Over at the Aqueduct Press blog there have been some interesting developments on the “women in SF” debate that has been rumbling away for a while. Last week Timmi Duchamp posted expressing some confusion as to what Gwyneth Jones meant by “feminist SF”. Today Gwyneth responded, and it seems to me that the differences in definition still remain.
Before I go into this, I should note that Gwyneth explains, as I had rather expected, that the Guardian people had rather caught her off guard on the podcast. I’m not surprised. As I’ve said before, the Guardian people seem more interested in generating controversy than in reasoned debate. My sympathies, Gwyneth.
Meanwhile, back with the question in hand. In her post Gwyneth says: “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.” I’m no great expert on feminist theory, but to me this sounds very much like a second wave feminism viewpoint. Let me try to explain.
First wave feminism was the Suffragettes. That’s fairly clear. Second wave feminism was the movement that started in the 60s and 70s. In theory it was about equal rights for women in all areas of life. In practice it was sometimes more about equal rights for middle class white women, and occasionally about the rights of middle class white lesbian separatists. Sheila Jeffreys is a good example of how things can go so very badly wrong.
Third wave feminism, as I understand it, grew out of a cross-fertilization between feminism and the civil rights movement. Basically feminists realized that discrimination against women was just a small part of a much wider social problem. They also got the idea that working together with other groups on the bottom of the social ladder: people of color, the poor, LGBT people, the disabled and so on, would strengthen their position, not weaken it.
Third wave feminism, then, is not just about the “Battle of the Sexes”, it is about human rights. I’ll quite happily label a post about the rights of gay men “feminist”. But not everyone would. If you still see feminism as simply a matter of “men v women” then you may well see some of my posts as “seeing sexism where none exists” (as I and others have been accused of recently).
Where it gets interesting is if you consider the possibility that the idea of third wave feminism hasn’t made it very far in the UK. I learned much of my feminism in the USA, and from Australians who had been to Wiscon. In her post Timmi notes that when she first met Niall Harrison he had a very different view of feminist SF to hers. Gwyneth is based in the UK. Farah Mendlesohn, whose approach appears to be closer to mine, has spent a lot of time interacting with US academics at events like ICFA and online.
Suppose, then, that when Gwyneth says that having her work identified as feminist means that it is, “marked as unreadable by large swathes of the general sf reading public”, what she is concerned about is that her work will be seen as incorporating the ideas of second wave feminism. And she thinks that is likely because when you say “feminist” in the UK that’s most people still think you mean. That might explain why women SF writers find it harder to sell over here and, as Gwyneth suggests, by identifying them as feminist we may be doing them a disservice.
On the other hand, as I have noted elsewhere, the UK seems to be less friendly to LGBT rights as well. I suspect it may be a class thing. We Brits tend to be trained from birth that rocking the boat is a Bad Thing, and saying the wrong things may risk your social standing. That’s a gross generalization, of course, and probably unprovable, but I still think we need a good dose of third wave feminism here.
The other aspect of Gwyneth’s post that I feel I should address is where she lays the blame primarily on the shoulders of UK fandom.
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.
To some extent I think she’s right. As Farah has pointed out, the BSFA Awards have a particularly woeful record as far as recognizing women writers goes. On the other hand, we all live in the same cultural bubble. British readers may not have bought women SF writers in very large numbers, but equally I suspect that that when it comes down to decisions as to which books to commission, UK publishers are much less willing to take a risk on women writers than on men. If the books are not available, people can’t buy them.
I also note that a lot of the writers people like Timmi and I enjoy are not published by the big, multi-national New York houses, they are published by people like Prime, Night Shade, Small Beer, Tachyon, Subterranean and Aqueduct. Books by the successful American small presses are harder to come by in the UK than they are in the US. And that’s one reason why I am very pleased to be selling some of them. There’s no point in talking up women SF writers if people can’t buy their books easily. As Gwyneth says, if we see more sales, eventually publishers should sit up and take notice.
Update: Something had been nagging away at the back of my mind with regard to Gwyneth’s comments about publishers. Eventually I remembered it. A few days ago Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a great post for Book View Cafe. The first part is all about “literary” fiction and its pretensions, but the second half deals with publishers’ fixed ideas about YA fantasy. It is true that publishers follow the money, but as Le Guin explains they tend to follow it in a rather blinkered fashion. So once they get the idea into their heads that the SF that sells best is SF by men, then that soon mutates in their minds into “SF by women doesn’t sell”, and a consequent unwillingness to even try.