The following essay was delivered as a keynote speech at the 2016 James Tiptree, Jr. Symposium’s Celebration of Ursula K. Le Guin, held in Eugene, Oregon on December 2nd and 3rd.
It will probably take my whole talk just to explain my title. I’m going to talk about mitochondria, but not yet. First, it’s book clubs. A few months ago I was listening to the Lightspeed Magazine podcast and heard a story called “The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club,” by Nike Sulway (Lightspeed Magazine, October 2015). I had read and greatly enjoyed Sulway’s Tiptree-Award-winning novel Rupetta, and I was intrigued by the story title, a direct reference to The Jane Austen Book Club (2004), which is one of my ten favorite Karen Joy Fowler books. As I started listening to the story, I could immediately see how it was interacting with Fowler’s work, not just in the title but also in the opening paragraph. It starts:
Ten years ago, Clara had attended a creative writing workshop run by Karen Joy Fowler, and what Karen Joy told her was: We are living in a science fictional world. During the workshop, Karen Joy also kept saying, I am going to talk about endings, but not yet. But Karen Joy never did get around to talking about endings, and Clara left the workshop still feeling as if she was suspended within it, waiting for the second shoe to drop.
Which is absolutely Karen and undoubtedly deliberate. But Sulway’s story takes a number of unexpected turns that link it not only to Fowler—and indirectly, through the title, to Jane Austen—but also to James Tiptree, Jr. Clara and the rest of her book club, it seems, are not human, though they have names, houses, gardens, and book clubs, but rhinoceroses. They are the last rhinoceroses, living out a gradual extinction. The cause of that extinction is never named, but it is clearly us, since the real world exists as a distorted backdrop in the story. Human poaching and human indifference have already killed off Western black rhinos in real history and are on their way to doing in the other subspecies. The humor in Sulway’s story is inextricably entwined with anger and deep sadness, and that is also absolutely Karen Joy Fowler, for instance, in a story called “What I Didn’t See” (Sci-Fiction 2002).
Fowler’s story won a Nebula Award, outraging a number of men (but no women I know of) for not really being science fiction. It is SF, though, or at least it is in conversation with science fiction, and the writer with whom it is having an intense and rather painful chat is Tiptree, whose classic “The Women Men Don’t See” (1973) is echoed in the title. Tiptree’s story has a jungle, racism, aliens, and women who opt out of the patriarchal system. So does Fowler’s—except that her continent is Africa rather than Meso-America, and her aliens are earthborn. They are mountain gorillas. The story is about an expedition to hunt them, with the oddly mixed motive of making the gorillas seem less formidable—and thus less likely to be slaughtered—by showing that even a woman hunter can bring one down. That suggests another link to Tiptree, or rather to the woman who was Tiptree’s real-world self, and to Julie Phillips’s biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2007). Phillips starts her biography with an image from Sheldon’s childhood:
In 1921 in the Belgian Congo, a six-year-old girl from Chicago with a pith helmet on her blond curls walks at the head of a line of native porters. Her mother walks next to her, holding a rifle and her daughter’s hand. (1)
Sheldon’s parents were explorers who brought their daughter along, perhaps with motives similar to those of the explorers in Fowler’s story: to make the exotic seem less perilous and more imperiled. That didn’t stop the group from killing: elephants, lions, and five gorillas (though that’s only half the number they were licensed for). Phillips’s biography includes a photo of Sheldon’s mother Mary Bradley posed with native guides and a gun. Phillips points out that the same expedition on which the five gorillas were killed—along with the book Bradley wrote about it, On the Gorilla Trail—was also a turning point in popular sentiment about the great apes, leading to the creation of wildlife preserves to protect gorillas and other species.
So Sulway’s story invites us to read it alongside several other texts: a novel and short story by Karen Fowler, a story by and a biography of Alice Sheldon, and Sheldon’s mother’s memoir. But that’s not the full extent of it. The Fowler novel is also, obviously, immersed in the work of Jane Austen. You can read The Jane Austen Book Club the way my wife did, interspersing its chapters with rereadings of the relevant Austen novels, and that’s probably the ideal way to read it. Fowler’s book can stand alone, but where’s the fun in that? The back-and-forth dialogue between texts is so much richer, more problematic, and more meaningful. And it doesn’t just invoke Austen: through one of its characters, the book also invites us to read Connie Willis, Nancy Kress, and especially Ursula K. Le Guin, which is always excellent advice.
