Ask Nicola Archives
Lesbian and Feminist Literature
November 21, 1998
I'm a straight male married to a bi woman. She was bi before
I met her: my wife did not adopt "bi-ness" to placate my fantasies. My wife's
only sister is bi, and one of her brothers is gay. Further, I'm not very
comfortable being a man. I'm not transgender, but I don't feel like what a man
is _supposed_ to feel like, if the behaviour of my male peers is evidence.
Anyway, we have two daughters (aged 11 and 14), and I want them to be as
independent as some of your fictional creations. They both read heavily, in all
genres, and I was hoping that you would recommend novels that might boost their
feelings of self-worth. Many women of my acquaintance wasted decades before they
realised that they were complete without men, and I don't want that to happen to
my daughters. I'm looking for novels with strong gay, bi, lesbian and
transgender characters that might be appropriate for wise children.
Many writers of the last few decades devoted a great deal of their fiction to
showing the reader just how bad it was/is for women (and other so-called
minorities). It seems to me that any 11 or 14 year-old girl of the nineties,
especially one with self-aware parents, would already know the relative status
of women or lesbians etc. Angry exposition of something they already know would
more than likely bore them; whatmight be better is a vision of how things could
be different, a place/time/milieu where the intellectual discovery, joy, hard
choices, important lessons, challenges and so on are not based on the gender or
sexuality or colour of the character, but on theessential nature of the
character herself. She gets refused a place at an elite space academy because
her reflexes aren't sharp enough, not because she's a girl. She has her child
taken away from her because she's a speed freak who neglects the kid, or the
rich and powerful paternal grandmother wants it for herself, not because she's a
This is what I have been trying to do with my work, where I use what I've
come to think of as a sort of reverse labelling theory narrative technique.
Labelling theory says, basically, that if you label someone as, say, a criminal,
regardless of whether or not they are criminal, you and others will perceive
them to have the traits associated with the criminal, and treat them
accordingly. After being treated as a criminal for long enough, a person will
begin to act like a criminal. When s/he acts like a criminal, s/he will be
treated more like a criminal than ever before. And so on: a vicious circle. As a
theory, it's interesting, though far from perfect. If we apply this
(remembering, of course, that it's just a theory and doesn't tell the whole
story) to the socialisation of women (and gays and people of colour, etc. etc.)
we can say that women are treated as inferior, therefore to some extent they
believe themselves to be, therefore they act as though they are, therefore they
are treated as such, and so on.
Applying this to fiction, we don't have to worry about the whole
chicken-and-the-egg thing (how much is nature, how much nurture?), we can just
stop the cycle dead by pretending it's not there. (Boom! How to fix the world in
one easy lesson <g>.) In The Blue Place, Aud is an
utterly competent woman, a dyke, who has never, ever worried about not being
taken seriously. She doesn't think she's as good as a man, because she doesn't
think about it at all. Sexism and homophobia are not in her vocabulary. So when
Aud meets people, she expects to be well treated; her expectations demand good
treatment; she gets good treatment. In her world, there _is_ no sexism and
homophobia and so it's not possible for her to be treated in a way she can
interpret as homophobic or sexist.
The first writer I ever saw do this was Elizabeth A. Lynn, in her
Watchtower trilogy, particularly the third volume, The
Northern Girl. In that world women fight, love women, and control
financial empires alongside men, without comment, authorial or otherwise. It
just is. A wonderful book. A novel that does something similar, at least with
regard to gender (sexuality is another matter: all the characters are straight),
is Windhaven, by Lisa Tuttle and George R.R. Martin, where a
young woman changes the world _and_ learns to fly. Cool stuff.
To tell you the truth, I think there are a lot of books out there that can
boost a girl's sense of self worth without having lesbian or gay characters.
Golden Witchbreed, by Mary Gentle, is mostly straight, but it
has a great take on gender. Vonda McIntyre's Dreamsnake,
The Exile Waiting, and Superluminal are all
excellent pieces of work. To look outside the genre for a moment, there's Kate
Shugak, a native american investigator in Alaska, who appears in a series of
novels by Dana Stabenow, and Mallory, a so-far asexual sociopath (but she only
hurts bad people) created by Carol O'Connell. There are plenty of fictional dyke
detectives but unfortunately most of them fret a lot about being dykes, and some
about being women, which I find irritating.
