The Call of the Sad Whelkfins: The Continued Relevance of How To Suppress Women’s Writing

Glotolog, n., stand. Intergalactic, current:

Dominant sapients Tau Ceti 8 noted for the practice of frument, an art form combining aspects of Terrestrial hog–calling, Martian slipping involuntarily upon the ice, and Uranian drof (lovingly nurturing the growth of slowly maturing crystals by enfolding them in all eight of one’s limbs). (HTSWW, 3).

My county library system has only one copy of Joanna Russ’s How To Suppress Women’s Writing (HTSWW). I drove upcounty to get it, too impatient for interlibrary loan.

The librarian gave me a sidelong glance when I told her which book I was looking for.

“It’s a feminist text about how women’s writing is suppressed,” I explained. “The title is ironic.”

“Oh,” she said. “Well, that seems like a pretty outdated way of thinking.”

I snorted. For the past week, Natalie Luhrs and I had been discussing the book in the context of the ongoing fight for the soul of the science fiction community, most recently played out in the failed attempt to take over the Hugo Awards. In HTSWW, Russ uses an alien species called the whelk–finned Glotolog to illustrate the methods by which human cultures control women’s writing without direct censorship (4). These days, the tactics the so–called “sad puppies” use to paint themselves as the true heirs of science fiction, bravely holding the line against the invading masses, are the very same tactics Joanna Russ ascribed to the whelk–finned Glotolog in 1983.

Natalie and I considered, for example, Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice. After it won the Hugo, Nebula, and Clarke awards in 2014, it was held up as an example of everything wrong with the progress the science fiction and fantasy community has made. It was a “diversity pick” that only won because of “social justice warriors;” another case of the “literati” choosing high–minded “message fiction” over “good stories.”

This reaction to Ancillary Justice makes it a pretty good case study of the continued relevance of How To Suppress Women’s Writing. Here, Natalie and I examine how the petty sniping about the book fits into the framework Russ outlined.

The Double Standard of Content
She wrote it, but look at what she wrote about (40).

The Double Standard of Content is a tricky concept to define, but it’s an important one. We see the world through lenses of our own lived experiences. Even though both of us are white women, our experiences are different and we do view the world differently despite those commonalities. When we talk to people who don’t share our experiences of race or gender or whose experiences of such are vastly different from ours, we can find ourselves talking across each other instead of to each other. When you look at this from the perspective of the dominant group in our society, white men, you can see that the lens that they use is the one that is the first lens that most people use when initially coming into contact with a work of art.

Russ talks about this in HTSWW, that when she first read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, that she found that it was clearly an inferior work (136). But Russ decided to read more criticism and fiction by women of color and then she returned to Hurston’s novel and re–read it. Russ says, “It was astonishing how much the novel had improved in the interval.” (136) But it wasn’t the novel that had changed: it was Russ herself who had adjusted her lens and learned that Hurston was writing in a parallel tradition, not a subsidiary one.

So how does this apply to Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice?

Let’s talk about the pronouns.

The protagonist and narrator of Ancillary Justice comes from a genderless culture and refers to everyone by “she” pronouns. There’s been a lot of sniping about this, as if the pronouns were the be–all and end–all of the book.

On the surface, all Leckie has done by subsuming men into “she” is turn the tables on what’s been done to women our entire lives. But while women are routinely dismissed as high–maintenance whiners for suggesting that “he” and “guys” are not gender–neutral terms, Leckie’s use of the gender–neutral “she” was criticized as an unforgivable distraction from the work.

Personally, Annalee did find the pronouns distracting—but in a way that significantly added to the book. She found herself reflecting upon her unconscious biases as her reactions to characters changed when new information about their gender became available.

This game of guess–the–gender and examine–the–bias was, to Annalee, fun and interesting. To someone invested in maintaining the fiction that gender biases don’t exist (or that they personally don’t hold any), the narrator’s unreliability on this point wouldn’t be an interesting intellectual challenge so much as a direct assault on their reality distortion field. The crunchy world–building choice in the tale of the ex–soldier seeking revenge becomes, instead, a political attack that defines the entire book.

In the conclusion to Russ’s chapter on the Double Standard of Content, she says:

She wrote it but look what she wrote about becomes she wrote it, but it’s unintelligible/ badly constructed/ thin/ spasmodic/ uninteresting/ etc., a statement by no means identical with she wrote it, but I can’t understand it (in which case the failure might be with the reader). (48)

The modern–day ‘sad’ whelkfins can be forgiven for having grown accustomed to their perspective being centered in genre fiction. What’s made them the subjects of scorn and derision of late is their insistence that this double–standard should continue—that any attempts to change it (by, for example, recognizing the artistic merits of works such as Ancillary Justice, which center other perspectives than theirs) are a fundamental shift in the natural order of things.

