Speculative fiction, gender, taste and why “the domestic and mushy stuff” is important

The debate over gender imbalances in speculative fiction reviewing rages on across the internet with several interesting posts. There are some links as well as lengthy ruminations by me behind the cut.

Aliette de Bodard weighs in on the issue of gender imbalances in speculative fiction and how traditionally male concerns are still taken more seriously than traditionally female concerns.

The dichotomy that traditionally male concerns are considered worthy and important, while traditionally female concerns are considered unimportant, trivial and domestic is of course well known. Virginia Woolf described this very mechanism in A Room of One’s Own back in 1929 and Joanna Russ described it again in How To Suppress Women’s Writing in 1983. And today, 29 years after Joanna Russ and 82 years after Virginia Woolf we are still having the same bloody discussion.

By the way, I urge anyone interested gender issues, feminism and women’s writing to read both A Room of One’s Own and How To Suppress Women’s Writing, if you haven’t already. The Virginia Woolf essay is well known and regularly shows up on university reading lists (that’s where I first encountered it), but How To Suppress Women’s Writing is sadly not nearly as well known outside SFF circles, at least not in Germany. At any rate, none of the resident gender and feminism scholars at my university seemed to know it and a fellow academic once thanked me for recommending How To Suppress Women’s Writing with “Oh my God, what a great text! Why didn’t I hear of it sooner?” If I ever find myself in the position of teaching a literature and feminism class, both texts will go on the reading list.

More on the current debate about the gender imbalance among genre reviewers: Timmi Duchamp has a fantastic post at the Aqueduct Press blog about gender, taste, reviews and how the types of works most highly praised by the SFF establishment often made her feel alienated from the genre community.

This post really struck a chord with me, because my experience has been similar. I came to science fiction and fantasy as a teenager via my love for filmic and televised SF (Star Wars, Star Trek, Raumpatrouille Orion, the original Battlestar Galactica, Alien, V, whatever was available at the time), once I realized that there were books just like the films and TV shows I loved.

And yes, I was very aware at the time that being interested in such things was not appropriate for a girl, so I did my best to hide those inappropriate interests. My very first SF novels were bought with my own pocket money, squirreled away from unfriendly eyes and read in secret. My favourite hiding place for contraband SF novels was my stash of sewing fabrics, because I could be certain that both my parents and my friends would leave my fabric stash alone. While clearing out my room years later, I found no less than three SF books among the fabric stash, carefully wrapped in fabric and then stuffed in plastic bags. One had never been read, because I had been saving it for a special occasion. Of course, by the time I rediscovered the book, I no longer had any desire to read it, TV-novelizations from the 1980s not being very high on my reading agenda. I still have the book, though. It’s this one by the way.

After a while, my SF novels migrated from the fabric stash to my bookshelves (except those I forgot), once I discovered the foreign language trick. At the time, there wasn’t a whole lot of SF available in German, at least not the sort I wanted, so I bought the books in English. At around the same time, I also discovered (via comic books, my other inappropriate reading interest) that books that others would disapprove of when reading them in German were suddenly mightily impressive when read in a foreign language. Because reading in foreign languages, regardless of what I was reading, was by default educational.

At the time, I had zero contact to the larger SFF community. I did not know which books were considered good and which were considered trash. I picked my books by going to the one bookstore in town that carried English language books, browsing the spinner rack with the SFF novels, pulling out whatever looked interesting (usually going by the cover), reading the blurb and then finally buying what sounded the most interesting. The trial and error method brought me many books I loved (I discovered Isaac Asimov, Leigh Brackett, Arthur C. Clarke and Anne McCaffrey that way) and some I didn’t (Piers Anthony – ugh).

My SF exploration period coincided with the peak popularity of Cyberpunk, but I never read any nor was I even aware of the subgenre at the time. Either my local bookstore did not stock Cyberpunk or more likely, it did not pass the cover or backcover blurb test. I was mainly into space opera and planetary romance at the time, with some epic fantasy mixed in (it was on the same spinner rack after all). Cyberpunk wouldn’t have appealed.

Somehow, I must have picked up some genre knowledge along the way, because I was faintly aware that “Hugo” or “Nebula Award Winner” emblazoned on the cover was a good thing. I also must have picked up the term “New Wave” somewhere with the vaguest idea of what it was, because after bouncing hard off two novels originally published in the 1960s I decided that I did not like New Wave, though only one of the novels in question actually was New Wave (and I was definitely too young to appreciate it at the time). I read Starlog magazine, when I could find it, but Starlog was more focused on films than books.