What I'd really like to do is take a magic wand into a bookshop and wave it
over the rows of novels by Tolkien, and O'Brian, and Heinlein, and Silverberg,
and Tom Clancy, and Stephen King, and effect a random reassignment of gender
within those pages--but no other changes. Imagine, Elrond and Aragorn as girls
and Galadriel as a boy; Diana as a boy and Sir Joseph as a girl; and, ah, think
of the rewritten "Menace from Earth." How different would Patriot
Games be with Jack as a woman and nothing else changed? I wait
gleefully for the days of downloadable and rewriteable books, the ability to do
a search-and-replace on the gender of selected characters; it will be fun to
rewrite for our children. I can't wait for the days when gender becomes nothing
more than a fashion statement.
October 1, 1998
Have you read Abigail Padgett's
latest novel, Blue? Blue McCarron reminds me quite a bit of
No, I haven't read Padgett's Blue. I blush to admit I'd
never heard of Abigail Padgett until now. I've just trotted off to amazon.com
and seen that she's written quite a few books, and that Blue is
the beginning of a new series. I might have to wait a while before I read it,
though. I don't like to delve into fiction that's too close to my own while I'm
working on it. Perhaps when I finish the current novel.
You mention you like history. A personal
favourite I venture to recommend is The History of Venice by
John Julius Norwich, which at times made me laugh out loud and had people
raising their eyebrows at me (what's really under that fancy schmancy book
cover!) I also loved The History of Greece by J.B. Bury and
Russell Meiggs - their first edition was published in 1900 and my fourth edition
version from the late 70's is a treasure disguised as a dull textbook. Here's my
question: In your earlier interviews and essays you mention the resistance of
some agents and editors to your characters being predominantly women, and those
characters being in relationships with other women. Has this attitude generally
changed during the time you've been publishing? The obvious answer is that each
editor and agent are individuals and will react differently, so I suppose I'm
asking about the overall climate in scifi publishing. Thank you for your lovely
writing. I particularly enjoyed the details about wastewater processing in
Slow River, having had some experience working with
environmental and civil engineers.
Thanks for the recommendations. I'll have to see if I can find them, though I
imagine I might have to haunt the second-hand bookshops for the Bury and Meiggs.
I love to read opinionated history, some ivory-towered academician's web of
stretched-to-breaking-point theories on How and Why and Who. Lovely stuff.
The overall climate of sf publishing has changed. Twenty years ago you could
get fiction with dyke characters published if you were a) a very, very good
writer, and b) the lesbianism was part of the point, part of the SF-ness of the
story--if it could be read as deliberately weird. In the nineties, that changed.
Dyke characters are everywhere, and the most striking thing is, quite a few of
them are badly written, and quite a few are dykes just because they're dykes and
not because they live on an all-women planet, or have been drenched with an Evil
Madman's hormones, or brainwashed by Wicked Feminists, or are in prison (or
whatever). In other words, some of these dyke characters are portrayed as being
However, just as we think we might be gaining, we start losing ground. Now
that there are "so many" (ha!) of these characters running around, publishers
(and book shops, and reviewers) seem to want to consign them all to a sub-
category, Lesbian Science Fiction. This means that the books get even shorter
shrift than if they were just plain old SF (or plain old lesbian fiction, for
that matter). I think genre categorization is a pernicious habit, and I think
it's getting worse. When an author writes a novel, her or his publisher sends
out an advance reading copy (or a manuscript) to a selection of authors whose
imprimatur will--they believe--help them sell more copies of the novel in
question. The only novels I ever get sent are ones with dykes in. I have become
a science fiction code: "Aha! It has a blurb from Nicola Griffith therefore it's
a dyke book!" I'm beginning to resent this. Perhaps publishers believe I'm not
qualified to comment on anything "normal." (Mind you, lately I've also been sent
books where the character's gender is ambiguous. I can't decide if this is a
step up or not.) I resent the fact that everyone in the business seems to assume
that when a reader sees my name the first thing they will think is "lesbian" not
"beautifully written" or "thrillingly plotted" or "daringly structured." I
resent the fact that simply because I write about lesbians, I'm seen to write
*only* about lesbians.