False Categorizing of the Work
She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. (HTSWW)

False Categorization is, essentially, bad faith. It allows the critic to shift the focus to something else—usually something trivial in the larger context, so as to dismiss the whole. So once again, we’ll look at the pronouns in Ancillary Justice. By focusing on the pronouns, the sad whelkfins are able to dismiss the entire work as nothing more than a political screed against men, as turgid message fiction that doesn’t even tell a good story.

That’s a massive tell to anyone who has actually read the book—because while the pronouns do take some adjustment, they’re a small part of the novel’s world–building and not a major source of plot or conflict. They just are, the way there is air to breathe and skel to eat.

Ancillary Justice is a thriller and a space opera. Its protagonist is a sentient AI gone rogue who used to be a spaceship. We’re not sure how much more space operatic you can get than that. It reminds Natalie of the atevi machimi dramas in C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series with their sudden and often violent shifts of allegiances that make all the pieces of the plot fall into place in the end (this comparison is not completely out of thin air: the planet Shis’urna in Ancillary Justice happens to be an atevi word and Leckie has talked extensively about Cherryh’s influence).

Russ points out that it is easier and more comfortable to dismiss works based on ancillary concerns than it is to confront our own internal prejudices about an aspect of those works. This is definitely a factor in some whelkfins’ reaction to this novel—they didn’t have this reaction to the second book in the series, Ancillary Sword, and I expect they won’t with Ancillary Mercy, either.

It’s easy and convenient to dismiss Leckie’s world–building sleight of hand with the pronouns than it is to confront what it is that makes it so uncomfortable to certain readers. Further, by focusing on that and using that to classify Ancillary Justice as nothing more than message fiction, readers can then dismiss the larger themes of the novel out of hand.

So by focusing on the pronoun issue, the sad whelkfins can completely avoid the fact that one of the major themes of the book—of the series, actually—is colonialism and the subsequent examination and deconstruction of colonialism as a trope in genre fiction. How many science fiction stories are there where the colonization of alien planets is portrayed as an unalloyed positive thing, something to be desired? In Leckie’s novel, colonialism is de–romanticized. The destruction of culture and the abuse of people that comes with it is brought to the fore and examined in unflinching detail.

If you’re unwilling to follow Leckie’s lead when it comes to pronouns, you certainly aren’t going to be willing to follow her into an examination of power, prejudice, and privilege, as those things strike closer to home for some readers than even pronouns.

In her chapter on False Categorization, Russ discusses the re–categorization of literature as “women’s studies” (66). The sad whelkfins’ narrow focus on the pronouns in Ancillary Justice is an example of this exact tactic. Even when the pronouns pass their double–standard, they can still be used to reduce the work from a sweeping space opera and classic tale of revenge to a girly book about gender. Its actual political messages about colonialism are likewise swept aside: this book does something weird with pronouns that might make people think for three or more consecutive seconds about gender; it is therefore entirely about gender, and that means it’s really a political screed masquerading as a novel. And unlike a proper political screed (such as those written by Heinlein), this one is for girls.

Aesthetics
She wrote it BUT… (HTSWW)

One of things that Russ does throughout HTSWW is combine her concepts into meta–concepts, and Aesthetics is one of those. By using False Categorization and the Double Standard of Content in tandem, whelkfins can attempt to make the argument that certain books are aesthetically displeasing to them—that they’re looking for books which confirm their biases and their place in the world instead of those that challenge them.

As Russ says early in the chapter on Aesthetics:

A mode of understanding life which willfully ignores so much can only do so at the peril of thoroughly distorting the rest. (111)

In Leckie’s Imperial Radch setting, the colonized empire is literally built upon bodies: bodies of ancillaries and the bodies of those who originally inhabited colonized worlds. By choosing to focus on a single aspect of the world–building, sad whelkfins are able to dismiss the larger concerns of the novel and it is this dismissal which distorts their conception of what Ancillary Justice is actually about.

It only follows that this strict adherence to one type of True Science Fiction helps the whelkfins to hold a distorted view of what science fiction is in their heads and to dismiss everything that doesn’t fit their narrow parameters. What they seem to have failed to recognize is that they are only one group among many and that their voices, no matter how they interpret the rules and mores that govern science fiction, are not the only legitimate ones.

We don’t think it’s a coincidence that the whelkfins chose this novel of all the novels published in 2013 to be one of their main scapegoats: Ancillary Justice gained steam in the wider science fiction community alongside discussions of the gender binary and deconstructions thereof.

This was perceived in some quarters not as an expansion of gender and its expression, but rather as an attack on masculinity and the perceived history of science fiction as masculine.

The sad whelkfins seek to return to a non–existent past, when science fiction was a walled garden of boys’ adventure stories. They see the growing presence and prominence of women in genre fiction as a failure to properly keep the gates; refusing to acknowledge that their narrow perspective has never captured the entire picture.