When Fowler was interviewed in 2004 about “What I Didn’t See,” she mentioned some of its inspirations, which included not only Tiptree’s “The Women Men Don’t See,” but also (she says)
an essay by Donna Haraway which had a pretty startling assertion, […] that in the early 1920s, a group was taken into the jungle by the man who ran the Natural History Museum in New York, and that his purpose was to have one of the women kill a gorilla. His thinking was that gorillas were increasingly seen as exciting and dangerous game, and that they were actually very gentle, and that if a woman killed one, the thrill would be gone. So his plan was to protect the gorillas by making killing them seem like something any girl could do. I was mesmerized (and appalled) by that, but then, a paragraph later, I was extremely startled to read that one of the women who had gone on this expedition, one of the two women he picked to play this role, was James Tiptree’s mother. (Interview with Lawrence Clinton, Strange Horizons March 2004)
Near the end of Fowler’s story, the narrator comments that after the killings and the disappearance of one of their members, the expeditioners were “All of us, completely beside ourselves.” (185). So the Fowler story also looks not only backward to Tiptree’s childhood and sideways to Haraway’s feminist science but also (in time-travelish fashion) ahead to the Tiptree biography, published a couple of years later, and to her own novel We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves (2013), which would not appear for nearly another decade.
You can think of all this as a gathering of like-minded texts: a sort of club whose members are books. Picture them meeting together to gossip, share insights, and grumble together about how the world is ignoring or misinterpreting them. I wouldn’t push that metaphor too far—you could go a little crazy dressing up books in garden hats and giving them little plates of cookies and glasses of wine—but the idea of an all-book-club helps me see how internal references work in the stories I’ve been talking about.
The traditional rhetorical name for the practice is allusion. You would typically find the term in lists of literary devices, right after allegory. The implication is that cross-textual connections are merely a way of fancying up a text. That’s also the way people generally thought of metaphor, as well, until George Lakoff and Mark Johnson said (I’m paraphrasing), “Hold it! These aren’t just ornaments. Metaphor is a mode of thought.” Lakoff and Johnson’s insight is that metaphor is part of our basic mental equipment. Their book Metaphors We Live By (1980) gives me permission to do two things. One is to look for some fundamental, cognitive aspect within the practice of referring to other texts. The other is to try out further metaphors to describe the operation, since non-metaphoric terms like reference, allusion, and even Julia Kristeva’s intertextuality are misleadingly abstract.
One thing missing from those terms is the social function of literature: the way texts connect with people as well as with other texts. They shape us and inspire us, and they depend on us to bring them to life. My club-of-books metaphor doesn’t have any people in it, but those books aren’t going to circulate themselves. And circulation is part of the point of intertextuality. That’s why we have literary movements and revivals: to keep texts in front of us, so that they can be referred to and otherwise remain in use. And, really, it’s why there are critics and scholars like me. Our main function is to keep reminding people of the great books that are out there and to teach them how to see that greatness. We’re both cheerleaders and travel guides. Every work of literature that we think of as important has had its share of both. Without Melville to lead the cheers, we would not see Hawthorne as a dark genius. Modernist poetry needed Ezra Pound and I. A. Richards to guide readers toward appreciation. So the club of books is also a club of book-lovers, which means my metaphor has collapsed into literality, but not entirely. Literal book clubs tend to be predominantly made up of women, but the Critical Establishment Book Club (all in caps) tends to be mostly men. And men have an amazing ability to forget or undervalue women.
Many years ago, Joanna Russ wrote How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983). It belongs in the club of books I’ve been talking about, since it’s another way of talking about “The Women Men Don’t See.” It also makes explicit reference to writers such as Vonda McIntyre, Ursula K. Le Guin, Suzy McKee Charnas, Octavia Butler, and James Tiptree, Jr.: many of the mothers, along with Russ herself, of feminist science fiction. In a witty and scathing survey explicitly modeled after Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Russ lists all the ways women’s literature is dismissed or sidelined by the literary establishment. A couple of her points are most relevant here. First, the disappearance of women writers from literary history seems to operate in all times and places and frequently without even malicious intent: it’s like a natural law. Surveying reading lists and anthologies, Russ finds,
that although the percentage of women included remains somewhere between 5 percent and 8 percent, the personnel change rather strikingly from book to book; Aphra Behn appears and vanishes, Anne Bradstreet is existent or nonexistent according to whom you read, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Emily Brontë bob up and down like corks, Edith Wharton is part of English literature in 1968 and banished to the outer darkness in 1977—and yet there are always enough women for that 5 percent and never quite enough to get much past 8 percent. (79)
The other point I am borrowing from Russ is that social habits—or club by-laws—masquerade as aesthetic judgments. Male critics don’t deliberately exclude women writers; they just don’t see them, and they blame the book rather than the reader.
