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Ryman on Hugos

In a private letter, Geoff Ryman responded to my weekend post on this year's Hugo ballots, thanking me for the LJ shout out and commenting on the Hugos' gender imbalance. I asked if I could quote his letter; instead he sent this for public posting:

I have to confess that I didn't even notice the lack of women on the Hugo nomination list until you pointed it out. Then I was shocked by it and by me for not noticing. My excuse is that I was so delighted to be on the ballot myself, and delighted for good writers like Charlie Stross, Michael Swanwick and others who are also on the ballot.

This list was not the product of a momentary lapse by an individual, or a bad boss who has reverted to type. This is an expression of a community. I don't think that the nominators, many of whom are fair-minded women, were excluding writers BECAUSE they were female or recommending books BECAUSE they were by men.

SF is driven by an underlying dream, and part of that dream is profoundly hostile to domesticity, which is traditionally assigned to women. It is hostile to staying at home on Earth. It dreams, Peter Pan-like, of magic flights to a Neverneverland in the stars, full of pirates and mermaids and Indians. It is largely a land of and for Boys. Women love it too, perhaps because they also want to escape domesticity.

These days women's place in fantasy is not as Wendy. Women get to be guys now. They have a place in the SF dream, most usually toting guns or swords. I guess it's fun for women to shoot people , and men certainly feel more at home with women who act like the rest of their buddies. I would say that the dream is hostile to the traditional place of women's power: home. Home is what you escape and Mother is who you hate. Can our stories only glance at child rearing, washing the dishes, building everyday relationships, and earning a living and not exclude women, at least to an extent?

There was a time in the 70s when it suddenly seemed that women writers were calling the shots, getting the attention and winning the awards. Le Guin, McIntyre... the list seemed endless at the time. The fiction was a series of telling subversions of that underlying dream. It was a bit like moving overworked muscles in a new direction, a relief.

We seem to have reverted to type. It's time at least to ask the question: is there something fundamental to the SF tradition that excludes many things women live through and write about? Or which tolerates those writers and their works while delivering an essentially masculine dream? Maybe in ORDER to deliver that masculine dream. Is this dream so deep and enduring that no amount of conscious political correctness can undo it? Is it the case that men find SF easier to write? Or do fine writers like Liz Williams, Gwyneth Jones, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro and Suzy McKee Charnas simply write material that is regarded as fantasy or slipstream and so doesn't make the cut?

The answers will not fit onto the back of a postcard.


Geoff Ryman's newest novel is The King's Last Song. The one before that, Air: Or, Have Not Have, won the 2005 Tiptree Award, the British Science Fiction Award and the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and was a Nebula nominee. His novelette "Pol Pot's Beautiful Daughter" is a Hugo nominee this year.

Comments

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vschanoes
Apr. 11th, 2007 09:51 pm (UTC)
Well, Charnas at least has written science fiction, as far as I recall.

Ryman seems to be getting at the definition of a genre, but I wonder if it's really necessary to reach that far for an explanation. Technology and adventure are routinely and traditionally marked For Boys Only; why would it be a surprise that a genre that exists at the nexus of technology and adventure would be marked in the same way? One doesn't have to posit a patriarchal conspiracy, though that's always nice because it there were an actual Conspiracy it could be exposed and smashed, just the same, tired sexist cultural fabric that we deal with every day.

Part of the problem is that it's a fait accomplit argument, and that's highlighted by his archetypical example of Peter Pan. Peter Pan, of course, is fantasy; is fantasy as a genre really less about adventure and quest and not staying at home than is science fiction?
cija
Apr. 11th, 2007 09:53 pm (UTC)
SF is driven by an underlying dream, and part of that dream is profoundly hostile to domesticity, which is traditionally assigned to women

yes --

It is hostile to staying at home on Earth.

yes --

It dreams, Peter Pan-like, of magic flights to a Neverneverland in the stars, full of pirates and mermaids and Indians.

also yes --

-- so reading along until this point, I am expecting him to say something like, and this is why SF, being a genre of such intrinsic interest to and fundamentally rooted in the experience and suppressed terrible longings of women for millenia, men make such an effort to hypercompensate and cut women out of their own natural territory -- or something. You could say that it's like the cook/chef thing: fantasy is a traditionally female craft that women do for survival and men appropriate for glory. I mean, that is not really what I think, but. But then!

