Sometimes, the way people write about women really makes me squirm. SF anthologies c. 1959.

27 05 2010

About once a week, I walk or bike down to Gerry’s Books in Steveston Village, to poke around in their surprisingly large science fiction section. It’s my favourite part of the week: 10k of exercise, amazing wildlife along the dike (turtles, ducks, sandpipers, herons, blackbirds, bald eagles…), beautiful views, and a treat at the end. Treasures reveal themselves to me as I discover new authors; the books were always there, I just didn’t know that I wanted them. And the skinny paperbacks – the ones that can be really difficult to find in more mainstream (or less perched-on-the-edge-of-the-city) places – are usually around $2.99; less than the library fines I would probably end up with if I borrowed the books from the public library.

The selection is wide enough, and the prices low enough, that I pick up books by authors I’ve never heard of because I like the blurb, because they’re women writing in a certain period, and sometimes, because of interesting, quirky little paratextual things or their relevance to the history of women in SF in general. It was there that I found Tiptree’s Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” and Russ’s Souls as a double volume. And an anthology with a story published under the name “Raccoona Sheldon.” I often flip through older anthologies, looking for short stories and novellas by women authors that interest me.

Last week, I picked up Star Science Fiction 5: Nine Top Original Stories Never Before Published Anywhere, edited by Frederik Pohl and published in 1959 because it had a story by Katherine MacLean, whose work predates much of what I’ve been reading. It also had a story by Rosel George Brown. Both are introduced by wonderful blurbs, which fit in nicely with the story of women in SF that Helen Merrick traces in her “Resistance is Useless? The Sex/Woman/Feminist ‘Invasion'” in her The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms, which is a chapter all about women gettin’ all up in ur sf, participating as full, intellectual, interesting and interested members of society in their own right (how dare they!).

This is a gem. Brace yourself:

Katherine MacLean is a young lady of charm and talent — not the only one such among science-fiction writers, but nearly the only one who turns her back on the feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children) in order to compete with the hairiest-chested males on their own territory. How well she succeeds, this story (her first in collaboration with Tom Condit) amply demonstrates.

The language there is just brilliant. “Young lady,” “charm,”; she’s one of the few playing with the grown-up toys, but don’t worry; she’s not a threat. She may be “compet[ing] with the hairiest-chested males on their own territory” (ed: wtf?) but this story was written in collaboration with a man, so it’s okay; if she wins, she had help*. The blurb is a wholesale dental extraction; in this story, at least, Katherine MacLean will not bite.

By 1959, Katherine MacLean was 34 years old and had published several well-received short stories and novellas. She had done post-graduate studies, and worked in fields beyond the traditionally feminine ones. Her works had been in print for ten years. In 1959, she was nominated for a Hugo. To call her a “young lady of charm and talent,” at this point in her career, emphasising her age and personal graces rather than her work, diminishes her as a skilled writer.

I do like that he said that she has “talent,” because it does contradict some of the contemporary blah blah out there about how girls can’t be brilliant (like boys) (in math and science), but achieve what they do through hard work and determination alone. However, in this collection, the only authors who are described as having talent are the two women who bookend the collection — both of whom achieved considerable success — and a young male first-time writer, whose work is also described in infantilised terms.

The male writers ” burst like a bright exhalation,” are “bright young star in STAR’s firmament,” are “are lighter, brighter,” and “beam with pride.” They are “incomparable,” they have “mastered,” they tackle “complicated” things. They have “versatility,” and reach “flavorful peaks.” They do not need “talent,” because they are Great. And they are never described in terms of “grace,” and “charm,” which are pleasant, but ultimately superficial qualities which have very little to do with their work.

Here is what Pohl had to say about Rosel George Brown:

A young Louisiana housewife sat down to a typewriter one day last year to find the answer to a question: Was there anything hard about writing science-fiction stories? The answer, it turns out, is “no” — provided you have the wit, the talent, and the grace of Mrs. Brown. Because of the idiosyncrasies of publishing schedules, this may not be the first of her stories to see print, but it’s the first she sold– and STAR is proud to present it to the world.

While in 1959, many women were ‘housewives,’ and it would be foolish to argue that the work that women who stay at home do is not very important work, this is a term that marginalizes women and excludes them from public and intellectual life. If you consider the fact that Brown is identified in this way together with Pohl’s dismissal of the so-called “feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children)” earlier on in the book, Pohl’s use of language definitely pushes Brown to the margins of the book. In 1959, she was 33 years old, and held an M.A. from the University of Minnesota. She may have been a housewife, but she was no child, and no intellectual lightweight.

In 1959, she was also nominated for a Hugo.

One can see how the ways in which editors have written about men and women’s work have differed in the past. Given these examples, it’s really not surprising that this made for a field somewhat hostile to anyone who was not a cisgendered, heterosexual man.

(This post was intended to lead into a discussion of some works that have handled the “feminine-writing hallmarks (love–the family–children) in sophisticated ways, and have demonstrated how these topics, like all aspects of human life, do deserve to be present in the worlds of SF. But the language was just so –ugh!– distracting, and this post has got rather long, and that will have to wait.)

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