Bride of the Girl Cooties

Oh my God, the girl cooties are not just polluting SFF with their sheer femaleness, now they’re lesbian as well! It’s the end of the universe as we know it, I’m telling you.

Anyway, the overlapping discussions about science fiction romance, girl cooties, the SFWA gender fail and the treatment of women in the SFF community in general are still going on, so here are the latest developments and links of interest. Though I do hope we’ll talk of something else before I get to “Abbott and Costello meet the Girl Cooties”.

Warning: Some of the links below may be triggering.

First of all, Jean Rabe, editor of the SFWA Bulletin has resigned over the whole uproar. Probably the best she could do under the circumstances, but this still smells like sacrificing a pawn to me. Wouldn’t it be more helpful to cancel the Resnick/Malzberg column, which is apparently a regular feature and which caused the biggest uproar (though Red Sonja and an article about Barbie were also involved). Meanwhile, Jayme Lynn Blashke explains why getting rid of the Mike Resnick/Barry Malzberg column is so difficult, even though it is old-fashioned.

Chuck Wendig took up the current as well as previous debates and wrote another of his 25 things posts, this one about sexism in publishing. Chuck Wendig’s post has been widely linked, which is a good thing, except that the posts made by men in support (not just Chuck Wendig, but also Jim Hines and others) are often more widely linked and applauded than those made by women who are actually on the receiving end of sexism. To be fair, Chuck Wendig is aware of this and addresses it and other responses in his follow-up post.

Meanwhile. N.K. Jemisin points out that the recent intersecting discussions about sexism in the SFWA Bulletin as well as the the lesser noticed “Women are ruining SF with their romance tropes” uproar are only the latest in a long line of sexism, racism and ethnocentrism discussions in the wider SFF community. She also points out that women and people of colour have always been part of speculative fiction and that it’s time to acknowledge the fact. Meanwhile, Justine Larbalestier offers some example of “Is there a place for women in SF?” disucssions from fanzine letter columns of the 1930s, discussions which sound eerily similar to today’s debate.

Now the SFF genre has the tendency of having the same discussions over and over again for decades. “SF is dying” is a popular one as is “Awards are broken” and “SF is embarrassing and needs to be more literary. Bring in the next new improved wave”. Finally, there is also that ever popular classic “SFF versus literary fiction”. But yes, it is frustrating that women (and people of colour and GLBT people) still have to deal with the same “You’re ruining the genre” arguments that they had to deal with in the 1930s.

As for what women are dealing with today, steampunk writer Delilah S. Dawson has a great post detailing her experiences with sexism in the SFF community and on the convention circuit (Trigger warning – She talks about being raped as a teen and then dismissed, because the perp was “such a good boy”), including the (male) GoH at a Steampunk con telling her that she was less than “shit on his shoe” and ruining the genre, since she writes Steampunk with a side order of romance. Yes, an established male writer told a female con volunteer that she was less then “shit on his shoe”, because he didn’t like what she writes. In 2012. In the comments, urban fantasy writer Rachel Caine recounts a similar con experience, an established male writer publicly belittling her on a panel.

Aberwyn a.k.a. Katherine Kerr has a great post about how the writing of men and women is held to a different standards and how women writers are often declared to be “bad writers”, just because they happen to have written something that men don’t care for. Her example involves feminist SFF by Sherri Tepper and Marion Zimmer Bradley, but you could just as well apply it to romantic SFF, urban fantasy, paranormal romance and any other subgenre written mainly by women for other women. Indeed, when Sherri Tepper was nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award last year, her book was singled out as undeserving by overwhelmingly male critics, because it featured talking horses.

Rachel Swirsky takes on how silly the whole “lady writer” and “lady editor” thing is by offering a few reverse gendered examples, while Seanan McGuire explains why “lady author” or “lady editor” is so problematic, because it turns women into some sort of “other”. Here is a quote:

It’s just that women get forced to understand men if we want to enjoy media and tell stories, while men are allowed to treat women as these weird extraterrestrial creatures who can never be comprehended, but must be fought. It’s like we’re somehow the opposing army in an alien invasion story, here to be battled, defeated, and tamed, but never acknowledged as fully human.

