasises diversity, culture emphasises dichotomy," and illustrates why the use of biology 'to reify sex dimorphism' should not deter feminists from seeing the natural sciences "as a useful site for critiques of this dichotomy. At the same time, the whole novel and its title can be read as a reminder that the conception of "life" offered by the dominant narrative of molecular biology (or what Jones terms "Stupid Darwinism") is narrow and reductionist. As originary story, such concepts alone cannot explain or represent the complexity, interimplication or "complementarity" of the biological, social, and historical relations between humans and non-humans, on a variety of levels, from molecular and cellular to societal.
The article is available for purchase here, but since it costs $42 (yes, for an electronic file that is eight pages long!), if you want to read it, you will probably want to look for it in hard copy in a library near you. (I'm reminded that a long time ago I was a regular subscriber to this journal-- until it was bought by a multinational corporation and the price of a subscription went up by about a factor of 10.)

Monday, March 29, 2010

Queens and their "long-term storage organs"

Whoa. Biologists have been making movies of sperm duking it out on inside the "seminal receptacles of insect queens' reproductive tracts as they jostle for a place in the queen's "long-term storage organ." Elizabeth Pennski reports in the 19 March issue of Science
Females sometimes mate more than once in quick succession, filling their reproductive tract with rival sperm that must compete for access to unfertilized eggs. Two groups now show details of what life must be like for those sperm, with one offering unprecedented movies of this sperm competition. On page 1506, Susanne P.A. den Boer of the university of Copenhagen demonstrates that such rivalries in some ants and bees have led to the evolution of seminal fluids containing toxins that impede rival sperm and to female fluids that counter these toxins. Another team, reporting online in Science, followed red- or green-glowing sperm as they jockeyed their way through the reproductive tracts of fruit flies. Both papers drive home the point that "the competition between males continues in a very fierce way," inside the female, says Tommaso Pizzari, an evolutionary biologist at the Unviersity of Oxford in the United Kingdom.
Hmm. It seems a bit more interesting than just the usual narrative of male sperm fighting among themselves. First, there's the matter of reproductive tracts possessing "sperm storage organs" (hell, why not just call them "sperm banks"?)-- which I can't say I'd ever heard of before. Second, the sperm fight among themselves in order to secure a place in the female's "sperm-storage organ" (which doesn't really fit the (largely discredited) courtship narrative of insemination). The third interesting thing is that the queen secretes a fluid that preserves the sperm that make it into the sperm-storage organ from the toxins meant to kill off rival sperm:

Den Boer, University of Copenhagen colleague Jacobus Boomsma, and Boris Baer, now at the University of Perth in Australia, find sperm in some bees and ants do more than physically displace rivals. ...For the multiple mating species studied, two leafcutter ants and the honey bee, seminal fluid form a given male enhanced the survival time of its own sperm in a lab dish but damaged unrelated sperm and even sperm from a brother. Adding spermathecal fluid that an queens make within their reproductive tract countered these effects, say Boomsma....

....Once the sperm reach their destination for long-term storage, the female apparently wants to keep all the sperm healthy and has evolved ways to counter the seminal fluid. This study "beautifully reveals just how nuanced reproduction can be," says Pitnick.

I seem to be hearing Mae West's voice speaking... What's that, Mae? Did I just hear you say " It's not the men in your life that matters, it's the life in your men?"

Saturday, March 27, 2010

February 1983 Seattle Women Writers Festival

I've been going through boxes of old papers, notes, & ephemera saved & then just packed away (i.e., pack-rat stuff) in order to excavate the oldest versions of the Marq'ssan Cycle & the notes used in writing it, so that I can send all of it to the institution that will be maintaining an archive of materials related to my work. The day I began doing this I made a wildly surprising discovery, coming upon the traces of writing that had vanished from my memory: an aborted attempt at writing a short story called "The Night Patrol," meant to have been set in 2004, that I worked on for a few weeks almost exactly a year before I began the Marq'ssan Cycle. The details in my notes gesture at several elements built into the world of the Marq'ssan Cycle. (I haven't yet actually found any of the mss pages for this unfinished story-- which would have been typewritten, since I worked on it while we were seeking a loan to buy our first "word processor" (as they were called, before the notion of "personal computers" emerged), but I expect I will, since I seem to have kept all sorts of other previous failed attempts to write science fiction.

The stuff I've been wading through include flyers for events I attended. One of them that caught my eye is for the Seattle Women Writers Festival, held February 23-26, 1983, which I vividly recall attending from start to finish (excepting the two poetry workshops and one of the poetry readings), and which had, I believe, a major impact on me. A highlight of the conference was seeing-- in the flesh-- Joanna Russ and Vonda McIntyre. Other highlights include Maya Angelou's electrifying reading/performance, Carolyn Forche's poetry and comments about what she had witnessed in El Salvador (including her description of sitting at a colonel's dinner table and having a paper sack of ears emptied before her, as his gesture of defiance and contempt for her concern about human rights), and a panel discussion that featured both Joanna Russ and Toni Cade Bambara.

I don't suppose the schedule will give you much of an idea what it was like, spending three days soaking in so much concentrated (non-male!) talent. But I'll offer it to you, anyway:

Wednesday 7:30 p.m. Fiction & Poetry reading: Barbara Wilson and Judy Grahn

Thursday 12:30 p.m. Science Fiction Reading: Joanna Russ and Vonda McIntyre
Thursday 2:00 p.m. Fiction Panel moderated by Irene Wanner: Lois Hudson, Colleen McElroy, Vonda McIntyre
Thursday 7:30 p.m. Poetry Reading: Linda Bierds and Carolyn Forche

Friday 9:30 a.m. Poetry Workshop: Carolyn Forche
Friday 12: 30 p.m. Poetry Reading: Cladys Cardiff and Ai
Friday 2:00 p.m. Poetry Panel moderated by Julianne Seeman: Ai, Carolyn Forche, Jody Grahn, Denise Levertov
Friday 7:30 p.m. Poetry Reading: Beth Bentley, Denise Levertov

Saturday 9:30 a.m. Poetry Workshops: Denise Levertov and Toni Cade Bambara
Saturday 12:30 p.m. Fiction Reading: Colleen McElroy and Tony Cade Bambara
Saturday 2:00 p.m. Panel Discussion moderated by Sibyl James: Tony Cade Bambara, Beth Bentley, Joanna Russ, Emily Warn
Saturday 4:00 p.m. Poetry Reading Audrey Wright
Saturday 7:30 p.m. Reading: Maya Angelou

Friday, March 26, 2010

Ways and Means: a feminist issue?

Yesterday's Guardian ran Julie Bindel's Iceland: the world's most feminist country in the Women's section of the paper. In her article, Bindel jubilantly celebrates the power of feminism at work in Iceland-- as demonstrated by its government's moves to virtually close down Iceland's sex industry by banning stripping, lapdancing, and the profiting of businesses from nudity, "for feminist, rather than religious, reasons."
Kolbrún Halldórsdóttir, the politician who first proposed the ban, firmly told the national press on Wednesday: "It is not acceptable that women or people in general are a product to be sold." When I asked her if she thinks Iceland has become the greatest feminist country in the world, she replied: "It is certainly up there. Mainly as a result of the feminist groups putting pressure on parliamentarians. These women work 24 hours a day, seven days a week with their campaigns and it eventually filters down to all of society."

