It is quite possible for a work of literature to operate as a war machine upon its epoch—Monique Wittig[i]
Yes, but is it art?—Anonymous
The golden age of queer sf is 20. Or maybe it was the 1970s. Or perhaps it was in France. It’s all relative, like the notion of ‘queer’ itself.
My golden age began in Scotland, when I was twenty. My girlfriend and I were sleeping on a friend’s floor, travelling about a bit, absorbing life—and lots of hash. A woman handed me a book, saying, ‘I hear yeez like the wee aliens and shite. Have ye read any with gur-uls before?’ I have a vague memory of glancing at a blue-ish cover before returning to the serious business of reducing my brain to a microdot. But at some ungodly hour of the morning, I opened the book—Sally Miller Gearheart’s The Wanderground—and fell into it.
It blew me away. For a 20-year-old escapee from Catholic World, where the consensus was that I was going to hell, it was visionary dynamite. Under the sunlight of story, the essentialist feminist theory I’d read but not embraced flowered into a magical paradise.
The early eighties were a time when I was being thrown against the wall by members of the Special Patrol Group,1 and harassed by local plods simply for being a dyke, when many women I knew were at Greenham Common fighting for world peace (and I was just fighting). The Wanderground explained to me how and why the Bad Men would get their comeuppance. I hadn’t even realised I needed validation, but suddenly here were women like me rising above their challenges, being wise and kind and strong and, more to the point, victorious.
I began an indiscriminate, desperate search for lesbian sf. I vacuumed up the output of the Onlywomen Press (Caroline Forbes’s The Needle on Full, The Reach and Other Stories edited by Lilian Mohin and Sheila Shulman, etc.), moved on to The Women’s Press (Josephine Saxton, Jody Scott, Sandi Hall, Lisa Tuttle, Rhoda Lerman), and then Virago (Zoë Fairbairns). I loved them uncritically.
By twenty-two or -three I moved from hash to snorting amphetamine sulphate, and from Gearheart to lesbian and feminist work by Joanna Russ and Monique Wittig, Marge Piercy and Virginia Woolf. There wasn’t enough of it, but I was hooked. I found Tiptree, then Gwyneth Jones and Vonda McIntyre, Suzy McKee Charnas and Elizabeth A. Lynn. Eventually I graduated to the crack of Marion Zimmer Bradley imports (The Shattered Chain, Thendara House).
In real life I’d started to grow marijuana and sell speed to ensure my own supply, and it slowly dawned on me I could also generate my own supply of lesbian sf. I began to write.
My first attempt at story, ‘Women and Children First’, was meant to be witty and ironic: a spaceship hurtling through the void, an accident, a lantern-jawed hero-captain who says, ‘To the lifepods. Women and children first!’ The women say, ‘Okay’, and merrily abandon the ship, ending up on an uninhabited planet and founding a woman-centred society, where everything would be beautiful and perfect.
But when I starting writing—when I really started to think—was When It Changed.
I imagined as fully as possible each woman and child landing on this uninhabited planet. Why are they travelling in the first place? What are their fears and dreams? What luxuries will they miss, what challenges will they welcome? Which fellow passengers will they admire or loathe? I imagined the women disagreeing, then squabbling, then fighting. I imagined the little boys growing up and wondering why their mothers’ friends hated and feared them. I imagined what would happen when the little girls started fancying the little boys. And, phhtt, no more lesbian feminist paradise.
Epiphany through writing is more addictive than opiates, more of a rush than speed. The story became a novel. I finished the novel and immediately started another, set on the same planet but many hundreds of years later. I found that by this time there were two civilisations: the women-only side of the planet and the mixed-gender side. People from both sides were silly and vain and smart and kind and vicious and generous. By mistake, I had aimed the lesbian war machine not at my epoch but at my own assumptions; I had discovered that the idea of essentialism is monumentally silly.
A very different personal history brought me to the same conclusion. I grew up the child of white civil-rights activists in the American South in the 1960’s, surrounded by my parents’ friends and associates—black, latino, white, gay, straight, priests and hippies and drug addicts and feminists and slumlord attorneys—and as a result I’ve never cottoned to essentialism. I certainly don’t care for the emotional labeling that so often goes with it: black people are just looking to take advantage of white folks or what happened to make you hate men?, or (my personal head-scratching favourite of those applied to me) how sad you can never have children. I find such things stupid and reductive, and I’m not partial to being reduced.2
My mother was a grammar school librarian and both my parents read for pleasure. I grew up surrounded by books. The stories I loved best always involved danger and growth: a character choosing, or being compelled, to put herself at risk, to go out into the cold and deal with what she found there. To find her own strength and discover her own power. Alexei Panshin’s Rite of Passage, David Palmer’s Emergence, Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, even The Wolf and The Dove by romance writer Kathleen Woodiwiss (with the first sex scenes that ever turned me on). Stories that compelled me because they spoke to me of people who were brave and smart and sexual and tough and interesting in ways that I wanted to be too.