Does that seem like a lot to get out of the phrase “lady author”? It kinda is. But that’s what happens when the background radiation of your entire life is a combination of “men are normal, human, wonderful, admirable, talented, worth aspiring to,” and “bitches be crazy.”

Laura Resnick, writer and daughter of Mike Resnick whose column with Barry Malzberg was the main spark of the current discussion, also speaks out about the sexism she has experienced in the SFF community. Indeed, what thrilled me about the Dear Author post I linked to in a previous post on the whole debate was that Mike Resnick was introduced with the qualifier “Laura Resnick’s father” in that post, which I guess doesn’t happen all that often.

Meanwhile, MD Jackson tackles the issue of the Red Sonja cover considered problematic by many from the POV of an artist and points out that in many cases, publishers demand artwork depicting women in sexualized and rather unrealistic poses. Now I freely admit that while I find the Red Sonja cover a tad silly (breasts don’t work that way, unless pumped full of silicone), I personally don’t find it offensive nor do I find sexualized fantasy covers offensive in general. But then, I am from Europe where sexualized imagery in general is considered mostly a non-issue.

Meanwhile, Sarah Hoyt (and I should probably add a trigger warning here, if only because Ms. Hoyt’s rantings tend to drive me up the wall) does not see where the problem lies at all. After all, Mike Resnick and Barry Malzberg were just reminiscing about the time they were young and those ladies probably did look hot in a bikini and anyway, men are totally different from women, because women have babies and families and other priorities than men (never mind that plenty of women such as myself neither want nor have children and still get hit by this crap). And anyway, the whole uproar about sexist articles in the SFWA Bulletin is just herd behaviour incited by those evil leftist feminists who are thinking in bumper sticker slogans, while Ms. Hoyt and her posse of enlightened rightwing thinkers are of course totally rational and independent thinkers. Yes, she just called the people who are appalled at the continued presence of sexist articles and imagery in the SFWA Bulletin “cows”. Because inherent contradictions like “liberal fascist” obviously weren’t enough.

On to the discussion about science fiction romance, which IMO is actually more telling about the issues facing many female writers than what some elderly men wrote in the SFWA Bulletin: At Contact – Infinite Futures, Ella Drake responds to Stuart Sharp’s complaint about women invading SF with their girl cooties and romance tropes and explains how stereotypes such as women don’t like SF, women don’t write SF, etc… hurt female writers.

I liked this quote, because it explains why so many writers of romantic science fiction jumped on Stuart Sharp and his post. Because most women writing SFF, whether with or without romantic elements, have heard it all before:

As for Mr. Sharp’s first article, giving him the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t intend to denigrate all SFR authors in one fell swoop, the issue comes to this: if you take his name off of it, so many SFR authors have heard it before. Someone else’s name could easily be put there. We’ve heard too many times that the Romance part of SFR means it’s inferior in some way. Or it’s not Science Fiction. This is why it struck such a nerve with many of the SFR authors who commented.

It’s a stereotype seen again and again. and placed side by side with the denigrating view many have of Romance, as by women for women, it takes on a flavor of sexism at times. (Yes. I absolutely know some wonderful SFR is written by men. One is a fellow blogger here! *Waves to Robert* Yet another stereotype that overlooks the individual).

Meanwhile, Natalie at Radish Reviews has a theory just why many (male) science fiction fans and writers are so hostile towards SF romance, namely it’s because science fiction often eschews the physical, while romance is all about physical bodies in all their messy glory. Here is a great quote:

There is a physicality and a realness to even the most cardboard characters in romance that is often missing from many science fiction novels that address “big ideas”. The physical and emotional connection is an integral part of romance–you cannot have a romance without either of these (even in romances without explicit sex scenes, physical desire is present).

