Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Conceptualising Feminist Sf (in response to Timmi's post on Sunday 5th June

Greetings, Aqueducters. This is in response to Timmi's concerns about my contribution to the Woman's Hour item called "Is the sf genre still predominately male?" I said I wished I had used a male pseudonym for my overtly feminist sf, and though it would never have happened, I meant what I said. It is far, far safer for a significant male writer to express feminist views (cf China Mieville, avowed and respected feminist; Geoff Ryman, avowed and respected feminist). And books by a significant male writer expressing feminist views would reach a much, much wider public. I wish I could have managed that trick for White Queen, North Wind, and Phoenix Café. Of course, I’d have had to resign myself to having no public life as a card-carrying feminist in the genre community, but as sf people may have noticed, I don’t mind staying out of the public gaze.

Thereafter, I could have written the Bold As Love books as Gwyneth Jones, and been well under the woeful-extremism detecting radar. Spirit, in its real world form, would have been a problem, because of the use I made of the Aleutian Trilogy. I think “Hey, I had a cool idea! I’m using the same universe as the secretive author of those feminist books!” might have been the downfall of my masquerade. But of course, in the imaginary world where I wrote the Aleutian books using a pseudonym, I wouldn’t have referenced them... Mary Gentle, long ago, coined the idea (maybe other people have expressed the same position, I don’t know) that she was a feminist writing science fiction, rather than a writer of feminist science fiction. This is what I think about everything I’ve written since Life. Which was and is, as I have always maintained, my farewell to the investigative, active work of feminist science fiction. I haven’t stopped being a feminist, I haven’t stopped writing like a feminist, but the Battle of the Sexes is no longer my exclusive topic.

And it’s a shame if all sf books that feature a few female characters, having female lifes, are labelled feminist, & therefore marked as unreadable by large swathes of the general sf reading public. I have been worried about being part of that effect.

I'm in an awkward position in relation to the debate about the parlous state of "female sf writers" in the UK (where the situation really is bad, by the way. According to Torque Control, which I take to be reliable, only Trisha Sullivan and Justina Robson currently have mainstream publishing contracts). The trouble is, I believe that the “problem” the fans are are worrying over is largely of their own making. We get what we celebrate, says Dean Kamon (inventor and science populariser). I don't know much about the man, but that sounds right. UKSF fandom has not celebrated female writers. Sf’s highly active fanbase says “it’s the publishers” but I don’t believe that. I’m sure genre publishers and editors have an agenda, and they probably favour traditional male-ordered sf, but they’re not fanatics. They follow the money. If the sf community had been getting excited about women writers, if sf novels by women had been anticipated, talked about, discussed, on an enthusiastic scale, the wider sf reading public would have taken notice, the publishers would have been seeing interesting sales figures and they’d have reacted positively.

It hasn’t happened. Back in 1990 I wrote an article saying it hasn’t happened. Women in sf are nowhere near achieving the wide recognition we might have hoped for, given the quality of our work. Twenty years on, things are worse, not better.

Last week I talked to the Guardian podcast too. I’d been uncomfortable with some of the things Farah was saying on Woman’s Hour, but felt I just couldn’t contradict her. So I knew I was tripping around in a minefield: I had a prepared statement ready... which they might edit as they thought fit, but at least I’d know I tried. Nice Guardian lady wasn’t having any, she wanted my spontaneous responses, off the cuff. My cuff doesn’t respond very well to that approach.

That was pretty useless, I thought, as I put the phone down. Hopefully they’ll spike it and go ask someone else. But at least I didn’t collude in a cover-up.

I'm afraid this is far too long, sorry everybody. I promise I won't do it again.


Anonymous said...

Hi Gwyneth, just wanted to say for the record that I'm out of contract and as far as I know, so is Justina Robson. Jaine Fenn has a contract. Lauren Beukes will presumably get one.

Anne Lyle said...

No need to apologise - isn't that what we all do too much of? :)

FWIW I agree - we should be getting women's work out there in the public eye, which is in fact what I blogged about just this morning. People don't read books they've never heard of.

Looking forward to hearing you speak at FantasyCon!

Anonymous said...

Dear Gwyneth: I keep stumbling over this one statement:

And it’s a shame if all sf books that feature a few female characters, having female lifes, are labelled feminist, & therefore marked as unreadable by large swathes of the general sf reading public.

My experience (I'm 55, have been reading sff since I was five, am a queer woman, am involved in feminist and critical race efforts in both my academic and fandom life) is that sf by women has been marked as unreadable by a whole lot of men all alone (this is ignoring the fact that SF as a genre has been marked as unreadable by a whole lot of the general reading public, though it's doing very well in the movie and gaming venues), well before and during the feminist movement.

I am concerned that somehow some mythical idea of "feminists" were being blamed for it given all the things "strawfeminsts" are continually being blamed for at least in the US (I don't know enough about the UK to say).

I realize the UK sf market is dreadful, but it sounds dreadful for women, not just feminists. And is it as dreadful for women in other genres (mysteries? romance? litfic)?

And I am also resistant to the idea that there is some genre that can be called 'feminist sf' because of textual features generally (given the decades of debates on feminist sf on feminist sf listservs). My current theory is that there is no single essential feature of a text that marks it as feminist--that "feminism" is created by the interaction of reader with text (i.e. I thought Anne McCaffrey's "Weyr search" was a feminist story when I read it at 14 or so).