The Blue Place is going to have to fight really hard to not
end up in a genre cul-de-sac. People want to label it "lesbian fiction" or
"mystery fiction" or (worse) a "lesbian mystery." It's a novel. It's good to
read (in my not particularly humble opinion). It's as much about cultural
displacement as about the deaths that occur. It's as concerned with the perils
of refusing to grow and change as it is with escaping the Bad Guys in Norway.
It's about love and the occasional misuse of sex, and while the main character
is a dyke, it's not about being a dyke at all. In fact I employed a very careful
narrative strategy to make sure it doesn't even think about beginning to hint
that it's about being dyke. I'm waiting to see how create reviewers get trying
to pigeonhole this one < g > .
I really enjoyed Slow River (and the link to
the Xena fiction - it made my day, and my partner's, too - we are a continent
apart right now and it was a hot, fun wakeup!) I guess what troubled me most was
the classic "lost princess" aspect. I felt kind of hollow - I mean, being a lost
princess is never going to be part of my life or my lover's life - and her
discovery was such a big part of the end (indeed, something we waited for the
whole book), I felt like my trust had been broken. I loved the rest of it,
Do you enjoy L. Redman's mysteries (The Interection of Law and
Desire; others)? Do you know of a good reading list for dyke fiction
that actually has a love of reading stories at its heart?
I hope you enjoy Seattle - esp. if you get into the mountains, or on to the
water, its a beautiful place.
By "lost princess aspect" do you mean the fact that Lore was originally from
a privileged background? No, that can't be it, because that's really clear from
the beginning. Do you mean, then, that she goes back to her family and all is
forgiven and it all ends happily ever after? That can't be it, either, because
it doesn't end happily ever after; Lore doesn't go back to her family because
the family isn't really there to go back to: Stella is dead, Greta is insane,
Katerine is exiled, and Oster is essentially broken. (See an earlier post about
whether or not Slow River is "cyberpunk" or "melodrama" among
other things.) Yes, Lore reclaims her name, but that's about it. All those
terrible things she has suffered in the last few years are not magically wiped
away: she still has to live with all that was done to her, and all that she has
done to others. That's the whole point of the book. Being rich gives one massive
advantages, yes, but it can't make you feel better about having killed someone;
it can't take away all the pain and grief and fear. It can make it easier to
live with, in the practical sense (you don't have to be afraid of starving, or
not being able to afford hospital care, or of being found guilty if you go to
trial) but not in the essential sense. If that isn't clear by the end of the
novel, then I have failed--at least in your case.
I haven't read The Intersection of Law and Desire. I've been
wanting to read it since it came out (I read one of the earlier books in the
series when it was still published by Naiad and thought it pretty good--I
reviewed it for The Southern Voice) but as my own fiction has been
leaning towards a similar genre I decided not to. I often find that the writing
style of the fiction I'm reading (if it's good, and I think Redman's work is)
bleeds through into what I'm writing. When I'm preparing to begin a new novel,
which I am right now, I try to avoid fiction altogether. Books on my bedside
table currently include titles such as A Short History of the
World and The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Vikings.
I find history quite soothing, and it's utterly divorced from my fiction.
I don't know of any really good reading list for dyke fiction. If you're on
AOL, a good place to go for good reading suggestions is the Lesbian Book Board.
People there love to read, and love to recommend their favourites. A couple of
years ago the group tabulated its favourites its favourites; there were over a
hundred. Someone probably still has that list on their hard drive somewhere.
Given the vast customer base of AOL, you're sure to know someone who subscribes
and could ask for it on your behalf. Failing that, the D.C. area Gaylaxians
have a recommended reading list of gay and
lesbian fantasy and science fiction; there's a lesbian book discussion website
the Datalounge has individual recommendations and
discussions; and there's always Amazon.com.
