Adventures in Women’s History

JW Blog Backdrop v4a.png

This month, I’ll be talking about women’s history on the Adventures of Jeremiah Willstone site!

Jeremiah’s world is one in which women’s liberation happened a century early, so, with twice as many brains working on hard problems, they’re more advanced in 1908 than we are today – but that doesn’t mean we’re not trying! In March, the people of our universe celebrate Women’s History Month as a way to highlight the important parts of our history that might otherwise be forgotten, and so this month on the Adventures of Jeremiah Willstone I’m going to highlight various figures in women’s history and how they inspired various characters in the Jeremiah Willstone series.

We’ll be talking about women’s liberation pioneer Mary Wollstonecraft and how she inspired Jeremiah Willstone; women scientists Emmy Noether and Marie Curie and how they inspired Doctor Jackson Truthsayer; computer scientists Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper and how they inspired Georgiana Westenhoq, and women soldiers Kristen Griest and Chantelle Taylor and how they inspired characters like Jeremiah and Natasha Faulkner-Jain.

I’ll also talk a bit about Women’s History Month, International Women’s Day, and the whole notion of “history months” and how Bayes Rule helps us understand why singling out one group for recognition, which to some people seems prejudiced and unfair, really can be a fair thing if that group has been unfairly treated!

Stay tuned!

-the Centaur

Beirut and Paris

graveside.jpg

My heart, prayers and condolences go out to all those who lost their lives in the deadly attacks in Beirut and Paris yesterday, and to the families, friends and loved ones who are suffering in the aftermath of this outrage, which over the past few days killed almost 200 people in France and Lebanon. This has got to stop … but for now, you are all in my prayers.

An Outrage, But Hardly a Surprise

NhXQqR54nB8FNqCbC3aR7y-tzcU2OALTjtp-I6dVXt7m=w1137-h640-no.jpg

Recently one of my friends in the Treehouse Writers’ group alerted me to the article “Sexism in publishing: my novel wasn’t the problem, it was me, Catherine” in the Guardian. You should read it, but the punchline:

In an essay for Jezebel, Nichols reveals how after she sent out her novel to 50 agents, she received just two manuscript requests. But when she set up a new email address under a male name, and submitted the same covering letter and pages to 50 agents, it was requested 17 times.

“He is eight and a half times better than me at writing the same book. Fully a third of the agents who saw his query wanted to see more, where my numbers never did shift from one in 25,” writes Nichols. “The judgments about my work that had seemed as solid as the walls of my house had turned out to be meaningless. My novel wasn’t the problem, it was me – Catherine.”

Catherine Nichols’ original article is up at Jezebel under the title Homme de Plume – go check it out – but the point of raising the article was to gather people’s opinions. The exchange went something like this: “Opinions?” “Outrage?”

Yes, it’s outrageous, but hardly a surprise. I’ve heard stories like this again and again from many women writers. (Amusingly, or perhaps horrifyingly, the program I writing this in, Ecto, just spell-corrected “women writers” to “some writers,” so perhaps the problem is more pervasive than I thought). Science fiction authors Andre Norton, James Tiptree, Jr., C.J. Cherryh, Paul Ashwell and CL Moore all hid their genders behind male and neutral pseudonyms to help sell their work. Behind the scenes, prejudice against women authors is pervasive – and I’m not even referring to the disparaging opinions of the conscious misogynists who’ll freely tell you they don’t like fiction written by women, or the discriminatory actions of the unconsciously prejudiced who simply don’t buy fiction written by women, but instead calculated discrimination, sometimes on the part of women authors, editors and publishers themselves, who feel the need to hide their gender to make sure their stories sell.

I am a guy, so I’ve never been faced with the problem of having to choose between acknowledging or suppress my own gender in the face of the prejudices of those who would disparage my existence. (Though I have gotten a slight amount of flak for being a male paranormal romance author, we got around that by calling my work “urban fantasy,” which my editor thought was a better description anyway). As a business decision, I respect any woman (or man) who chooses a pseudonym that will better market their work. My friend Trisha Wooldridge edits under Trisha Wooldridge, but writes under T. J. Wooldridge, not because publishers won’t buy it, but because her publisher believes some of the young boys to whom her YA is aimed are less likely to read books by female authors. The counterexample might be J. K. Rowling, but even she is listed as J. K. Rowling and not Joanne because her publishers were worried young boys wouldn’t buy their books. She’s made something like a kabillion dollars under the name J. K. Rowling, so that wasn’t a poor business decision (interestingly, Ecto just spell-corrected “decision” to “deception”) but we’ll never know how well she would have done had the Harry Potter series been published under the name “Joanne Rowling”.

And because we’ll never know, I feel it’s high time that female authors got known for writing under their own names.   

