Friday, April 22, 2011

Guilty pleasure?

The April issue of the New York Review of Science Fiction arrived in my mailbox today. Glancing over the table of contents, an article by Joan Gordon, "The Importance of Sheri S. Tepper" caught my eye. Ordinarily, of course, it would not have, but given Rachel's recent posts, the article demanded notice. In it, Gordon, speaking about how much she admires Tepper and her work, asserts the importance of Tepper's work, citing Gwyneth Jones and Sylvia Kelso to support her view. Note well: for Gordon, Tepper's vehemence and "lack of good manners" are strengths-- specifically, feminist strengths. Interestingly, she sees Tepper's literary shortcomings as the most equivocal aspect of Tepper's work (though one that doesn't get in the way of her (Gordon's) reading pleasure:
It is for her preaching that Tepper is most criticized. She herself says, "I have a feeling I would have done a better literary job if I had been able to avoid polemicizing, and Gwyneth Jones quotes Tepper as wishing she could get a "polem-ectomy." Polemic can get boring when presented as large set pieces, like the classic sf expository lump, but I'm seldom if ever bored by Tepper's preaching."

Gordon briefly touches on one of the issues Rachel raises:

Humanity is defined through the Council's, and Tepper's, ideology, in as rigid and unscientific a way as "race" was defined by the Nazis and for the same purpose: to halt ethical obligations and concern beyond the species barrier. And yet I cannot tell you what a guilty pleasure it is to think such vengeful thoughts, as this and many of Tepper's novels allow one to do. Throw away the "reasonable man" and forget trying to avoid "stridency" and "shrillness" for the space of a novel and wallow in the righteous anger usually denied to the political left.

She then goes on to note the one bit of flak Tepper's gotten from feminist critics:

But once in a while it hurts, as Wendy Pearson points out in an article on The Gate to Women's Country. There, Tepper imagines genetic engineering ridding the society of the "hormonal reproductive maladaptation" of homosexuality: homosexuality is a disease to be eradicated, just as the men who choose warrior status are eradicated. Then we remember that wallowing in righteous anger is not really particularly righteous, or mature-- a guilty, youthful pleasure we might do better to resist. I happen to agree with Kelso in seeing the novel as a condemnation of both the male warrior culture and equally ruthless feminist separatist culture, one that would wipe out a tenth of humanity, including those who serve the human definition even by Tepper's standards. For me, this cruelty is not Tepper's but a trait of the dystopia that is disguised as a feminist utopia. Nevertheless, we cannot deny this cruel streak, and it appears in many of the novels.

I like that "nevertheless." I wonder if Gordon heard Tepper's GoH speech at WisCon 22, or has read that Strange Horizons interview. "This cruelty is not Tepper's" is of course literally true, but Tepper's own stated beliefs and wishes may well alter the conclusions to be reached about that cruelty.

I've always found the "feminist separatist utopia" a straw man, myself-- full of false assumptions about feminism. In my opinion, this "dystopia disguised as a feminist utopia" is a throwback to the "Battle of the Sexes" "flasher novels" Joanna Russ once talked about. Every time I've encountered it in fiction (though I'll admit I haven't read Tepper's version of it), I've seen it as homophobic and inherently distrustful of what women are ("at core"-- as if there's some essentialist quality in women that means they'll do atrocious things when given power-- things that men, left to their own devices, [apparently] never do-- never mind all the "separatist male utopias" we've had to live through for centuries and centuries). I guess that's why I've always been surprised to hear Tepper characterized as "feminist." (And sometimes even taken as the epitome of feminist.)

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