Russ imagines a distinguished literary Circle (her version of my Critical Establishment men’s club) piously explaining their decisions:
Of course we were fair-minded, and would have instantly let into the Circle [. . .] any who demonstrated Circular qualities, as long as they were just like ours.
Somehow they were not.
We did, actually, let a few in. (This made us feel generous.)
Most, we did not. (This made us feel that we had high and important standards.)
[. . .] how could we possibly let them in?
They were clumsy.
Their work was thin.
It wasn’t about the right things. (135)
Out of that list I especially want you to remember the word “thin.” It will come back.
Things are a little better now than they were in 1983, when Russ’s book came out, but not as much as we might hope. I always read the feature called “By the Book,” near the front of each week’s New York Times Book Review, in which some writer is asked a set of questions that include “What books are on your night stand” and “What other genres do you especially enjoy reading? And which do you avoid?” That last one is an invitation to trash other people’s taste, and the invitation is all too often taken up by the persons being interviewed, who declare themselves superior to romance, or science fiction, or Young Adult Literature. Typically, women writers will list both men and women they read, or have been influenced by, or would like to invite to a dinner party. Equally typically, the men list men. Well, no, there is the occasional token woman, maybe Austen. I haven’t done a statistical analysis, but I suspect Russ’s 5 to 8 percent holds here as well.
Sometimes the “By the Book” author will make a greater effort to reach outside the Circle or even comment on his own limitations. I was ready to be thoroughly miffed by this recent list from comics writer Alan Moore until I came to the last few names and his final statement:
Pynchon; Coover; Neal Stephenson; Junot Díaz; Joe Hill; William Gibson; Bruce Sterling; Samuel R. Delany; Iain Sinclair; Brian Catling; Michael Moorcock […]; Eimear McBride; the remarkable Steve Aylett for everything, […]; Laura Hird; Geoff Ryman; M. John Harrison; screenwriter Amy Jump. .?.?. Look, I can either go on forever or I can’t go on. I’m already mortified by the pathetic lack of women writers represented and find myself starting to come up with wretched excuses and squirming evasions. Best we end this here. (September 8, 2016)
If you’re keeping score, that’s 3 women to 14 men, which is twice Russ’s 8 percent. Not too bad. Few of the men interviewed are so self-aware.
The pattern goes on. In Le Guin’s essay “Disappearing Grandmothers” (2016), which updates Russ’s book, she notes that
A science fiction anthology recently published in England contained no stories by women. A fuss was made. The men responsible for the selection apologised by saying they had invited a woman to contribute but it didn’t work out, and then they just somehow didn’t notice that all the stories were by men. Ever so sorry about that. (90)
Le Guin, always aware of the power of words, deliberately uses the passive voice here: “A fuss was made.” Who made it? Who should damn well keep making a fuss as long as it is (passive voice) required?
Because no woman writer is immune from this sort of selective forgettory. Angela Carter noticed the pattern. In an interview in the Guardian in 1984, she said,
“It would be whingeing to say that men who are no better than I are very much more famous and very much richer, […] but it’s amazing what the Old Boys’ club does for itself.” [According to her biographer] When the boys listed the “important British contemporary writers” […], they’d include Kingsley Amis and Malcolm Bradbury, but omit Doris Lessing and Beryl Bainbridge. They certainly never included her—unless the boys were B. S. Johnson or Anthony Burgess, both of whom admired her work, and neither of whom were exactly mainstream. (Gaby Wood, “The Invention of Angela Carter is an exemplary biography of a weird and wonderful writer – review.” The Telegraph. Books. 16 October 2016)
Besides making us gasp at the blindness of the literary community, this comment from Carter should remind us that the other book club—the one that includes her and Russ and Tiptree—also includes some alert men like Johnson and Burgess. The cluster of texts and writers I started with, moving outward from Sulway to Fowler and Tiptree and Le Guin, also includes Samuel Delany (who is cited by Russ) and Tiptree-Award-winners like Patrick Ness, Geoff Ryman, and John Kessel. Kessel won the award for “Stories for Men” (2002), which explicitly addresses male resistance to women’s insights. He is currently working on a novel version of another of his stories, “Pride and Prometheus” (2008), whose title declares itself to be in the same club as not only Jane Austen but also SF’s creator Mary Shelley. (In the story, Kessel matches up Mary Bennett, the bluestocking middle daughter, and Victor Frankenstein, both of whom were rather shabbily treated by their original authors.)