And I think this is why the prospect of SF romance is often so divisive. I think some people see SF as a purely cerebral literature–liberated minds, free of that pesky physicality–being invaded by bodies and feelings. And instead of investigating their discomfort they choose to take the easy (and often misogynistic) way out: calling writers of SF romance fake geeks who don’t know how to write SF correctly and who are unaware of decades-long arguments within SF fandom. Which, naturally delegitimizes their place in the genre.

Indeed, this very much describes the problem I had with Singularity Sky (and while I feel a bit bad for dumping on Charles Stross, that particular novel of his is an excellent illustration for the problem with much of cutting edge SF). For while the novel was chock full of “big ideas”, some of which were genuinely new and interesting, the characters were just so cardboard thin that their interactions simply did not ring true to me at all. There were two characters who fell in love during the course of the novel and I literally had no idea why. True, they were the only two characters with a mindset comparable to modern quasi-leftwing Anglo-American attitudes in a Galactic Empire with a sort of retro Czarist Russia/Second German Empire mindset (an idea which I found offensive in itself, because making one or two ethnicities the representatives of all that is backwards and bad in the universe is always offensive, even if you don’t happen to belong to one of the ethnicities in question), but that’s hardly a reason to fall in love. Lust maybe, but love? No way. And indeed, I remember a young man who used to hang out on the same long defunct internet forum, back when I first read Singularity Sky. He really used to enjoy Charles Stross, he once told me, until he got married and realised how utterly unrealistic and wooden the interpersonal relationships described by Stross were.

Nonetheless, there are people in the wider SFF community who view sexuality and by extension love (if they actually believe in love and don’t view it as some neuroscientific glitch to be resolved by science) exactly as Natalie describes. Take this column by Mac Tonnies about posthuman sex, which was published on Futurismic, an SF site with a scientific bent that was active at least until March 2013, back in 2008. Here is a quote:

A visiting extraterrestrial, spared our own familiar biases, might find sex conspicuously lacking from a design perspective. It’s inconvenient and astonishingly unsubtle. More pressingly, sex is predicated on reproduction, an activity that might hold little appeal for a species that’s achieved functional immortality. Sufficiently inclined posthumans might choose to retain sex for recreational value while severing its dependence on a bodily substrate. We might expect novel forms of thought-transference or stimulation of the brain’s pleasure center via aesthetic experience or perceived spiritual enlightenment.
[…]
Of course, I could be entirely mistaken. Maybe a future incarnation of humanity will jettison sexuality as soon as it gets the chance, nostalgia be damned. A posthuman intelligence might look upon sensuality about as fondly as we regard intestinal parasites. We might find such beings cold and aloof or we might be astonished by their worldliness and compassion. As inherently lusty creatures, it’s difficult to imagine a world uncolored by sexual desire and its attendant fetishes. Perhaps we’re fated to ignorance about aliens – both posthuman and extraterrestrial – until we’re able to achieve a level of sensual detachment at odds with our current biological predicament.

Again I feel a tad bad for posting this link, especially since Mac Tonnies had passed away since. Still, he wrote it and publicly published it in a webzine, so it’s fair game. And if you’re like me, you may think, “Oh dear, someone has issues.” Because not even in the most prudish ‘Ugh – sex is icky’ time of my teenaged years did I view sex as something about as desirable as an intestinal parasites (and this is not the only comparison between sex and intestinal parasites either. There are others, even at the same site. Futurismic was a good place for headdesk sentiments for a while). Nonetheless, this is an accurate illustration of how parts of the SFF community feel about human sexuality.

On a related note, romance scholar Laura Vivanco quotes some recent studies (as well as one of my recent posts) about how regular romance reading can improve interpersonal sensitivity compared to those who read other genres or only non-fiction.