It seems interesting to me that you hated Carla Tomaso and
love Patrick O'Brian, two authors I am at opposite ends of the spectrum from you
on, but still enjoy LoTR and good food. I picked up Matricide
almost by accident, loved it, sent for "The House of Real Love" by interlibrary
loan and thought it was absolutely fantastic. What didn't you like about
No novel can appeal to everyone, nor should it try. (See my response of a
couple of days ago to your earlier comments, particularly on the matter of
taste.) In Matricide I didn't see any "heaping, crystalline"
portions of joy, I didn't see any forgiveness by the narrator--of herself, never
mind her mother. She decided not to kill her mother at the end not because she
had forgiven her, but for purely selfish reasons--she didn't want the nightmare
image of the old woman's arm in her head for the rest of her life. In fact, the
whole point of the novel was that she could not (or would not) forgive her
mother, and that forgiveness was not what was important; moving on was the
As I've said elsewhere, a novel is just a sketch, a blueprint, from which the
reader has to construct her own house, bringing to it her own mental furniture,
her own ideas about colour and texture and light. We may have started with the
same blueprint, but we're living in very different houses. I like mine
I have to fight with my English vocabulary, there is no
dictionary near. I hope my English is not too bad. Last week I read the German
translation of your first novel Ammonite (Heyne published it
this spring). This weekend, Robert Silverberg and his wife, Karen Haber, were in
Leipzig. It was a very nice day and I had the chance to talk to Karen. She said
that she always wants to create strong female characters (and she's a fan of
Ursula K. Le Guin and James Tiptree, Jr.), although I had not the impression
that her female characters were very lively. In your opinion is it the case that
most of the ideas of the feminisms out of the 70's has spread out over "normal"
science fiction, so that nobody should notice this novel he/she reads is
feminist or not?
What do you think about your female colleagues who write novels with gay
heroes (only with a few female characters) like Poppy Z. Brite or Storm
Are you in fear of a "dying out" of the science fiction, because the readers
[Here I speak of the "active" readers, who send opinions to the
magazines/publishers/authors and buy a lot of sf that is not Star Trek or Star
Wars and try to tile their love to the genre with other readers] are becoming
Are you willing to adjust your writing to the interests of the mass of
readers (I don't know how your books sell. Are there differences between the
United States and Europe)?
Is there a chance to read more of your work (for instance Slow
River) in German in the near future?
I, too, have met Karen Haber but I have not read any of her work, so I can't
address your comment on the liveliness of her female characters. However, it is
my most definite opinion that as it has now been three decades since the second
wave of feminism, strong female characters should be de rigeur in
science fiction. (Assuming, of course, that one is not deliberately drawing a
weak character for artistic reasons.) The presence, therefore, of a strong woman
in a book does not make it feminist. We see strong women every day--in our
personal lives, in fiction, on the screen, in the news, in politics--but not all
of them are feminist. I was eighteen years old when Margaret Thatcher was
elected Prime Minister in the UK. I watched the election with my lover and her
friends. I couldn't understand why they were all so depressed. "But she's a
woman," I said. "Why aren't you happy?" It didn't take me long to realize that
although Thatcher could not have reached her position without groundwork laid by
a century or more of feminism, she did not believe that women had as much to
offer, or should have the same rights, as men. This is often the case with the
"strong women" created by science fiction (and other) authors. Almost every SF
novel written in the last ten years would have been seen as a feminist novel (by
some) forty years ago. Everything is relative.
I don't think it's wise to generalise about women who write about gay men. I
imagine that different writers do it for different reasons. I have never managed
to get all the way through a novel by Poppy Brite or Storm Constantine. The
little I read seemed overheated: purple prose, hipper-than-thou gay boys, sex
and death and pain. There also seemed to be a disturbing undercurrent of
misogyny. As I've said, I've read very little of their work, but I wonder if
they write about gay men because they want to discuss sex between equals, and
they feel women are not equal to men. So-called "slash fiction," (e.g.
Kirk-Spock [don't try saying that while drunk!]) is usually written by straight
women; it turns them on. There is also some fiction written by lesbians about
gay men; this is generally fairly readable, for example,
Swordspoint, by Ellen Kushner.
