MIND MELD: What’s The Importance of ‘The Russ Pledge’ For Science Fiction Today?
[Do you have an idea for a future Mind Meld? Let us know!]
Recently, a poll in The Guardian created to the readers nominate their favorite SF writers revealed an appalling result: 500 men in the list – but only 18 women made it. This result sparked a chain of reactions in the blogosphere, from Nicola Griffith to Cheryl Morgan to Ian Sales and many other critics and writers, including this Mind Meld moderator. However, one of the most interesting results of this discussion was a proposition made by Nicola Griffith of what she called The Russ Pledge. Please read the links above before reading below.
We asked this week’s panelists…
Here’s what they said…
I am more interested in hearing why male writers think the Russ Pledge is important for science fiction, and then watching them act it out, than I am in writing yet one more exhausted rant stating the obvious.
I think discussing women writers in SF is always valuable, though it seems to me at least some of this discussion focuses on the false dichotomy between fantasy and science fiction. If we take a recent genre masterpiece – Mary Gentle’s incredible Ash: A Secret History – it’s the sort of novel that can be easily both – is it SF? Is it fantasy? Does it matter?
And obviously in genre some of our most successful writers are women. Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse books, for instance, are everywhere – and are simply addictive!
I seem to have less of an interest in discussing the classics (that whole SF Mistressworks meme) simply because, to me, the classics are such an ingrained part of my reading of SF I sort of expect everyone else to have already read them! One simply can’t imagine SF/F without C.L. Moore or Alice Sheldon (James Tiptree Jr.), or to discuss fantasy without mentioning Patricia McKillip’s The Riddle Master of Hed trilogy…while I realise a lot of people haven’t read, say, Zenna Henderson (one of the great and only Pastorals of SF) – but at the same time, a lot of old SF gets left behind as new readers get into genre from a different angle – through media SF or newer works.
You know, Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See”? That’s one of the all-time great SF stories – and it was the inspiration for my first professional sale, “Alienation and Love in the Hebrew Alphabet”. Or C.L. Moore’s Jirel of Joiry, she was the direct influence for me to start writing my Gorel of Goliris stories, starting with “Black Gods Kiss”, a reference to Moore’s “Black God’s Kiss”, obviously… (these are published by PS Publishing in the UK, incidentally).
So to me these are very relevant, very living writers, works. I’m not going to make up lists of them, like they belong in some encyclopedia! They’re still shaping fiction and ideas today, they’re still a fabric of my writer identity.
As an editor, particularly as an editor of international SF/F stories (via the World SF Blog and the Apex Book of World SF series of anthologies, of which the second one is coming out soon), I think we’re at a pretty exciting time! It was interesting, in that I saw a Twitter conversation recently, when someone said her impression was that a lot of the young, up-and-coming genre writers were women, and someone else replied that his perception was that this was not the case.
Well, I’m with the former, not the latter. If I look at the writers I’m excited about today, the ones working in short fiction or getting into novels, the ones in my two (to date) Apex Book of World SF anthologies, they’re people like Lauren Beukes, who picked up the Clarke Award recently for her novel Zoo City; it’s Aliette de Bodard, who won the BSFA Award for short story, was up for a Nebula and is still up for a Hugo; it’s Kaaron Warren, who just has this very weird mind… all three happen to be with Angry Robot (also my publishers for the Bookman books), but that just shows we may have similar editorial tastes! AR are also bringing out debut novelist Anne Lyle soon, which is very exciting.
The second Apex Book of World SF volume opens with a writer I’m very excited about (can you tell there’s a recurrent theme here??) – Rochita Loenen-Ruiz, with “Alternate Girl’s Expatriate Life”, from Interzone. I think she’s a wonderful writer and I know she’s working on a novel, and I can’t wait to see it!
And we have, for instance, Joyce Chng from Singapore, who recently released a novel, A Wolf at the Door (as by J. Damask) – werewolves in Singapore! Who could resist that?
And we have Silvia Moreno-Garcia, who is working on a couple of very exciting novels, writes wonderful stuff. Shweta Narayan, who was up for a Nebula recently. Ekaterina Sedia, who is just such a great writer – you have to read A Secret History of Moscow! And I just love her short stories. We were lucky to get a story from Nnedi Okorafor, who is incredible. Or Gail Har’even, a highly regarded Israeli author who does both mainstream and SF (the story we reprint is from the New Yorker). We have original stories from Anabel Enriquez Piñeiro from Cuba, and Csilla Kleinheincz from Hungary.