The news is a real boost to feminists around the world, showing us that when an entire country unites behind an idea anything can happen. And it is bound to give a shot in the arm to the feminist campaign in the UK against an industry that is both a cause and a consequence of gaping inequality between men and women.

According to Icelandic police, 100 foreign women travel to the country annually to work in strip clubs. It is unclear whether the women are trafficked, but feminists say it is telling that as the stripping industry has grown, the number of Icelandic women wishing to work in it has not. Supporters of the bill say that some of the clubs are a front for prostitution – and that many of the women work there because of drug abuse and poverty rather than free choice. I have visited a strip club in Reykjavik and observed the women. None of them looked happy in their work.

So how has Iceland managed it? To start with, it has a strong women's movement and a high number of female politicians. Almost half the parliamentarians are female and it was ranked fourth out of 130 countries on the international gender gap index (behind Norway, Finland and Sweden). All four of these Scandinavian countries have, to some degree, criminalised the purchase of sex (legislation that the UK will adopt on 1 April). "Once you break past the glass ceiling and have more than one third of female politicians," says Halldórsdóttir, "something changes. Feminist energy seems to permeate everything."

Johanna Sigurðardottir is Iceland's first female and the world's first openly lesbian head of state. Guðrún Jónsdóttir of Stígamót, an organisation based in Reykjavik that campaigns against sexual violence, says she has enjoyed the support of Sigurðardottir for their campaigns against rape and domestic violence: "Johanna is a great feminist in that she challenges the men in her party and refuses to let them oppress her."

Reading to this point, I was feeling ambivalent-- & thought, ah, yes, when I read Bindel's implicit acknowledgment that not all feminists are likely to share her sense of triumph:
Then there is the fact that feminists in Iceland appear to be entirely united in opposition to prostitution, unlike the UK where heated debates rage over whether prostitution and lapdancing are empowering or degrading to women. There is also public support: the ban on commercial sexual activity is not only supported by feminists but also much of the population. A 2007 poll found that 82% of women and 57% of men support the criminalisation of paying for sex – either in brothels or lapdance clubs – and fewer than 10% of Icelanders were opposed.

Jónsdóttir says the ban could mean the death of the sex industry. "Last year we passed a law against the purchase of sex, recently introduced an action plan on trafficking of women, and now we have shut down the strip clubs. The Nordic countries are leading the way on women's equality, recognising women as equal citizens rather than commodities for sale."
My uneasiness is not, of course, caused by Jónsdóttir's wish that women be "recogniz[ed] as equal citizens rather than commodities," but rather because of my concern that the strategy of criminalization doesn't have a great track record for bringing about profound changes in ingrained attitudes.

In any event, it'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Ada Lovelace Day, 2010

It's Ada Lovelace Day!

Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (10 December 1815, London – 27 November 1852, Marylebone, London), born Augusta Ada Byron, was the only legitimate child of George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron. She is widely known in modern times simply as Ada Lovelace.

She is mainly known for having written a description of Charles Babbage's early mechanical general-purpose computer, the analytical engine. She is today appreciated as the "first programmer" since she was writing programs—that is, manipulating symbols according to rules—for a machine that Babbage had not yet built. She also foresaw the capability of computers to go beyond mere calculating or number-crunching while others, including Babbage himself, focused only on these capabilities.

To honor her, Ada Lovelace Day has been designated

an international day of blogging to draw attention to women excelling in technology. Women's contributions often go unacknowledged, their innovations seldom mentioned, their faces rarely recognized. We want you to tell the world about these unsung heroines. Whatever she does, whether she is a sysadmin or a tech entrepreneur, a programmer or a designer, developing software or hardware, a tech journalist or a tech consultant, we want to celebrate her achievements.

I realize the focus is technology rather than science, so forgive me, all, if I'm interpreting the call too broadly. But you see, I've always thought of Ada Lovelace as
among the crowd of women who devoted their creative intellects to science and mathematics at a time when disciplinary lines were not so sharply drawn. This year, I'd especially like to sing the praises of oceanographer and astrobioloist Jody Deming, whose public lecture at the University of Washington last fall not only stimulated my intellect, but invoked a thrilling sense of wonder. You can get some idea of her accomplishments here.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Yes, Virginia, there is actually spam worse than the emails written in all caps and address you as "precious one"

What a story. Only, I think, on the Internet could it have happened in this particular way. In January food activist Raj Pa appeared on the Colbert Report to promote his book on the financial crisis. A few days later his email inbox began to fill with cryptic emails asking him if he's a teacher. And before he knew what was up, members of a cult, awaiting the arrival of "the Space Brothers"-- "beings from Venus"-- began declaring him a messiah, destined, they apparently believe, to create total harmony in the world.

His friends and family apparently think it's a good joke, but it doesn't sound as though he's laughing himself. An article in Entertainment Weekly reported last week that Patel refused the Colbert Report's request that he pretend he's the real messiah. But then he sounds like a serious, decent guy. Here's more from the Guardian's piece, oh his attempts to quash the cult's ideas about him:
Instead of settling the issue, however, his denial merely fanned the flames for some believers. In a twist ripped straight from the script of the comedy classic, they said that this disavowal, too, had been prophesied. It seemed like there was nothing to convince them.

"It's the kind of paradox that's inescapable," he said, with a grim humour. "There's very little chance or point trying to dig out of it."

There are many elements of his life that tick the prophetic checklist of his worshippers: a flight from India to the UK as a child, growing up in London, a slight stutter, and appearances on TV. But it is his work that puts him most directly in the frame and causes him the most anguish - the very things the followers of Share believe will indicate that their new messiah has arrived.

Patel's career - spent at Oxford, LSE, the World Bank and with thinktank Food First - has been spent trying to understand the inequalities and problems caused by free market economics, particularly as it relates to the developing world.

His first book, Stuffed and Starved, rips through the problems in global food production and examines how the free market has worked to keep millions hungry (Naomi Klein called it dazzling, while the Guardian's Felicity Lawrence said it was "an impassioned call to action"). The Value of Nothing, meanwhile, draws on the economic collapse to look at how we might fix the system and improve life for billions of people around the globe.

While his goal appears to match Share's vision of worldwide harmony, he says the underlying assumptions it makes are wrong - and possibly even dangerous.

"What I'm arguing in the book is precisely the opposite of the Maitreya: what we need is various kinds of rebellion and transformations about how private property works," he said.

"I don't think a messiah figure is going to be a terribly good launching point for the kinds of politics I'm talking about - for someone who has very strong anarchist sympathies, this has some fairly deep contradictions in it."

To say Patel - with his academic air, stammer and grey-flecked hair - is a reluctant saviour is an understatement. In fact, he rejects the entire notion of saviours. If there is one thing he has learned from his work as an activist in countries such as Zimbabwe and South Africa, it is that there are no easy answers.

"People are very ready to abdicate responsibility and have it shovelled on to someone else's shoulders," he said. "You saw that with Obama most spectacularly, but whenever there's going to be someone who's just going to fix it for you, it's a very attractive story. It's in every mythological structure."

