The following is a transcript of the recent (25/05/11) Woman’s Hour segment on women and sf, for those who can’t listen and in case it vanishes from the BBC website. Of related interest, given recent discussion elsewhere, is the most recent Guardian Books Podcast in which Nicola Griffiths is, as she points out, identified as a “sharp-eyed blogger in Seattle”, rather than as a novelist.
Jenni Murray: Now, the British Library has just opened an exhibition, called “Out of This World: Science Fiction, but Not as You Know It”. It’s a genre that’s generally perceived to be of interest to young children — think Doctor Who — or to men — think HG Wells, Isaac Asimov and Jules Verne. But the exhibition includes Mary Shelley, the Brontes, Marge Piercy, Ursula Le Guin, Margaret Atwood and Gwyneth Jones, so is the perception of science fiction as a male-dominated form a complete misrepresentation? Well, Karen Traviss is a New York Times bestselling writer, Farah Mendlesohn is reader in science fiction and fantasy literature at Middlesex University, and Gwyneth Jones has won the Philip K Dick and Arthur C Clarke Awards for her science fiction. Gwyneth, what was it about sci-fi that appealed to you?
Gwyneth Jones: The science. I’m a thwarted scientist and when I was a little girl it was — I can’t remember the name of the writer because writers’ names mean very little to children, or they did mean … it was either Asimov or Heinlein who told me that the universe was like unto a rubber sheet and that planets and other bodies deform this rubber sheet, and that’s the way spacetime functions; I was hooked. I just love stuff like that.
Jenni Murray: And Karen, what was its appeal for you when you began writing?
Karen Traviss: Well, I actually set it up as a business, it was something … I’m not a reader, it’s a terrible thing to say and people will probably come and stone my house, but I absolutely hate reading, but I like writing. I was far more influenced by TV, and by films, I absolutely loved science fiction series, I like science fiction movies. But my reason for writing science fiction was a sort of business decision because I actually specialise in military science fiction and also mainstream military fiction, and I set out to have a business, I had a five year business plan, I stuck to it. There was no sort of motivation from love of the art, I’m afraid, and the sort of picture that I see of science fiction being painted here doesn’t bear any resemblance to my working world. I mean, let me just put a caveat on that — I might live in the UK, I pay my taxes here, but I work in the USA. I work solely for US publishers, US game studios, that sort of thing. It’s a very different world.
Jenni Murray: Let me just bring Farah in for the moment, Karen. What about the audience, Farah? Who is interested in reading sci-fi?
Farah Mendlesohn: Well, the entry age I found was somewhere between about 10 and 12, which is younger than we used to think. Slightly younger for boys, they seem to come in around 9, girls around 11. After that, these days it’s about 45% female and 55% male, and people stick with the genre once they’re there. The audiences for gaming, for tie-ins, for films — they’re slightly different, they lean towards male, but I’ll be honest, I think it’s just a matter of time, I think it’s changing very rapidly. The idea of science fiction being for men has never been true, if you look at the early magazines there are always letters from women. Now I know it’s biased, because the editors are choosing the letters, but it’s actually quite interesting that someone like Hugo Gernsback, one of the earliest of the editors, wanted to represent women in the magazines by choosing those letters. About 1 in every 10 letters in the thirties, by the sixties we’re up to 1 in 3; it keeps spiralling.
Jenni Murray: And yet, Gwyneth, I know you have said, because you said it to our producer, that you wish you’d used a male pseudonym as a writer. Why?
Gwyneth Jones: Ah. That’s because I started writing science fiction in 1984 and I wrote feminist science fiction and I wrote science fiction for at least a decade, and I wish now that I had used a male pseudonym for my feminist books.
Jenni Murray: Why?
Gwyneth Jones: Because, if you’re a feminist, it’s much better to be a man, with the science fiction public.
Jenni Murray: You’d have sold better.
Gwyneth Jones: Well, not only that. My later books, which are in my reading not at all feminist science fiction, although they have female characters — it would be strange if they didn’t — are now feminist. And I find that a disadvantage on two counts. First, because I know what feminist science fiction was about, it was about disentangling the battle of the sexes and I’m not doing that, and I don’t want my books to be read as feminist when they’re not addressing that agenda and second, yes, because the word feminist is poison to many sectors of the science fiction audience. And that’s a shame.
Jenni Murray: There was, Farah —
Gwyneth Jones: Sorry, I was —
Jenni Murray: No, it’s all right, I just wanted to continue the point with Farah, because there was a famous science fiction writer, James Tiptree Jr, who came out in the seventies as Alice Sheldon, so he actually was a she. What was the reaction when that happened?