While the whelkfins have a long tradition of gatekeeping and excluding people from the science fiction community, their walls have never been an inherent part of the community. Women of all races and people of color of all genders have been writing genre fiction since its earliest days. Women of color invented genre fiction, and a white woman wrote the first science fiction novel. The walls didn’t start going up until men began to codify science fiction—long after women established the genre.

Those walls don’t belong in the community. The whelkfins have to constantly maintain and rebuild them as they perpetually crumble into the cesspits upon which they’re built.

The current patchwork of walls is built out of double–standards and false categorizations that allow the whelkfins to draw their arbitrary aesthetic lines: in here are the “good stories” that center them and their perspectives and conform closely enough to their politics to not be categorized out as “message fiction.” Out there is everything else, beating tirelessly against the walls; trying to “take over”—simply by existing. By unapologetically taking up space, and by gleefully accepting well–earned awards and recognition for artistic merit.

Both of us look forward to the day when Russ’s book represents an “outdated way of thinking.” But three decades after it was printed, Annalee found her library system’s sole copy sitting in the stacks; its spine torn; its pages stained and tattered; its contents still entirely up–to–date.

The Whelk–finned Glotolog are still attempting to distort reality itself to support the fiction that they alone can yodel their way across the ice.

Works Cited
Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1983.

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17 Responses to “The Call of the Sad Whelkfins: The Continued Relevance of How To Suppress Women’s Writing

  1. Almuric

    “The sad whelkfins seek to return to a non–existent past, when science fiction was a walled garden of boys’ adventure stories. They see the growing presence and prominence of women in genre fiction as a failure to properly keep the gates; refusing to acknowledge that their narrow perspective has never captured the entire picture.”

    Of course, in reality, the Sad Puppies nominated ten women. All ten were voted under “No-Award” by your side. And Sad Puppies 4 is being run by those infamous male misogynists Sarah A Hoyt, Kate Paulk and Amanda S Green, a fact that the vast majority of articles on Sad Puppies somehow fail to mention.

    “The Bias” is right.

    • Camestros Felapton

      [continued] Now what is more notable about your comment is that you don’t engage with the points raised in the essay at all. The authors compare criticism from the Puppy leaders with issues raised in Russ’s book ‘How to Suppress Women’s Writing’. I assume you didn’t refute those points because they are simply irrefutable but if you continue to have doubts note the works that were cited most frequently as examples of unworthy Hugos:
      If you Were A Dinosaur My Love by Rachael Swirksy (which Paulk herslef identifies as number 1 in their hate list even though it didn’t win a Hugo)
      Ancillary Justice (see above)
      The Water That Falls on You from Nowhere by John Chu
      Chicks Dig Timelords by various
      For each of these the same or similar tactics were used and notably most of that list is by women – the exception being John Chu’s work which earned Puppy-ire by virtue of it having a central character who was gay. So I guess we did get to see how the Puppies could adapt the techniques for suppressing women’s writing to the arena of suppressing writing that isn’t hetronormative.

      • Almuric

        But you’re still left with inconvenient facts. The Puppies “suppress” women by including them, and I guess we also “suppressed” the openly-gay Annie Bellet by including her, too.

        Here is one of the female Puppies talking about her suppression . . . at the hands of the No-Award bloc:

        http://cedarwrites.com/this-puppy-has-been-muzzled/

        • Camestros Felapton

          “But you’re still left with inconvenient facts. The Puppies “suppress” women by including them, and I guess we also “suppressed” the openly-gay Annie Bellet by including her, too.”
          An ‘inconvenient fact’ would be one that in some way contradicted anything that I had said or which Annalee and Natalie had said in their article. That the Sad Puppies included some women in their nominations does not magically make their attacks on other women’s writing (e.g. Swirsky’s writing, Leckie’s writing) go away *AND* it does change how the Puppy leadership then treated women like Bellet and wade when they declared that they quite rightly didn’t want to be involved.
          The fact that the Sad Puppy campaign could have been potentially MORE misogynistic than it actually was is not an inconvenient fact to the claim that it was misogynistic in a notable number of aspects. Most notably in the way (as documented above) the Puppies and some supporters used the tactics outlined by Russ in ‘How to Suppress Women’s Writing’.

          • femmederesistance

            Ok. So, basically, no one is permitted to attack a female writer… ever… or they’re being misogynist. A certain number of writers are gay or female, and – going by your comment – the only writers whose work you can ever criticise are those who are male.

            Unless, of course, the women are the leaders of Sad Puppies 4. At which point, it’s open season. Have you ever considered that to be misogynist in a notable number of aspects?

            And, furthermore, have you ever analysed the Sad Puppies response to male writers who also decided they didn’t want to be involved? Was it radically different to how the Puppies treated Bellet?