"The Battle of the Sexes" as Justine Larbalestier wrote about so brilliantly can be written about by incredibly misogynistic writers with incredibly sexist results -- so just saying "I don't write about the Battle of the Sexes" (Whatever that is, and by some definitions it's not necessarily relevant to me as a queer woman who has a lifetime partnership with a woman) is not the same as saying "I don't write about feminism."

It's possible to talk about writers who identify as feminists in their lives, and who write feminist theory (Joanna Russ).

I would just like a much more nuanced and careful discussion of the whole topic which I understand is completely impossible on radio shows and talk shows in general, and even on most internet sites.

Oh, and I just have to say, I taught LIFE in my fall graduate seminar on TExts and Genders (which I did from ALL sff, starting with Larbalestier, Merrick and Attebery, then going to a number of contemporary sf and f, because I don't like the sf/f division), and the students were fascinated by it though they kept insisting that somehow it wasn't really science fiction....

Robin Reid

Rebecca said...

Certain styles of prominent male writers who are pro-feminist in their books make me cringe. It can be the rescuer fantasy which foregrounds the rescuer and expects the rescued to feel grateful.

I also noticed that one British painter was famous in Mexico but barely collected by the museums in her home country, which implies that perhaps Mexican sexism, or Latin American sexism in general, is differently framed than Western European sexism (we're a sex that needs uplifting by understanding males and we need to be properly grateful, and those are our friends).

Nicaraguan men followed at least some women officers into battle. Something is different here, or perhaps was different here.

Figure/ground -- in Cherokee culture, women were the definitive ones. Here isn't that good, but the women seem to resist the need for male rescue better. They often plan their own economic lives without men even with frightening handicaps (a 17 year old with a three year old daughter bought property and arranged for the adoption of her next child to Gringos who fed her through the pregnancy, paid for her prenatal and delivery care). 30% of the cops are women -- higher figure than most of the US, and the head of the National Police is a woman.

On the other hand, no legal abortions, but Jinotega (population 50,000) has marches against domestic violence several times a year, and there are women's police units which deal with domestic violence.

I think the more people with privilege speak for us instead of us speaking for us, the worse it will be for us, for several values of us.


Books don't really change anything in anything remotely resembling a direct way. I think the work they do is always going to be slant, that most of the direct message work is preaching to various choirs, which has its use (often in making the various members of the choir realize just how big that choir is -- see Uncle Tom's Cabin), but which is often not very good art.

We're seduced to listening to other points of view by style and artistry.

Farah Mendlesohn said...

I think we were both feeling around diplomacy. There were things I wanted to say that I couldn't, and things I did say which were bounded by things I couldn't.

gwyneth said...

Hi Trisha, wow, you too huh? And Justina. I didn't know that! Pretty much a clean sweep. Also didn't know Jaine Fenn was publishing as sf. I think fantasy is more forgiving, shall we say, the fantasy people certainly seemed to like Spirit: shame I just really like writing fiction about science. But anyway, Timmi, could I make a distinction? As a publisher, you have decided to be a feminist publisher, and publish works by all kinds of feminists. As a writer, I would prefer, if I had the chance, to be a science fiction writer (possibly even a respected science fiction writer), who is a feminist, rather than a feminist science fiction writer.
Farah, it's like this: you looked at those figures for the judged awards vs the popular awards, I looked at those figures. I thought, it's plain as print, but I'm only a writer, I'm not going to say it...

Nancy Jane Moore said...

Gwyneth, I understand your frustration. The Bold as Love series is brilliant SF and should have had wide international readership. I have never understood why Tor or one of the other big US publishers never picked it up, especially since I ordered a mass market paperback of Midnight Lamp from and ended up paying the price of hardcover with shipping. And then bullied you to bring me a copy of Band of Gypsies when you were coming to a con in the US. I was obsessed by those books, and not because they were feminist (though they are so sweeping that sex and gender issues naturally play a part). I mean, rock 'n'roll, climate change, economic collapse, with some fascinating tech, not to mention magic -- what's not to like?

But you know, I don't really think the problem you're running into is caused by feminist cooties. I think it's simpler than that: old fashioned girl cooties. I fear you would have run into similar problems even if your earlier work had not addressed gender issues so directly.

It appears to me that in publishing, as in many things, the success of a few women writers in areas considered "male" -- lit fic, SF, etc. -- is considered sufficient. If a few more were let into the club -- say maybe 25-30 percent of the authors -- the fields would become "feminized." Women are allowed to be successful as long as they're publishing paranormal romance and certain kinds of fantasy. A few get to stand out, so we get Connie Willis winning the Nebula for what is probably her worst book (and yes, I've read it and its sequel and the story didn't get interesting until the second half of book two -- one book a quarter of the length of the two-book series could have been good). Meanwhile, very good books by two newer women authors lost out and other women writers who are doing interesting work weren't even considered.

I'm not sure the distinctions being drawn between feminist SF and feminists who write SF are all that useful in the long run. I've read a lot of Aqueduct books, and while some explicitly deal with direct feminist issues, others are works in which the author's feminism colors the story without controlling it.

Life is my favorite example of current feminist SF, but it's also my standard for what good SF can and should be. It shouldn't be consigned to a "ghetto" of feminist work any more than Bold as Love should be, even though it directly addresses sex and gender. But for some reason, SF in general doesn't consider those changes important. Or maybe it finds them threatening.

I'm rambling on. Mostly I wanted to say that I really don't think the problem is that you got identified as a feminist writer. I think that's the excuse, not the reason. The real problem, it seems to me, is that we're still a long way from reaching even the most basic goal of feminism: equality.