The only person who's apparently not talking is the cult's enigmatic leader, who is so far keeping his own counsel on the matter.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Alpha Workshop for Young Writers Fund Drive

The Alpha Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Workshop for Young Writers provides a ten-day crash course in speculative fiction writing for students aged 14-19. The students write and revise a short story, receive critiques, and work with four professional authors--which have included big names like Tamora Pierce and Charles Coleman Finlay.

For the past few years, I've been peripherally involved by providing extra critiques of student submission stories. My first year, I critiqued Rachel Sobel's submission story, "The Loyalty of Birds," which she revised and sold to Clarkesworld Magazine as an impressive debut. She's an exceptional case, but not the only Alpha student to go on and publish--the Alpha website includes a list of alumni achievements, including publications in Lady Churchill's, Aberrant Dreams, Fantasy Magazine, and multiple Dell Award placements.

Professional workshops like the Clarions are well known for helping emerging writers, but Alpha goes back a stage further than that. Not every writer starts working as a teenager, but I know that when I was a kid, I was hungry for feedback and eager to meet other writers and be taken seriously--the chance to get together with other writers and receive feedback from real, live authors would have sounded like a dream.

Like any workshop that wants to get the best students, Alpha provides need-based scholarships. And like any workshop in this economy, Alpha is struggling to provide for all of its students. They've recently put up a website requesting donations to help them send teenagers to writer-camp.

They are offering a bit of bait, too--donations of five dollars and over will be rewarded with a copy of Ned and Jane, a collaborative girl-meets-zombie story written by the Alpha class of 2009.

Check out their website and consider donating, whether to get the zombie story or just show support for young writers.

Links for a Friday afternoon

Here's some stuff you might want to check out:

--Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, reading John Gardner's The Art of Fiction, muses on Identity and Writing

--Nnedi Okorafor, asks Who is African? What is African SF? Says who?

--Athena Andreadis reflects on how little most anglophone readers know of-- or about-- Greece

--Aqueduct author Kimberly Todd Wade has inaugurated a new blog

--Historian Eric Foner comments on Texas's new imperatives for altering the state's K-12 curriculum

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Worlds that will leave you feeling shaken for days afterword...

Stop me before I amend my previous post yet again! To stop myself-- to get my mind off its all too human frailty-- I thought it would be best, actually, to write a new one.

I have a couple of new reviews of Claire Light's Slightly Behind and to the Left, which is the 26th volume in Aqueduct Press's Conversation Pieces series, to report. Interestingly, although they come from very different perspectives, they partake of some of the same reactions.

In Claire Light's Chapbook Investigates Surreal Crimes of Astrobiology, Annalee Newitz reviews the book for io9. Reading Slightly Behind and to the Left, Newitz writes,
you'll find yourself drawn into dark, surreal worlds that will leave you feeling shaken for days afterward. In a good way.

A collection of ultrashort "drabbles" and four short stories - two of them linked - Slightly Behind And To The Left is the kind of book where planets are made of cats - but crimes against humanity are still as recognizable as the Moon. Light's prose moves effortlessly between hard science observations and absurdist flights of fantasy.
Writing from a very different, non-genre perspective, Terry Hong, at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program's Book Dragon, also reviews Slightly Behind and to the Left. She notes that "Claire Light’s slim, bright little book threw me for a loop for sure," and concludes: "Indeed, while her readers are the ones who are ’slightly behind,’ Light is … can’t resist … light years ahead reinventing the Asian American experience, feminist sf-style."

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

A little more on the 2009 Tiptree Awards

One of the interesting things about the Tiptree Award is that its juries often provide comments about their choices. I had to rush off to my semi-annual dentist appointment this noon, so I didn't have time to post either the jury's specific comments on works published by Aqueduct or the long list.

Here's the long list:

Stephanie Shaw, “Afterbirth” (in Interfictions 2 edited by Delia Sherman and Christopher Barzak, Small Beer Press 2009)

Jeremiah Tolbert, “The Godfall’s Chemsong” (Interzone 224, 2009.09-10)

Helen Keeble, “A Journal of Certain Events of Scientific Interest from the First Survey Voyage of the Southern Waters by HMS Ocelot, as Observed by Professor Thaddeus Boswell, DPhil, MSc” (online at Strange Horizons, 2009.06.01-08)

Sarah Schulman, The Mere Future (Arsenal Pulp Press 2009)

Cat Rambo, “Ms. Liberty Gets a Haircut” (online at Strange Horizons, 2009.10.26)

Shweta Narayan, “Nira and I” (online at Strange Horizons, 2009.03.16)

Sylvia Kelso, Riversend (Juno 2009)

Claire Light, Slightly Behind and to the Left (Aqueduct Press 2009)

Alaya Dawn Johnson, “A Song to Greet the Sun” (online at Fantasy Magazine, 2009.10.26)

Xiaolu Guo, UFO in Her Eyes (Chatto & Windus 2009)

And here's the comment on Vandana Singh's Distances:
Singh has packed this novella-length work with an amazing complexity. Distances is: the story of a woman’s development as an artist in a context where science, art and religion are indistinguishable; a meditation on the uses of knowledge and the power structures they engender; and a nuanced depiction of cultural difference, loss and exile. While not as directly focused on gender as some other works on our list, we saw Distances as a work that expanded and challenged a number of inherently gendered cultural categories. Also, almost incidentally, there are some very interesting depictions of alternative sex and gender arrangements.

And finally, here's what they say about my Marq'ssan Cycle:
After reading the thousands of pages in L. Timmel Duchamp’s five-volume Marq’ssan cycle (Alanya to Alanya, Renegade, Tsunami, Blood in the Fruit, and Stretto, following decades of changes across the world in both large-scale politics and the everyday interpersonal beauties and violences of individual lives, you don’t emerge quite the same as you were when you went in.

Gender is a central focus, as we experience a very gender-segregated society largely from a female point of view and occasionally from that of a post-gender alien species. But any separation of one of the cycle’s themes must necessarily be a shallow depiction of what it is like to read these novels.

Some readers will focus most on the story of human engagement with an utterly different alien race, determined to alter the course of human politics yet determined to be something other than colonizers. Some will be most fascinated by the tale of the Free Zones, anarchist enclaves where co-operative, anti-authoritarian politics develop over decades in the US and elsewhere. These communities are not utopian but are filled with conflict and occasionally violent, yet they remain optimistic nevertheless. For other readers, the most memorable aspects of the cycle will be the near-future dystopian image of an intensely class-divided United States, with its startlingly prescient depictions of torture, imprisonment, and political violence, told with an unsettling understanding of the oppressors’ perspective and yet never without losing sympathy for the victims. And for yet more, it will be on the level of character that Duchamp’s work inspires: her many point of view characters––almost all women––whose personal and political transformations, power-laden interpersonal, frequently sexual relationships, and critical analyses of the world, drive the many intersecting narratives.
Reading this makes my inner 35-year-old weep with emotion. But then back in 1986, for me, James Tiptree Jr. was still male, and there was no place in the world for anything like the Marq'ssan Cycle. I can't begin to express how gratified I am by this recognition.

