The Grand Conversation
is a chapbook, published by Aqueduct Press
, that collects four essays by L. Timmel Duchamp
on aspects of feminism, sf, and feminist sf. It was recommended
. The book is the first of a series to be published by Aqueduct, called conversation pieces
, and I recommend it; subsequent issues are primarily fiction-based, showcasing writers such as Nicola Griffith and Eleanor Arnason, so are likely to be differently but equally worth your time.
The essay I found the most interesting was the first, which articulates Duchamp's view that feminist sf is an ongoing conversation. By the miracle of the internet, you can read it too
. It takes as its starting point a 2001 Wiscon panel titled, "When it changed: feminists debate the history of feminist sf," which became a discussion about how feminist sf offered, and still offers, a sense of community to women who might otherwise have felt they had no place in the ongoing discussions of sf. In the essay, Duchamp goes on to consider how a history of feminist sf might relate to a 'malestream history' of sf.
(Though useful, I think 'malestream' is an extraordinarily ugly word, so much so that I'd object to its use on aesthetic grounds, except for the fact that later in the essay Duchamp uses the equally hideous 'gynohistory'. Now, that's equality for you.)
The principal approach to all women's sf texts--and not merely feminist ones--has been to discuss them in isolation from malestream sf. I find it telling that both malestream sf critics and feminist critics have been steadily creating--albeit for probably different reasons--what might be called a gynohistory for sf. [...] The effects of this approach have been, in the instance of the male critics, to restrict women to the status of token, honorary members of the clubhouse, and, in the instance of the feminist critics, to imply that the end products--the texts--have nothing to do with the clubhouse or their authors'--and often readers'--relations to the clubhouse.
I find this gynohistory approach to women's sf deeply unsatisfactory. As an sf writer, although I may feel marginalized by the malestream, I am always, finally, aware of writing within the context of the genre, without which my work would make limited sense and, indeed, would probably not be read or even published. Although academic critics may presume that feminist sf enjoys no significant relationship to the (malestream) genre as a whole, the fact remains that feminist sf has been and continues to be genre-contingent and dependent. To my mind, a more interesting construction of the history of women in sf is found in Justine [Larbalestier]'s work, which I would describe as an integrated approach that looks for women's presence in the clubhouse and the impact that presence has had in the clubhouse's history.
I very nearly cheered out loud when I read this because while grouping texts can be a useful exercise, yes, isolation can be both dangerous and misleading, and context is absolutely vital. (It's for these reasons that I've been reading so much more non-sf this year.)
Subsequent essays argue that--despite the above--feminist sf as a category is still useful to think with. I agree (I can hardly not, unless I start arguing that sf itself isn't similarly useful), and I agree with her conclusion that the label will only become unnecessary when the assumptions and tropes of feminist sf are sufficiently integrated into the default forms of sf that they are no longer remarkable in and of themselves. I have some reservations, though, about how she develops her argument (and I'm more optimistic than she is about how far along the path we are now, given that this year (and deservedly in all cases) Gwyneth Jones has won the Philip K Dick Award, Steph Swainston has won the Crawford Award and Susanna Clarke looks a fairly safe bet to take home the Best Novel Hugo).
Essay two ('The Cliche from Outerspace') is a response to a review of Candas Jane Dorsey's novel Black Wine
by Gary Wolfe, who wrote:
I'm not trying to be controversial or anything, but isn't the term 'feminist science fiction' about ready to be retired to the agenda farm? The classic latter-day feminist texts--those of Russ, Le Guin, Charnas, Tiptree, Elgin--mostly emerged over a two-decade period beginning in the late 1960s, revitalizing the field, broadening its perspectives and themes, and heightening its awareness of issues such as language and gender. There was a lot of good feminist sf published, and many writers are still writing it, and if they want to call it that, fine. But the term itself may be in danger of becoming more restrictive than liberating, more likely to limit readership than to increase it, just as the label 'hard sf' blinds some readers to the literary sophistication of Benford or Haldeman. And it's a term which has been fairly consistently misapplied, by academics and others, to virtually any work by any author associated with the feminist sf movement. Le Guin has written all over the map, but many part-time sf readers can't see beyond her overtly feminist works, and can't see much in them beyond the feminism. The same is true of Joanna Russ; those who read, say, Picnic on Paradise solely in terms of its self-sufficient woman protagonist might easily overlook the considerable invention that went into those sf adventures simply as adventures. In other words, 'feminist sf' can become a kind of sub-ghetto all on its own.
Occasionally I've been known to say something similar myself; I have said, for instance, that I think the Tiptree Award criteria of 'science fiction that expands or explores our understanding of gender' is useful because it is free of the baggage associated with the term 'feminist sf'. By 'baggage', I don't mean the works themselves; I mean the perceptions
of the works. Two years ago, if you'd asked me, I would have said that feminist sf was not something that interested me. This was based on a misunderstanding of what 'feminist sf' actually was, of what the texts were actually like, but I think it's a misunderstanding that is close to being inherent in the label. It's the old problem of associating politics with art, perhaps--call a book 'feminist sf' and people will come to it expecting an agenda. In reality, of course, a story can be progressive without being polemical, but I worry that 'feminist sf' has acquired too many connotations of the latter and retains not enough of the former.