I don't think there's any danger of science fiction dying out. I think first
of all that the genre is changing (all those technothrillers by Tom Clancy and
Michael Crichton are really SF) and secondly that much that is
SF is not marketed as such (all those technothrillers by Tom Clancy and Michael
Crichton are really SF...). Fans who go to conventions and like the traditional
stuff are aging; it just means we have to write books that will appeal to
younger readers. If they don't like what we write, then we'll have to either (a)
get a day job because we'll continue to write but no one will buy (b) write
something else. No point telling stories no one wants to hear.
I think to some extent we are always adjusting our work. Writers, after all,
are part of "the masses" too; what influences Them influences Us. As I change
(all people do), my tastes change. As my tastes change, so does my work. The
novel I've just finished is not science fiction. The next one isn't, either.
Maybe the one after that won't be, either, but maybe it will. I don't adjust
genres consciously; I write about those things that interest me. Having said all
that, I'm glad that my interests are taking me (temporarily) away from SF. Books
in that genre are not selling well. In fact, in the UK, sales of my first novel
Ammonite were so bad that the book has been out of print there
for a year. It is still selling reasonably here in the US; I imagine I'll have
to wait a few months before I know how it's selling in Germany. (There will be
an Italian edition very soon, and I suspect it has already been translated in
China.) Sales of Slow River have been given a great boost by
the Nebula Award; libraries are stocking it; publishers from other countries are
calling my agent. There will be German and Spanish editions next year. I assume
the novel I've just finished will eventually sell in Germany, but I'm waiting
until I see how sales are in this country. Frankly, I'm tired of the pittance
foreign publishers offer for my work. If Penny In My Mouth
(tentative title) sells well here, and I think it will, then maybe someone in
Europe will give me some real money. Then maybe I'll come to Leipzig, too, and
we'll drink beer in the sun....
I read Les Guerilleres while I was taking an immersion course
in C programming back in 1992, so its jumbled up with code fragments . I read a
couple of essays by Jeannelle Laillou Savona, one called Lesbians on the French
Stage: From Homosexuality to Monique Wittigs Lesbianization of the Theatre which
was published in a book called Modern Drama.
It *does* seem obvious, the fish dont talk about being wet idea, but Ive
found its one of those things that some people just dont get and explanations
dont seem to help. I think it has to do with whether youve ever been right out
of your social context. So, is this the kind of thing to which you are referring? Let
Yes, that and the idea of a virus as a mechanism for transferring human
genetic information. It seems to me that Wittig thinks that heterosexuality is
*the* problem and that its a political problem, part of the social contract -
all of this talk about Natures Plan is just the Big Lie. Well, heterosexuality
as the problem can be argued, but humans are a species that uses sexual
reproduction and no purely political act is going to change that. So, when I
read Ammonite I thought that the use of the virus was
No. I had no political agenda when I came up with the idea of using the virus
in the reproductive cycle. It was an expedient mechanism for counteracting the
genetic monotony that might result (and I say might, because even monozygotic
twins are very slightly different, genetically, due to some randomness inserted
in the process) from reproduction via parthenogenesis. The virus also made
possible the existence of soestre via a sort of electromagnetic "linkage" which
occurs during conception. It influences the existing material in alien ways.
I did toy with the idea of the virus doing the inserting of genetic material
but that seemed....too easy? wrong? Just not right, anyway. People already use
viruses in genetic engineering to implant specific chromosomes in organisms.
That was not what I wanted to convey. I wanted the conception of soestre to be
mystical but not magical.
With regard to a "purely political act" changing anything: in my opinion,
there is no such thing as a purely political act. I don't buy in to all dogma of
the sociobiologists, but people are at heart biological constructions. I tend to
believe that "politics" is in fact an interaction between (a) a variety of
biological imperatives--which they themselves stem from genes, from one's
upbringing influencing processes that then become hardwired, from diet and so
on, and (b) environment. It's like this constant (and in my opinion fruitless)
search for the gay gene, or some brain difference that "explains everything."