ETA: Scratch the penultimate sentence. James Tiptree was not male in 1986-- not even to me. But finishing the Marq'ssan Cycle made me more lonely than I can say, until I was finally able to put it away and half-forget about it. This morning (Thursday), thinking about all this I'm finding it very strange-- disorienting, actually-- to find myself living in a world where the Marq'ssan Cycle makes the kind of sense it now does. And yet I have the sense that my thinking was a lot harder-edged, less accommodating, back then that it is now. But how can one know? One's past life, indeed one's past self, is a foreign country.

2009 Tiptree Awards


A gender-exploring science fiction award is presented to Greer Gilman for Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales and Fumi Yoshinaga for Ooku: The Inner Chambers, (volumes 1 & 2)

The James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award Council is pleased to announce that the 2009 Tiptree Award has two winners: Greer Gilman’s trilogy of interconnected stories, Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales (Small Beer Press 2009) and Fumi Yoshinaga’s alternate-history manga, Ooku: The Inner Chambers (volumes 1 & 2) (VIZ Media 2009).

The Tiptree Award will be celebrated on Memorial Day weekend at WisCon (www.wiscon.info) in Madison, Wisconsin. Each winner will receive $1000 in prize money, an original artwork created specifically for the winning novel or story, and (as always) chocolate. A panel of five jurors selects the Tiptree Award winners and compiles an Honor List of other works that they find interesting, relevant to the award, and worthy of note. The 2009 jurors were Karen Joy Fowler (chair), Jude Feldman, Paul Kincaid, Alexis Lothian, and Victor Raymond.

Cloud & Ashes contains three memorable and poetic tales that draw images and elements from folk tales and ballads of the British Isles. Told in lyrical Jacobeanesque dialect, the stories are striking for their language and their originality.

Juror Paul Kincaid praised Cloud & Ashes as “A book whose hold on your mind, on your memory, is assured. It is a story about story, and stories are what we are all made of.” Jury chair Karen Fowler reflected on the intriguing complexity of the interwoven themes in the work: “Patterns repeat, but also mutate in kaleidoscopic fashion and then mutate again…. Power shifts about, much of it gender-based; time eats itself like a Möbius strip.”

The first two stories in Cloud & Ashes were published previously. The first, "Jack Daw's Pack," was a Nebula finalist for 2001. The second, “A Crowd of Bone,” won the 2003 World Fantasy Award. The third story, “Unleaving,” is original to Cloud & Ashes.

Fumi Yoshinaga’s Ooku: The Inner Chambers (volumes 1 & 2) explores an alternate version of feudal Japan, in which a plague has killed three out of every four boys. In this world, young men are protected and sheltered; women have secretly taken positions of authority and power. The Japanese ruler or shogun and the feudal lords are women and much of the story takes place among the men in the shogun's harem. The title of the work refers to the living quarters for the shogun’s harem, contained within Edo Castle.

The selection of Ooku: The Inner Chambers marks the first time that manga has been chosen for the Tiptree Award. Though no one on the jury is an expert on manga or on Japanese history, the jurors fell in love with the detailed exploration of the world of these books, a world in which men are assumed to be weak and sickly, yet women still use symbolic masculinity to maintain power. Throughout the two books, Yoshinaga explores how the deep gendering of this society is both maintained and challenged by the alteration in ratios. “The result,” juror Jude Feldman writes, “is a fascinating, subtle, and nuanced speculation with gender at its center.

Ooku was awarded the Sense of Gender award by the Japanese Association of Feminist Science Fiction and Fantasy (2005), the Excellence Award at Japan's Media Arts Festival (2006), and the Grand Prize in Osamu Tezuka Cultural Prize (2009).

The Tiptree Award Honor List is a strong part of the award’s identity and is used by many readers as a recommended reading list for the rest of the year. This year’s Honor List is:

“Beautiful White Bodies” by Alice Sola Kim (online at Strange Horizons, 2009; published in two parts on 12-7 and 12-14) — a heartbreaking meditation on the meaning of beauty and femininity in the media and popular culture.

Distances by Vandana Singh (Aqueduct Press 2008) — a novella-length work packed with an amazing complexity. Expands and challenges a number of inherently gendered cultural categories.

“Galapagos” by Caitlin R. Kiernan (in Eclipse 3 edited by Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books 2009) — a mysterious space disaster, a terrifying alien reproductivity, a story reminiscent of the work of Octavia Butler. There can be no higher praise.

Lifelode by Jo Walton (NESFA Press 2009) — explores the coexistence of a very traditional social hierarchy and understanding of marriage alongside an accepted polyamorous structure. Makes the world of polyamory feel comfortable and cozy and the threat of a new monogamous order feel alien and terrifying.

“Useless Things” by Maureen F. McHugh (in Eclipse 3 edited by Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books 2009) — A non-reproductive woman makes idealized child-objects in an uncertain world. An incredibly evocative, sparely written, powerful story.

“Wives” by Paul Haines (in X6 edited by Keith Stevenson, coeur de lion 2009) —A sharp and powerful but deeply ugly look at white working class Australian masculinity in a world where women are scarce.

In addition, the jury wishes to extend a special honor to L. Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle, noting the importance of this stunning series, which envisions radical social and political change. Published over a period of four years, this five-book series began with Alanya to Alanya (Aqueduct Press, 2005) and concluded with Stretto (Aqueduct Press, 2008).

The James Tiptree Jr. Award is presented annually to a work or works that explore and expand gender roles in science fiction and fantasy. The award seeks out work that is thought provoking, imaginative, and perhaps even infuriating. The Tiptree Award is intended to reward those writers who are bold enough to contemplate shifts and changes in gender roles, a fundamental aspect of any society.

The James Tiptree Jr. Award was created in 1991 to honor Alice Sheldon, who wrote under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr. By her choice of a masculine pen name, Sheldon helped break down the imaginary barrier between “women’s writing” and “men’s writing.” Her insightful short stories were notable for their thoughtful examination of the roles of men and women in our society.

Since its inception, the Tiptree Award has been an award with an attitude. As a political statement, as a means of involving people at the grassroots level, as an excuse to eat cookies, and as an attempt to strike the proper ironic note, the award has been financed through bake sales held at science fiction conventions across the United States, as well as in England and Australia. Fundraising efforts have included auctions conducted by stand-up comic and award-winning writer Ellen Klages, the sale of t-shirts and aprons created by collage artist and silk screener Freddie Baer, and the publication of four anthologies of award winners and honor-listed stories. Three of the anthologies are in print and available from Tachyon Publications and one is in print and available from www.lulu.com and directly from the Tiptree Award website. The award has also published two cookbooks featuring recipes and anecdotes by science fiction writers and fans, available through www.tiptree.org.

In addition to presenting the Tiptree Award annually, the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award Council occasionally presents the Fairy Godmother Award, a special award in honor of Angela Carter. Described as a “mini, mini, mini, mini MacArthur award,” the Fairy Godmother Award strikes without warning, providing a financial boost to a deserving writer in need of assistance to continue creating material that matches the goals of the Tiptree Award.

Reading for the 2010 Tiptree Award will soon begin. As always, the Tiptree Award invites everyone to recommend works for the award. Please submit recommendations via the Tiptree Award website at www.tiptree.org. You can also find more information about the award and about past winners at the website.