It is largely a land of and for Boys.

and then I have no idea how he gets from there to here. I mean because following the logic as I understand it:

1. SF offers the wish-fulfilment of escaping from domesticity.
2. Women, historically, are the class trapped in domesticity, who have been legally, physically, practically barred from escaping it -- except, for the most part, in imagination.

3. ....therefore boys can more easily relate to the dream of leaving it behind?

This really seems to me to be backwardsed all to heck.

Home is what you escape and Mother is who you hate.

I shouldn't go on and on in your comments section so I will take the rest of my argument to my own lj, but I will note here that women have (and hate) Mothers too.
vschanoes
Apr. 11th, 2007 09:55 pm (UTC)
Yes, and even more to the point, who would want to escape domesticity more than not just women in general, but mothers in particular.
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cofax7
Apr. 11th, 2007 10:32 pm (UTC)
Sadly, Mr. Ryman left off another option: which is that (at least some of) the members of Worldcon who were voting weren't even interested in reading works by women, of any shade. This interpretation is supported at least in part by some of the comments in response to rachelmanija's post on the issue, and those over at Making Light.

The fact that the Hugos are not limited to science fiction, and covers works of fantasy and slipstream, appears to have been lost on the voters as well. (Well, except for His Majesty's Dragon, and I admit in my more cynical moments to wondering how many of the Hugo voters didn't pick that up until after the announcement that Peter Jackson had optioned the series, despite the rave reviews and excellent marketing.)

rustica
Apr. 11th, 2007 11:27 pm (UTC)
"Women love it too, perhaps because they also want to escape domesticity."

This is really strange. I mean, I love my little cottage and all, though perhaps that's different to the kind of domesticity he's thinking of, because neither I nor my house belong to anyone else (except the mortgage company, lol!). But I don't read sf and fantasy because I'm *running away* from something. It feels more like I'm running *towards*.

But what it is that I'm running towards varies according to the book that I'm reading at the time. The sf / fantasy books that I've been reading recently have all had female authors - Sarah Monette, Naomi Novik, Ellen Kushner (obviously :)!), and I have some Diana Wynne Jones and Le Guin to read next. I can promise him that there's no shortage of fantastic female authors out there! And I reject utterly his assumption that sf is male and fantasy is female - as vschanoes says, both are equally about "adventure and quest and not staying at home".

And, says who that you can't have domesticity in space? Three words: Lois McMaster Bujold...

"The answers will not fit onto the back of a postcard."

No? I have a one-word answer to his argument that would fit perfectly well... :)

buymeaclue
Apr. 12th, 2007 12:53 am (UTC)
>And, says who that you can't have domesticity in space? Three words: Lois McMaster Bujold...

I kept thinking of Maureen McHugh and M. Rickert.

Now, I do think of them both as fantastists, but then, the Hugos aren't actually an sf-only award. Technically.

I've liked what I've read of Ryman's work, but this whole letter is unsettling.
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adelynne
Apr. 11th, 2007 11:59 pm (UTC)
I think I'll start with being offended by the claim that escapisms and science fiction is primarily a man's domain. Or maybe I didn't grow up reading 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Who knows. I always thought science fiction and fantasy were the domain of the geek/nerd/dork/isolated kid at the back of the class who everyone makes fun of - regardless of gender.

Maybe I'm just bitter that I'm stuck in lab at 8pm with at least an hour's more work to do while my fiance is at home making dinner.

I'm also not thrilled with the line "Women get to be guys now."