So, you know, do we want to talk about women writers? Well, obviously I do! They’re such a vital and vibrant part of the field that I see – and this is just talking international stuff, you know. If you open it up a bit…you have Nina Allan making some waves in the UK with her short stories, you have Catherynne Valente, who hardly needs me to shout about, she’s everywhere, you have Cat Rambo, Amal El-Mohtar, Genevieve Valentine, Kij Johnson, Sarah Monette, Yoon Ha Lee, Rachel Swirsky, N.K. Jemisin, Karen Lord – do you want me to go on? The problem would be getting me to shut up! There’s a new collection Apex have just put out, Let’s Play White by Chesya Burke, that you should really check out. And let’s not forget Ellen Datlow, one of the truly great editors in the field, who I, personally, just owe so much to.
But, is there an issue with the invisibility of women in SF? Of course there is. There are a lot of deep-rooted problems in the world of SF, from a sort of ingrained, unconscious racism that goes all the way back to Campbell, to an unthinking, unblinking sexism and xenophobia and homophobia and, weirdly, a deep-seated conservatism of the WASP variety, a sort of fear of the future that exhibits itself in the stories that win awards, in the way magazines receive (or don’t) submissions, in bizarre rambling editorials from once-great writers in the field…
But I have very little interest in what was, in yesterday’s tomorrows. The future is here, and it can be female, it can be black, it can be transgender, it can be Jewish or Muslim (Campbellian orthodoxy and American xenophobia notwithstanding), it can be queer – it can be _fun_ again, and it can be serious again, and it _is_ glorious, and exciting, and I learn every day from those writers above, the living and the dead, may their smoke rise up forever.
I’d say that the Russ Pledge, and any movement towards bringing attention to women’s writing in SF (& by doing so combating creeping invisibility and suppression), is as important today as it’s ever been. Though the presence of women in the speculative field is undeniable throughout our history, when it comes to critical consideration like reviews, awards, et cetera, all of those talented women tend to disappear. When discussing the pulps/the “golden age,” for example, how many people will talk about the women who were writing? How many people even know there were women writing?
While I’m not going to say it hasn’t gotten better in recent years–it has–that’s because we’ve tried to make it so, by drawing attention to the fact that women writing SF are being erased in the critical arena. Sexism is rarely intentional–it’s cultural, and it’s hard to kick until you see it and acknowledge it. (Once seen, it can’t be unseen, either–Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing is quite the eye-opener in this regard, because it’s so very clear and concise.) Only further effort will continue the steps we’re making as a community toward recognizing as many women as we do men for the brilliant books they’re writing. Books like Helen Merrick’s The Secret Feminist Cabal, while focused specifically on feminist SF, also collect the history of women writing in the genre since its beginnings–damned important work, in my opinion.
On the less positive hand, the recent discussions in places like The Guardian about invisibility of women writers in SF go to show that there are still hurdles to clear when it comes to women writing in the speculative field getting the same kind of recognition that men do. It’s a life’s work, it is, but with things like the Russ Pledge we can all try to work toward a better future for the field.
Personal anecdote time: last December, I reviewed Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing for Tor.com. I’d encountered it in a search for more feminist science-fiction criticism, and it blew me away, so I wrote about it. The response to the review was one of the coolest, weirdest things I’ve experience so far in writing criticism–it spread. For days and weeks after that review went live, people were reposting, retweeting, emailing me, everything you can think of, talking about how they’d found the book through that review, or how it had reminded them of it, or how it put the book on their reading list. It was kind of awesome, seeing how the internet facilitated the spread of discussion about books like Russ’s.
But, the thing about all of that renewed interest and people asking where they could find How to Suppress Women’s Writing is that it ended up just underscoring the problems Joanna herself talked about in the book–guess what: it’s difficult to find in bookstores, because it’s no longer fully in print from the press and is only available as a print-on-demand title. The most important, cogent, incisive work I’ve ever read on the suppression of women’s writing is treading invisibility in its own way, unless we–as readers, as writers, as critics, as fans–keep it alive and remember it and recommend it to our friends. It’s a big responsibility, but one I think we can handle as a community.
(And maybe we could get to work on reprinting some other out-of-print texts, too, as folks like the wonderful Cheryl Morgan have suggested.)
What’s interesting about the Russ Pledge is not that it exists–it’s a tribute to a great luminary in the field who died recently, who would have been pleased with it, I think–but that it’s essentially gone viral. There’s been a rising awareness in recent years that science fiction, the literature of all that’s possible, has been remarkably limited in its human dimension. In short–mostly written by white American males, about issues that concern white American males, and evaluated and awarded and anthologized by still more white American males. This is reflected in lists of “greats” in the field. Women and minorities are seriously underrepresented.