Like Nicola, I began in my twenties by writing what I wanted to read (which was much more along the lines of baroque Tanith Lee imitations than Sally Miller Gearheart-like utopias). And like Nicola, I found it wasn’t enough. I had to write what I hadn’t read yet, and on some level they had to be stories that would make me feel brave and smart and sexual and tough and interesting. That’s what stories were for.
It was this that drove me to apply to the Clarion writing workshop in 1988. And that’s When It Changed for me. I fell in love with Nicola and with writing, both of which were dangerous and intense and so exciting. And I began to have my assumptions about who I was, as a person and a writer, ripped away.
Samuel R. Delany was one of our teachers. He was fairly impatient with us—a bunch of wide-eyed, white, mostly middle-class not-exactly-kids, many of whom who saw writing as the necessary process to the goal of getting published. One day he went off on us for having worldviews the size of grapes, for imagining everyone in our futures as white, middle-class, and polite (except for the dangerous characters, who were allowed to be gay or black as long as they died or were otherwise redeemed). Seriously, this is what many of us were writing. I remember one student in the workshop who wrote a lesbian character that looked and talked exactly like Nicola, because she was the only out lesbian he had ever met. And he didn’t understand why she might be offended. But Delany did and he challenged us to do better. To take (although he did not put it this way) some fucking risks.
Red flag to a bull. I offered one of my stories up for dissection. Tell me what assumptions I’m making, I said, and he gave me an impassive look and answered, Are you sure you want me to do that? An hour later I was in tears, mortified by my assumptions and even more so by my utter lack of awareness of them. Here I was, with all my liberal childhood credentials, my race and class consciousness, my experiences of poverty and powerlessness, my carefully-forged autonomous identity, my hip new still-emerging bisexuality, revealed as fatuous—I may have been some of those things as a person, but as a writer I was straight, white, resolutely privileged, protective of the cultural status quo, and embarrassingly safe.
It’s one of the most miserable experiences I’ve had as a writer, and I’ll always be grateful for it. I have no idea if Chip would approve of my work now, but he would certainly find it different.
After Clarion I found new things to read. Nicola introduced me to the science fiction that had steered her into writing. I found most of it inscrutable or uninteresting—it didn’t speak to my experience the way it did to Nicola’s. I offered her some of my formative favourites—Panshin’s Rite of Passage, Barbara Hambly’s Darwath trilogy—and she found them as alien as chick lit. I tried lesbian fiction (speculative and not) from my local feminist bookstore: I felt hemmed in by the overt separatism of some (was I supposed to start hating men now?), and most of the rest were variations of coming-out stories that bored me silly. Eventually I hunkered down with Theodore Sturgeon, Robert Heinlein, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, all of whom wrote a different kind of coming-out story—more of coming-in stories at heart, about people coming into themselves. These stories did what the lesbian stories couldn’t—offered me ways to explore new ideas about myself in the context of straight people as well as lesbian people. I needed that to chart my way.
The line between safe and dangerous—our explorer’s path, our way—creeps with time.
Genre, art, and queerness all lie in the eye of the beholder. When it was first published, Joanna Russ’s ‘When It Changed’ (1972) was for most people blindingly, mind-bogglingly queer. Now—partly because Russ’s novella was so brilliant that it changed the sf cultural landscape—it’s not. A world of women who love (and hate) each other about to fall apart because the men have found them? These days, in some circles, it might be considered almost reactionary.3
My first two novels, which I think of as sf, are not regarded as particularly queer by the self-identified queer community. The literary community doesn’t think they’re art. And they are certainly not seen as Real SF by the Grand Old Men of the mainstream sf community. One famous writer4 chatted to me briefly after an award ceremony. ‘Well’, he said, ‘I suppose Ammonite’s not bad, for a piece of sub-genre’.
I couldn’t have written Ammonite without the trail-blazing of Russ and Le Guin and Wittig. But even though the path already existed, many people told me it would be impossible to get my book published. I got my first taste of how things would go when I sent the manuscript to a former teacher (not Chip) for a blurb. He phoned me up:
‘Nicola, this is a rattling good read, but no one will buy it. I know publishing. This is too freaky. There has to be at least reference to men’.