For more information on the Tiptree Award or this press release, contact Pat Murphy at zapmurphy@gmail.com or write to the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award Council at 680 66th St., Oakland, CA 94609.

Winners of the 2009 Tiptree Award:

Cloud & Ashes: Three Winter’s Tales by Greer Gilman (Small Beer Press 2009)
Ooku: The Inner Chambers, volumes 1 & 2 by Fumi Yoshinaga (VIZ Media 2009)

Honor List

“Beautiful White Bodies” by Alice Sola Kim (online at Strange Horizons, 2009; published in two parts on 12-7 and 12-14)

Distances by Vandana Singh (Aqueduct Press 2008)

“Galapagos” by Caitlin R. Kiernan (in Eclipse 3 edited by Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books 2009)

Lifelode by Jo Walton (NESFA Press 2009)

“Useless Things” by Maureen F. McHugh (in Eclipse 3 edited by Jonathan Strahan, Night Shade Books 2009)

“Wives” by Paul Haines (in X6 edited by Keith Stevenson, coeur de lion 2009)

A special honor to L. Timmel Duchamp’s Marq’ssan Cycle

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Lambda Award Finalists

Today the Lambda Literary Foundation announced the finalists for the 22nd Annual Literary Awards. An Aqueduct Press book, Rebecca Ore's Centuries Ago and Very Fast (which is also, as you may recall, a finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award), is among the LGBT SF/Fantasy/Horror category finalists. Congratulations, Rebecca!

It's always interesting to see the Lambda Awards final ballot, because I always find titles I hadn't known about to pique my reading appetite. Here's the entire list of finalists for all 23 categories:

Lambda Literary Awards Finalists

LGBT Anthologies

* Gay American Autobiography: Writings from Whitman to Sedaris, edited by David Bergman (University of Wisconsin Press)
* Moral Panics, Sex Panics: Fear and the Fight Over Sexual Rights, edited by Gilbert Herdt (NYU Press)
* My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them, edited by Michael Montlack (University of Wisconsin Press)
* Portland Queer: Tales of the Rose City, edited by Ariel Gore (Lit Star Press)
* Smash the Church, Smash the State! The Early Years of Gay Liberation, edited by Tommi Avicolli Mecca (City Lights)

LGBT Children’s/Young Adult

* Ash, by Malinda Lo (Little, Brown)
* How Beautiful the Ordinary, edited by Michael Cart (HarperCollins)
* In Mike We Trust, by P.E. Ryan (HarperCollins)
* Sprout, by Dale Peck (Bloomsbury USA)
* The Vast Fields of Ordinary, by Nick Burd (Penguin Books)

LGBT Drama

* The Beebo Brinker Chronicles, by Kate Moira Ryan & Linda S. Chapman (Dramatists Play Service)
* The Collected Plays Of Mart Crowley, by Mart Crowley (Alyson Books)
* Revenge of the Women’s Studies Professor, by Bonnie L. Morris (Indiana University Press)

LGBT Nonfiction

* The Golden Age of Gay Fiction, edited by Drewey Wayne Gunn (MLR Press)
* The Greeks and Greek Love, by James Davidson (Random House)
* I Am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde, edited by Rudolph P. Byrd, Johnnetta Betsch Cole & Beverly Guy-Sheftall (Oxford University Press)
* Ties That Bind: Familial Homophobia and Its Consequences, by Sarah Schulman (The New Press)
* Unfriendly Fire: How the Gay Ban Undermines the Military and Weakens America, by Nathaniel Frank (St. Martin’s Press)

LGBT SF/Fantasy/Horror

* Centuries Ago and Very Fast, by Rebecca Ore (Aqueduct Press)
* Fist of the Spider Woman, by Amber Dawn (Arsenal Pulp Press)
* In the Closet, Under the Bed, by Lee Thomas (Dark Scribe Press)
* Palimpsest, by Catherynne M. Valente (Bantam/Spectra Books)
* Pumpkin Teeth, by Tom Cardamone (Lethe Press)

LGBT Studies

* Metropolitan Lovers: The Homosexuality of Cities, by Julie Abraham (University of Minnesota Press)
* Moving Politics: Emotion and ACT UP’s Fight Against AIDS, by Deborah B. Gould (University of Chicago Press)
* The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century, by Kathryn Bond Stockton (Duke University Press)
* The Resurrection of the Body: Pier Paolo Pasolini from Saint Paul to Sade, by Armando Maggi (University of Chicago Press)
* The Straight State: Sexuality and Citizenship in Twentieth Century America, by Margot Canaday (Princeton University Press)

Bisexual Fiction

* Arusha, by J.E. Knowles (Spinsters Ink)
* Holy Communion, by Mykola Dementiuk (Synergy Press)
* The Janeid, by Bobbie Geary (The Graeae Press)
* Love You Two, by Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli (Random House Australia)
* Torn, by Amber Lehman (Closet Case Press)

Bisexual Nonfiction

* Byron in Love: A Short Daring Life, by Edna O’Brien (W. W. Norton)
* Cheever: A Life, by Blake Bailey (Alfred A. Knopf)
* Leaving India: My Family’s Journey From Five Villages to Five Continents, by Minal Hajratwala (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
* Map, by Audrey Beth Stein (Lulu.com)
* Vincente Minnelli: Hollywood’s Dark Dreamer, by Emanuel Levy (St. Martin’s Press)


* Bharat Jiva, by Kari Edwards (Litmus Press)
* Lynnee Breedlove’s One Freak Show, by Lynn Breedlove (Manic D Press)
* The Nearest Exit May Be Behind You, by S Bear Bergman (Arsenal Pulp Press)
* Transmigration, by Joy Ladin (Sheep Meadow Press)
* Troglodyte Rose, by Adam Lowe (Cadaverine Publications)

Lesbian Debut Fiction

* The Creamsickle, by Rhiannon Argo (Spinsters Ink)
* The Bigness of the World, by Lori Ostlund (University of Georgia Press)
* Land Beyond Maps, by Maida Tilchen (Savvy Press)
* More of This World or Maybe Another, by Barb Johnson (Harper Perennial)
* Verge, by Z Egloff (Bywater Books)

Gay Debut Fiction

* Blue Boy, by Rakesh Satyal (Kensington Books)
* God Says No, by James Hannaham (McSweeneys)
* Pop Salvation, by Lance Reynald (HarperCollins)
* Shaming the Devil: Collected Short Stories, by G. Winston James (Top Pen Press)
* Sugarless, by James Magruder (University of Wisconsin Press)

Lesbian Erotica

* Flesh and Bone, by Ronica Black (Bold Strokes Books)
* Lesbian Cowboys, edited by Sacchi Green & Rakelle Valencia (Cleis Press)
* Punishment with Kisses, by Diane Anderson-Minshall (Bold Strokes Books)
* Where the Girls Are, by D.L. King (Cleis Press)
* Women of the Bite, Edited by Cecilia Tan (Alyson Books)

Gay Erotica

* Rough Trade: Dangerous Gay Erotica, edited by Todd Gregory (Bold Strokes Books)
* Impossible Princess, by Kevin Killian (City Lights)
* I Like It Like That: True Tales of Gay Desire, edited by Richard Labonté & Lawrence Schimel (Arsenal Pulp Press)
* The Low Road, by James Lear (Cleis Press)
* Eight Inches, by Sean Wolfe (Kensington Books)