That’s changing, and the Russ Pledge is an important part of it. Writers and readers and listmakers are stopping to think, and making new (and exciting and extensive) lists, and coming to the realization that not only have quite a few women been writing sf over the years, they’ve been writing it pretty damn well.
But inertia is a powerful force, and so is cultural conditioning. As long as we’re trained to minimize the importance of women’s work, we’ll continue to favor men’s work and downplay or disregard that of women.
I see the Russ Pledge not as (s)training myself to find a comparable woman writer for every male writer I list (at the risk of creating false equivalencies or marriages of convenience), but as asking myself, when I consider the landscape of the field, whether I’ve really seen the whole of it. Have even I, with my feminist leanings, committed a case of “The Women Men Don’t See”?
I want to open my eyes and really see. And if I do that, maybe others will, too. Then we’ll find ourselves in a much wider, more diverse, and more truly wonderful field than we already thought we had.
Talking about science fiction by women is important because women are half the world. SF as a genre will be stronger if women’s contribution is spread, talked about, and supported–as opposed to suppressed, ignored, or belittled. Diversity is strength. It’s that simple.
“We should take the pledge to make a considerable and consistent effort to mention women’s work which, consciously or unconsciously, has been suppressed.”
Why should we single out women’s writing? Surely they want to succeed on their own merits, as writers first not as women?
Well… how’s that been working out? Not too good, in fact. Treating women’s sf writing equally hasn’t been a resounding success. Since they were created, the Hugo Award for Best Novel has gone to 15 women out of 55, the BSFA Award to two women out of 42 – and these are the two largest popular-choice sf awards in the US and UK. But, I hear you ask, isn’t treating women sf writers differently, giving them preferential treatment, a form of discrimination? Er, no. It’s not discrimination to give women preferential treatment in your reading habits, but it *is* discrimination to refuse to read books because they were written by women. It’s not a level playing-field, and pretending it is does nothing to change that unfairness.
Most people’s views of sf were formed by the books they read when they entered the genre as young teenagers, the books that gave them their first hit of sense of wonder. They were typically indiscriminate readers then – I know I was – which is probably why Asimov’s blandly-written Foundation appears in so many lists of classic or great science fiction, and why (male) sf fans will happily excuse the appalling sexism in EE ‘Doc’ Smith’s Lensman series. And in the days those books were written, and for many decades following, the genre was indeed dominated by male writers – so women sf writers such as CJ Cherryh, CL Moore, MJ Engh and SN Lewitt chose to disguise their gender by using their initials. There was a perception that sf was for boys, and readers chose not to question that assumption – perhaps because they liked being part of a special club their sister could not, or would not, join. Which is rubbish, as there’s nothing inherently masculine about science fiction, just as there’s nothing inherently masculine about science, engineering or technology.
It’s still happening now, although the situation is worse in the UK than it is in the US – only two women sf writers are currently under contract with major publishers in the UK: Jaine Fenn and Tricia Sullivan. Yet the editorial staff at those publishers are mostly female. Publishers, however, only publish books that sell – the days of the midlist have long since gone – which suggests readers are simply not buying books by women writers. Even now, some, such as MM Bruckner, hide their gender behind their initials. If the playing field truly were level, or had levelled in the decades since a woman first won the Hugo (Ursula K Le Guin in 1970 for The Left Hand of Darkness), this shouldn’t be happening. Even CJ Cherryh, whose books I remember filling the shelves of WH Smith during the 1980s, is no longer published by a UK imprint. Perhaps it’s because books by women writers are not reviewed as often as those by men – Niall Harrison investigated this back in March and published his findings at Strange Horizons. The results indicated there is a problem: in the US 41.7% of books received by Locus were by women; in the UK, it was 37% (for the four months taken as samples). And yet, across all those review venues considered by Niall, only 29.6% of books reviewed were by women. You can see the full results here: http://www.strangehorizons.com/blog/2011/03/the_sf_count.shtml
Perhaps there’s a perception that all sf novels written by women are feminist. Though why this should be seen as a bad thing is beyond me. Is gender equality so frightening a prospect that men don’t even want to read books which discuss or comment on it? Except that can’t be the case, because men can write sf novels which are arguably feminist and no one complains – just look at the works of Robert Heinlein: he’s praised for his strong women characters, though they don’t actually appear all that feminist to me. On a recent Woman’s Hour on BBC Radio 4, Gwyneth Jones admitted she wished she had written her earlier sf novels under a male pseudonym, because “books by a significant male writer expressing feminist views would reach a much, much wider public”. And, “if you’re a feminist, it’s much better to be a man, with the science fiction public”.
