Thu
Jan 26 2012 5:00pm
Why Do You Write?: Women of Vision, edited by Denise Du Pont

Women of Vision, edited by Denise Du Pont and published by St. Martin’s Press in 1988, is a collection of interviews with then-contemporary women writers of science fiction and fantasy, including such folks as Ursula K. Le Guin, Alice Sheldon, Suzy McKee Charnas, Joan D. Vinge and Pamela Sargent. It is a slim volume; each interview runs approximately ten to fifteen pages, and there are twelve all together.

The interviews are guided by a large set of questions that Du Pont condenses and summarizes in her introduction:

“Why do you write? What were the obstacles (or benefits) you encountered as a woman writer? Why do you write in the genre(s) you have chosen?” I would also add to the introduction a question that was clearly asked and makes an appearance in every woman’s interview, for better or worse: what role does feminism play in your fiction?

The wild variety of answers to that question are the source of most of the tension in this book, which seems to reflect the reactionary political backlash of the late ’80s. In particular, it’s strange to see how many of these women claim that feminism plays no role in their lives or work—but! They openly write about independent, liberated women in their books, and happily talk about that with no sense of great irony when it is juxtaposed against their disavowal of feminism.

The “f” word had become a dirty word by this time, of course, as Suzy McKee Charnas snarkily points out in her interview—“There are women writers who would rather die than acknowledge that feminism helped them in any way […] All this is really a great pity. A useful term, which simply has to do with the impulse to see and treat women as full-fledged human beings with all of the rights and duties thereof (check your Webster’s), has been captured and poisoned by the enemy. The word ’feminist’ is now used most often to divide women from their own interests and worse, against one another.” (156-157) I believe she’s right, and has hit the nail on the head in relation to her co-contributors, who are espousing feminist values while recoiling from any assertion that they might be one of “those people.”

Some, as with Marion Zimmer Bradley, actually set up immense and bizarre straw-men labeled “feminism” to take down with zeal and panache when asked Du Pont’s question. I recall, now, Joanna Russ’s many clashes with Bradley over the years in print and letters, and can understand why she might have gnashed her teeth at the ridiculousness of it all. Bradley, in her interview, makes a fairly out of place and unprovoked jab at Russ by saying that she sold more copies of her books than Russ did of The Female Man, which she calls a “politically correct… feminist tract,” seeming not to understand that perhaps the difference between lean, action-oriented prose and experimental postmodern prose might have much more to do with that situation than “political correctness.” (Or, that sales figures do not necessarily settle arguments of quality or theme.) The ad hominem attacks on “feminists,” who are presented in Bradley’s argument mostly as silly, talentless, shrill, and probably separatist lesbians, are particularly tiresome and have little purpose with regards to answering the questions about writing and being a woman writer. The worst part is that the interview opens quite well—discussing how women have always been present in SF, no matter how folks like to pretend they weren’t there before the ’60s. It goes downhill from there, unfortunately.

However, don’t let that get you down—though you may want to skip Bradley’s interview to avoid a desire to throw the book. There are also some stellar interviews here, in particular Alice Sheldon’s. I found this interview somewhat eerie, written as it was very near her death; one of the interviews further in the book refers to her as “late,” implying that she had died before the completion of the manuscript. Certainly she did not see it in print in 1988. This near-final interview is angry and honest, ranging to discuss the questions that motivated Sheldon/Tiptree to write, her use of the male pseudonym and identity in fandom for years, her displacement from that identity when it was uncovered, and the response of some men to that revelation. A particularly striking and upsetting passage:

“But was it easier, getting accepted as a man? I can’t honestly tell, except by indirection. You see, after the revelation, quite a few male writers who had been, I thought, my friends and called themselves my admirers, suddenly found it necessary to adopt a condescending, patronizing tone, or break off our correspondence altogether, as if I no longer interested them. (I can only conclude that I didn’t.) If that is how I would have been received from the start, my hat is off to those brave women writing as women.” (52-53)

Sheldon’s interview is deeply personal and painfully honest about intimate details of her writing life and her reactions to the world around her. So, too, is Pamela Sargent’s, another extremely personal and intimate look at a writer’s past, how that past led to her present, and how her present has continued to evolve. Sargent’s story of being hospitalized for mental illness and having them forbid her from writing—it was too imaginative and might take her away from accepting the real world, as she describes their reasoning—is harrowing, but her travel through it to write books that might one day save another young woman was intensely moving. Her metaphors about writing being a sort of hunting skill, with untraveled paths, comfortable grounds, groups and solitary excursions, is a remarkably useful one; I hadn’t heard it before, and it has its appeal, for its imagery of strength and stealth and prowess as tools of the writer, particularly when applied to women writers—those aren’t always tools we’re admitted to possess, after all.