Finally, I give you this: At a website called Geek Smash, someone called Colin O’Boyle wrote a list of 10 SFF books to read this summer. The list is rather unimaginative – surely everybody apart from total genre newbies has already heard of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War, Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind or Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn. Plus, it doesn’t contain a single woman (or writer of colour, for that matter) except one Judith Merrill short story in an anthology of classic SF. When this was pointed out to him, the author wrote a follow-up post wondering why there aren’t more women writing SFF, especially since the author knows plenty of (presumably unpublished) women writing SF and fantasy. Uhm, women are writing SF, fantasy and horror. Women are publishing SF, fantasy and horror. Just because you (general you, not aimed at Colin O’Boyle in particular) haven’t heard of most of them, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Indeed, what I found most striking about the current debate is how many women – writers, readers and scholars – popped up in the comments of many posts to say how grateful they were because this debate has helped them to find many awesome women writers to check out. Of course, those women and their books have been there all along, it’s just that few people found them, because books by women are reviewed less frequently, they are often segregated from male authored books in the bookstores and the authors ignored at conventions. And even if you were to venture into the paranrmal romance or SF romance or YA section of the bookstore, the most popular and well known books are often cliched and not the most interesting books out there. Urban fantasy is more than Laurell K. Hamilton, paranormal romance is more than J.R. Ward or Christine Feehan, SF romance is more than Jayne Castle, YA fantasy is more than Twilight. If I didn’t have an academic interest in the subject of crossgenre fiction, I probably would never have ventured beyond the easily available either. But as it was, I followed a lot of trails down internet rabbit holes and specifically noted down the titles and authors of books that sounded interesting and different, books with settings that went beyond the usual tropes of western fantasy and horror and whose protagonists were something other than white, straight Anglo-Americans.

So what’s the solution? Talk more about great books apart from the genre mainstream, books by and about women, books by and about people of colour, books written from a non-US/UK POV, books by and about GLBT people. If you find such a book, review it, mention it, talk it up. I don’t even exclude myself there. During the course of my research I have come across a lot of fascinating and little known books apart from the same old, same old. But I rarely talk about them online, except making the occasional recommendation, because my thesis is exhausting all of my critical brain functions, so that I mainly use this blog to talk about books, films, etc… that don’t fit into the thesis.

Luckily, others are making recommendations for books off the beaten path. For example, if you’re looking for SFF with a dash of romance beyond the boundaries of heterosexuality, Liz Bourke has some recommendations for lesbian SFF romances over at Tor.com.

ETA: In the comments, Estara points out further links listing SFF written by women and/or featuring characters of colour and non-European settings and/or LGBT characters, so here they are:

Rachel Brown lists YA SFF with LGBTQ characters and YA SFF with protagonists of colour.

Martha Wells has a big list of fantasy novels by women that are based on something other than European mythology. I may have posted this link before, since it looks familiar, but it’s great list and deserves to be repeated.

The Fantasy Book Café has a list of resources for finding more SFF written by women.

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20 Responses to Bride of the Girl Cooties

  1. Estara says:

    Rachel Brown and Martha Wells&Heater Massey also have big lists about lgbt fantasy or women written fantasy or poc fantasy. Rachel focusses on YA.
    http://rachelmanija.livejournal.com/1022610.html
    http://rachelmanija.livejournal.com/1057410.html
    http://www.fantasybookcafe.com/2012/05/women-in-sff-month-resources/
    http://booktionary.blogspot.de/2012/04/recommendations-non-european-fantasy-by.html

    Then there’s
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Women_science_fiction_and_fantasy_writers

    Other than that, thanks for linking and commenting recent developments – the newest one I ran across was Vox Day attacking Nora Jemisin on Twitter because of her GoH speech, unfortunately automatically mirrored to the SFWA feed. I hope they can throw him out of the organisation now.

    • Cora says:

      Thanks for the links. Just added them to the main post.