Lesbian Fiction

* Dismantled, by Jennifer McMahon (HarperCollins)
* A Field Guide to Deception, by Jill Malone (Bywater Books)
* Forgetting the Alamo, Or, Blood Memory, by Emma Pérez (University of Texas Press)
* Risk, by Elana Dykewomon (Bywater Books)
* This One’s Going to Last Forever, by Nairne Holtz (Insomniac Press)

Gay Fiction

* Lake Overturn, by Vestal McIntyre (HarperCollins)
* The River In Winter, by Matt Dean (Queens English Productions)
* Said and Done, by James Morrison (Black Lawrence Press)
* Salvation Army, by Abdellah Taia (Semiotext(e))
* Silverlake, by Peter Gadol (Tyrus Books)

Lesbian Memoir/Biography

* Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life, by Mary Cappello (Alyson Books)
* Mean Little deaf Queer, by Terry Galloway (Beacon Press)
* My Red Blood: A Memoir of Growing Up Communist, Coming Onto the Greenwich Village Folk Scene, and Coming Out in the Feminist Movement, by Alix Dobkin (Alyson Books)
* Likewise: The High School Comic Chronicles of Ariel Schrag, by Ariel Schrag (Simon & Schuster/Touchstone Fireside)
* The Talented Miss Highsmith: The Secret Life and Serious Art of Patricia Highsmith, by Joan Schenkar (St. Martin’s Press)

Gay Memoir/Biography

* Ardent Spirits: Leaving Home, Coming Back, by Reynolds Price (Scribner Books)
* City Boy: My Life in New York During the 1960’s and 70’s, by Edmund White (Bloomsbury USA)
* Deflowered: My Life in Pansy Division, by Jon Ginoli (Cleis Press)
* Once You Go Back, by Douglas A. Martin (Seven Stories Press)
* The Pure Lover: A Memoir of Grief, by David Plante (Beacon Press)

Lesbian Mystery

* Command of Silence, by Paulette Callen (Spinsters Ink)
* Death of a Dying Man, by J.M. Redmann (Bold Strokes Books)
* From Hell to Breakfast, by Joan Opyr (Blue Feather Books)
* The Mirror and the Mask, by Ellen Hart (St. Martin’s/Minotaur)
* Toasted, by Josie Gordon (Bella Books)

Gay Mystery

* All Lost Things, by Josh Aterovis (P.D. Publishing)
* The Killer of Orchids, by Ralph Ashworth (State Street Press)
* Murder in the Garden District, by Greg Herren (Alyson Books)
* Straight Lies, by Rob Byrnes (Kensington Books)
* What We Remember, by Michael Thomas Ford (Kensington Books)

Lesbian Poetry

* Bird Eating Bird, by Kristin Naca (HarperCollins)
* Gospel: Poems, by Samiya Bashir (Red Bone Press)
* Names, by Marilyn Hacker (W.W. Norton)
* Stars of the Night Commute, by Ana Bozicevic (Tarpaulin Sky Press)
* Zero at the Bone, by Stacie Cassarino (New Issues Poetry & Prose)

Gay Poetry

* Breakfast with Thom Gunn, by Randall Mann (University of Chicago Press)
* The Brother Swimming Beneath Me, by Brent Goodman (Black Lawrence Press)
* The First Risk, by Charles Jensen (Lethe Press)
* Sweet Core Orchard, by Benjamin S. Grossberg (University of Tampa Press)
* What the Right Hand Knows, by Tom Healy (Four Way Books)

Lesbian Romance

* It Should Be a Crime, by Carsen Taite (Bold Strokes Books)
* No Rules of Engagement, by Tracey Richardson (Bella Books)
* The Sublime and Spirited Voyage of Original Sin, by Colette Moody (Bold Strokes Books)
* Stepping Stone, by Karin Kallmaker (Bella Books)
* Worth Every Step, by KG MacGregor (Bella Books)

Gay Romance

* Drama Queers!, by Frank Anthony Polito (Kensington Books)
* A Keen Edge, by H. Leigh Aubrey (iUniverse)
* The Rest of Our Lives, by Dan Stone (Lethe Press)
* Time After Time, by J.P. Bowie (MLR Press)
* Transgressions, by Erastes (Running Press)

A Reading Holiday

It’s Spring Break and I’m feasting on good books.

I just finished N. K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms while also reading Aqueduct Press' Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles edited by L. Timmel Duchamp.

Jemisin’s debut novel is a delight. She creates a memorable heroine with an impossible dilemma and makes you want to lie down in bed with the book all day, turning the pages, changing your mind as you go. You haven’t read this story before—it is not the familiar, the same old same old tale in well-crafted disguise, seducing us once again. The book is playful and entertaining, full of dazzling images, witty insights, and surprising magic/technology. However, Jemisin’s entertaining craft is not much ado over nothing. Nor is her thrilling conclusion just another action/adventure shoot-out. Lo and behold violence is not the ultimate dramatic resolution to save-the world-power-struggle. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a thoughtful, compelling adventure, a great workout for the imagination.

The same can be said of Narrative Power. (I have an essay in the collection, but I hadn’t gotten to read all the other contributions until now.) The essays offer an enchanting and rigorous investigation of the power of story. The writers explore the mystery and magic of spinning a yarn and they illuminate the myriad ways we make ourselves…believe. The inspiration for Narrative Power was a panel at Wiscon that asked, if you don’t want to tell the same old story as before, how do you need to change the structure of what you write? This is a glorious question that prompted many more intriguing questions. I dare say N. K. Jemisin was working out an answer with her novel. I look forward to the next volume and a further exploration of the world she has created.

Narrative Power has been/is still a tightly guarded resource, wielded to maintain status quo power relations in the empire. Those who have Narrative Power get to tell me who I am and authoritatively define (delimit) my actions, even specify the terrain of my dreams, the limits of my imagination. For example, an emerging African American woman SF&F writer is labeled the next Octavia Butler. In the midst of a supposed compliment and an appreciation of a great writer-elder, the complexity and uniqueness of Ms. Butler and the new writer are neutralized and spirit is ignored. (Nobody is going to be the next Octavia Butler!) What’s the thinking here? There are so few published SF & F books written by black women or people of color that the authors’ creative output and personal narratives will naturally be analogous or almost identical to the few non-white authors who have already been published? Or perhaps no conscious thinking, rather the notion just emerges and “Octavia Butlerness” feels right, feels positive, a glowing pronouncement when confronting a “promising” black woman SF&F novelist and her work.

If we don’t want to read the same old story, we’ll have to change how we read/narrate one another too. This is a co-evolutionary challenge to inventing new structures. New stories need new readers.

The writers in Narrative Power argue persuasively that we—humanity—can imagineer a new story for the pages of our lives. There are of course those who argue against this. Eleanor Arnason in her essay, “Narrative and Class,” points to “Thatcher’s two lies—that there is no alternative, and there is no such thing as a society.” Thatcher was an enemy of thinking who would use her Narrative Power to render us mindless. She is/was not alone in this pursuit. I believe that we are social beings embodying our socially constructed narratives. We can surely come up with alternatives to the current fantasy we call reality. Despite all the recent bad PR, despite foolish, rigid, or elitist academics, despite the ignorance is bliss bull, thinking is not a buzz kill. THINKING is a blast.

Reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles was a thinking person’s vacation away from my everyday survival routine and happy habits. Coming home, everything was bit different! Thanks to N. K. Jemisin, L. Timmel Duchamp, and the essay writers!

Friday, March 12, 2010


Have you watched Marion Cotillard's "Forehead Tittaes" yet? It's her answer to sexual objectification. You can see it here. It's for those special situations in which a well-placed knee just will not do.

No Jews in Genre Fantasy?

Michael Weingrad of Portland State has an interesting article, "Why There Is No Jewish Narnia," speculating on why there are no major Jewish authors of genre fantasy (His definition of the genre is sufficiently restrictive to exclude Ellison and Singer). I rather like his limning of the politics and morality that most genre fantasy relies on, but am very tempted to wonder how he managed to baptize Le Guin* and perform foreskin restoration on Gaiman without either one's knowledge. I don't think that one can deny the existence of people who are Jewish and major and fantasy writers. With that premise in view, I'd say that what the article shows is not that there are no such animals, but that to be one, an author has to twist some of the fantasy genre's conventions (having to do with evil, with government, with authority) around in interesting ways.**

Anyone here have a favorite Jewish fantasy-world creator besides the two mentioned?

*Or am I mistaken about Le Guin's ethnic identification? I've heard contradictory reports. I don't want to characterize a patrilineal Jew as in any way Jewish if she disavows that label: Larbalestier would get mad at me.

Rosenbaum offers a generous and thoughtful interpretation of Weingrad's argument that alludes to such a point.

...and Texas will soon be a very bad place for K-12 education

What a month it's been. First Utah goes after pregnant women, and now Texas seems determined to handicap its children by teaching them alternate history as if it were fact.

The New York Times reported today that the Texas Board of Educated is planning to indoctrinate its children and youth with lies, using textbooks that rewrite history-- US history and world history both. It sounds as though the article barely scratches the surface of the School Board's collective fantasies; the examples it gives center on the US Constitution, US history, and the US's "Founding Fathers." Dominated by fantasists (who all seem to be Republican) voted 11-4 on "conservative"- recommended content of future textbooks. It's hard to believe conservatives have become such crackpots. My father was a conservative and a fundamentalist Lutheran, but I've no doubt that he'd have found this appalling.
There were no historians, sociologists or economists consulted at the meetings, though some members of the conservative bloc held themselves out as experts on certain topics.

The conservative members maintain that they are trying to correct what they see as a liberal bias among the teachers who proposed the curriculum. To that end, they made dozens of minor changes aimed at calling into question, among other things, concepts like the separation of church and state and the secular nature of the American Revolution.

"I reject the notion by the left of a constitutional separation of church and state," said David Bradley, a conservative from Beaumont who works in real estate. "I have $1,000 for the charity of your choice if you can find it in the Constitution."
The American Revolution was... religious? It was fought on... religious grounds? I can't begin to imagine how any details of that could even be invented. How in the world are the writers of the textbook going to be able to pull off making such whacko assertions? But since they're apparently writing Thomas Jefferson out of their history, I guess they can do anything.

But I have to wonder. After this kind of "education," will any high-school graduate of a Texas high school ever be considered qualified enough to be admitted to any institutions of higher learning anywhere (except, of course, the online mail-order degree-mills)?

Here's more-- in which we learn that St. Thomas Aquinas and John Calvin were really the authors of all the revolutions that tore apart Europe for more than half a century of its modern history:
Even the course on World History did not escape the board's scalpel.

Cynthia Dunbar, a lawyer from Richmond who is a strict constitutionalist and thinks the nation was founded on Christian beliefs, managed to cut Thomas Jefferson from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th century and 19th century, replacing him with St. Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin and William Blackstone. (Jefferson is not well liked among the conservatives on the board because he coined the term "separation between church and state.")

"The Enlightenment was not the only philosophy on which these revolutions were based," Ms. Dunbar said.

Mavis B. Knight, a Democrat from Dallas, introduced an amendment requiring that students study the reasons "the founding fathers protected religious freedom in America by barring the government from promoting or disfavoring any particular religion above all others."

It was defeated on a party-line vote.
Can you hear me giggling hysterically?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Bad Books

The Focus section of the new issue of the American Book Review, on "Bad Books," features short contributions from forty writers and critics. It's well worth checking out.

R.M. Berry 's reflections particularly struck me as apt. I especially liked is zeroing in on how an encounter with and discussion of a bad book makes one feel:

What makes a book bad? It gives me small joy to hear the judgment pronounced, even by me, since the effect is always stifling, regardless [of] intent.
Just so. And I'm with him, too, when he expands on this to remark:
[A]fter piling on, I always need a bath. E.M. Forster pronounced Gertrude Stein bad, and it would be pleasing to retort that the joke's on him, but who is reckless enough to explain why? In truth, no book has ever made a difference to me that someone whose judgment I respected didn't find execrable.
There are surprisingly few comments on genre fiction in the forty pieces. But here's Berry's comment on that:
Genre books aren't bad. They are the paradigm of good books. If any writing can be justified, romances and Westerns and mysteries and pornography can, being like the stain on a napkin, exactly the size of themselves.
The focus offers some pedagogical reflections. Here's Gerald Graff:
It has always seemed strange to me that bad books aren't a prominent part of our school and college literature curriculum. How do we expect students to learn to tell the difference between good and bad books unless we assign some bad ones for comparison? Don't you need badness in order to know goodness?

I can only conclude that those who have determined the literature curriculum have been more interested in protecting the good or great books from contamination-- that is, in feeling virtuous about their own tastes-- than they are in helping students understand what they read. There is also the view, though, that reading good books is itself sufficient-- no reason to read bad ones for comparison, especially since some students might think some of the bad ones are good and vice-versa, or might catch on to the fact that which books are good or bad is often alarmingly debatable.

As if in response, Sophia A. McLennen describes what sounds suspiciously like a bonding experience with her students over bad books:
In almost every class, I teach a bad book, an awful, poorly written, sometimes sexist, racist, reactionary book.

I do this for a few reasons....[T]hey assume that I like it or I wouldn't put it on the syllabus. When they f[i]nd out I hate it too, we ha[ve] a great time in class trashing it critically and learning a lot in the process.

So now you know that other reason I like to teach bad books. I like to trash them. I like to teach my students that they can trash bad books. Too much reverence for the literary can float around graduate programs in literature.
One of my favorite pieces in the section is Carol Guess's. She begins by talking about the brilliance of Heather Lewis's second novel, Notice:
Underrated, rarely discussed, the book belongs with contemporary classics. It is perhaps the most disturbing book I've ever read, and amongthe most compelling. It illuminates the state of female, specifically lesbian, subjectivity under contemporary American regimes by deconstructing genres that have failed to capture women's experiences: pulp, noir, mystery, romance. It subverts these genres, yet never falls prey to the directives of political correctness.

