Thursday, July 10, 2008

fainting, shame, and obviousness

From John-Henri:

I read your blog entry on literary awards, and your findings seem quite obvious; in a fairly recent essay on women's sf and women in the sf world I counted the Hugos and Nebulas, with not terribly dissimilar results – although the Nebulas have tended during the last decades to be more inclusive. Even so, I suspect that the sf milieu is actually at least slightly more accepting than many others; if nothing else, sf people tend to at least want to view themselves as both open-minded and positive towards social change. In comparison, why not take a look at the literary Nobels, where a total of 11 out of 103 awards have now been given to women (5 of them in the last 17 years). And if women have generally been much too radical for Nobels, how about even weirder creatures – there is, I strongly suspect, a farily obvious reason why authors in their day as universally acclaimed as Willa Cather, H.D., W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Virginia Woolf, Allen Ginsberg, or Truman Capote seem never to have been seriously considered. Sad that not until around fifteen years ago did it become common knowledge (as at that point her previously sealed correspondence was published) that the first woman ever to receive the Nobel, Swedish non-realist novelist Selma Lagerlöf (the 1909 laureate), spent her entire adult life in a complex love triangle with two other women, novelist Sopie Elkan and teacher Valborg Olander. The Academy members who handed Lagerlöf her award would have fainted.

It struck me that if you haven't done the Hugo and Nebula counting, possibly you might be interested. This is how it goes*:

1953-1960: 16 awards for works of literature, 0 to women (0%)
1961-1970: 29 awards for works of literature, 2 to women (6.9%)
1971-1980: 41 awards for works of literature, 10 to women (24.4%)
1981-1990: 41 awards for works of literature, 10 to women (24.4%)
1991-2000: 41 awards for works of literature, 12 to women (29.27%)
2001-2006: 24 awards for works of literature, 6 to women (25%)

1965-1970: 25 awards for works of literature, 3 to women (12%)
1971-1980: 40 awards for works of literature, 10 to women (25%)
1981-1990: 40 awards for works of literature, 15 to women (37.5%)
1991-2000: 40 awards for works of literature, 19 to women (47.5%)
2001-2007: 20 awards for works of literature, 12 to women (60%)

Even more importantly, I'd say, the Nebulas have also been given to non-mainstream work by women – you, Carol Emshwiller, Joanna Russ, Ellen Klages, Kelly Link, Leslie What, Joe Haldeman's Camouflage and many ceteras. While Hugos have been given to what I'd generally think is more traditional work (although by all means awards were given to Left Hand of Darkness and a couple of times to James Tiptree).

On the other hand, the great shame of us all must be that no award of any kind was given to The Female Man.

[* arithmetic mine--blame me for errors, not John-Henri]

Oh, yes, indeed. Fainting, great shame, and obviousness. Let me take them one at a time.

Obviousness. Absolutely. Men (and women) discriminate against women. In just about every arena: art, sport, politics, academics, employment, health care. Why should literature be different?

It all *should* be different, of course. It's just not. The context of my "Girl Cooties" blog post was the LitBlog Co-Op discussion of Always. Several of the participants had wondered at various points (and on various blogs) why my novel had not had more attention. To me the answer, as you say, was obvious, but clearly not so to some of the bloggers. Also not to some of my younger readers. In explaining the situation (at least as I see it) I wanted to tread gently. It's a cruel and difficult job, sometimes, to put on big nasty reality boots and trample through others' Eden.

For those to whom this kind of information--that, yes, Virginia, there really is discrimination in the literary world--is either new or unbelievable, read the best book ever on the topic, Joanna Russ' How to Suppress Women's Writing.

The Academy fainting at news of Selma Lagerlöf and her love life? Oh, yep, no doubt. I'd heard rumours about the girlfriends, but not the specifics, so thanks for that. (And isn't it interesting that Wikipedia makes no mention of it? Though I see someone's managed to mention Daphne du Maurier's attachment to women. But, hey, she was just a genre writer...)

As for shame, absolutely. Russ should have won more than a retrospective Tiptree for The Female Man. But for most people it's a frightening book, and a difficult read; not at all like The Forever War which took the Hugo and Nebula that year. (For the record, I thoroughly enjoyed Haldeman's novel, and I look forward to the upcoming film adaptation.) Awards, though, are subjective; they reflect our taste. Our taste is formed by our milieu. Our milieu is sexist and heterosexist. In some parts of the world (geographically speaking, and in terms of cultural denominators like race, class, and religion) this is improving, in some it's getting worse. In most it swings back and forth across the vertical plumbline of whatever anti-discrimination laws a polity has on its books. (This is why passing the ERA, why ENDA and same-sex marriage legislation is so very important.)

The Nebula and Hugo stats broken down by decade are extremely interesting. Thank you. To me it looks like a steady progression towards equity--with, for the Hugo, the beginnings of a backlash (or maybe just a statistical anomaly). Here's a quote from Lisa Tuttle in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction :

Unfortunately, even after 30 years women are still considered "newcomers' by most men, and women who become too successful or break the unspoken rules and stretch the boundaries of sf, all too often arouse male hostility [...] Women writers are by now a well established presence within sf, but this situation may not last. In How to Suppress Women's Writing (1983) Russ has argued, polemically but effectively, that even the most popular and influential female writers have been peculiarly subject to excision from the male-controlled canons of literary history. An economic contraction, followed by redefinition of genre boundaries, might send written sf the way of Hollywood, where sf films are as narrowly confined to catering to the fears and desires of the adolescent US male as the old-fashioned pulp magazine ever were.
--Lisa Tuttle, Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, ed. Clute and Nicholls (St. Martin's, 1993)

The Nebulas, too, could be a statistical anomaly, or an overcompensation. Why is there such a gap between the two awards? Perhaps it's the difference between a writers' award and a readers' award. Perhaps (and, no, I have no data for this--if anyone does, please share) the ratio of women to men in voting terms is higher for SFWA/Nebula than Worldcon/Hugo. I'd love to hear opinions on the matter.

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