Maybe I'll be less offended and more coherent later.
swan_tower
Apr. 12th, 2007 04:46 am (UTC)
I'm also not thrilled with the line "Women get to be guys now."

Yeah. I don't have the feminism chops to ferret out and articulate what it is about Ryman's comments, but they really bug me on a deep, subconscious level. And that one particularly.
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swan_tower
Apr. 12th, 2007 04:49 am (UTC)
I had some serious problems with his ICFA luncheon address, starting with the way he was factually wrong not once but repeatedly with several of the texts he was discussing, and the way he neglected to account for some pretty major counterarguments to the points he was making (since when is Ripley an honorary male?). And he had a throwaway line about fantasy being a means of turning away from the future that sparked an entire rant from me.

I'm beginning to wonder how often I will find myself liking his fiction but rabidly disagreeing with him on points about fiction.
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hth_the_first
Apr. 12th, 2007 02:25 am (UTC)
I think what confuses me about Mr. Ryman's post is that he seems to be defending the absence of traditionally-female thematic material in sf/f ("the guys and guy-like girls don't want to read that stuff") -- which is a fair conversation to have, only...not the initial point?

Because if Ryman is willing to say that These days women's place in fantasy is not as Wendy. Women get to be guys now. They have a place in the SF dream, most usually toting guns or swords. I guess it's fun for women to shoot people , and men certainly feel more at home with women who act like the rest of their buddies ... then he still hasn't answered the question of why those gun-toting anti-Wendys aren't on the ballot.

I think the answer is simpler than all this stuff about The Dream, and creepier. Women writers frequently write about women, and in this genre, as well as in mainstream fiction, writing a book about a woman makes your book chick stuff, not serious fiction. Novik (whose books I love) is nominated for a book about two guy friends going to war, so it's legit fiction. Had either of those characters been a woman, would it have been received the same way, or would it have been automatically boxed up as some kind of for-teenage-girls-only silly dragon fluff, even if it had been word for word the same novel?

Women have adventures in girl books; men have adventures in literature. I don't think the mindset is unique to this genre.
orbitalmechanic
Apr. 12th, 2007 12:54 pm (UTC)
It seems to me that this is a descriptive attempt to work out why something happened, being interpreted as a prescriptive apologia or excuse. Are people really arguing that the genre and history and overall mythos of SF is and has always been friendly to women and women's concerns (whatever they are--the essentializing going on in this comments is pretty weird to me too)? I don't think Geoff Ryman is saying "this is legit because"--he's saying "I think this voting occured based on these underlying habits or ideas, does it have to be that way?"
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khatru1339
Apr. 12th, 2007 04:02 am (UTC)
I think a lot of the comments "disagreeing" with Geoff Ryman aren't, really. We're all saying a lot of the same things in different ways.

When I read what Geoff was saying, I put it together in my mind as this:

Science fiction was originally written for boys.
In the 1970s, sf was maturing and the field was receptive to what women were bringing into it.
Now, those different concerns are being marginalized, and the women who are the most successful are those writing the boys'-adventures-type stuff.

Those are generalizations, and you can cite plenty of exceptions, but they seem overall pretty true to me.

(The "Home and Mother" thing is that men can easily write stories in which Home and Mother are irrelevant; women, whether embracing or rejecting them, at least are willing to deal with them. Again, not to put words in Geoff's mouth, but that's how I read what he said.)

A lot of this is still that women are far more likely to read novels by men than men are to read novels by women. The fact that this is not necessarily true in our community disguises the fact that it's true outside of it. I'm male, and have had people comment that whatever book I happen to be carrying around is liable to be by a woman. Why would I be reading that?
cija
Apr. 12th, 2007 04:21 am (UTC)
When I read what Geoff was saying, I put it together in my mind as this:
Science fiction was originally written for boys.
In the 1970s, sf was maturing and the field was receptive to what women were bringing into it.
Now, those different concerns are being marginalized, and the women who are the most successful are those writing the boys'-adventures-type stuff.


