06 March 2007

Gender and the Construction of Authorship

Last fall I read Julie Phillips’ James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, and it provoked me into months of reflection. For those who don’t know, Sheldon was, among diverse other things, an important sf writer in the 1960s and ’70s who wrote under the name “James Tiptree, Jr.” In 1973 Tiptree’s style was characterized by Robert Silverberg as “ineluctably masculine;” and some of Tiptree’s correspondents characterized “Tip” (as he called himself) as a “man’s man” and a “man of the world.” And yet Tiptree’s work also appealed to feminists, who held him up as a rare examples of a man who “got” it. All of these notions of the masculinity of Tiptree’s writing vanished in the late 1970s when Sheldon was outed as a “little old lady living in McLean, Virginia” (as she bitterly put it). Although Sheldon had had the same experiences as Tiptree (expeditions in Africa, sexual adventures, Army (intelligence) service during WWII, and employment with the CIA for a brief time in the 1950s), the glamour had gone.

Significantly, Phillips’s first epigraph for the book is taken from a letter by Joanna Russ to Tiptree: “To learn to write at all, I had to begin by thinking of myself as a sort of fake man.” Sheldon wrote for many years before creating Tiptree’s voice and style, but apart from her columns as an art critic in the 1930s and an occasional letter to the editor or other nonfiction piece, she published only one story in all those years (published in the New Yorker under the name Alice Bradley. This was written from a female pov, but (going by Phillips’ description) suffers from the very qualities Sheldon in her journal around the time she was writing it believes is typical of women’s writing:

I find, in all the writings of women, a strange muffled quality, as if the living word, as it left the lips, had been hastily suppressed and another substituted, one which would conform to some pattern imposed from without….

The construction of Tiptree, as voice and author(ized) persona, apparently solved her problem.

I know many examples of women sf writers (several of them personally) having pretended (to themselves) to be men to authorize their voices and then eventually being able to write in their own (i.e., non-impersonating) voice; in most cases creating female pov characters presented a challenge to them they overcame with great difficulty. I have also been told by some writers (both men and women) that they are unable to create interesting women characters only by first writing them as male characters and then later changing their sex. And I know that many women writersregardless of their feminismare unable to think of women characters as unmarked or “universal.” (Just a week ago a former student told me that though she wishes it were otherwise, this is the case for her.) The consequences of such gender issues for the construction of authorship are significant. Apart from everything else, as Joanna Russ wrote to Tiptree: “Not being oneself in any way at all exacts its price…The minute one writes about [one’s own experience], you walk head-on into the cruxes of your own life, whatever they are.”

An essay in Rachel Blau DuPlessis’s Blue Studio (“Reader, I Married Me”) offers some insight into the reasons women writers’ construction of authorship is frequently so vexed. (DuPlessis’s most famous essay is probably her experimental piece “For the Etruscans.”) As an undergraduate at Barnard “circa 1960,” Duplessis was a “secular humanist” who saw no need for feminism. She describes herself as having been “poetically awakened” by the Donald Allen New American Poetry anthology and as having being categorically told in a creative writing course that “women can’t (really) write.” She notes that she kept asking herself

which was I, the woman or the artist, with a relentless and lacerating binarism. It was the greatest pain and griefthe sense that I had to choose, that one precluded the other, and that I was a bad woman for wanting an artistic career, a bad artist because I was a woman and couldn’t work out the terms of any art. This ideological and psychological stalemate was perfectly ridiculous, now arcane sounding. Yet at the time it presented a powerful invisible barrier….Self-repression and cultural censorship of females were in interlock. Adrienne Rich’s “Snapshots of a Daughter-in-Law” captures the sense of desperation, loneliness, and near-paralysis women felt when faced with what seemed like a billion years of cultural and social despising…My resistance came destructively, in not writing, in long silences around writing, in baffled and punishing blockage. This went on for years.

And then in the late 1960s, Duplessis became a feminist. “If I had not become a feminist,” she observes, “I probably would not have been able to write much or to think anything especially interesting in an original way. I would not have been able to create the works that came through me and go under my name. My title torques the ethical-romantic climax of Jane Eyre (“Reader, I married him”) not to deny biographical marriage but to signal a polygynous entitlement.” The result of her feminism, though, wasn’t simply that she escaped the desperate binarism forced on her psyche, but that she learned that “structural and formal choices were part of ideology; that language, hegemony, discourse, form, canon, rightness and wrongness, allowable and not allowable were historical, relativized, and interested concepts. This insight was always mixed with a strong aesthetic sense of form and language.”

More specifically, she discovered that “as a feminist” one needed “to invent an endless number of forms, structures, and linguistic ruptures that would cut way beyond language-business-as-usual and narrative-business-as-usual, which always seemed to end up with ‘the same’ kind of binary, ‘patriarchal’ normalcy. Experimental writing of all sorts had always been crucial to the female project of cultural change: of revolution, not revision. It seems to me that feminism (with other socially based cultural movements) is a necessary completion of modernism… Writing cannot make these changes alone; but writing exerts a continuous destabilizing pressure and, in both analytic and formal ways, creates an arousal of desire for difference, for hope.”