I became more aware of the wider world of SF, when I picked up John Clute’s Encyclopedia of Science Fiction in the early 1990s. I used the encyclopedia much as I used the coffee table books on SF film I had acquired earlier, as a guide to seek out new works. I found Lois McMaster Bujold that way. A few years later, as an exchange student at the University of Westminster in London, I came across a very early issue of SFX at the W.H. Smith shop in Victoria station, became a regular reader and discovered several new-to-me British authors, including Terry Pratchett and Robert Rankin. I still had no real life contact to other SFF readers, though, beyond the occasional chat with the people behind the counter at Forbidden Planet.

Then I got on the internet and – lo and behold – there were plenty of people who also read science fiction and fantasy and comics. I jumped into the respective communities, only to realize that I had been reading all wrong, that my taste in reading material was awful. Still, it was great to have found people who liked the same things and so I started seeking out the books and authors my new friends recommended. And suddenly something strange started happening. I gradually stopped enjoying SF and fantasy. Oh, I did like some of the books recommended to me, but there were more and more that I didn’t like. At first, I assumed it was just a fluke that I had come across a book that just didn’t work for me. But as book after book didn’t work for me and I gradually lost my love for speculative fiction, I began to get worried.

The conclusion I should have come to is: Boy, my new friends and I have really different tastes in SF and fantasy. Maybe I should go elsewhere for recommendations.

However, the conclusion I came to was: I read all those books that are highly recommended and found on the various awards short list and yet I end up hating most of them. Clearly I am an awful reader with no taste and I never was a real SFF fan at all, I just liked some media properties and fancied myself an SFF fan. I am also obviously a dreadful writer, because I cannot produce the sort of SFF that is popular and highly acclaimed, since I can’t even read that stuff.

So I gradually drifted away from SF and fantasy. I read mysteries, I read thrillers, I read literary fiction, I read vintage pulp fiction, I started reading romance again (I stopped after a few bad experiences with bodiceripper style romances early on), because SFF no longer satisfied me. Nonetheless, I did my MA thesis on science fiction, with the result that once I had handed in the MA thesis I had completely overdosed not just on SF but on SF criticism.

Shortly after completing my MA degree, I left all of my old online hangouts behind because of a disagreement about a piece of SFF (not a book but a TV show) that I enjoyed and which I refused to stop enjoying or defending, because my online pals had decided it was trash*. I stared at my computer screen, where I had just been insulted (not for the first time either) by someone I considered a sort of friend, and thought, “Why am I doing this again? I don’t even read or like the same books as those people, I don’t watch the same films and TV shows, so why am I hanging out with them? And why do I let some third rate fantasy writer insult me? For the networking opportunities? I no more like his books than he would like mine.”

So I started following my instincts in selecting reading material again. I found myself drawn to hybrid genres, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, SF romance, supernatural crime fiction, romantic suspense, etc… I found new authors and books, enjoyed what I read and used the internet to find more books along the same vein. And I stumbled straight into a wide field of speculative fiction, mostly written by women, that did not even exist as far as the mainstream genre community was concerned.

When I sought out books on my own, both as a teenager and as an adult, I gravitated towards female authors (not exclusively though, I loved Isaac Asimov** and Arthur C. Clarke, after all), strong characters and relationships, some humour and stories that mixed a bit of domestic stuff and even romance in among all of those shiny big ideas. Meanwhile, my online friends had been mostly (though not exclusively) male. They favoured dark and gritty works about war and death and torture (I occasionally recommended books by female authors to them by praising the explicit torture scenes) and lengthy discussions full of tedious philosophizing. It’s pretty obvious that there was very little connection. The fact that many of them were also rude about expressing their dislike for things didn’t help either.*** There actually were quite a few women on that particular forum in the beginning, but most of them quietly vanished or publicly walked out long before I did. In the end, even the big blowup was about the importance of relationships, characterisation and domestic details, as applied to speculative TV shows. The one they favoured was about big important things, while the one I favoured was about little important things.