I mentioned before that literary movements help put books into circulation and keep them in the public eye. That is demonstrably the case with a male literary circle like the Inklings—Lewis, Tolkien, and their friends. Diana Pavlac Glyer’s 2007 book on the Inklings, The Company They Keep, is subtitled C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community. As that suggests, it isn’t so much a study of their works as an examination of the way they acted as what Glyer calls “resonators” for one another in light of the general hostility of the Men’s Book Club of their day to fantasy, which was seen as trivial, inartistic, and, yes, thin. “Resonators,” she explains, “function by showing interest in the text—they are enthusiastic about the project, they believe it is worth doing, and they are eager to see it brought to completion” (48). Despite denials by many of the Inkling and their commentators that they influenced one another, they made each other’s work possible.
And they made frequent reference to one another: dedicating books to others in the group, reviewing their books, quoting them, alluding to one another’s imagined worlds, and even transforming other Inklings into characters in their fiction (Glyer 188-200). Glyer points out, for instance, that the sonorous speech of Treebeard the Ent was a reference to Lewis’s booming voice (173). The Inklings were setting out to revive myth and reinvent romance in an era that was hostile to both. It is no wonder they relied on each other for praise, informed critique, and mutual enrichment. Glyer looks at the Inklings mostly as a writing group, but they were also a reading group, teaching one another how to read the stories they all loved in ever-richer ways. Tolkien’s fantasy seems trivial if the reader perceives only a slice of the entire frame of reference. A cross-section of anything is going to look thin. Tolkien’s work echoes the songs, stories, and imagined worlds of the distant past, and it resonates with Lewis’s literary scholarship and Owen Barfield’s philosophy and the beliefs and experiences of the other Inklings. To see the Inklings in reference to one another is to see not thinness but depth and complexity.
This sort of writing community is poorly represented by linear terms like allusion and influence, and at this point I want to move away from the club metaphor for a while. Glyer’s term “resonator” works because it brings in a whole metaphoric domain of music: the wood of a violin, the untouched sympathetic strings of a sitar, the sonorous space of a concert hall. But it’s still rather a passive term. I can think of a few other metaphors that have been offered for the ways our imaginations are interdependent. Mikhael Bakhtin proposed the idea of a dialogue: within any given text there is more than one voice, whether quoted directly or indirectly or echoed unconsciously. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari used a biological metaphor, the rhizome. A rhizome is just an underground stem, but the way they use the term suggests something larger: the kind of underground mat of roots and tendrils that links an entire community of plants and fungi. Forest biologists have discovered that what looks like a grouping of separate trees and undergrowth is really a nervelike network of interconnections, without hierarchy and without boundaries. Both dialogism and rhizomes are highly productive metaphors for cultural studies and models of the imagination. They tell us a lot about how we think and speak and write, but they don’t say much about how a specific allusion or intertextual gesture functions within a text. They don’t reveal the richness of community or the delight of following leads from one text to the next.
I’ve mentioned Le Guin several times but I haven’t yet given any examples from her work. The most obviously intertextual of her novels is Lavinia, which is intertwined with Vergil’s Aeneid and therefore also in dialogue with the Iliad and Dante’s Divine Comedy. Less obviously, the novel is a response to feminist reworkings of myth such as Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad. The way Le Guin undercuts Aeneas’s heroic trajectory and replaces it with a narrative of quiet endurance links the novel with Le Guin’s essay “The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction” (1986). It also draws on a number of unnamed historical and archaeological sources that serve as correctives to Vergil’s fanciful, Greek-influenced picture of early Italic life. The Afterword to the novel credits a 1949 study by Bertha Tilly called Vergil’s Latium, which is based, Le Guin says, on Tilly’s walks through the region armed “with a keen mind, a sharp eye, and a Brownie camera” (275). All of these texts are part of the club.