What a crock. Sexuality is based upon a myriad things: genetics, environment,
character (I think the weaker one is, mentally and emotionally, the less likely
one is to be a dyke--being a dyke can be *hard*), fashion etc. etc. I live in
Seattle. Weather pundits spend millions, billions, every year trying to forecast
the weather. They don't get it right from one day to another, never mind in
larger terms. So how people expect to understand human sexuality--which I
believe to be far more complicated than a few low pressure systems bobbling
about over the ocean--beats me. The whole idea is laughable.
I've read both Ammonite and Slow
River - you're certainly working in deep waters. Thanks.
I was lucky enough to get introduced to the ideas of Monique Wittig a few
years ago, though a woman called Jaennelle Savona, who is a scholar of her work.
Both Ammonite and Chronicles Of The Mothers
Land by Elisabeth Vonarburg seem to be examining some of her
Am I nuts? :-)
I read Monique Wittig's Les Guerilleres back in 1980, or
thereabouts. A couple of years later, while staying at a friend's, I literally
flipped through The Lesbian Body. I've also come across the
occasional article by her or--more often--read articles by others in which she
is quoted. I can't say that I know her work in any depth.
However, one thing she wrote (in the '70s? I forget--I also forget in which
journal it was printed) in an article called "One is Not Born a Woman"), struck
me. She said: "Lesbian is the only concept I know of which is beyond the
categories of sex (woman and man) because the designated subject (lesbian) is
*not* a woman, either economically, or politically, or ideologically." I thought
about that for a while. Yes, "woman" is a creation of society; the word means so
much more than female human. I thought some more, and sifted it, turned it
around a little, and came up the idea that in a world of female humans, a world
without males, no one is a "woman" but, also, no one is a "lesbian." Those
categories, those distinctions, are meaningless. One could be sexual or asexual,
but not lesbian--because lesbian only exists in comparison to straight (or gay
male, or bisexual etc.), just as woman only exists in comparison to man.
This idea, of course, is not new--but you would think it was, given the
outrage of some of the reviewers, almost all of whom couldn't get over the fact
that no one *talked* about the fact that they were all women, or that if you
wanted to have sex you had it with a woman.
So, is this the kind of thing to which you are referring? Let me know.
Both Ammonite and Slow River
were intriguing reads. I enjoy thoughtful examination of gender roles in
fiction, and Ammonite offered a unique portrait of an
all-female society. Currently I'm reading a novel called Alph,
(published in 1971, I believe) about a future Earth ruled by parthogenetic
females. The author (a male), renders his society as emotionally sterile and
equates lesbianism with flawed post-industrial conceits. This is, of course, in
biting contrast with the very human society evoked in
Have you read Alph or are you aware of any other novels that
offer interesting takes on gender issues? (I haven't read _any_ Tepper, although
a professor at my university actually has The Gate to Women's
Country on his reading list).
I haven't read Alph. Who is the author? There are many, many
novels out there about gender. There are relatively few that are interesting,
that is, that don't simply reinforce gender stereotypes. Here are some of my
The Female Man, by Joanna Russ. This is a truly
thought-provoking read. Russ uses different narrators--different women from
different worlds: a women-only world, a world where women and men are literally
at war, and so on--to take a look at the truths behind present day gender
Walk to the End of the World, Motherlines,
and The Furies by Suzy McKee Charnas, a trilogy, though the
third novel was written many years after the second. Some of this is brutal
stuff (Charnas uses extremes to point up gender differences), but it's well
Venus Plus X, by Theodore Sturgeon. When I read this about
ten years ago, I couldn't believe it had been written in 1960, and by a man.
Extremely interesting, especially the twist at the end.