So what’s the moral of all this? The stuff that ends up on year’s best and recommendation lists and is nominated for awards as well as the stuff that gets great reviews and that other people recommend to you does not necessarily encompass the whole the SFF genre has to offer. And if you don’t like that stuff and instead like this stuff that is widely derided, more power to you. We can all be SFF fans, even if we don’t think that certain types of hard SF and New Weird and gritty epic fantasy are the be all and end all.

*In an ironic twist of fate that particular show turned out not to be worth defending.

**I know that Asimov is largely slammed for his workmanlike writing and weak characterisation these days, but his books blew my mind at 15 and unlike some others I loved at the time, I can still read Asimov. My teenaged self adored Susan Calvin who was strong and intelligent and had no use for poopy boyfriends and was so much cooler (as cool as liquid nitrogen) than the shallow girls in my class. As for the Asimov’s characters, many of them are still vivid in my mind twenty years later, though I suspect my own brain supplied many of the characterisation details.

***For the record, if you know me from those days, I’m not talking about you, okay? I know that some people I know from those days are sometimes reading this blog and no, I am not talking about you. There were only a handful of people on that forum who were arseholes and chances are you are not one of them.

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8 Responses to Speculative fiction, gender, taste and why “the domestic and mushy stuff” is important

  1. Estara says:

    When I read this I feel glad that until I got the internet on flatrate in about… 2001? I had never been part of a big sf community. In my small town there was no interest in general so I got used to people not caring for what I read fantasy in German. I mostly discovered science fiction in English, with the Star Trek novels (I was a big fan of Star Trek, too ^^ – not so much Battlestar Galactica – although I watched that, too. I think I liked Mondstation Alpha 1 a whole lot more – I never got into Doctor Who).

    When I finally met people with my interests – at university – they were tabletop rpgers and open to pretty much all kinds of genre: I got introduced to anime and manga there. And the internet helped me find more people sharing the same interest – I’ve put my daily reading list, feeds and real LJers mostly on LJ – a few other blogs in my topbar to be checked daily and probably avoid that hassle – except when I get linked. Of course I never discover any particular interesting new voice unless I get linked there either, hmm.

    • Cora says:

      I also got my internet flatrate around 2001, once it became available and the Telekom laid an ISDN line to my home. After that, it was just a matter of which places and people I fell in with and I landed in a place that was toxic and only got worse over time. Of course, it doesn’t help that the SFF community in general and some subfandoms in particular can be a pretty toxic place at times. What struck me most about the online romance community, once I stumbled upon it, was how civil and friendly the interactions usually were, even if people disagreed with each other.

      And I liked Mondbasis Alpha/Space 1999, too, though not as much as I loved the original Battlestar Galactica (I had a crush on Richard Hatch) and Raumpatrouille Orion and the original Star Trek. And the Captain Future cartoon and Time Tunnel, of course, which was my introduction to the concept of time travel. I only got into Doctor Who, after I got on the internet and one of my online pals was stunned to hear that I had never watched the show and hooked me up with some videos of 1970s episodes. I initially liked the new series a whole lot, too, but gave up on it, once I realized that I no longer liked or even respected the Doctor character. Though I sometimes show the beginning of the new Doctor Who series to my students, because it’s the sort of show that clicks with kids.

      We actually had an RPG club at my school (the only Arbeitsgemeinschaft that was organized by students) and several of my friends were members at some point (one of my friends met her future husband in that club), but I never played myself. I also had a friend with a Trekkie brother. We also had a few other people with SFF-related interests, but since I had manufactured a persona of “only likes classical music, opera and highbrow things” for myself, I didn’t actually talk about my interests with them. Never mind that some of them were so cripplingly shy that it was impossible to have a conversation with them anyway, even once I brought myself to try. Though our resident comic and film fan introduced me to Watchmen – after he wandered off, while we were working on some school project, and left me sitting alone in his room for an hour or so and I started reading his comics, because I was bored.

  2. Estara says:

    I must have been in luck with the crowd I fell in when I first got online. I had read an add about a japanese mmorpg that was free to play for a week (actually it was Korean, but I couldn’t see the difference then) and I had always wanted to try something like that – unlike the big names that tiny mmorpg only offered a download so I didn’t even have to buy expensive cds just to try out – so I got into http://www.darkages.com – I still have the fansite from my later years http://www.aisling-spark.de – I showed up regularly from 2000 to 2003 and irregularly to 20006 (when I stopped my supporting automatic account renewal, too).

