In Which I Rubbish Sexism

Attention V.S. Naipaul. Emily Brontë declares rubbish to you, sir. In light of author V.S. Naipaul’s decidedly sexist remarks about women writers, I’ve been thinking about the issue of gender and writing, particularly with regards to literary sexism.

I can say that I think his remarks are pretty much rubbish. I suppose sometimes it is arguable that on occasion an author’s gender can be deduced from their writing and nothing more, if not from their prose itself from the stereotypical or sexist portrayal of characters of the opposite sex. This goes both ways, of course.

As for no female author — ever! — being his equal, well, I find that hard to believe.

But I think more often than not, an author’s gender is irrelevant; a competent writer can create believable female and male characters and situations regardless of what’s between their legs and the ratio of testosterone to estrogen in their bloodstream. I’ve read plenty of female authors who can create believable male characters and can write just as well, if not better than, your average male authors. Consequently, there are just as many craptacular women authors as there are male authors.

Mating Rituals and Differences
Between the Male and Female of the Species

I suppose I’m kind of biased though, if it is indeed a bias and not the truth. But having spent six years behind a bar slinging drinks and observing both the male and the female of the species engaging in their drunken courtship rituals, I’m convinced that there is not that much difference between men and women and their motivations as we’ve been led to believe.

Oh sure, there are the obvious anatomical differences of biology — vive la différence! Furthermore, I think there is definitely some truth behind the vague generality that men have a biological impulse to spread their genes around as much as possible, whereas women — remember, we’re speaking in vague generalities here — are looking for someone that will make a strong, protective mate and father – again, it all comes down to biology.

But then we’ve divorced ourselves from biology many, many generations ago. While these things are factors, to one degree or another, they are far from the only factors. I would further argue that they are often not the primary factors in many people’s decisions as to who they couple with, or even choose to settle down with — we’re quite complex, homo sapiens.

But based purely on observation, I would have to further add that this belief that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus” is complete and utter bollocks. This idea that men and women are so complex and their motivations so obtuse and dependent on their gender that it is difficult, if not nearly impossible, for the other gender to decipher? Pure rubbish. The same complaints that women have about men that are voiced to their bartender are often the same complaints that men have about women. The courtship games and ploys that each gender resorts to are often quite similar to one another, when viewed from an impartial standpoint as a sober third-person observer, the bartender.

There’s not as much difference as we’ve been led to believe or like to think.

And trust me, children. Alcohol is a truth serum. You don’t do anything drunk that you don’t think about doing sober. Oh, your inhibitions might save you from doing it when you’re sober, but you won’t do anything you don’t want to do, deep down, when you’re drunk – unless you’re inebriated to the point of blacking out.

So, yeah. What Naipaul said? Rubbish. He may be a good author; he may be a great author — I’ve never read him, so I can’t say. But to claim that every female author is inferior, that they are made so automatically by reason of their gender?

Utter. Rubbish.

Emily Brontë says its rubbish. George Eliot says its rubbish. Caitlín R. Kiernan says its rubbish. James Tiptree, Jr. says its rubbish. Marge Piercy says its rubbish. Ursula K. Le Guin says its rubbish. Mary Shelley says its rubbish. Virginia Woolf says its rubbish. And I’m just thinking off the top of my head; the list could naturally go on and on and become quite long.

Julie Phillips' James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. SheldonSF Mistressworks: Celebrating the Women of Science Fiction

But then, sexism has always been present in publishing and literature, pretty much since Gutenberg – or his equivalent in China – invented movable type. The aforementioned Brontë and Wuthering Heights is a great example of literary sexism; for years, until critics and historians established its author’s identity beyond dispute, people argued that it had to be written by a man — of course it was originally published under the nom du plume Ellis Belle — because it was so well written.

As this is one of my favorite books ever, I find this particularly galling (not to mention the idea that it can be lumped in with the pablum that gets pumped out today under the subgenre guise of paranormal romance … no. No. No! NO!). I don’t feel this way out of any sense of political correctness (the narrow-mindedness of which I find rather abhorrent, actually), but simply because, like most prejudices born of ignorance, it’s just plain stupid. But then, it is easy to judge history and ignorance after the fact.

With that in mind, I’ll just add my voice to others in promoting the SF Mistressworks meme. This is a list of Twentieth Century women science fiction authors and corresponding works worth reading, as compiled by science fiction blogger, writer and reviewer Ian Sales. He did this in response to a list created by Orion Publishing Group of notable science fiction books it has published in the past through several imprints, covering books published from 1999 back through to the time of H.G. Wells. This SF Masterworks list is quite the sausage fest, so to speak; With the notable exception of Le Guin, all the authors are men.

I’m not much of a meme person – you know, filling things out and emailing them to other friends, posting them on Facebook, etc. But I do like the idea of this particular meme. You can see Sales’ original SF Mistressworks list at his blog; Worlds Without End has a nice duplication of SF Mistressworks list complete with covers, blurbs, and links to its Amazon store (I need to start my own affiliate store, come to think of it).

I will list some of the authors on the list that I have personally read and am happy to recommend however. You should also check out the SF Mistresworks blog for reviews – you could even submit one yourself, perhaps.

Mary Shelley
Virginia Woolf
Andre Norton
James Tiptree Jr
Ursula K Le Guin
Suzy McKee Charnas
Joanna Russ
Vonda N McIntyre
Chelsea Quinn Yarbro
Octavia Butler
Tanith Lee
Margaret Atwood
CJ Cherryh
Marge Piercy
Elizabeth Moon

This is not to say that the other women on the list aren’t worthy of reading, I just haven’t read them (yet). One I would add to the list is Rebecca Ore. She’s not terribly prolific, but the few novels of hers I’ve read I’ve absolutely loved. Time’s Child is probably the most original book with time travel as its central conceit since the concept of time travel was first thought up. The Becoming Alien series it pretty remarkable as well; she is one of the few authors that creates characters that come across as truly alien, as opposed to most authors aliens, who tend be nothing more than funny looking humans — you know, the typical Cranium-of-the-Week aliens they had on Star Trek, The Cheap Imitation The Next Generation.

Speaking of Star Trek, for any fellow nerds reading this – I almost said Trekkie, which I know is verboten for most, but then I would consider myself a Trekkie, actually, so I can use the term – Vonda McIntyre writes some of the best novels based on Star Trek TOS – that’s The Original Series to you non-nerds. She is one of the few authors that truly captures the original characters well.

Of course if you want to learn more about James Tiptree, Jr., just wander over here on Barking Book Reviews to start.

And if you’ve never read the original Frankenstein by Mary Shelley, what the hell?! Remedy this situation immediately. Post haste. And forget all that crap you’ve seen in horror films (but all due respect to Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein).

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