Notice was published posthumously. Its narrative voice was so unique that no press would touch it until Lewis committed suicide at forty. Her suicide allowed the book's publication: now that she was dead, and sufficiently chastened for examining experiences that mainstream culture attempts to suppress.
The bad book Guess singles out was also written by Lewis-- and published.
The Second Suspect is a terrible book. But it's not just a bad book; it's so much more. It's a bad book riffing off the author's masterpiece. The Second Suspect is a rewriting of Notice, but minus everything that makes Notice literary. The Second Suspect takes plot, characters, and themes from Notice and reduces them to formulaic drivel.

The Second Suspect is the work of an author who understood that her masterpiece had been censored, tossed aside, misunderstood. So she sat down and rewrote it. She made it bad, deliberately bad. And the public loved it.
Among the many books singled out as bad are Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, D.H. Lawrence's Women in Love, and Malleus Maleficarum. Actually, it's reassuring for me to see that consensus is lacking not only on the naming of "good" books, but also on the naming of "bad" ones. It goes without saying, I suppose, that my own list of "bad" books is likely not shared by many others. But I'm not going to go there myself. As Berry says, "After piling on, I always need a bath."

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

"Coll-a-bo-ration" Post at Big Other

I have a post up at Big Other about different methods for collaboration:

I started writing collaborative work in my dark fanfic days (the fanfic was dark, not the days). Now technically this was role playing, rather than fanfic, so this may not apply to other people’s experiences, etc, etc. However, in the group where I was involved, there was a standard collaboration method.

1) You and your co-writer would go into instant messaging or a private chat room.

2) You would each write out your character’s dialogue, along with whatever reactions they were having. “He lit a cigarette. Damn things. But it was compulsive. ‘No, I’ve never thought about going into command. Why do you ask?’ He struggled to keep his voice light. He surveyed the room, checking to see if their conversation had been overheard.”

3) Your partner does the same. “She coughed after inhaling the annoying ensign’s smoke. ‘Do you have to smoke that?’ she asked, waving it away. ‘I’m sure it’s not allowed in here. Anyway, my point is–I heard there’s an opening for a weapon’s specialist on the bridge.’ She leaned forward, giving him a significant look.”

3) This goes on for pages, and pages, and pages.

4) You mash it all up into one unreadable mess.

5) The good taste fairies cry.

Comments at Big Other.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Crammed to the gills with aspirin and symptom-suppressing cold medication, armed with cough drops, tissues, water, and a pump bottle of hand sanitizer that I used with lavish abandon, doing all that I could to minimize physical contact in case I'm infectious, I attended Potlatch this weekend. Got in lots of interesting and sometimes wonderful conversation, but attended no programming (though I did send Tom off to attend the panel on ebooks, since, as we prepare to sell ebooks, we've been struggling to get a grip on technical issues and logistics).

It's been a long time since I've attended Potlatch without teaching a workshop or giving a reading or sitting on a panel, but I was glad for it this weekend. My thanks go out to everyone who gave me such a good conversation.

Here are a few links you might want to check out:

--Nisi Shawl and Cynthia Ward will be blogging this week at Jeff VanderMeer's BookLife site.

--Kirtland C. Peterson has an essay, Fantasy Matters, that engages at length with Ursula K. Le Guin's Cheek by Jowl, on Tor's blog.

--And Carole Ann Moleti reviews Claire Light's Slightly Behind and to the Left: Four Stories and Three Drabbles for Tangent Online.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Remember that WisCon panel on narrative politics?

The bad news is, I'm down sick, maybe with flu, and not feeling too thrilled to be sitting at my desk. The good news is, Narrative Power, the book that spun off a lively (some would even say contentious) WisCon 32 panel on narrative politics, has arrived here in Seattle (in time for Potlatch!), and I had the stuff posted below all prepared and ready to go in advance. (Which means-- big yay!-- I can crawl back into bed soon.) So here it is:
There is a reason for the existence of clichés: the easiest stories to tell and to listen to are the ones that everyone knows already, the ones that reinforce the listeners’ beliefs. The less sophisticated the listeners are – the younger the children – the less likely they are to tolerate change or ambiguity. A bedtime story about Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Richard will drive a three-year-old slightly bananas if she knows anything at all about The Tale of Peter Rabbit. (Parents: try this at home!)

Adults, as a rule, also like to hear the same stories, although they prefer that the stories have some differences – the human brain loves to detect differences. The popularity of familiar stories that reinforce the status quo is not limited to television and popular literature: historians repeat themselves.

Horatio-Alger stories thus become the narrative for male public figures who rise to success from poverty; for women, the story is more problematic, because female public figures are anomalous. In either case, the politics of the narrator inform the story being told. In narratives about women, as Joanna Russ has pointed out in her classic How to Suppress Women’s Writing, the narrator may simply deny that the woman actually accomplished anything worth noting. —from Eileen Gunn's introduction* to Narrative Power
Aqueduct Press will be releasing Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles, ed. by L. Timmel Duchamp, on March 15, 2010.

It is commonly said that history is written by the victors: the narrator chooses the events that will be part of the story, and the narrative explains their meaning. In fiction, narrative conventions and clichés make writing and reading familiar stories easier, but also impede writers’ efforts to tell unfamiliar stories. This volume asks: Is narrative inherently dangerous? Empowering? Or even liberating? A mix of established and new writers join several scholars in considering the politics of narrative manifested in fiction, history, and science.
*Eileen's full introduction has been reprinted in the Winter 2010 Aqueduct Gazette, available here.

Table of Contents

1. Going to Narrative: Introduction by Eileen Gunn

Part I. Narrative and History

2. Carolyn Ives Gilman, “Telling Reality: Why Narrative Fails Us”
3. L. Timmel Duchamp, “Lost in the Archives: A Shattered Romance”
4. Ellen E. Kittell, “Patriarchal Imperialism and the Narrative of Women’s History”
5. Rebecca Wanzo, “The Era of Lost (White) Girls: On Body and Event”

Part II. Narrative Politics

6. Lesley A. Hall, “Beyond Madame Curie? The Invisibility of Women’s Narratives in Science”
7. Wendy Walker, “Imagination and Prison”
8. Lance Olsen, “Against Accessibility: Renewing the Difficult Imagination”
9. Alan DeNiro, “Reading The Best of A.E. Van Vogt
10. Andrea Hairston, “Stories Are More Important Than Facts: Imagination as Resistance in Guillermo del Toro’s Pan’s Labyrinth
11. Susan Palwick, “Suspending Disbelief: Story as a Political Catalyst”
12. Rebecca Wanzo, “Apocalyptic Empathy: A Parable of Postmodern Sentimentality”

Part III. Narrative and Writing Fiction

13. Samuel R. Delany, “The Life of/and Writing”
14. Nicola Griffith, “Living Fiction and Storybook Lives”
15. Eleanor Arnason, “Narrative and Class”
16. Rachel Swirksy, “Why We Tell the Story”
17. Claire Light, “Girl in Landscape: How to Fall into a Politically Useless Narrative Rut and Notions of How to Get Back Out”

Take it from me, there are some really fascinating essays by some really smart people in this book. If you're at all interested in how stories work, this book is for you. And guess what? Following our usual practice, you can purchase copies of Narrative Power for the special pre-release price of $16 until April 1 (through Aqueduct's website only).