Friday, October 25, 2013

On Tiptree and the backlash

The discovery that James Tiptree, Jr., was a woman was, I think, the last straw: was why sf's 1970s had finally to be suppressed and repudiated.

When you look at men's contemporary writing about her before what she called her "unmasking" there is an enormous investment in her being a man. Not just Robert Silverberg's famous line about there being "something ineluctably masculine" about her writing or Gardner Dozois's similar (though more equivocal) inanities, but also less surface-absurd comments that nevertheless more powerfully reveal a deep-seated anxiety (one which I believe was also the reason behind Silverberg and Dozois's overzealous assurances--which are not, after all, usually considered necessary for writers writing under male names).

Two statements in particular come to mind: first is Theodore Sturgeon's observation* that, aside from Tiptree, all the best and most important new or newly prominent sf writers in the 70s were women. I know nothing of the context in which he said this, or what his feelings were on it--but clearly the situation was, shall we say, being noticed.

*I think it was Sturgeon; if not, it was someone of similar standing.

The second comes in the absurdly overlong and self-congratulatory editorial comments in Harlan Ellison's Again, Dangerous [sic] Visions*; in the course of his constant crowing about how the stories are all going to be jockeying for the big awards, he says that Kate "Wilhelm is the woman to beat but Tiptree is the man" (emphasis mine, because I don't think the use of "but" rather than "and" is incidental). Perhaps this comment would have had a vague semblance of reasonable justification were the Hugos and Nebulas gender segregated, like the Oscars, but in fact they are not.

*With a vanishingly small handful of honorable exceptions the stories in the Dangerous Visions anthologies are so extremely--and often violently--status quo-reinforcing that I always feel the title requires a [sic].

Combine this with Ellison's introduction, in the same volume, to Joanna Russ's "When It Changed"--which introduction features the revolting spectacle of his "endorsement" of feminism, in which he bravely notices sexism in Keith Laumer's fiction (apparently for the first time, somehow) and which concludes with the comment that Russ looks better than Laumer in a bikini. Lovely as all that is, the key point for our purposes here is when he says that all of the best contemporary sf is being written by women--this in an anthology in which only nine out of forty-six stories (19.5%) are by women--one of them co-written by a man, and one of them written by Titpree, who Ellison thought was a man, which brings the figure down to 15% stories Ellison thought were written solely by women.* I think we can safely say that Ellison was (and is), ahem, anxious about women's writing: women are writing all the best sf, but I'll hardly publish any of it in this enormous anthology supposedly dedicated to writing that couldn't be published elsewhere, and meanwhile I'll unnecessarily separate my own quality judgments (themselves unnecessary) into "best woman" and "best man," place the best man at the end (with the best woman buried somewhere in the middle), talk about how the last story in an anthology has to be mind-blowing, how this one also (for some reason) has to up the ante on Samuel Delany's "Aye, and Gomorrah", which closed the previous anthology (in the introduction to which, incidentally, Ellison had said admiringly that Delany wasn't some "pathetic little homosexual who still lives with his invalid mother"**)...and granted, ok, sure, Kate Wilhelm might be good for a woman, but here's a man for you.

*This is admittedly an improvement over the first volume, in which three out of thirty-two stories were by women. But, um.
**Which is ironic (or just stupid) not just because Delany is in fact gay but also because he has since written very movingly indeed about his mother's decline and lingering death.

So we have a situation where a male-dominated field is being invaded by women who are doing amazing work, a situation in which even the men who are committed to their own dominance in that field have to admit that the women's work is simply better, more vital, more important--but in which they can nevertheless say, "Oh, but thank god: Tiptree."

And then it's 1977, and Tiptree is Alice Sheldon, a woman.

And then almost immediately you get Barry Malzberg writing (in several of the essays that would be collected in Engines of the Night) about how the sf of the 70s is muddled and unengaged and apolitical and boring (and you can tell it's true because he stopped being able to get published--he seriously presents this as evidence). True, he seems to like, ish, Tiptree (though in a clearly retroactive move he relegates her pretty firmly to the--for him--ghettoized world of "feminist writing"). But the timing is suggestive. And as far as I can tell at this remove, he was the one who really got the ball rolling on this narrative, that the decade in which fucking Analog, for Pete's sake, could publish Vonda McIntyre's "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand" was a decade of bloat and self-indulgence and apathy.* This revisionist narrative culminates in 1985 with Bruce Sterling's unhinged but, in terms of sf culture, successfully valedictory introduction to William Gibson's short story collection Burning Chrome, in which the fact that what he really means by "70s sf" is "women's sf" is barely concealed. Sterling's introduction sparked Jeanne Gomoll's righteous (and still utterly relevant) "Open Letter to Joanna Russ," which if you haven't read it go do it this instant, with the caveat that Gomoll, objectively speaking, goes far too easy on Sterling, who has to be read to be believed (and his response--PDF link, go to page 7--to Gomoll...there simply are no words).

* "Snakes (outside of the Book of Genesis) are not political" writes Malzberg, arrogant, ignorant and tone-deaf as ever.