Vergil not only provides Lavinia with its basic plot and setting but also appears as a ghostly presence with whom the title character interacts in moments that transcend her ordinary time and place. Their conversations serve as commentary on both his poem and the novel within which they appear. Allusion doesn’t cover this sort of intricate textual doubling, which is intended neither to retell the Aeneid nor to correct it but to show how it changes in response to different cultural assumptions. The whole poem is present, at least by implication, and so are the circumstances of its composition and its reception over the centuries. The Aeneid remains itself despite being surrounded by another text. The two texts exchange information and insights and alter one another, just as the characters do. T. S. Miller suggests that,
as a result of the two authors’ joint efforts to create the character and her world, the setting of the novel becomes a fundamentally transactional landscape. In effect, the very fabric of Lavinia’s curiously meta-fictive reality serves as a record of Le Guin’s reading of the Aeneid, with its foundation in Vergil but its particular rendering in later readers like herself. (“Myth-Remaking in the Shadow of Vergil: The Captive(ated) Voice of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Lavinia.” Mythlore 29: 1/ 2 (Fall/Winter 2010): p. 34)
So there are at least three separate textual levels within the novel: there is Vergil’s epic, Le Guin’s novelized version of the life of one of Vergil’s characters, and Le Guin’s Tilly-influenced reading of Vergil—further complicated by the fact that Lavinia and Vergil, in their conversations, also contemplate each other’s textual existence.
Lavinia is a highly metafictional book, but I would suggest that we can think of it not only as meta- but also as mito-, that is, as mitochrondial, and unlike the fictionalized Karen Joy Fowler and endings, I have actually come to the point where I need to talk about mitochondria.
I can boast of a thorough, Wikipedia-level understanding of the biology of mitochondria, which are structures within our cells. Mitochondria are part of us and yet they are not. I first heard of them from another SF writer: Madeleine L’Engle. Here is how her character Charles Wallace explains them in the 1973 novel A Wind in the Door:
“Well, billions of years ago they probably swam into what eventually became our eukaryotic cells and they’ve just stayed there. They have their own DNA and RNA, which means they’re quite separate from us. They have a symbiotic relationship to us, and the amazing thing is that we’re completely dependent on them for our oxygen.” (20)
Charles Wallace is a bit of a pedant at age six. Eukaryotic means having cells with separate organelles like nuclei, which covers pretty much all multicellular organisms; prokaryotic cells don’t have those separate structures, and they include things like red blood cells and bacteria, which is what mitochondria seem to have been originally. L’Engle’s description still matches current thinking although biologists have added to the model. Basically, we aren’t the integral selves we think we are, but rather colonies of commensals. Very early in evolutionary history, the bigger cells swallowed the smaller ones whole, without digesting them, and thereby gained the ability to utilize energy, to grow, to diversify, and eventually to become everything from redwoods to field mice. Plants also made their own separate bargain with another free-living organism that became chloroplasts, the structures that allow for photosynthesis.
Mitochondria retain their own separate DNA, as Charles Wallace explains. That genetic material is part of the key to understanding evolutionary history, since it is close enough to some modern bacterial DNA to support the commensalism hypothesis. As the bacterial invaders settled in, they gave up some of the functions that allowed them to survive on their own in exchange for protection and food supply from the host cell, and so mitochondrial DNA is incomplete. Mitochondria are subject to mutation and thus have their own genetic diseases. One of those diseases generates the plot of A Wind in the Door.
So, basically, a mitochondrion is a sort-of living creature that is both separate from and part of the host cell. It provides energy that allows that host cell to function and in turn carries on its own life with the aid of the host. It communicates continually with the organism around it. It changes that larger organism even as it is changed by it. It has its own ancestry and purpose and yet shares needs and purposes with the host. Does that begin to sound like a text embedded in another text? The Aeneid, we could say, acts as an organelle within the cells of Lavinia. The novels of Jane Austen do mitochondrial work for The Jane Austen Book Club. They remain themselves and yet are transformed.
What I like about this metaphor is that it is both concrete and dynamic. Like any good metaphor, it shows us things about the target that might not otherwise be evident. It reminds us that a text that is drawn into a newer text is still alive, still working. It suggests something of the way host and symbiote both benefit from the relationship. And it shows that a thing so familiar as to be ignorable—like a cell—is, in reality, much stranger and more complex than we realize. A simple act of reference is really a whole history of incorporation, negotiation, and synergy.
