Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ammonite: why in 10 years no one will notice there are no men

From: Scott Barrett

I just wanted to send you a quick note and let you know how much I enjoyed reading your two books Slow River and Ammonite. The SF Gateway collection Gollancz is producing is fantastic, and a great example of the Long Tail phenomenon working wonderfully for superb out-of-print books.

I literally just put down Ammonite. As I said, I did really enjoy the book, the cultures, and the women that you so richly created. It did leave me with one (fairly big) question however. The defining characteristic of Jeep was the virus. We discover midway through the book that it does fairly amazing things to the women who survived it. But the other defining thing it does is kill all men. Now perhaps that gave you the palette on which you wanted to paint the story of these women, and their relationships, and perhaps what a world without men might be like. But, when these cultures meet, and even become somewhat telepathic, men are never talked about. What they are, how they fit in, the fact that on every planet except Jeep the entire human race is made up of two sexes. Never mentioned, offered by Marghe, or discussed. For the entire novel.

Just was curious why. Was the omission intentional, or did you just not see the need to advance the story, or...?

Anyway, mainly wanted to let you know how much I did enjoy the books. Look forward to reading your others.
I'm delighted you liked them. I was sad when they went out of print in the UK. (They've been continuously in print here in the US. Ammonite alone has been through multiple editions and many-multiples of print runs. It still brings me useful royalty cheques every year. I'm proud of it.

Leaving out men was intentional, yes. I was tired of men always being the focus of attention and centre of gravity in fiction. I wanted to see what would happen if they were left out entirely—to find out if they were necessary to this story, to Story itself. It turns out they weren't, aren't. Even a bit.

When I finished the manuscript I sent it to three professional writers for their thoughts. One suggested no one would publish it unless I mentioned men, had my characters talk about men, have the women miss men. I thought, "No. Missing men just wouldn't come up in the story situations I'd imagined." So I didn't. And you know what? I had zero difficulty placing Ammonite with a publisher. None.

In my opinion, the novel does not suffer from lack of men, but the apparent hole at the novel's centre did startle many people (which frankly surprised me). And I've had a handful of readers (all men—but bear in mind this was 20 years ago, when the book first came out) accuse me of lying (these ones are always angry), obscuring the truth (puzzled), confusing the buying public (frowning, understanding they're missing something), and forcing them to understand the world from a woman's perspective (dazed and occasionally a bit frightened).

I responded to each and everyone one as patiently as I could (sometimes more successfully than others). They had just had their whole notion of the world fucked with, big time. They were angry/puzzled/dazed because they had been left out, and they had to face their own assumptions.

Let me give you two examples. 

At party, a man buttonholed me, angry because he'd just read Ammonite and "the publisher lied!" It turned out that what he meant was that the cover copy had used gender-neutral terms such as colonist and anthropologist and native and employee. So he'd leapt to conclusions and was horrified when he realised he'd been reading about...girls! "Did you keep reading?" I asked him, curious. "Well, yes," he said. "It's a good story. But they lied!"

And the day after, at a Georgia Tech class on Literature and Culture, a student told me he'd got a third of the way through the book and before being been struck by the fact that he'd encountered no men. He suddenly understood how it must be to be a female student at Georgia Tech, to be reading text books written by and venerating only men, to not be mentioned, to not have one's existence acknowledged, to feel, on some level, that one didn't exist, or at least didn't matter. 

So I told the class the story of the novel's very first review, in Locus magazine. The reviewer liked Ammonite and thought the main character, Marghe, interesting. But, "Oh, how much more interesting the book might have been if only the author had included the story of Marghe's brother!" (I'm paraphrasing; I don't have my reviews memorised.)  I didn't add any editorial comment. I just let the class work it out for themselves.

It astonishes me that nearly 22 years after that book was first published, people are still trying to figure it out. But the world is changing. It's my sincere hope that 10 years from now readers won't even understand initial readers' puzzlement; they will barely notice the all-women thing. After all, the point of the book, for me, has always been the story: finding out who you are and where you belong.
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