Well, the thing is, he's talking about fantasy as much as (really more than) science fiction -- he uses Peter Pan as an iconic example -- and once you take that into account, the rest of it doesn't stand up under examination. The Wizard of Oz, the Narnia books, Alice in Wonderland, the tales collected by the Grimms, the stories of Mme. D'Aulnoy -- written for boys? Really? I'm going straight for mainstream classic fairy tales and children's fantasies because they're what Ryman's talking about when he talks about the Dream -- I'm sticking to his terms.

And then, women have written and read fantasy for forever, roughly speaking. Not just since the New Wave.

A lot of this is still that women are far more likely to read novels by men than men are to read novels by women. The fact that this is not necessarily true in our community disguises the fact that it's true outside of it.

Oh, I think it is absolutely true in the sf/f community.

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badgerbag
Apr. 12th, 2007 04:08 am (UTC)
Hmmm, in my book that's what we call "misogyny"... women and men getting rewarded for valuing things coded "male" and hating on things coded "female". As soon as a bunch of women start doing the thing coded male, the rules change, something else is "really masculine" or "really literature" or "hard sf" or whatever. The rules change but the misogyny persists.

susansugarspun
Apr. 12th, 2007 02:23 pm (UTC)
I think you're right about what codes as misogyny, but I don't think it's necessarily fair to tar Geoff Ryman with that brush just because he's pointing out that the misogyny exists. (I can't tell if you're doing that or not, but a number of commenters here are.) Again, as someone pointed out upthread, there's a difference between talking descriptively and talking prescriptively, and I think Ryman was attempting to talk descriptively. There are a world of valid quibbles with the description, but the broad-strokes picture doesn't seem, to me, to be that far off, especially if you're talking about community self-perceptions and whatnot.
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ide_cyan
Apr. 12th, 2007 04:14 am (UTC)
This list was not the product of a momentary lapse by an individual, or a bad boss who has reverted to type.

+

We seem to have reverted to type.

=

You're the bad boss, boss.
lavendertook
Apr. 12th, 2007 04:37 am (UTC)
My excuse is that I was so delighted to be on the ballot myself, and delighted for good writers like Charlie Stross, Michael Swanwick and others who are also on the ballot.

Why does he need to say this? Is he trying to implicate us as having sour grapes for noticing?

And wow--how he defends away the misogyny of all this in favor of asserting some fundamental exclusion of women in sf, when we have always been at the heart of sf. And women sf writers being all about domesticity--wtf? No, hon, it's not the genre doing the excluding--its the men, pure and simple. I can't believe he has the gall to write this to a woman writer.


khatru1339
Apr. 12th, 2007 05:35 am (UTC)
we [women] have always been at the heart of sf

What do you mean by this? That Mary Shelley wrote the first sf novel? Or...I can't think of anything else. At what specific time -- forget about "always" -- were women at the heart of science fiction?

Even though there have always been women sf writers, they have been few in number until relatively recently. (In the 1950s, they were criticized for writing sf about domestic issues.)

Here is an early passage from Justine Larbalestier's The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction. (I found the passage an hour ago and have been rereading the book rather than finishing this message.)

"One of the things we can all agree about is that although there were womwn engaged with science fiction as early as the 1920s and 1930s, and although there have always been women fans, that does not necessarily mean that women have always felt welcome within the field...."
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vcmw
Apr. 12th, 2007 05:46 pm (UTC)
Picking up on bits and pieces about the difference between material that could be called sf/f, and material that is explicitly published and marketed as sf/f, I'm thinking of the fact that something approaching 50% of the science fiction and fantasy that I currently read is being published and marketed outside of the traditional fantasy and science fiction categories. My impression as a reader has been that a lot of the stories I'm interested in following are showing up in young adult works, or are shelved in the Romance, Horror, Mystery, and (catch-all) Literary Fiction sections of bookstores. Maybe part of the absence of women in the Hugo nominees reflects the fact that a lot of fine (in many cases, NYT bestselling) female writers of works that could fall within the sf/f genre have chosen to play in a different sandbox, as it were? I'm not sure whether the main reasons that they've made those choices are in response to sexism within the field, or to market pressures, or in response to the choice of women readers who enjoy seeing sf/f ideas explored but are unwilling to think of themselves as sf/f readers?
(Deleted comment)
swan_tower
Apr. 12th, 2007 07:43 pm (UTC)
I see it as random, chaos, without meaning