All of that suggests that we need to rethink literary value, since our perception of aesthetic quality depends upon the connections we are able to make with the text. Without those connections, any literary work is going to seem thin and anemic—and, by coincidence or maybe not, anemia is one symptom of mitochondrial disease. As I said before, movements and literary groupings like the Inklings have always served as connection-makers, at least for the community of male writers and readers. Renaissance dramatists stole freely from one another; Romantic poets defended each others practice and published together; modernist novels like The Great Gatsby and The Sun Also Rises are significant partly because we read them as voices in a conversation. We read them also in a context of publishers, editors, reviewers, scholars, and teachers who tell us in various ways that this is what fiction should do, these are the themes that matter, these are the kinds of characters and actions we are interested in (which is to say, not women, people of color, or children) These works thicken one another. Each helps create resonances, invites contemplation of shared themes, and constructs the cultural and generic codes that allow us to read the others richly and actively.
So how do literary mitochondria work? Imagine you have just picked up a story and started reading it. If you’re like me, you’re waiting to be won over: “entertain me,” you say to the story first, and then “convince me you matter.” Sometimes the story is pre-sold: it’s in a prestigious anthology or comes from an author you already know and trust. Other times you find yourself looking for an excuse to put it aside. The burden of proof is on the text to earn your time and emotional investment.
But sometimes, as you’re reading the first couple of pages, you come across a link to something else that you recognize. Maybe it’s a story pattern. For instance, you’re reading Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy, Snow, Bird (2014) and you realize that the abused heroine is a version of Snow White. Suddenly, whatever else happens in the story, you want to know how that strange scenario of female competition is going to work out this time. The story isn’t just the one you are being told by Oyeyemi’s narrator but also a whole constellation of narratives including the Grimm version and the Disney version and the Anne Sexton version. By making the reference, Oyeyemi enters into a longstanding conversation and invokes all the agonies about appearance and aging and helplessness that hover over the fairy tale. She’s got you. And then she can go on to do surprising new things with the structure, bringing in issues of work and race and community and psychology.
Snow White’s story is a cellular dynamo that lives within the tissues of Oyeyemi’s novel without being assimilated to it. It amplifies and energizes and gives the reader ways to care. The relationship between the two texts is complex and ironic and ultimately beneficial to both.
Another way to call out to previous texts and invoke their significance is by creating characters who represent important literary and historical themes. One of the main characters in Boy, Snow, Bird is an experimental psychologist who forces us to question the nature of gender—like James Tiptree, Jr. I don’t know for sure that Oyeyemi deliberately based this character on Alice Sheldon but since one of Oyeyemi’s other novels was on the long list for the Tiptree Award, she might well be aware of its namesake. Intentional or not, the reference resonates with many of the novel’s other themes and images. Tiptree stories like “The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats” constitute another mitochondrial strain, providing yet more power to the novel’s cells.
Besides plots and character, there are many other ways of signaling affinity with previous texts: titles that are quotations from the Bible or Shakespeare, familiar settings, echoed phrases, and even apparent denials of reference like T. S. Eliot’s “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” Male writers doing guy themes have it easier in this regard. They have access to most of myth, religion, and elite literature—in other words, they can stick to the kind of reference that hails other men and be rewarded for doing so. This network of references is so built into our ways of reading that female readers and even women writers have to unlearn the lesson that their own experience is less rich, less resonant, less significant than that of their male counterparts.
But the mitochondrial chain I’ve been tracing goes from Madame D’Aulnoy and the other litterateuses of 17th century French courts, to the young women who told “Snow White” to the Brothers Grimm, to Shelley and others who used the shock value of the Gothic to shake up assumptions about gender, and so on up to the present—and that’s also a rich heritage. It’s available to men and trans people and queer people as well as to women but women generally seem most alert to the cultural work of fairy tales.
There’s one fact about mitochondria I haven’t yet mentioned that bears on these questions of textual interdependence and literary value. When a new individual forms, mitochondrial DNA is not retained from sperm but only from the egg. It comes down from the mother—from the mothers—all the way back to what geneticists have nicknamed the Mitochondrial Eve. While we can’t, simply by analogy, rule out the influence of male writers on one another or on women (remember what Le Guin does with Vergil’s epic) the mitochondrial metaphor does suggest that an all-male, or even what Russ reveals to be a 92- to 95-percent-male model of literary history, is seriously out of whack.