The Wasp Factory, by Iain Banks. This was his first novel. I
read it in the early eighties when I was trying to rid myself of all that
seven-foot-tall-wise-kind-amazon nonsense that is the opposite side of the coin
to misogyny. This book cleaned out the toxins, all right; it bleached me to the
Novellas can sometimes be better than novels for exploring issues. Some of
the best with regard to gender are by Russ, and James Tiptree, Jr.--the
pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, who also used the name Racoona Sheldon. Here are
some of my favourites: "The Mystery of the Young Gentleman," by Joanna Russ. Set
in the late nineteenth century aboard a river boat, Russ's narrator fucks with
fellow passengers heads. Great stuff! "The Screwfly Solution," by Racoona
Sheldon (or maybe it was the Tiptree pseudonym--I forget). Every time I read
this, I shudder. How would aliens kill off the human race? By pitting men
against women, of course. Chilling. "The Women Men Don't See," by James Tiptree,
Jr. One man gets a lesson in how it really is in this culture for women who
survive in two's and three's in the chinks of the world machine. "Your Faces, O
My Sisters, Your Faces Filled of Light," by James Tiptree, Jr. (though, again,
it might be by Racoona Sheldon). This one is heart-breaking: is the narrator
really from another time and place, or just a woman driven insane by trauma?
There are many other novels and novellas, of course, plus numerous short
stories. One way to find out more is to check out the Tiptree Award (awarded
annually to the science fiction novel or story that explores and expands gender
roles) website and take a look at the works on the long-, short- and
winner's-lists. Russ's novella can be found in her collection,
(Extra)Ordinary People, and all of Tiptree's best short fiction
(except for one story, where humans are compared to beavers, whose title I
forget) is collected in Her Smoke Rose Up Forever, which is not
cheap but is *very* well worth the price. Enjoy.
I devoured both Ammonite and Slow
River and am eagerly anticipating your next work. Much as I like
Ammonite, I thought Slow River a better
work--for me, a more engrossing read with deeper characterization and
interesting narrative technique. An added bonus was finding your homepage. I've
been reading your responses to questions from readers (fans!) and note your
response that there's no such thing as lesbian fiction, that men and women do
not write differently. I tend to agree, although I find theoretical perspectives
on "women's writing," and what the French call "ecriture feminine" fascinating
and thought-provoking. However, I agree with lesbian scholar Bonnie Zimmerman in
her attempt to identify a "lesbian tradition in literature." It think it is
important that lesbians write, as you do, in such a way that naturalizes,
normalizes, and universalizes lesbian experience. I think it's important
politically for lesbian writers living and dead to be identified; f! or "lesbian
texts" to be theorized and taught. I think you will find a place in the "lesbian
canon," whether this is something you would welcome or not. I wonder if you have
read, and what you think of, Jeanette Winterson's work? I think of Winterson as
another writer about whom it might be said that she naturalizes and
universalizes lesbian experience. Thanks!
I find the idea of being part of the lesbian canon delicious. I would also
love to be part of the SF canon, the women's canon, the British canon, the
literature canon. I don't mind being labelled--I only object to those labels
being used to make me and/or my work Other and, therefore, less. And then I
suppose we should look at what the canon is, exactly, and how it is formed.
There are those who believe (and on the whole I tend to agree) that the canon is
formed of those authors who have been able to signpost their work in such a way
that critics and reviewers and academics find it easy to find and remember. In
other words, the more noise you make--but it must be a most particular sort of
noise--the more attention you will be given; the more attention you receive, the
more likely you are to be remembered, and to be remembered as being influential.
It all boils down to advertising of one variety or another. I think this is one
reason we are beginning to see the growth of the Cult of the Author. I'm not
saying this is a good thing or bad, it just...is.
I go back and forth about Jeanette Winterson, mainly because I think she is
rather an erratic writer. I found Oranges Are Not The Only
Fruit a very clear, crisp, moving and funny novel. Boating For
Beginners was so bad it should never have seen print. Writing
On The Body was, well, nicely written on the sentence-to-sentence
level, but irritating (too deliberately coy about gender--it seems obvious to me
that the narrator was female, much of the angst would not make sense otherwise)
and served to reinforce many stereotypes. It was also rather sentimental--not
nearly as raw and honest as one might expect from the author of
Oranges. I haven't yet read The Passion or
Art And Lies.
I think that Winterson is good, very good, but not "the best living writer in
the English language" as she herself has been reported as saying. She seems to
really cultivate the Cult of the Author; she certainly attracts controversy.
Some of that controversy of course results from her outrageous statements; some
probably results from her being (a) a woman and (b) a lesbian and not feeling
guilty or apologetic about either. It will be interesting to see what happens to
her reputation in the next few years.