Science fiction has, of course, been a marvelous medium for all sorts of feminist experimentation. Despite that, many of the women writing science fiction have had to struggle (and may still be struggling) with the construction of authorship. I’m wondering whether this is still the case for women doing alternative/experimental writing. Or have the very powerful female voices of alternative writing over the last twenty years made this a non-problem? For those of you who teach creative writing: do your women students find the gender-inflections of the construction of authorship difficult to negotiate?


waw said...

Hello Timmi,
While I am unable to answer the specific questions you pose, I do wish to comment on some of the gender issues in writing you mention.
In my own writing, I seem to have a situation that is gender-reversed from one you describe. I am a male who finds it very difficult to write what I consider a convincing, strong male character. Nearly all my significant characters are female and seem to be that way from the moment of their conception. I have been known to write a female character and change her sex to male later, but never the reverse. In addition, the narrator of most of my work is always female in my mind's voice, particularly when that narrator is not also a character in the story themselves.
I don't know if this says something for the strength of the feminine voice in writing today, or something about a yet-unexplored neurosis in my own head, but it does make me more curious as to how gender plays a role in the writing process for others.

I am also aware that many of my female characters are lesbians, though sexuality is seldomly overt in my writing. Is this something I'm doing to make these women somehow more masculine? Or am I just doing my part to advance the "gay agenda?"

This is a great topic and I appreciate your post. I am interested to hear what others have to say.

J.S. Peyton said...

I find the question of gender and the writer's voice an interesting topic. This is the first time I've heard of a writer having a difficult time creating characters in their own gender. As a female writer I have never had a problem writing in the feminine voice or creating female characters. In fact, it's the only voice I write in and female characters are the only ones I create. On the other hand, I'm incredibly incapable of creating an interesting male character; I'd always assumed this was a failure of my own imagination.

Christina Milletti said...

The problem of gender and craft has a long history—Virginia Woolf perhaps framed it most famously in her reflections on the “woman’s sentence” in A Room of One’s Own, and of course subsequent feminists/writers like Helene Cixous (whose work Rachel Blau DuPlessis borrows from in The Pink Guitar among other works) took up the matter in their thinking about a “writing of the body” (feminine ecriture). I think it’s important, however, to spin these questions a slightly different way. Rather than asking “how” we write gender, the question might be more usefully asked “what” precisely is gender anyway? And why is asking that question significant for women writers (in particular) and writers interested in issues of gender more generally.

I’m teaching a class on women’s experimental fiction right now and we’re looking at writers like Kathy Acker, Christine Brooke-Rose, Angela Carter, Djuna Barnes, Emily Holmes Coleman, Gertrude Stein, Shelley Jackson, Nathalie Sarraute, Anais Nin, and Ann Quin (though the list changes slightly every time I teach the course), and it seems to me that while the question of gender looms large in their writing, it’s most frequently showcased to demonstrate just how gender is inscribed “in” and “as” language—that their greatest effort is actually focused on unmasking the rigidity of normative gender constraints: those aspects of writing that make fiction “seem” feminine or woman centered.

I’d go so far as to suggest that this challenge to, or troubling of, gender is a large part of what makes their work experimental: that their focus on the nature of language and how writing can be used to question gender, rather than re-inscribe notions of what gender is supposed to be, enables an elaboration of fictional constructs in their work. Some aspects of their work that come mind (for instance): Stein’s use of “insistence” (rather than repetition). Djuna Barnes’ hybrid characters (the “women” in Nightwood and elsewhere are often figured as “beasts”…even the cross-dressing doctor who describes himself as “the other woman God forgot”); Christine Brooke-Rose’s amalgamated and recycled languages; Acker’s self-described “stupid” writing. (I could go on at greater length).

Of course this kind of thinking has been controversial in certain circles: what can it mean, after all, to question what a woman is, when women, by and large, have struggled to find their voice (both in fiction and in political circles)? I suppose I’d suggest that in fact finding one’s voice might happen more easily when we begin to dispense with the idea of gendered voices altogether.

julia said...

I'm a little late, but this question's so intriguing I couldn't help but jump in.

I find the "muffled" comment especially interesting to think about, since in my stories recently I feel like my male characters have muffled, strangled voices in comparison with my females - for example, I started to write out one of my longer, more descriptive sentences for a male character and felt like I had to scale the sentence back a lot because it just wasn't right. Almost like the character couldn't see everything around him.

Maybe it's just a product of my situation and surroundings. After all, it's not the 1960s anymore, and it's good to see the climate's changed even a little bit (though I don't know much about contemp sci-fi). I would guess there are still women writers that feel the way Sheldon did, and it all has to do with upbringing and influence and the individual's personality.

Can't say I've ever felt restrained in my writing because I'm a woman either - of course, I get that there are marketplace and real-life concerns, but I don't feel like I need to take on a male name in my fiction to be the best writer I can be. It seems Sheldon felt that way.