writing, and being read

Over on the Now What collective blog, there’s an interesting jumping-off piece about women’s authorial voices, and their struggles in the past, and perhaps in the present, to express their characters full throttle.

Timmi Duchamp, who writes the entry, ponders the subject after reading Julie Phillips‘ biography of science fiction writer James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice B. Sheldon). She offers a fascinating quote from the book in which Sheldon ruminates upon women’s writing in her day:

I find, in all the writings of women, a strange muffled quality, as if the living word, as it left the lips, had been hastily suppressed and another substituted, one which would conform to some pattern imposed from without?.

Phillips’ biography has been on my “must buy” list for some time, but I will have to search it out in more earnest. At one time I researched for a Ph.D. on women’s science fiction, and I was particularly interested in the time frame from the 1960s-1980s when there was a discernible shift in how women wrote in the genre. They were writing a new vision of women, one that has taken root and flourished I believe.

It made me ponder the potential difficulties with creative expression that women might continue to face. I suspect, among the women I know, that this would be perceived as a non-issue, but I bet if you widened your net to drift through the various religions and classes you would discover a variety of experiences.

When you boil it down, writing is an extension of the self. Self-expression–for men and women–is still not encouraged in many cultures. I suspect that if you are coming from a background where your input and contribution is deemed worthless you have a tremendous battle to maintain the iron-will grasp on your potential that most writers require to sustain a career.

Yet, as has been noted in academic circles, people in the fringes, often tagged as “other”, can produce amazingly creative work because of their liminal state. The fight to be heard can smother some people, but with others it offers them a crucial spur to seize the microphone. This is not to legitimise the marginalisation of people, of course, but to point out that residents of the threshold often have an insight to the mainstream that is fresh and innovative

As to my experiences, I’ve never felt hindered in my writing because I am a woman. I don’t have a problem writing male or female characters, and I like to work with different races and religions in my fiction, partly because that’s how I try to figure out the world. I’m constantly asking “what if” questions, and by doing so in my fiction I imagine some answers.

I read a lot of fiction by women, both in the genre and outside of it, and it appears as if the struggles of the past in the Western World have been overcome, or at least writers possess stronger artillery with which to destroy the obstacles.

However, despite the plethora of women writing in the genre today there is only one woman nominated across four fiction categories in this year’s Hugo shortlist – that’s one out of twenty. It is a completely unrepresentative figure.

The nomination process is strictly democratic, in that it is down to those involved in the genre, and signed up for the Worldcon convention, to select who they feel produced the best work during the year. I’m sure all the men who are nominated are excellent and worthy candidates, but it does indicate that in the wider public there remains a lurking bias in favour of writing by men.

Expression was the first hurdle, but it appears as if distribution and acceptance is the current one.

Returning to the influential Ms. Sheldon, I see that the winners of this year’s Tiptree Awards have been announced. The James Tiptree, Jr. Award was established in 1991 and honours work in science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender. The prize was given jointly to Shelley Jackson for Half Life and Catherynne M. Valente for The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden. Quite appropriately, there was a special recognition to Julie Phillips for her biography on Tiptree.

The Tiptree is the only genre award women win more often than men.