But is the correct solution to actually abandon the label? I'm no longer sure, but it's not because I'm convinced by Duchamp's arguments. In fact, I think she fairly seriously misreads Wolfe, wondering
What exactly is a 'part-time sf reader'? (What, for that matter, is a 'full-time sf reader'?) I had never encountered the expression before reading Wolfe's use of it. I presume by 'part-time' he does not intend to denote someone who engages in reading sf fewer than eight hours a day, five days a week (which, in the US, is the definition of full-time employment). Can he mean someone who reads not only sf, but other sorts of texts? Speaking for myself, I've never met anyone who reads sf exclusively, even if it is the only kind of fiction they read. Judging by the context, I do not think he means to finger readers like Atwood, who read Le Guin because 'she never loses touch with her reverence for the immense what is. All her stories are, as she has said, metaphors for the one human story' for not being able to 'see much in them beyond the feminism.' Working backwards from context--as readers faced with an unfamiliar expression they can't find in the dictionary must do, as is often the case when reading science fiction--we must assume that the 'many part-time sf readers' who he implies are unappreciative of all but the most overtly feminist aspects of Le Guin's (or Russ's) fiction must be ... who else but feminist readers of sf?
This conclusion had me scratching my head. I'd never previously encountered the phrase either, but the meaning I
took from the context was 'readers who are not familiar enough with sf to be aware of the ongoing conversations about either feminist sf or sf in general'. Duchamp goes on to argue that Wolfe is arguing for feminist sf to be stripped of its activism, but I don't think he was doing that either; it seems to me he was arguing that feminist sf needs to lose the perception that activism is all that it is. To him, the best way of doing that is to lose the label. As I said, I'm still sympathetic to that, although I also resent being forced to abandon once-useful phrases, and on some level wonder if reclamation is possible.
The third essay in the book, 'What Can Never Be', is frustrating. It is a response to Gary Wolfe's response to Duchamp's response to his essay--and you can see the problem already. I have no idea what Wolfe's second piece consisted of, because this time almost none of it is referenced. It's hard to come to a conclusion about a discussion when you're only shown one side of it. Notwithstanding that, the thrust of this essay seems to be that because no text can be universally understood (African tribes have difficulty with Hamlet
) it is only to be expected that feminist sf texts will be misunderstood by the genre at large, and that as a result a feminist sf community, labelled as such, remains necessary.
On the one hand, well, maybe; on the other hand, I have to admit to feeling that the comprehension gap between your average feminist sf writer and your average non-feminist sf reader can't
be all that large, and that if a text can't be understood, to at least some degree, on its own then it has, to at least some degree, failed. Duchamp cites the fuorore around Karen Joy Fowler's Nebula-winning story 'What I Didn't See
' as support for her case; I cite it as support for mine. It's a fine story--if
you know the context. And the problem with saying that that's a reasonable thing is that some of the context is quite esoteric. 'What I Didn't See' requires you not only to have read Tiptree's classic 'The Women Men Don't See
', but also to know something about the life and work of Tiptree's mother. That's not, to me, something that can be reasonably assumed (I have no idea what Arthur C Clarke's Dad did, either). That's not to say that Fowler should have written the story differently, or that it shouldn't have been published on SCIFICTION, or even that it shouldn't have won the Nebula; but I think to cite it as something that should be automatically comprehensible to your averagely-knowledgeable sf reader is a slight stretch.
'Old Pictures', the final essay, looks at how cultural assumptions change over time, and how the interpretation of texts can change over time as a result (Duchamp suggests that a reader coming to Russ' The Two of Them
for the first time now could potentially read it as 'something close to a racist tract of US propaganda rather than an attack on the feminine mystique'). It's almost as good as the opening essay, and offers a fascinating glimpse into Duchamp's personal history. That said, much of the discussion centres around a story I haven't yet read, Chan Davis' 'It Walks in Beauty
', so I didn't engage with it as much as the earlier pieces. I may come back to it at a later date.
Looking back over this post, I can't help feeling that I haven't really done justice to either Duchamp's ideas or my responses to them (particularly on the subject of a community around feminist sf); for some reason, I find anything I say on this subject unsatisfactory. But again, I recommend the book as fascinating reading--and for myself, I've been accumulating a pile of other feminist criticism and feminist sf that I really should have read before now, and will, with any luck, be working my way through it (in between other things) over the next few months. You never know; maybe I can add a footnote or two of my own to the conversation in the process.
UPDATE: I've now had a chance to read the letters in Extrapolation 44(2) (Summer 2003), responding to Duchamp's criticism of Wolfe, as mentioned by fjm
in the comments to this post. There's lots of thoughtful material, though I think I'm staying on the side of Wolfe having been quoted out of context; he does seem to have been talking about 'feminist sf' as a marketing label rather than as an intellectual or political position. Farah Mendlesohn's letter makes a number of interesting points about labelling and grouping works, among them:
The authors Wolfe cites wrote impassioned critiques, offered new views on the world and ways of resolving them. They were writers of feminist science fiction, an ideological category with a project to offer, in much the same way as hard sf. Their successors, in much the same way as the successors of traditional hard sf, take the project for granted. They may not regard the war against injustice as won, but generally they assume that they do not have to argue for the validity of the debate.