The James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award keeps popping up in this discussion. One of its main achievements has been to foster awareness of these kinds of mitochondrial connections. The Award, along with the community that has formed around it, not only hails new stories but also gives them a pedigree and a context, and thus new ways to read and value them. The mitochondrial genetic code is also a reading code.
Russ’s book points to some of the mothers who have been erased from literary history. The obverse of that is that the men stay in, but for reasons we might not have noticed. Glyer’s study shows how the lone-genius model of creativity misses many of the most important interactions that take place even within groups of male writers—and she suggests reasons that both the writers themselves and their critics might deny the possibility of influence. Men generally like to think of themselves as integral selves rather than permeable assemblages or as parts of something else. I’ve mentioned the Modernists, and Ernest Hemingway, in his fictionalized memoir A Moveable Feast, is a great example of the masculine artist rewriting his own history to erase lines of influence, especially from his literary mother Gertrude Stein. Hemingway is only willing to acknowledge a sort of Oedipal relationship with literary fathers like Mark Twain. That’s a standard (male) critical trope as well: it’s the entire basis for Harold Bloom’s theory of the Anxiety of Influence. It completely misses the possibility that influence might be both fun and feminine. We need those mitochondria. Without them we’re stuck at the one-celled, beginning level.
At this point, I am working with two seemingly unconnected metaphors: the book club and the mitochondrion. It’s going to take a little sleight-of-hand to put those together. But think about the family tree I have been tracing. It starts with Mary Shelley and Jane Austen. They donate their mitochondria to another generation that includes forgotten or undervalued women writers like Mary Hallock Foote and Margaret Oliphant (both mentioned by Le Guin as examples of “Disappearing Grandmothers”). From them the DNA passes to early SF and utopian writers like Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Inez Haynes Gillmore and then on to C. L. Moore and Leigh Brackett and Leslie F. Stone. They pass the mitochondria on to Sheldon and Russ and Butler and Le Guin. The work of those writers inhabits and enlivens stories by Nalo Hopkinson, Kelly Link, Karen Fowler. And that gets us back to Nike Sulway and other emerging writers, which is where I started.
This is both a genealogy and a long-running book club. The biology metaphor shows us how texts work within other texts; the club metaphor reminds us that it is not an automatic process but one that involves choice and thought. You have to join a club.
And a book club can also be thought of as another kind of cell: the covert kind that functions as a tool for resistance and revolution. I would propose that everyone here is part of the James Tiptree Jr. Book Club, which is also the Ursula K. Le Guin Book Club, the Karen Joy Fowler Book Club, and so on. We are a set of interlocking cells, what one male SF writer suspiciously termed the Secret Feminist Cabal. This, unfortunately, is a time for resistance: for secret cells and mutual support and active intervention in literary culture and the broader culture. Whenever a group of readers takes in a new book, that book becomes part of the collective DNA and a powerhouse for the cell, the conspiracy, the cabal. That is part of what Karen Joy Fowler tells us in “What I Didn’t See” and Nike Sulway tells us in “The Karen Joy Fowler Book Club.” Whatever we call the process, whether mitochondria or allusion or something else like the Exhilaration of Influence, it can serve as a corollary to Russ’s work. It shows How Not to Suppress Women’s Writing.
One of the slogans of the Tiptree Award is “World Domination Through Bake Sales.” I suggest we add a corollary to that: “World Insurgency (and Mitochondrial Power) Through Book Clubs.”
Acknowledgments: Thanks to Ursula K. Le Guin for checking this over and for making it possible in every possible way, including her writing of “The Carrier-Bag Theory of Fiction.” Thanks to Andrea Hairston and Ellen Klages for their helpful suggestions.
Brian Attebery is the author of Decoding Gender in Science Fiction and Stories about Stories: Fantasy and the Remaking of Myth, among other works. He is a two-time winner of the Mythopoeic Award for Myth and Fantasy Studies and has received the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts and the Pilgrim Award for lifetime contributions to fantasy and science fiction scholarship from the Science Fiction Research Association. He is currently editing the two-volume collection of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Hainish stories for the Library of America. He worked with Le Guin and Karen Joy Fowler on the groundbreaking Norton Book of Science Fiction, and he is also editor of the Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts. He is a Professor of English at Idaho State University.