Tales of Flame Wars Past

I’m currently reading Farah Mendlesohn’s new book, a collection of essays about the life and work of Joanna Russ. The essay I most recently read was by Helen Merrick. It is about Russ’s relationship with the science fiction community, and the fights she got into in fanzines over her feminist politics. There are some interesting parallels with the current spate of argument in the blogosphere, which I thought it might be worth sharing. My apologies to Helen and Farah for using some big quotes, but I think they are needed to make the point. And with any luck it will inspire you to buy the book.

Then, as now, there were some unpleasant things said. I’d like to start with a quote from SF writer Michael G Coney, which was part of a letter published in Richard E Geis’s fanzine, The Alien Critic, in response to Russ’s story, “When it Changed.”

The hatred, the destructiveness that comes out in the story makes me sick for humanity and I have to remember, I have to tell myself that it isn’t humanity speaking — it’s just one bigot. Now I’ve just come from the West Indies, where I spent three years being hated merely because my skin was white — and for no other reason. Now I pick up A, DV [Again, Dangerous Visions] and find that I am hated for another reason — because Joanna Russ hasn’t got a prick.

A few things worth noting. “When it Changed” was a Hugo nominee in 1973. The letter was also published that year, and The Alien Critic won a Hugo for Best Fanzine the following year. So all of this was high profile stuff. Also Coney didn’t write that as a hot-blooded response to a post on a blog; it was a letter, maybe even hand written, and snail-mailed to a fanzine.

So vitriolic flame wars are not exactly something new, and having the instant response times of the Internet hasn’t necessarily made things worse.

Not all male writers, however, dismissed Russ’s concerns. Here’s Philip K Dick:

So Joanna is right — in what she believes, not how she puts it forth. Lady militants are always like Joanna, hitting you with their umbrella, smashing your bottle of whiskey — they are angry because if they are not WE WILL NOT LISTEN.

While Dick regrets some of Russ’s tactics, he recognizes that they were probably necessary. The same applies today.

With hindsight, however, we can see that nobody won. None of the principals in the debate were driven out of the community or had their careers wrecked. Fandom did not implode as a result. Wars, including flame wars, tend not to end in outright victory for one side or the other, and the leaders on both sides often survive, though I am fairly sure there will have been some “collateral damage” amongst the rank and file of fandom.

35 years on, some men are still sexist and some women are still angry, but overall things are a bit better than they were back then. A process has taken place.

Also with hindsight we can see that with the good came some bad. The feminists of the time were deeply prejudiced against gay men and trans people. Now many feminists, including Russ, prefer to see those people as allies. Russ also got into arguments with other women who disliked her tactics, and she seems to have come to regret this quite quickly as Merrick notes:

What becomes much clearer through these feminist fan conversations is the important to Russ of emphasizing solidarity, communication and “sisterhood” between women even while they may disagree on the theoretical nuances of feminism. As she repeatedly argues in these fanzines, Russ felt that it was vital that the irritation she and other feminists felt at teaching “frosh camp” [feminism 101] over and over again, should not “spill over” into their conversations with one another (although she herself was not always successful in this endeavor).

So anger is sometimes a very necessary tool, but equally progress doesn’t get made by anger alone. People tend to achieve more by working together and forming communities.

Finally Merrick goes on to talk about Russ’s relationship with science fiction, and in particular her view that it is a transformative literature. The essay ends with this quote from Russ, which was part of some advice she offered to a fanzine editor:

But what am I to do? (I hear you cry piteously from beneath the sofa.)

Keep printing articles, keep speculating, keep thinking. Which is what SF is about (speculating and thinking) anyway.

Because, you know, the world won’t get to be a better place unless we can first imagine that it should and could be a better place.

(Meanwhile, if you feel in need of racism 101, Mary Anne Mohanraj is doing a superb job over at Whatever.)

9 thoughts on “Tales of Flame Wars Past

  1. Wow.

    N00b will seek this book out. Thanks for the post!

    See, as has probably been said, we have a whole new generation of semi-aware-of-feminism folks thanks to feminism becoming a dirty word and them avoiding it until they were old enough to understand what it was.

    I actually was ill-informed enough in my frosh year of college (well-educated, but ill-informed–and I was going to a WOMENS college, by choice yet) to have a postcard that said “I’m a humanist, not a feminist.”

    That says something to me about the ideas getting passed on or not. Mostly not.

  2. “vitriolic flame wars are not exactly something new”

    Two words: Breen Boondoggle.

    “But even 40 years after the event, the sole point fans on both sides can agree upon is that the resulting feud had long-lasting effects, tore the fabric of the microcosm beyond repair and led to a proliferation of mutually exclusive private apas where the opposing forces retired to lick their wounds and assure themselves that they had been undeniably right while the other side had been unmistakably wrong.”


    “and there is no new thing under the sun.” — Ecclesiastes

  3. I was really impressed by Mary Ann Mohanraj’s article (haven’t read the second part yet). And also by Scalzi, who after stating that the discussion has been pointless, and taken to task about it (and apologizing) is actively doing something to further the meaningful discussion instead of just complaining about the state of things.

    …of course, this hasn’t been enough to get him off the “author shit list” of people to be boycotted indefinitely, even after his apology has been pointed out to the person keeping the list.

  4. I’m a cat. My natural habitat is under the sofa. But you see all sorts of things from under here…

  5. Cheryl: I adore Joanna Russ. She was one of my teachers. She was my first SF mentor. She is one of the reasons I am in SF.

    But. Legitimate response to injustice was NOT the sole, and perhaps not even the _primary_ reason for her anger.

    Joanna suffered from clinical depression more acutely than than anyone I have every known, and also from significant chronic pain. She was treated with electroshock and with string medications to combat her depression to the point that they seriously impaired her short-term memory.

    I don’t think her anger should be used as a measuring stick for others in more recent feuds.

  6. Kathryn:

    That’s very interesting. I certainly didn’t know that, and I’m a bit surprised it didn’t come up in any of the essays in Farah’s book.

    But I don’t think my intention was to base any argument on Russ’s behavior. She wasn’t the only person who was angry at the time. What I was trying to point out is that such flame wars have occurred in the past. Which means a) that they are not “caused” by the Internet, b) they do not result in the end of the world, no matter how upset those involved happen to be at the time, and c) no one “wins”.

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