‘No’, I said, ‘there doesn’t’.
‘Well, can’t the women dance around the fire in fake beards once a month and sorta ritualistically remember all that they’ve lost?’
‘No’, I said, awed by his obtuseness. He couldn’t accept that these women were fully human in, of, and by themselves, not in comparison to or competition with men. He didn’t get it.
But others did. The manuscript got multiple offers and was published by Del Rey without fanfare in 1993. And then, oh-ho, the letters (this was before email) began to flow from disgruntled readers. Most of this Angry, Tunbridge Wells cohort, like my former teacher, simply couldn’t wrap their heads around the notion of women as human. I’d honestly had no idea people would find it so difficult. For me, the gender thought-experiment was a by-the-by, an offshoot of the real story: of Marghe and of differing peoples’ response to change.
My first review, in Locus, from one of the dyed-in-sf-wool reviewers (he might scorn the word ‘critic’ as being too highbrow) lauded the book while bemoaning the lack of men: how much better the book might have been if only Marghe had had a brother. Reviews in the sf columns of major news journals—The New York Times Book Review, Los Angeles Times, New Stateman—praised the book. The LGBTQI (known, in our house, as the quiltbag) press did not deign to notice. After all, it wasn’t a book about being a lesbian. No one had to actively choose to be a dyke and then agonize over that choice, and suffer the slings and arrows of homophobic fortune, because everyone on the planet was a girl. Besides, it had a spaceship on the cover. It was sci-fi rubbish.
I did my best to ignore all this; I was busy working on Slow River.
Not long after I sent the Slow River outline to Fran, my agent, she called:
‘This is not a selling outline.’
‘Well’, she said, ‘in Ammonite Marghe had a girlfriend because she had no choice, poor thing. But why does Lore like girls?’
‘Because she’s a dyke, Fran’, I said, and I fired her.
When the galleys were ready, I took a handful to OutWrite, the lesbian and gay writing conference, and I literally couldn’t give them away.
‘Oh, I don’t read stuff like that’, said one review editor.
‘Like what?’ I said.
‘Rockets and bug-eyed monsters’.
‘No rockets’, I promised. ‘No monsters—except the human variety’.
‘No’, she said. ‘I don’t read sci-fi’.
So I moved on to the next critic.
‘Oooh’, she said, ‘you wrote Ammonite!’
She looked at the Slow River galley. ‘But why do you call your stuff sci-fi?’
‘Well, actually I call it sf, but, anyway, that’s what it is’.
‘No, no. Sci-fi is terrible, so I don’t like it, but I like your book, so it’s not sci-fi’.
I am not making this up.
Then Slow River came out, and this time the mainstream press reviewed the book outside their sf roundup columns, but they couldn’t resist saying, Oooh, this transcends the genre! None of them understood why I didn’t take this insult to one of my favourite genres as a compliment. One sales rep even confided, after several drinks, that he thought I’d invented a new tense. It took me a while to understand that I had fucked with his sense of what was proper to such a degree that he felt I must have altered language itself. I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or buy another round.
The genre reviews of Slow River were mostly concerned about the ‘fact’ that in the novel all I did was write about lesbians, that all of my books were about lesbians, that there were no heterosexuals in my books at all, ever, and that this was, well, it was wrong. (You could practically see their veins sticking out.) Once again, I was astonished.5 While there are a lot of lesbians—or at least lesbian sex—in the book, there’s also a lot of straight sex. Yet these reviewers simply didn’t see it. It reminds me of that famous experiment: put ten doctors or engineers or any other traditionally male profession in a room, seven men and three women. Most observers will say the gender split is about half and half. Make it six and four, respectively, and observers will say there is a majority of women.6 The Other takes up more space than the Norm.
As I’ve climbed the publishing prestige ladder, from mass market ‘science fiction’ to hardcover ‘near future fiction’ to ‘a novel of suspense’ to ‘a novel’ (categorizations that are outside my control), reviewers have stopped whingeing about lesbians and are noticing instead that there’s something funny about the way I tell stories. When I started to get questions about this oddness, I invented a name for it: narrative reverse-labelling technique.7
According to labelling theory, 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, the subject will see no harm in acting like one. A self-fulfilling prophecy. In my fiction, I simply excise heterosexism and remove labelling based on sexual orientation. Being a dyke is unremarkable. Literally. In fictional terms, this changes the world.