Now, intellectual honesty demands I unload a bit of critical thinking that’s nagging at me. In this day and age, when we can’t trust anything on the Internet, when real ongoing tragedies are muddled by people writing and publishing fake stories to push what would be otherwise legitimate agendas for which there’s already enough real horrific evidence – I’m looking at you, Rolling Stone – we should always get a nagging feeling about this kind of story: a story where someone complains that the system is stacked against them. For example, in Bait and Switch Barbara Ehrenreich tried to expose the perils of job hunting … by lying about her resume, and then writing a book about how surprised she was she didn’t get hired by any of the people she was lying to. (Hint, liars, just because it’s not socially acceptable to call someone a liar doesn’t mean we’re not totally on to you – and yes, I mean you, you personally, the individual(s) who are lying to me and thinking they’re getting away with it because I smile and nod politely.)

In particular, whenever someone complains that they’re having difficulty getting published, there always (or should be) this nagging suspicion in the back of your mind that the problem might be with the material, not the process – according to legend, one SF author who was having trouble getting published once called up Harlan Ellison (yes, THAT Harlan Ellison) and asked why he was having trouble getting published, to which Harlan responded, “Okay, write this down. You ready? You aren’t getting published because your stories suck. Got it? Peace out.” Actually, Harlan probably didn’t say “peace out,” and there may have been more curse words or HARSH TONAL INFLECTIONS that I simply can’t represent typographically without violating the Peace Treaty of Unicode. So there’s this gut reaction that makes us want to say, “so what if someone couldn’t get published?”

But, taking her story at face value, what happened with Catherine Nichols was the precise opposite of what happened to Barbara Ehrenreich. When she started lying about her name, which in theory should have made things harder for her … she instead started getting more responses, which makes the prejudice against her seem even stronger. Even the initial situation she was in – getting rejections from over 50 publishers and agents – is something that happens over and over again in the history of publishing … but sooner or later, even the most patient stone is worn away. Legendary writing teacher John Gardner had a similar thought: “The writer sends out, and sends again, and again and again, and the rejections keep coming, whether printed slips or letters, and so at last the moment comes when many a promising writer folds his wings and drops.” Or, in Nichols’ own words:

To some degree, I was being conditioned like a lab animal against ambition. My book was getting at least a few of those rejections because it was big, not because it was bad. George [her pseudonym], I imagine, would have been getting his “clever”s all along and would be writing something enormous now. In theory, the results of my experiment are vindicating, but I feel furious at having spent so much time in that ridiculous little cage, where so many people with the wrong kind of name are burning out their energy and intelligence. My name—Catherine—sounds as white and as relatively authoritative as any distinctly feminine name could, so I can only assume that changing other ethnic and class markers would have even more striking effects.

So we’re crushing women writers … or worse, pre-judging their works. The Jezebel article quotes Norman Mailer:

In 1998, Prose had dubbed bias against women’s writing “gynobibliophobia”, citing Norman Mailer’s comment that “I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn”.

Now, I don’t know what Mailer was sniffing, but now that the quote is free floating, let me just say that if he can cram the ink from Gertrude Stein, Ayn Rand, Virginia Woolf, Jane Austen, Emily Dickinson, Patricia Briggs, Donna Tartt, Agatha Christie, J. K. Rowling and Laurell Hamilton into the same bundle of fey, old-hat smells, he must have a hell of a nose.

But Mailer’s quote, which bins an enormous amount of disparate reactions into a single judgment, looks like a textbook example of unconscious bias. As Malcolm Gladwell details in Blink, psychological priming prior to an event can literally change our experience of it: if I give you a drink in a Pepsi can instead of a Coke can, your taste experience will be literally different even if it’s the same soda. This seems a bit crazy, unless you change the game a bit further and make the labels Vanilla Pepsi and Coke Zero: you can start to see that how the same soda could seem flat if it lacks an expected flavor, or too sweet if you are expecting an artificial sweetener. These unconscious expectations can lead to a haloing effect, where if you already think someone’s a genius, you’re more likely to credit them with more genius, when in someone else it may seem eccentricity or arrogance. The only solution to this kind of unconscious bias, according to Gladwell, is to expose yourself to more and more of the unfamiliar stimulus, so that it seems natural, rather than foreign.

So I feel it’s high time not only that female authors should feel free to write under their own names, but also that the rest of us should feel free to start reading them.

I’m never going to tell someone not to use a pseudonym. There are a dozen reasons to do it, from business decisions to personal privacy to exploring different personas. There’s something weirdly thrilling about Catherine Nichols’ description of her male pseudonym, her “homme de plume,” whom she imagined “as a sort of reptilian Michael Fassbender-looking guy, drinking whiskey and walking around train yards at night while I did the work.”

But no-one should have to hide their gender just to get published. No-one, man or woman; but since women are having most of the trouble, that’s where our society needs to do most of its work. Or, to give (almost) the last word to Catherine:

The agents themselves were both men and women, which is not surprising because bias would hardly have a chance to damage people if it weren’t pervasive. It’s not something a few people do to everyone else. It goes through all the ways we think of ourselves and each other.

So it’s something we should all work on. That’s your homework, folks: step out of your circle and read something different.

-the Centaur

Pictured: Some art by my wife, Sandi Billingsley, who thinks a lot about male and female personas and the cages we’re put in.