*Note* - following question adapted from a Usenet post with the express
consent of the author.
But since we seem to be discussing it here, what, exactly
*IS* Lesbian Fiction? Is it written by lesbians? Is it about lesbians? Are
lesbians the (sole?) intended audience? If you have a lesbian couple in your
story is it automatically Lesbian Fiction? What about a same-sex kiss? A hug? An
I recently read (well, tried to read) Ammonite, a novel by Nicola Griffith.
Aside from its slow pacing, the plot was a little interesting and the characters
were pretentious and boring, but reasonable given the plot. Is that Lesbian SF?
Or is it just a mediocre SF novel with lesbians in it?
There is no such thing as a lesbian or gay book. Novels are not sexed at
birth by some strange gowned and masked obstetrician at the publishing house:
"Yup, this one has a womb (or two X-chromosomes, or no penis, or a sweet smile).
Toss it on the women's pile. And make sure it doesn't rub up against any of
those other female volumes. Could be a lesbian book."
There are no lesbian novels. There are only stories. Stories of our lives;
our hopes and dreams; our loves and losses and daily victories over that callous
and indifferent thing called the world. We write to tell our truth, so that
someone ten miles away--a hundred, a thousand--can pick up a book and read it
and think, "Oh, yes, I see. Of course. How true."
Stories are for connecting people, one to another: lesbian to straight, old
to young, me to you. But it takes two to make a story. A novel is merely the
beginning, a sketch. Like a blue-print of a house, the writer may have penciled
in where the walls ought to go, and the doors; made a note about the size of the
windows; but it is the reader who takes that sketch and makes a home. The reader
decides which room will be the living room and which the family room; fills the
corners with things she has collected over the years; and makes it her own.
Moral of the story: if you don't like the look of the blueprint, don't bother
trying to build the house. No one can write a book that will please everyone.
It's my personal belief that both gender and genre are creations of the
insecure. I've already said most of this in my essay, "Divide and Conquer:
Gender and Genre," but I'll say it again: People who are confident of themselves
and their place in the world see people first, gender second. Those who have no
worries about their own taste, discrimination, or fashion sense see fiction
first, genre second. It's the insecure, those who need to feel superior
("Someone--at last--who is less hip than I am!"), who sneer at, say, women or
Jews or science fiction, at gays or romance novels or people in wheelchairs.
"Not us," they say, "not worthy, not real."
Those who love fiction--who love the discovery of fine writing, characters
who will suck you into their world with their dilemmas and attempts to solve
them--approach the work without artificially constructed preconceptions.
You wouldn't believe the number of people who pick up
Ammonite or Slow River and say, "Well, science
fiction is rubbish, but I liked this..." What they really mean, of course, is:
"Science fiction is pulp rubbish, so I don't read it. But I read this book, and
it's good, so it's not really science fiction, is it?" It doesn't matter that
what they enjoyed so much is set in the future; if they liked it, it can't be
These are the kind of people who have probably never read anything by Mary
Renault because it's historical fiction. Nothing by Audre Lorde because it's
black fiction. Nothing by Willa Cather--after all, she only wrote about the
prairie.... Perhaps they have never realized that Shelley's
Frankenstein (which admittedly isn't a brilliant book) is
science fiction. As is Aldous Huxley's work, and that of Geoff Ryman, Joanna
Russ, Ursula Le Guin. So, for that matter is The Robber Bride
by Margaret Atwood, and her The Handmaid's Tale. Then there are
the fantasists like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, William Golding and Toni
Ah, but critics and reviewers and academics who actually like this fiction
set outside reality call it Magic Realism, or Social Commentary, or
Dystopia...anything, in fact, but fantasy or science fiction. What, I wonder,
are they afraid of?
Having said all that, of course, I'm editing a series of anthologies called
Bending The Landscape: three volumes (fantasy, sf, horror) of
all-original stories with lesbian/gay characters and /or themes. What is a
lesbian? What is a gay theme? Gee, I haven't a clue, not really. There are
lesbians out there who sleep with men, and "political lesbians" who have never
had sex with a woman. I'll leave everyone to make up their own minds.