I suspect this will not be a popular view, but I don't see ANY single award as being somehow significant above the history of a genre.

Look at the stats for all the major awards, and look at how they fall out over the course of decades. It isn't "random, chaos, without meaning;" it's a pattern that holds true for virtually every award for virtually every year, to a greater or lesser degree. Next year will NOT be nothing but women, unless the Hugos do a very unlikely about-face. If it did, then it would say a great deal -- probably that someone put together a successful activist program to change the voting population of the Hugos.

If I had a link to the site that tracked those award stats, I'd post it here, but I don't remember where I found it. Can anyone else help out?
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swan_tower
Apr. 13th, 2007 03:23 am (UTC)
Well, that's problematic too, because then "people" are the ones who do the things he proceeds to describe.
gardnercastle
Apr. 13th, 2007 06:10 pm (UTC)
Actually, I didn't read Ryman's comments as saying this is what SF SHOULD be doing--or that women should be trying to be men. Instead, I read this as a complaint & observation of "this is what the mainstream, majority, mostly male reader" consciously or subconsciously perceives SF to be. I believe he was shocked to see the overwhelming preponderance of male writers on the Hugo ballot, and was trying to find some reason for it. As a very, very compact history of the genre, I tend to agree with him. Of course, there's an even deeper & more disturbing issue at work here, because there are a number of women SF writers working today who aren't actively *subverting* the dominant cultural norms expressed by the "majority" (yes, yes, it's incorrect to generalize so broadly, but what can one expect when one attempts to pin anything down to a quick definition?) view of science fiction--and why aren't more of them on the ballot? Many of the women writers cited above are actually using the genre in subversive ways--and what does it say, when one realizes that these writers are not on the ballot at all? I think it tends to support Ryman's argument that a subconscious prejudice exists in the minds of the "majority" audience.

And remember, his comments were couched in the form of a quick personal letter--not intended as an exhaustive article. I would think that more women reading them would start looking at the unquestioned cultural assumptions he's pointing out. Don't get angry at him for noticing--he's pointing them out not to support them, but so that we can get rid of them. I was actually very impressed with his ICFA speech, despite the "factual glitches." I found it very insightful.

Remember: just because there are a lot of women writing and reading SF now doesn't mean they are being recognized or given equal respect. Just look at what happened to Connie Willis at the Hugo Awards last year!

There are still so many conscious and unconscious prejudices about women writers in SF--both by the "general audience" (you wouldn't believe the number of "geek boy" SF fans I know who truly believe that women can't write good SF--despite the numerous examples handed to them) and even among editors (to a milder extent). Now, I sit on the gender fence--having been born to one gender but identifying as the other. So I'm not saying I'm offended personally by the following--though I think it highlights a disturbing sociological fact. When I send in a cover letter without gender identifiers to an editor I've not previously worked with, I often get "Mr. C. A. Gardner" as a return salutation. If that isn't proof of an internal and unconscious gender bias, I don't know what is.

I'd say that anyone who doubts that these problems exist in SF today ought to explore some of the articles over at http://www.broaduniverse.org/. There are all kinds of statistics showing the number of women writing SF versus the number picked up by major publishers, reprinted, or honored in the field.
ellen_kushner
Apr. 14th, 2007 02:35 am (UTC)
Well said. Thank you.
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