…and why it’s not the reason you probably think.
If you are a science fiction and fantasy (SFF) reader and you don’t know who Alice B. Sheldon was, shame on you. Double shame if you don’t know her more famous pen name: James Tiptree, Jr.
James Tiptree, Jr. wrote in a time when many female authors had to take masculine pen names in order to be taken seriously, or get published at all. Her stories are chilling, uplifting, and terrifyingly thought-provoking (as the best of science fiction and fantasy should be.) James Tiptree, Jr. still drives the heterosexual male-oriented modern vanguard of ‘traditional’ science fiction and fantasy (see ‘Sad Puppies’ and ‘Rabid Puppies’) completely frothing mad. Which is a good thing, I think. The social norm boat needs to be rocked.
The James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award Council has begun a new facet of its organization’s outreach toward authors, artists, and other creators. Each year they will be awarding two $500 annual Fellowship grants given out to work ‘that is changing the way we think about gender through speculative narrative – maybe in a form we would recognize as the science fiction or fantasy genre, maybe in some other way.’
For me, $500 is maybe a paycheck. Perhaps a week of writing time freed up from my manufacturing day job. It might be airfare or a hotel room at a convention. I don’t mind the book report or guidance aspects of the award. The entry requirements are easy enough to someone with years of art grant writing behind her. I know the necessary artspeak to make a convincing case for myself. Just the list of nominated and winning works this year is inspiring, from the standpoint of explorations in gender identity and cultural responses. As a fiftyish woman of (very) mixed-race background whose speculative fiction often includes non-Western and non-traditional gender roles, I *should* seriously consider applying.
I’m not, not this year. I can offer nothing that fits the Foundation mandate. I’m not entirely certain I fit in.
I write erotic romance, often with Male/Male relationships, but I am just as likely to have bisexual, heterosexual, and polyamorous romances in my stories. Even the fantasy novel I just sent out to my agent has a mild M/M/F romance at its core, albeit a romance where one of the parties is a genderfluid sorcerer older than the planet they’re currently trying not to rule.
While I celebrate the achievements of fierce and sincere authors who subvert traditional SFF tropes into strong, intelligent social commentary (often with a grimdark and anti-romance slant), I admit that’s not always my public style. I am not relentlessly, obviously focused on honing my fiction into platforms for real-world change and revolution.
I can’t change the world. We’re all probably fortunate that I can’t.
Look, I already know the human species is headed for several cataclysmic shitstorms in the next century. The clues are obvious to any rational reader of science and history. It’s probably too late for at least a fifth of humanity. Doesn’t mean I’ll stop trying to keep the lamps of art and enlightenment going in my own tiny way. Like those writers I mentioned above, I know that SFF is an effective way to either crowbar or entice social change into a situation. I am not a crowbar kind of person, so I use other tools.
I have slightly more in common with Michelle Sagara than Kameron Hurley. I know that by opening up about my process and motives, I’m also throwing open the door to social justice criticism from the left, as well as right-wing anger over my views on religious extremists and alternative sexuality.
Bring it. I already know this music. The literary community still largely views Romance the same way the postmodern arts community once viewed Fiber Art: womens’ work, neither serious nor noteworthy.
Related to social justice and academia, I also have deep philosophical problems with the merits of modern ‘therapeutic culture’ and the increasing levels of censorship in our society. ‘Participatory trophies’ to bolster childrens’ self esteem may actually harm children by not teaching them how to learn from failure. Just so, the kinds of academic and social censorship enacted to ‘protect’ people from offensive situations and concepts may prevent sensitive individuals from making reasoned examinations of those uncomfortable ideas.
I lay blame for this stagnation on both sides of the political and cultural debate. Here’a a better essay about the problem, than I could ever write.
Back to writing, and the Tiptree grant. I like telling stories about relationships. Romance happens to be a large component of those, but not the only one. Even so, I’m not going to pretend that romantic and sexual relationships shouldn’t be shown in SFF. I’ll write what I want, even knowing that could cut me off from valuable markets and readerships.
In art, I once walked away from finishing a degree at a well-known university arts program. Partly because of economic reasons, but mostly because the university leaders decided that a social justice and commentary platform was a required portion of every art student’s portfolio. I’m an artisan first, an activist a distant second. Sometimes, artists just want to make a piece of pottery or a painting. We want to test our technical skills or bring an internal vision to life. Like all higher mammals and birds, we want to play with aspects of our environment. We’ll infuse our work with social commentary when we want to. If everything we do *must* be continously filtered through higher purposes, that can quickly sour into a joyless and demanding task.
The authors on the Tiptree Awards roster are not joyless. I’ve read many of them and delighted in most. But when *any* social club explicitly states or implies that I must conform to a rigid set of expectations and results (especially in the activist world, whether left or right), I wonder if the cost of fitting in might be too much.
Even my most inclusive works can be viewed through the lens of exploitation (a charge commonly leveled at the erotic romance field), rather than high literary exploration.
I don’t write groundbreaking extrapolations of our world’s possible futures, whether gritty or glorious. I write about secondary worlds and differently-evolved cultures where ‘alternative gender’ is as much a norm as anything else. It is not ‘explored’ or singled out because of its exotic specialness or innate worth. My characters have aspects that may be homosexual, asexual, heterosexual, bisexual, genderfluid, etc – but that’s certainly not all they are. When I work toward social commentary, I try to do it from a subtler, stealthy, and normative position.
Given recent controversies in other parts of the SFF, Skeptical, and Gaming communities, I’m fairly sure the Tiptree Fellowships are weighted toward the near-evangelical and exploratory works by younger writers working from more precarious positions than mine. Which is as it should be. I’ve had 30 years to go from ’emerging’ to ‘mid-career’ artist and writer. I am a mostly straight female from a middle-class background presenting white, not Native American. My part of the commercial arts field has been fairly gender neutral, so I’ve rarely experienced work or pay prejudice as a woman. I’ve had advantages that a twenty-something transgender Person of Color from an inner city probably never had, and I’m grateful for those advantages.
Does that make me the adversary? An inadvertent advocate for the Puppies and their (often publicly denied) backslide into ultra-conservative social territory? Nope. Even as a space-opera and military-fiction lover, I have more in common with the writers lauded by the Tiptree Foundation, than I do their detractors.
I’m just not sure the former will see me as an ally. At fiftyish, I’ve learned not to stick around where I’m probably not wanted or needed. I already have too many other brick walls to hammer apart or climb.
That could change. Maybe one of these days I’ll write a thoughtful and literary SFF novel or story that will fit the Tiptree mission more closely.
In the meantime, I urge authors and other creators who might already fit the qualifications to enter. You have until September 1st, 2015. As the Council notes, this is an opportunity to build ‘a network of Fellows who will build connections, support one another, and find collaborators.’
It’s worth a shot, for the right authors.