One of Delany’s lessons at Clarion was that you can’t just turn a sexual or gender paradigm on its head and call it more inclusive. Narrative homosexism is simply lazy, a way of ‘making theme’ by turning the status quo upside down and stepping aside with a Vanna White-like flourish of arms: look, it’s the uoq sutats! It makes straight people the weirdos! Isn’t that daring? Now the gay people will treat the straight people badly. That’ll teach ’em.
I despise conscious theme, the great battering ram on the literary war machine. It subverts story. It renders characters nearly non-dimensional. It makes for some truly terrible dialogue. Good writers smile a polite ‘no’ when the theme tray is passed around, and instead allow theme to emerge from a well-told story about people who engage us because their choices, fears, and hopes seem real, even if they are as strange to us as the surface of Pluto.
It’s vital for people who live outside of the dominant culture to find themselves reflected in positive ways within that culture. When those images don’t exist, we create them. It’s important and essential. But the goal should be to expand the boundaries of art, not establish new and increasingly granular rules and categories (never-het-dykes, bears, BDSM femmes, Log Cabin leathermen …) by which to label one another. I want people to write stories about strong women, people of color, people of varied sexual orientation or physical condition, in order to make space in the cultural discussion for such people—not to set up a gay and lesbian table in the corner, as my step–brother’s first wife did at their wedding reception so Nicola and I ‘would have people to talk to’. We didn’t go to the wedding. I don’t want to talk only to or about gay or lesbian people. Sexual expression is not that much of a bridge-builder these days: in person and in text, I’m too lesbian for some people, too straight for others, and not sf enough for most of whoever’s left. And I don’t care. I want my identity to be expansive, not reductive.
But then there’s queer. An interesting word. An expansive word. Queer is not a word that assumes everyone at the table is the same. Vive la difference, it says.
I don’t call myself queer any more than I call myself lesbian, but I’m more and more prepared to think of what I write as queer. That’s partly because queer functions as a meta-descriptor for me, the word itself implying relativity, fluidity, defiance of categories. I feel free to define it any way I want.
People sometimes remind me that, as a writer, I ought to be hip to the notion that words have a specific meaning. They have a point: but at the heart of a bias toward constructed identity, which I have, is the notion that personal experience is truth, and sometimes more important than the wider cultural construct. I do respect the meaning of words: and I think that part of queer is the expansion and reconstruction of meaning, including the meaning of queer itself.
As a writer, I accept the definition of queer writing as writing that expresses culturally non-standard sexual activity and identity. But I’m coming more and more to see that queer embraces the subtle differences as well as the obvious ones. And I believe that queer writing is anything that extends and legitimates the possibilities of sexual and gender identity beyond the writer’s personal comfort zone.
If I create specific, particular humanity in a character whose sexual or gender expression makes me uncomfortable on some level, then I believe I’ve done a piece of queer writing, whether or not it’s obvious to anyone else. If a straight-down-the-middle woman writes a straight woman character who does something even a little bit outside the writer’s own sexual or gender boundaries—wears naughty underwear to work, or looks at a man’s trouser bulge before she looks at his face—and if she writes it well enough to take herself and her readers there, then she’s writing queer. Even though for most self-identified queer people, it wouldn’t be a blip on the radar.
And so not all queer writing is quiltbag, and neither is all quiltbag writing queer. This is certainly true in speculative fiction: there are enough gay or lesbian sf writers crafting stories that reflect their own experience of sexuality and gender these days that it’s no longer in and of itself a brave new thing to do. I think this is nothing but good: much better for such works to be seen as part of the greater genre gene pool than as anomalies. All props to the writers whose courage and talent opened this space for the rest of us.
And now I think it’s time to let go of calling words on a page gay or lesbian as if those terms made the words any more or less important, any more or less art. But it’s easy for me to say that: I’m comfortable taking my work into mainstream straight space because there’s much about my work that is straight, just as there’s much about it that isn’t. Like Nicola, I don’t make an effort to explain or justify the sexual identity of characters. And since my work is more personally than politically queer, it threatens only the most easily threatened of readers and critics.8
The works of mine that most people most readily categorize as ‘lesbian’—Solitaire and ‘Alien Jane’—are some of my least queer writing. I don’t believe I ever wrote anything consciously (personally and textually) queer until I began to explore a character called Mars, whose stories are told from the first-person voice and whose gender is never specified.