Meanwhile, at the Hall of Justice

dakota-lgbt.png  

There’s a current brouhaha in science fiction circles in which one group of (largely conservative) authors and bloggers (whom I read) got upset about how they were being treated by another group of (largely liberal) authors and bloggers (whom I also read) – and decided to stuff the nomination ballots for the Hugos to show how irritated they were.

The situation isn’t black and white – there are legitimate complaints on both sides – but it isn’t symmetric either: regardless of any legitimate differences, the side of the ballot-stuffers has engaged in some truly egregious behavior towards their fellow writers, towards the integrity of the awards process – and towards their fellow human beings.

Their complaint is that science fiction is being invaded by “social justice warriors” who put message over story, but, as one of my friends put it, you know you’re in trouble when your name for your enemies includes the word “justice”.

I am a social justice warrior.

I may have been raised in a conservative environment, I may have been a College Republican, I may be a devotee of Ayn Rand and my philosophy may be steeped in libertarian ideas … but I know what social justice is, I know why we need it, and I am proud to be one of the ones fighting for it.

Social justice is the simple concept that our society is structured in a way that systematically disadvantages certain groups, and that it is our moral responsibility to take positive action to make sure that our society does not continue to abuse them. That’s it, and both the factual premise and the moral conclusion drawn from it are simply true.

It’s your responsibility to understand the kind of society in which you live, to recognize how it is stacked against some groups of people within it, and to try to level the deck, and, because this advocates change, it often gets associated more with liberals trying to improve our world rather than conservatives trying to preserve what’s already good about it.

But your responsibility to work towards social justice does not mean that it’s your obligation to support the policies of some particular liberal who happens to think that he or she owns social justice. Ronald Reagan had a point when he said “Yet any time you and I question the schemes of the do-gooders, we’re denounced as being opposed to their humanitarian goals.”

Our society stacks the deck against all kinds of people: all races, creeds and colors; liberals and conservatives, the marginalized and the rich, laborers and businessmen, criminals and the honest. There’s almost no place in our society where some collection of wealth or poverty, some amassed prejudice or complacency, or some unjust law or lawlessness doesn’t trap someone in a place where they get the short end of the stick – and the policies that cause this are both liberal and conservative.

But one of the biggest traps we’ve had is sexual prejudice: the discrimination against and marginalization of people based on their sexual orientation, identity, or preferences. When I was growing up, being “gay” was an insult; when I was a teenager, it was OK to marginalize and mock gay people; when I was in college, memorably, a young gay man was beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die. We’ve come a long, long way since Stonewall … but we still have a lot farther to go.

That’s why I’m so proud to see LIQUID FIRE appear high on the list of Lesbian, Gay, Transgender and Bisexual eBooks on Amazon. Dakota Frost, the protagonist of my series, is bisexual (and so am I) and my series is filled with as many races, genders and politics as I can fit: white and black, gay and bisexual and straight, liberal and conservative and noncommittal.

But my first goal is always to tell a good story.

When I start writing a Dakota Frost book, I have a little formula: I pick an alternative culture practice and make it magical, I pick a monster and a guest monster, and I pick a disability. For FROST MOON, that was magical tattooing, werewolves and vampires, and blindness; in BLOOD ROCK that was magical graffiti, vampires and werewolves (just switching the prominence), and Tourette’s Syndrome; in LIQUID FIRE, that was magical firespinning, dragons and vampires, and deafness.

But those are only seeds: I let each of those things give me ideas … then I give them the prominence that they deserve as I tell the story. For example, in FROST MOON and BLOOD ROCK, the disability was an important plot hinge, making things happen; in LIQUID FIRE, the disability was a feature in the background – still important to the plot, but not center stage.

The same is true of race, or politics, or sexual identity. I include them in my stories because they exist. Showing people both black and white in Atlanta represents the real racial makeup of Atlanta. Making my protagonist date first a conservative agent and then a liberal activist represents the real political makeup of America. And having my bisexual protagonist date a man in one book and a woman in one book represents the real nature of sexual relations in our world. But it always serves the story.

My books depict magic because it’s fun and entertaining, but deep down, they represent a reality: they use that reality to ground the tales of the fantastic so that you can stay engaged and interested. But even reality must serve the story: good books employ not realism, but verisimilitude: the carefully crafted appearance of reality which orchestrates a reader’s perceptions to compensate for the fact that they’re reading the “reality” depicted in the book, not actually living it. Authors are always slicing and dicing reality to make sure that their readers are captivated by their tales, and I’m no different.

My goal is for everyone to be captivated by my books. But by showing that last slice of reality, the one often sliced out – the slice that shows the full spectrum of sexual expression in our world – I hope my books do more than captivate everyone; I hope they provide a small ray of hope for anyone different who wonders whether there’s anyone like them – and gives them a hero they can relate to.

Dakota and Yorick 2.jpeg  

Her name’s Dakota Frost. I think she’s pretty cool. Go check her out.

-the Centaur

P.S. David Colby was the friend who came up with the phrases “you’re in trouble when your name for your enemies includes the word justice” and “because they exist,” and while I already had similar ideas, I have shamelessly stolen his wording. 🙂