The closing interview, Suzy McKee Charnas’s, is one of my other favorites. Charnas discusses writing not as presenting answers—that’s propaganda—but as the act of posing questions and potential interpretations for the reader to struggle through with her characters—decidedly not propaganda, no matter what anti-feminist critics might say. Her rebuttal of the accusation of writing “tracts” is a brilliant way to close the book, following as it does such other arguments as Bradley’s.

Women of Vision is the reading of one night, illuminating with regards to individual writers and their creative processes, but it is also a glimpse into the past—the book is nearly a quarter of a century old, now, and many of those writers are no longer with us or are no longer writing. Their predictions of where they saw the field going are interesting to think through and chew on long after finishing the book, since we do live in that future they were attempting to extrapolate.

If you find a copy lying about somewhere, it’s worth picking up—I’m glad I happened upon it. The personal voices of these talented, interesting women writers of science fiction and fantasy come right off the page in Du Pont’s interviews, some more intimate than others, some more thoughtful than others, but all engaging for those curious about the job of writing.


Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

14 comments
Liz Bourke
1. hawkwing-lb
This sounds interesting. Do you mind if I ask who the other writers are? You mention six of twelve, and I'm curious.

(My google-fu has failed, or I wouldn't ask.)
Brit Mandelo
2. BritMandelo
Yes, sure. The complete TOC:

Ursula Le Guin, Virginia Kidd, Anne McCaffrey, Patricia C. Hodgell, Alice Sheldon, Suzette Haden Elgin, Lee Killough, Marion Zimmer Bradley, Eleanor Arnason, Joan D. Vinge, Pamela Sargent, and Suzy McKee Charnas.
Liz Bourke
3. hawkwing-lb
Cool. Thank you.

(This seems like something to keep an eye out for...)
Midas68
5. Midas68
I'm still having trouble selling my book
"Can you Write?: Poor Dumb Hicks of Wonder"

I'm getting Envious

"You Gurls sure look Pretty"
=P
Jamie Foster
6. JamieFoster
... and I love my library for having this. It sounds fascinating, although I'm glad you warned us about Bradley--it's always very disconcerting to suddenly find an author you know espousing something really weird in an interview. At least I'm prepared, now.
Brit Mandelo
7. BritMandelo
@JamieFoster

Oh, neat! (Yeah, the cognitive dissonance can be pretty alarming when you run into a strange and unfortunate interview.)
Sky Thibedeau
8. SkylarkThibedeau
I was wondering whatever became of Phyllis Ann Karr. She had the Idylls of the Queen and the Frostflower and Thorn series (which I thought Xena and Gaby) knocked about this same period of time in the 80's then she disappeared.
Midas68
9. jennygadget
This sounds like a very interesting book - the Sheldon/Tiptree interiew in particular. Thanks for sharing! I will have to see if I can get a hold of it someday soon.
Pamela Adams
11. Pam Adams
Brit,

Sigh. How am I ever supposed to get any new books read?
Brit Mandelo
12. BritMandelo
@Pam Adams

Hah! Yeah, I'm finding myself with that problem, too.
Pamela Adams
13. Pam Adams
Well, I just got this one read. One result is that it makes me want to read these womens' work- knowing something about the person makes me more interested in what they write. (More for the old books pile!)

One of Bradley's arguments seemed to be that 'those of us who knew' were aware of the women behind the initials and masculine names of that first generation of female SF writers. But how many average readers were in that group? Not very many.
Brit Mandelo
14. BritMandelo
@Pam Adams

That was one of the arguments that just didn't even start to bear through for me - I agree that not many readers were in that group. And historical documents, fanzines, etc. prove it.

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