Judith Tarr has been called “the finest writer of mediaevalist historical fantasy in English.” She also writes as Caitlin Brennan and Kathleen Bryan. She lives in Arizona with a dog, a herd of cats, and a barnful of Lipizzan horses.

Girl Cooties: A Personal History

So SF Signal’s Mind Meld on the Russ Pledge is up, and the comments are following the usual script, from “This is totally true and I’m totally on board” to “This is total bilge.”

The same applies to the internets in general, although, probably because of my personal (and gender) bias, I see more of the former than the latter. Lots of people are talking about the women men don’t see, the names missing from the “Best Of” and the “Most Important” lists, and the need (or not) to render those authors and titles visible.

Rebuttals tend to declare that this is an invented distinction. “I just read books, I don’t read authors,” “Of course there are women on those lists! I saw one name 12 times!” “If sf by women made money, publishers would publish more sf by women.”

I am a woman. I write science fiction.

What, you didn’t know that?

Right. I’m the great historical fantasist. Wrote a few minor sf shorts, a little alternate history, a couple of totally and exuberantly off-the-wall collaborations with Jerry Pournelle at al. in the War World (female Sauron Soldiers FTW!), but not enough to ping the Importance Meters in science fiction. My Importance Points are in fantasy and in historical fiction.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But…


This is my publishing history, in chronological order, in verbatim or paraphrased comments from agents, editors, publishers, and reviewers:

  • 1978: “This is a great debut, but there is one big problem with it for us. It’s a grand-scale space opera with a fantasy/magical feel. Our experience with the market is that while fantasy readers will happily take a dose of science with their fantasy, science-fiction readers won’t take any fantasy with their space opera.” (The Darkover series was well under way at this time. So was Andre Norton’s Witch World. And Anne McCaffrey had long since won her Nebula.)
  • 1983:
    • “We love your historical fantasy with elves! We want to publish it!’ – But it’s not elves. It’s mutated humans. My influence was The Uncanny X-Men.
    • “We love your fantasy! We’ll buy it!” – OK, so the second set of books is secondary world, alien-world sf, late Bronze-Age technology, but, hey, aliens. And psi powers.
    • “We love that fantasy, too! Great magical system! We’ll buy it!”

At this point the gender thing isn’t a noticeable issue. Male protagonists, no problem. The “fantasy” part is coming from the technological level, not from the girl cooties in the byline. The reviewers love my “elves.” I throw up my hands. At least they love ‘em. Whatever they are.

  • Ca. 1986: “SF is hard and tough and needs a lot of research. Fantasy is easy. You just make stuff up.”

That’s where it starts to get tricky. And I start seeing a rash of, “Boys write hard sf. Girls write squishy fantasy.” The concepts have been around for decades, of course, but remember, this is a personal history. There are rumbles. There are pushbacks. Articles are written, convention panels are hotly debated, there is even an ad-hoc, mostly comically inspired group called the FFW’s–the Female Fantasy Writers, with pink buttons to be worn with pride at conventions. The Eighties ended in a draw. Fantasy was a hot property. Lots of bestsellers. Lots of whom were male. Most of whom, actually, were male.

  • 1990: “Of course you’re not included in my Dictionary of Important Science Fiction Authors. You’re not important.”
  • 1990′s: I need a brain break. I gafiate (remember that term?). I write mainstream historicals. They’re mostly “women’s fiction” with female protagonists. Greatest Hits of Feminist History. And Prehistory.
  • 1999: “You want to return to fantasy? Awesome! You want to write male protagonists? OK, whatever. Cool beans. Alternate history, even? Bring it on! But don’t bring it on in too exotic a setting, OK? Stay in Western Europe if you can. That ‘way-out Eastern stuff isn’t selling so well any more.”
  • 2001:
    • “You want to sell some more fantasy? Great! But can you do female protagonists? And put more romance in? Romance sells.” – OK, no problem, but I’d really like to do a male protagonist for this one if I–
    • “No, you can’t do that. You’re a girl. You need to write about girl heroes. Also, don’t get exotic. Really. Can you write something set in England?”
  • 2003: “Yes, I know this is a secondary series in an established fantasy world. Yes, I know it’s a great story. And it has plenty of romance. But you have to tell it from a female POV. You can’t sell male POV.”
  • 2005: “Female POV. Romance. Fantasy. You’re good at it. Don’t write anything different. And no, no male protagonist. Please.”
  • 2009: “We love this strikingly unusual cross-genre book! It’s brilliant! We just hate to let it pass. But Marketing feels it’s too ‘girl-friendly’ for science fiction.”
  • 2010: “This is full-on, grand-scale, old-fashioned space opera. Twenty years ago we’d have killed to get our hands on it. Unfortunately, we just can’t sell a book like this any more, unless you’ve been publishing books like this for, well, the past twenty years.” – Actually I would have, I wanted to, I tried. But.
  • 2011: Time to think really seriously about that androgynous pseudonym. No, not because I’m giving up. Because I’m the mood to experiment, and I like to test hypotheses in the real world. A woman writing science fiction set in the medieval period is, by universal fiat, writing fantasy. Likewise if the science fiction is set in a preindustrial technological period, though it’s actually a prequel to a cycle of space operas that predated Stargate by a fair few years. One of those got sneaked into print a few years back as, you guessed it, a fantasy. With a pointed historical sting in the tail. (Points if you can guess, accurately, which one that is.)(It’s not under a pseudonym.) Now it might be the tech level that’s doing it, but all things considered…

I’m deliberately leaving out the Conclusions and Analyses here. You may draw your own conclusions, and detect your own patterns. But I think you can see why I feel the Russ Pledge is important, and why I’m actually rather optimistic about the direction our genre (if not necessarily the current incarnation of its publishers) is taking.

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