Farah Mendlesohn: Well actually, Gwyneth’s summary is perfect, because first of all what had happened was that Tiptree had withdrawn a story that was nominated I think for the Nebulas, on the grounds it had been nominated because it was a feminist story by a man. And he withdrew it. Robert Silverberg had actually written an introduction to one of the books which he’s lived to regret, in which he described Tiptree as “ineluctably male”, So there was actually quite some controversy. Joanna Russ, one of our most famous authors is the person who outed Tiptree [Note: actually Jeffrey Smith; see comments and Julie Phillips’ biography of Alice Sheldon for details], and it rippled. But I think that Gwyneth is absolutely right, both because Tiptree’s work was then received very differently, but because what I see in critical accounts of the genre from male academics is they forget women when they’re writing about space opera, and then have a token chapter about feminist writers. And I see that over and over again. There’s a book by Istvan Csicery-Ronay Jr that has a whole chapter on linguistics. The most famous science fiction writer of linguistics, who’s a professor of linguistics, is Suzette Haden Elgin. She’s not in that chapter. She is in the chapter on feminism. So often it’s that inability to see a female writer as anything other than a feminist writer — and this is where you might want to bring Karen back in, because she’s often seen that way by critics and herself would find that, I think I’m right in saying, would find that a problematic label.
Jenni Murray: You anticipated my next move. Karen?
Karen Traviss: Well, I’m sort of struggling to recognise this landscape, because it doesn’t bear any resemblance to the world I work in. I think it’s very easy to try and see science fiction, one, as a sort of separate walled garden, but also as something defined by critics. I like to deal direct with my customer, basically, and if I go round a huge bookstore in the States and I stop someone who’s browsing in the isles and say, “why have you picked up that book?”, none of them have heard of the Hugo awards, none of them read book reviews, none of them care what critics think; they pick up books because they like the cover, or because they like the blurb on the back, or they like the author, or their friends said, “you really should try that book” — and I mean perhaps I’ve lead a charmed life, but given the very macho nature of what I like and the fact that most of my characters are male, I have never been pigeonholed as a female writer. You know, the sort of novelty for the States is that I’m English, that always comes as a shock to them.
Jenni Murray: Karen, you’ve very deliberately published in the States, why? Is it because it’s different here?
Karen Traviss: Much much bigger market and much more money. Sorry, it’s really that crude. But that was my first port of call, because that was where I saw the industry as being. This is the entertainment industry, you know, I am there to entertain people primarily, but also to make them think; I’m a former journalist, I’m not there to set an agenda for feminism or anything else, I’m there to say, these are people, male and female, in a very challenging situation; and one thing that science fiction offers you, speculative fiction generally, is that you can push the boundaries and say, what if this happened? What would happen? And all I do is sort of shine that light and say, how would you react in this situation? I’m not going to send some feminist message.
Jenni Murray: Farah?
Farah Mendlesohn: I want to agree with Karen, but with a caveat. I started looking at what was on the shelves in Britain and in british libraries, both in bookshops and libraries, and couldn’t find any women writers, including a really big selling writer like Lois McMaster Bujold. So I’d say Karen has made the right decision, the market in the States is far better, but the market here is problematic. Forbidden Planet has just produced a list of its 50 favourite writers with three female writers. there’s something odd going on at the marketing level here.
Jenni Murray: Gwyneth, how much are you conscious of the fact that there may be something odd going on at the marketing level?
Gwyneth Jones: I think, for one thing I think the US market is a far broader church; it’s far easier, it’s much easier for an outsider to survive. But I am conscious that I have always been regarded as an outsider by my publishers of science fiction. it’s an assumption which is a self-fulfilling prophecy, if there is a list of books that are going to be promoted, well, probably a woman writer is an outside choice so we won’t have a woman writer. That does happen.
Jenni Murray: But you’ve won the big awards — you’ve won the Philip K Dick award, the Arthur C Clarke award. what difference does that make to you? Do they not say, this woman is a great writer?
Gwyneth Jones: I find it very strange. There’s no heavy lifting, I don’t have to be six foot six, and in fact even to write action fantasy you don’t have to be a large muscular man to do that, but I think it starts with the publishers and I think it also it ripples through to the fans.
Jenni Murray: Women fantasy writers seem to do very well, Farah, JK Rowling I suppose being the best known. Why? What’s the difference between the sci-fi and the fantasy?
Farah Mendlesohn: That’s a very difficult one to put your fingers on. I think there is a sense that it’s more appropriate for women to write about dragons than to write about guns — and I do wonder, to come briefly back to Karen if the more mixed army in the united States makes a difference, they have a fully integrated military — but otherwise it’s not that straightforward. the biggest names in fantasy, the ones who receive the most publicity, are still the men. And I think there is a bias there. but I would agree with Karen, in that I don’t think the bias is necessarily among the fans.
Jenni Murray: Farah Mendlesohn, Karen Traviss and Gwyneth Jones, thank you all very much.
10 thoughts on “Woman’s Hour: Women and SF”
Just to correct Farah’s point: it was not Russ who outed Tiptree, but Jeffrey Smith (who has gone on to be a member of the Tiptree Award Motherboard).
But Joanna Russ did reveal that Ellis Bell was really Emliy Brontë!