It’s not that Mars is genderless, but that gender isn’t an issue in Mars’s expression of self, or in the way that others respond to Mars. And Mars isn’t meant to be a puzzle for readers to solve, but a space into which any reader can fit themself. I know gender exists, and so does gendered behavior, but beyond it is the basic human stuff: love, fear, joy, sex, pain, hope, courage, confusion… I don’t believe there are ‘like a woman’ or ‘like a man’ ways to feel these things, and it’s a joy to find the human ways to bring these experiences to Mars and watch them unfold.9 And in so doing, I discover all kinds of ways I’ve never thought of before to be brave and smart and sexual and tough and interesting. Some of them make me a little uncomfortable, a little vulnerable. Some of them may change how I view my own sexuality, my own ideas of gender. And that’s queer.
If all we write is the war machine and then the war changes—if the front moves—we’re left stranded waving our sword in the middle of someone’s picnic. There’s embarrassment all around. We creep away pretending not be a lunatic. However, if the blade is decently scabbarded in story—in particular characters experiencing specific situations—we might be asked to sit and eat a sandwich and share in the new peace. If we avoid the cliché and get particular, readers will see relevance in our work, still get a kick out of our words, still admire the artistry of our blade when we whip it out and let it glint in the sun. They might even want to touch it.
At a family dinner in the UK earlier this year, various relatives—some older, but mostly younger—were kibitzing about movie stars. ‘Whoa’, one nephew said, ‘she’s got a pair of—’ at which point his mother shot him a look and he closed his mouth. Kelley chimed in about Johnny Depp10 and the family blink-rate went up. They didn’t know what to say. You can bet, though, that they all did think about it later, and talk about it when we weren’t there. To some degree, then, simply by existing and walking and talking, Kelley and I function as a war machine on the more insular reaches of our epoch. This is all very well, in fact it’s often enormous fun, but when it comes to our fiction, we aim higher. We aim for it to be art, too.
Art is fiction that is beautiful, appealing, of more than ordinary substance and cultural longevity. It speaks to us across time. If we assume that good fiction dismantles cultural cliché by writing about individual, particular characters in individual, particular situations, and if we define as queer any fiction which destabilises the assumptions that underpin the construction of sexual and gender identity, then all really good fiction whose particulars include reference to sex and gender can’t be anything other than queer. War machine and time machine.
- The SPG were a controversial unit of the London Metropolitan Police, who travelled about Brixton in an armoured troop carrier. They were a major factor in the 1981 Brixton riots. They certainly made me feel like rioting when I was down there.
- For the record, I don’t call myself a lesbian writer. I don’t even call myself a lesbian. I live in a committed relationship of nearly 20 years with Nicola, and would crawl on my belly like a reptile to beg her forgiveness for having mad sex with Johnny Depp if I ever got the chance. And yet what’s the point of correcting people? No, no, I’m not a lesbian! is defensive at best, and offensive at worst, and I don’t feel either way about this part of me.
- Don’t send me an indignant email. Or at least please read my essay ‘Living Fiction, Storybook Lives’ before you go off like a firecracker.
- Not as famous as he was, though, ha ha.
- Perhaps I am a little dim. I just don’t seem to learn …
- Nope, I can’t cite my sources. But I read about it when I was about twenty, if that’s helpful…
- I will freely admit to the possibility of reinventing the wheel here, but I didn’t have time to make enquiries and trawl the literature. The microphones (okay, more often the phone or keyboard) were in my face; I made something up. If there’s a real, academe-speak term for this, please don’t snicker—just tell me.
- Among these is a reviewer at Publishers Weekly whose unnecessarily snarky comment in 2002 about the primary love relationship in my novel Solitaire was an obvious and clumsy attempt to flag the book as ‘lesbian’ for the rest of the fearful. Thankfully, one finds less of that sort of sloppiness in PW these days.
- It’s also interesting that many readers and reviewers don’t notice the lack of pronouns, and happily assign gender to Mars. I’ve seen Mars discussed as both male and female, and therefore as both straight and gay, depending on the stated gender of the character Mars is relating to sexually in any particular story.
- If I inadvertantly gralloched Mr. Depp with my shiny blade, I admit I would not feel the need to beg for anyone’s forgiveness.
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[i] The Straight Mind and Other Essays, Boston: Beacon, 1992, p. 69
This essay, written in alternating voices with Kelley Eskridge, first appeared in Queer Universes, edited by Joan Gordon, Veronica Hollinger, and Wendy Gay Pearson (Liverpool University Press, 2008)