Why should this be the case? What is it that’s so scary about a feminist sf novel written by a woman? Is it that it challenges firmly-held beliefs? But isn’t that what science fiction is all about, showing new ways of thinking about the world? It’s not as though implementing the Russ Pledge is a difficult thing to do. That conditioning from your early years reading sf is easy to break. All it takes is a conscious effort to remove the rose-tinted spectacles and take a proper look at the sf books that have been, and are being, published. All it takes is a conscious effort to buy, or borrow from a library, a science fiction novel or collection written by a female sf writer.
But that’s not enough, you need to do more. Review those books by women sf writers on your blog. If you’ve just read a great book by a woman sf writer, then tell everyone about it. Nominate those writers for awards, and vote for them when they’re shortlisted. That’s why I put together the sf mistressworks meme, that’s why I started up the SF Mistressworks blog (at http://sfmistressworks.wordpress.com/). But it’s not something I should be doing on my own, it’s something we should *all* be doing, both men and women. Which is why you should spread the meme, and why the SF Mistressworks blog is open to reviews of relevant books – ie, sf, published before 2000, woman writer (500 words or more, please).
Things need to change, and they won’t change by themselves. It’s time for people to do something. Take the pledge.
When I first saw folks talking about the Guardian 500 list, I started drafting what is now a post I will never put up on my blog. I didn’t agree with what people were saying about the list. This isn’t an issue about invisibility, I wanted to say, so much as a problem of wording/question choice/etc. And in a lot of ways, I think that’s true in a very general sense. When you ask people for their favorite science fiction novel, you’re already working within an extremely limited perspective, one which depends on the responding audience (age, upbringing, first science fiction experiences, etc.). If the majority of your responding audience began reading science fiction with Golden Age texts, it’s very likely that their favorite novel is a Golden Age text, and that their exposure to books will be disproportionately oriented towards male fiction by default. That doesn’t necessarily mean that said audience never reads books by women, just that their favorite book happens to be by a man (likely because their favorite book is also the book that got them into SF in the first place).
But when I started formulating all of that, it dawned on me that I was talking about something I didn’t know anything about. The Guardian 500 list was chosen almost exclusively by British readers, a segment of the world’s population that I cannot profess to know enough about to give anything approaching an informed opinion. And when I started to dig into the reality of the situation, it became clear that some British SF readers have a history of snooty behavior towards anything approaching a “feminist” discussion about gender in SF (plus: very few female writers are published in the U.K.). I don’t know if the list would change drastically if the same question were posed to U.S. readers. I’m leaning towards “probably not,” but I think that will have a little more to do with the question and limits of perspective than a continued history of silence and/or outright anti-woman opinions/behavior. That’s not to say that there isn’t a long history of anti-woman opinions/behavior in the U.S. (reading about Congress for a week will prove this). But when part of your reading community is saying things like, “well, women don’t write as well as men,” you have a huge problem that needs addressing regardless of where you live.
Which brings me to the Russ Pledge. I confess that I have never read Russ’ book on women’s writing, but Nicola Griffith is right on the money when she says we (in the SF community) need to talk about women writers. However, I think we need to be careful not to highlight women writers because they are women writers, which, to me, essentializes their gender and adds fuel for the “they’re not as good as men” camp (I believe Nicola wants to avoid this too, since her post says we should talk about women alongside men). We need to talk about female writers as great authors who just so happen to have inherited the right set of genes to make them women. Because equality has to arise from removing the conditions of exceptionalism and essentialization from *all* genders. The most important aspect of the Russ Pledge is that it aims to change the dynamic, but it can’t do that if it makes people think of women as a special case. And this is a hard thing to do, because there are people who will see the inclusion of a woman on a “best of” list or in a blog post about favorite female authors as being some kind of evil liberal feminist plot to make mediocre writing seem more important (their language, not mine). We might not be able to change their minds, but we can change what gets discussed in the community by, well, discussing works that damn well should be discussed.
And when you change what the community talks about, you change the publishing landscape. SF publishers are businesses. They follow the money. Sadly, the money in SF is more often than not centered on books by people who were “fortunate enough” to be born as men. This is a hangup from an older time when men were “in charge,” and it persists because the readership has always been exposed to writers of the male persuasion, despite a rich history of excellent writers of the female persuasion. And if the SF community isn’t reviewing, tweeting, and blogging about books that happen to be written by women, we’re left with a self-perpetuating cycle of silence about such writers. The Russ Pledge is, at its most basic, a challenge to this structure. It’s up to us to do something about the future of publishing by, well, talking about women authors. And, maybe, looking at what our friends are saying and trying someone new.
But what do I know? I’m just a crazy immoral liberal pinko commie socialist wacko…
Filed under: Mind Meld
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