      I hadn’t seen Vox Day attacking Nora Jemisin about her GoH speech yet (but then I try to see as little of him as possible). I do hope SFWA does something about him – they probably have some kind of statute against inflammatory or hate speech. At least they should stop retweeting tweets by SFWA members without checking them first.

      • Estara says:

        I only saw it via LJ’s chomiji linking to a Jim Hines link collection about it (someone took screenshots of the post he linked from that tweet) – oh and the fact that Scalzi was matching funds on the day for people donating to the Carl Brandon Society or the Octavia Butler fund – which by the way other people are continuing to match although it was planned to be only matched on the 13th.

        • Cora says:

          I also saw links to the whole thing by now at Radish Reviews and made a post, because that sort of nuclear grade arseholish behaviour deserves to be called out, and because the donation drive for the Carl Brandon Society and its programs deserves support.

          Ugh, VD is really completely beyond the pale.

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  3. Daniela says:

    So what’s the solution? Talk more about great books apart from the genre mainstream, books by and about women, books by and about people of colour, books written from a non-US/UK POV, books by and about GLBT people.

    I plan to do that. I’m not the best when it comes to writing reviews (they tend to turn into a mix of literary analysis and critique) but I was thinking about doing something similar to KKR and just talk about books I read and enjoyed.
    I occassionally search for books that are written by non-UK/US-POV or who explore ideas that focus on other cultural or social aspects. I have a long list of boooks to read or to re-read. Same with GLBT-books.

    Hm, I could actually start with Tanya Huff’s Gale-women books. Fun Urban Fantasy without any vampire or werewolves around. Instead they have dragons! And lots of women caring for and loving each other including physical closeness.

    • Cora says:

      My reviews tend to turn out too much like literary analysis as well – probably a legacy of my time at university. But I think it’s good just mentioning books we read and enjoyed, particularly if those books are by lesser known authors and/or feature women, characters of colour and GLBT characters in prominent roles.

      I have read and enjoyed Tanya Huff’s Henry Fitzroy/Vicky Nelson and her Keeper novels, but somehow never got around to the Gale women books. I should probably remedy that.

      • Estara says:

        I really liked the first one, but had some issues with the second one. The music scene of Cape Breton was a highlight in the second one, though.

        • Daniela says:

          Yeah, me too. The second one felt rushed and had a kind of deus ex machina solution. But I really wanted to have a soundtrack to listen to that went with the descriptions of the music.

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  8. So, women don’t belong in the SciFi genre? They’re “ruining” it? Tell that to D.C. Fontana (Star Trek — Original Series) and Ursula K. Le Guin.

    Honestly, I’m betting Mr. Sharp (how’s that for an oxymoron?) merely dreams that he were just a fraction as successful in the genre as either of the two above-cited examples.

    • Cora says:

      Yes, it telling how women have always been writing SF all the way back to Mary Shelley and still are viewed as interlopers. And you may be on to something about Mr Sharp wishing he were as successful as some of the great women writers in the field. Of course we don’t know how well his ghostwritten work sells, but under his own name he is rather obscure.

  9. Wm N. Lane says:

    Momentarily setting aside the rather inaccurate suggestion that romance is only just now working its way into SFnal contexts, when anyone who grew up reading Anne McCaffrey or Lois McMaster Bujold could tell you it had been there for decades – and rather successfully, I might add, given the number of major awards collected between just those two women – there’s a serious issue with Sharp’s approach. While there’s certainly some utility in distinguishing the differing roles that romance can play in various stories, it’s grossly inaccurate to say that, if the romance has primary status, then nothing else really matters to the narrative — and especially not when you’ve already made the distinction between “real” sci-fi and the romantic kind. This sort of sloppy generalisation helps nobody. Then there’s a question of understanding the field. Sci fi is reasonable well defined by this point. Most people who write in the genre know what it is about. They have their favourite authors, but they’ve probably all read at least some of the same stuff… it’s a big soup of shared cultural references that we all get, right?

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