    And those players led me to LJ and to various other LJers and while most of the Aislings from that game no longer have an LJ blog, I stayed because I liked the dialogue and the book reviewing, etc. even more. So now “Estara’s Friends” is what I usually read each day – except on days like today when they have another down day for whatever reason.

    I really would feel better about the huge amount of great posts and comments that sartorias has, if she’d mirror it to dreamwidth. From what I gather since they are a branch of the LJ software that import should not be too difficult. Of course not everyone I read on LJ would all together migrate to DW – so I’d definitely lose a lot of my daily reading, but I so hope people have at least some back-up somewhere else.

    I managed to destroy an already fairly large version of Aisling Spark about one and a half year after I started it by not having an old version backed up and doing a sitewide search and replace in Dreamweaver – and some of the texts I had saved only existed there and could never be recovered – I regret that to this day, there were some particular nostalgic and fun bits amongst those – and the original writers had only written them for the in-game boards and didn’t have their own copies *sigh*. At the time people were quite flattered when I asked them if I could put a particular fun board post up on AS ^^, quite a few creative writers used the possibilities (and the fact that you could get special titles, abilities and clothes if you won creative competitions) to level up that way and less hunting. From what I gather that has changed anyway, although some players from the start still show up from what I gather of fan forums…

    hmm, I got seriously off-topc, didn’t I…

    • Cora says:

      I was still very much into US/UK comics when I first got regular online access, so I naturally ended up at the comic fan forums. The demographic there skewed heavily male and quite a few of them rude and posturing. I even was a moderator at some places for a while and while I never tolerated that sort of thing, many other moderators did.

      My interest in comics waned soon thereafter, when the series I had followed either ended, simply stopped coming out for months at a time or started getting repetitive, but by then I had met a couple of people who shared my interest in SF and fantasy books and we created our own messageboard at Delphi, which went through a couple of incarnations and names. Several fans posted there, a couple of writers, some editors and several more aspiring writers and it was pretty good for a while. Some of the people there were the manifesto issuing revolutionary type – “We are going to change the face of genre, etc…” – which typically never came to anything except failed webzines that lasted between 2 and 10 issues. Eventually, the chemistry shifted, several people left, while new ones came in and the place became more and more of a fanclub for one particular writer with a pretty big ego. I didn’t particularly care for said writer’s work, though I never told him. But the guy’s ego eventually became unbearable and one day I had enough and left, after telling the assembly that their childish behaviour was the reason why people didn’t respect speculative fiction. The place must have collapsed soon thereafter, at any rate it hasn’t been around for a while. The various individual blogs and LJs of the people in question are largely deserted, too, though at least one guy still posts regularly. I should probably go and say hello sometime, especially since he never pissed me off. I still have one friend back from the old comic board days, while at least one of the posters from that forum sometimes comments here and at least one more is lurking.

      When I got my first blog, the original version of this website, I used Blogger, because that was the service that was most common there. Plus, I never really liked LJ’s look and interface, though the comment and discussion function worked (and continues to work) better than blogger. While I was writing my MA thesis, I naturally deserted my blog and once I was ready to come back, Blogger would no longer let me in. Besides, I was just going through a sort of fandom crisis and didn’t want to continue blogging anyway. I managed to salvage the poems and collage comics and PDFs of published stories and articles and other stuff from the old website (though I still have to put some of them back online), though the posts from the old blog are all lost. Much of it is probably no big loss, but I miss the reviews of books and films and TV episodes I did.

  3. Estara says:

    “Of course not everyone I read on LJ would all together migrate to DW IF LJ broke down or got shut down completely“…. I wanted to add

    • Cora says:

      I’ve read in several places that LJ is under attack from the Russian government, because it’s the most popular platform in Russia and a lot of political discussion and opposition happens there. That’s why everybody is experiencing outages, including Western posters.

      Still, losing LJ would suck for the Russian posters. Unless they all migrated to DW, too.

  4. business says:

    There were also books I wasnt impressed with and others that pleasantly surprised or entertained me. Its not that impressive a number but its significantly more than Ive read in a year before. Depending on how the job situation works out I may be close to that this year.

  5. Pingback: The Latest on the current Genre Debates | Cora Buhlert

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