The Shirley Jackson Awards are presented at Readercon every year. I found out just a week or so before travelling that it’s traditional for the Guests of Honour to make a short speech there. Here’s what I came up with. (I didn’t actually deliver the two paragraphs between the asterisks due to time constraints. Also, frankly, because of empathy for the nominees: it’s hard to wait to find out whether you’ve won or lost and I didn’t want to contribute to anyone’s stress!)
The Shirley Jackson Awards, 7/12/15
On June 26th 1948, 67 years ago, the New Yorker published Shirley Jackson’s most famous short story, “The Lottery.”
—Actually, June 26th is turning into a big day in our household. It’s the anniversary of day I met Kelley at Clarion in 1988, the day SCOTUS struck down DOMA in 2013, and of course its decision this year on marriage equality.
Anyway, 67 yrs ago, right around now, that is, a couple of weeks after publication of “The Lottery,” I’m guessing Shirley Jackson already had the bulk of the hundreds of indignant letters about the story that were sent to her via the New Yorker—so many letters that according to the Writers’ Almanac her mail carrier stopped speaking to her. Even her mother complained: “Dad and I did not care at all for your story in The New Yorker … [I]t does seem, dear, that this gloomy kind of story is what all you young people think about these days. Why don’t you write something to cheer people up?”
It’s something my own mother might have said. I remember her saying about one of my novels—Stay, probably—”Nicola, don’t you think there’s too much description?” Well, no, Mum, I said. Otherwise I would have taken it out. (Having said that, my father’s only comment about my work—after he read a draft of an early story—was, “There’s no e in lightning.”) I do wish Mum could have read Hild; I think she would have liked it—though no doubt she would have thought there was too much description.
Jackson’s relationship with her mother was not perfect. Apparently she wasn’t conventional enough for her mother’s taste. I’m guessing this was true until the day Shirley died of a heart attack, aged 48.
I think most of us struggle with our mothers at some point on the way to becoming ourselves.
Adrienne Rich said that cathexis about the mother-daughter relationship is “the great unwritten story” in US and UK fiction. By this she didn’t mean women don’t write about it, but that critics don’t.
This is particularly true in terms of our genre. For example, there’s no entry under MOTHERS in the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. No one seems to discuss the fictional treatment of the mother-daugher relationship in speculative fiction. Except, of course, when the fiction is by men. (Lots of ink spilled over Stephen King’s Carrie…) Mother-son and father-daughter relationships get a lot of attention, too—just sticking to classics, Oediupus and Hamlet and Lear are obvious examples—while father-son issues are absurdly over-represented, especially in Hollywood.
Writers can’t always be trusted to declare our own influences, which is why it would be great to see input on this from those of you who are critics. Jackson, for instance, claims “The Lottery” was her response to WWII and her subsequent understanding—in light of the German concentration camps, certainly, and probably of internment camps for Japanese-Americans—of how awful ordinary people could be.
There’s a big SFE entry for WAR. I bet many of us could come up with a list of important writers without blinking: Ambrose Bierce, J.R.R. Tolkien, Joe Haldeman… The list of men is almost endless.
But I’d love to see full and proper treatment of British women of the first half of the 20th C whose f/sf/h was shaped by WWI—Cicely Hamilton, Storm Jameson (and, to a lesser extent, Virginia Woolf and Vita Sackville-West). And of North American women whose work was shaped by later conflict and the threat of same (particularly nuclear war)—Leigh Brackett, Vonda McIntyre, Katherine Burdekin, Tiptree, CL Moore…
Shirley Jackson’s most famous short fiction may have been shaped by war but in her most famous novel, The Haunting of Hill House, it’s the relationship between Eleanor and her mother that’s pivotal.
For most writers, our relationship with our mother is the bedrock of early existence. It has a profound influence on who we are, how we think, and what we write. It’s time for a study of that relationship in our fiction, especially in work by and about women. The mother-daughter relationship is a rich seam, just waiting to be explored—and the people in this room are the ones to do it.