And so you have a surge of literature in the late 70s, early 80s, that behaves as though sf really needs to be shaken a bunch of straight white men with politically and aesthetically reactionary agendas, who pretend (visible most clearly in Gibson's curiously ill-informed and inaccurately titled "The Gernsback Continuum") that Buck Rogers remains to be repudiated, as though Buck Rogers were ever representative of sf in general in the first place, and anyway as if the John W. Campbell of the 30s and 40s, the Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction of the 50s, the so-called "New Wave" (however we're ahistorically applying the term today), feminists, afrofuturists (avant la lettre, as I would say if I were a snoot), queers, and so and and so on and so on and so on hadn't already taken care of it time and again, in all their very different ways and with their varying levels of artistic success.

And we're still, I submit, suffering from the aftermath today. And not just in terms of gender politics, though that's bad enough on its own (and was the major cause of the backlash), but in terms of aesthetics as well. Because once the astonishing work of 70s sf writers was deemed stale and self-involved, the artistic direction they were taking the field in had to be redirected as well.

It's not that it's Sheldon's fault, good god, no; her pseudonym no doubt helped hold the backlash at bay three or four years longer than might have been otherwise. It's just that, so long as she could be held out as a bulwark against the women's invasion--so long as, ok, there are a lot of good women, but there is A Great Man (who really Gets Women, to boot!)--the incipient counterrevolution was unable to build up enough steam. I find it highly significant that Tiptree was a downright celebrity in the field at the time, but now is read almost exclusively by those with an interest in feminist sf--not just that, but in feminist sf history (as L. Timmel Duchamp discusses in her essay on Karen Joy Fowler's "What I Didn't See", in Justine Larbalestier's anthology Daughters of Earth). Had the secret of her identity remained hidden long enough to die with her in 1987, it is easy to imagine that the backlash would have happened almost identically: "The sf of the 1970s," men like Malzberg and Sterling would have written, perhaps a few years earlier in this alternate universe than in our own, "was, except for the energetic and rugged stories of James Tiptree, Jr., bloated, self-indulgent, and stale." As it is, she's been swept under the rug with the rest of them.

Tiptree, at least, was a man. But then Sheldon was a woman. And the panic could no longer be restrained.


Ethan Robinson said...

None of this, incidentally, is meant to deny the possibility that Alice Sheldon's gender may have been more complicated than just "woman." It is impossible to avoid wondering when reading her fiction and letters; and it has occurred to me to wonder if, had she lived now, she might have considered herself transmasculine. But in the end this can only be (potentially, if not necessarily, very distasteful) speculation. She identified herself as a woman (and a feminist and a lesbian); this identification was clearly very important to her as a writer and as a human being, and to the sf field at large.

Ann Burlingham said...

She identified as a lesbian? When and where?

Ethan Robinson said...


I don't think this is the only place, but where I've seen it is in a very sad and moving letter to Joanna Russ:

"Just been reading the Coming Out stories ed by Stanley & Wolfe (with a lot of Adrienne Rich) and it occurred to me to wonder if I ever told you in so many words that I am a Lesbian – or at least as close as one can come to being one never having had a successful love with any of the women I’ve loved, and being now too old & ugly to dare try. Oh, had 65 years been different! I like some men a lot, but from the start, before I knew anything it was always girls and women who lit me up. (Oh, the sad, foolish, lovely tales I’m going to have to put down some day!)

I just thought I’d mention it, since you seem to have found yourself. (Possibly my reward for years of stasis & misery is to be the ideal confidante!)"

Unknown said...

Read Sterling's letter to Gomoll in the old context of the time then and today, I agree with Sterling's position.

Ethan Robinson said...

That's nice for you. Run along.

Marc said...

The late 60s and 70s were a magical time for SF and fantasy even beyond the political and gender explorations - stylistic explosions that superseded the concerns of narrative and created an almost aesthetic modernist goal in a genre which had at times been aimed at a rather young fan base, but I feel that we can't "blame" Tiptree as a leading figure at all from SF developing in a different, much "lower common denominator" direction after her revelation. Pulp was reaching towards the finest stylistic pride of the experimental modernists, and instead, the zeitgeist inverted and mainstream literature has begun to sink to the levels of pulp.

I am honestly shocked that so many believed Tiptree to be male (of course hindsight is 20/20), as the imbalance in every relationship based on gender, the depiction of abuse of power, and the ultimate resentful destruction that imbalance invariably results in, seems a narrative mind that truly understands the psychology of sublimating will, freedom, and life to someone else. Tiptree could have written the conclusion to her life - the balance of power shifted as her husband ailed and figurative murder and self annihilation became literal. On second thought, I suppose she did write that definitive ending.

Ethan Robinson said...

Certainly I agree that what happened in sf was part of a broader cultural shift (Gomoll identifies the gendered aspect of it with her critique of the phrase "the 'me' decade"), but I do think that Tiptree's "unmasking" was, a) instrumentalized to help effect that shift within sf, and b) the sort of straw-on-the-camel's-back that made it urgently necessary. As one of many things contributing to the change, and as a key to understanding the way the change played out in sf specifically, I think it's important.

Ethan Robinson said...

Had also meant to say - agreed re: hindsight; Silverberg's "ineluctably masculine" comment and so forth are just incomprehensible at this point. Fascinating note on her "writing the conclusion to her life" - puts me in mind of Pasolini's similarly "appropriate" death, and also reminds me that I really need to read the Julie Phillips Tiptree biography.