            You should ask – is this really about gender, race and sexuality. Or is it about books? Or the US culture wars? Or the decline of traditional publishing? You (I assume) have a brain. Use it.

        • Chipotle

          You’re arguing with the title How to Suppress Women’s Writing rather than arguing with the assertions being made in the article. The title isn’t the point; the tactics are. If I assert that the Puppies are wrong to insist that Ancillary Justice is “boring message fiction” that only gets attention because it uses “she” as a gender-neutral pronoun, you can’t rebut it by saying “but Sarah Hoyt and Kate Paulk are women!”

          (Also, while I’m not sure why you think it’s important to call Annie Bellet “openly gay,” I’d like to know if you’ve confirmed that with her husband.)

  2. Camestros Felapton

    In reality Almuric, what Sad Puppies 3 did was to set themselves up as a very, very narrow set of gatekeepers. In the case of SP3, Brad Torgersen picked what would and would not get nominate. When women like Annie Bellet and Julliette Wade withdrew, Brad then promptly lectured them on what their ‘true’ motives were supposed to be. When Kary English attempted to distance herself from the allies of the Sad Puppies (i.e. the Rabid Puppies) she was quickly un-personed by their leader. So the notion of somehow the Sad Puppy campaign being friendly towards women doesn’t stand scrutiny – women’s involvement as nominees was only in so far as they towed the line and showed obedience to the tiny clique at the top of the Puppy leadership. Will Paulk and Hoyt do better? I hope so because ‘worse’ would be appalling…[more in my second comment]

  3. Almuric

    But ultimately, I expect that the reason why Cedar Sanderson and Sarah Hoyt and all the other women of Sad Puppies don’t count and don’t matter is because they don’t belong to the same clique as Natalie Luhrs and Annalee Flower Horne.

    • Camestros Felapton

      //But ultimately, I expect that the reason why Cedar Sanderson and Sarah Hoyt and all the other women of Sad Puppies don’t count and don’t matter is because they don’t belong to the same clique as Natalie Luhrs and Annalee Flower Horne.//

      Again this just knocking down a strawman. Sanderson, Hoyt, Paulk count just as much as anybody. Actually by being part of the sad spectacle of Sad Puppies (a spectacle roundly rejected when it came to actual fans voting) they count more than than the average blogger because people have paid more attention to their views than you might otherwise expect.
      People have not ignored Hoyt or Paulk or Sanderson – so in what sense do they not ‘count’? Do you mean because they weren’t automatically entitled to their own Hugo by virtue of simply existing? Well break out a piece of paper, a pencil and possibly a calculator. Work out how many people are writing blogs on SFF and work out how many of them can possibly get Hugo nominations and then work out how many of them can possibly win. Sorry but nobody is ENTITLED to a Hugo and ironically the Sad Puppies claim that they themselves are opposed to that idea *AND* are opposed to the notion of affirmative action. Yet as soon as they lost really, really badly we have seen them trot out this kind of pseudo-affirmative action argument (e.g. Brad Torgersen’s rant about ‘women thrown under the bus’ because the people he chose were not the people voters wanted to vote for).

      • Almuric

        Look who’s strawmanning. NOBODY on the Sad Puppies side has said that anyone is entitled to a Hugo just for existing. NOBODY. Just like all your other misrepresentations of the SP side, accusing them of homophobic and misogynistic sentiments they never expressed.

        We don’t want to suppress anybody. On the contrary, we like to keep you guys talking. 🙂

        • Camestros Felapton

          //NOBODY on the Sad Puppies side has said that anyone is entitled to a Hugo just for existing.//

          As in, nobody has ever used those exact words? Sure – which is why they aren’t in quote marks. Have puppies repeatedly implied that by their actions and rhetoric? Absolutely. Case in point Cedar Sanderson’s complaint that she has been muzzled because voters chose to vote for No Award instead.
          Now I’ll concede that alternatively that there is no rhyme or reason at all to the words, rhetoric and actions of the Puppy leaders but I’m not sure how they’d see that as an improvement. Assuming that there is at least *some* coherence to it, then there is a repeated implication that at least some of their nominees are entitled to awards that they didn’t win.
          And the flip side of that is the Puppy claims that there are works and people who were NOT entitled to the nominations or awards they got – a significant number of them being (surprise) women.

  4. Camestros Felapton

    //Here is one of the female Puppies talking about her suppression . . . at the hands of the No-Award bloc:

    http://cedarwrites.com/this-puppy-has-been-muzzled/ //

    Given the demonstrative truth that Cedar Sanderson is still posting and has her views as widely promulgated as much as she ever did, adequately demonstrates that she has not been muzzled. She didn’t win a Hugo – if that counts as being ‘muzzled’ then rationally, and to be consistent with her own logic then every person bumped off the nominations by the Sad/Rabid campaigns were equally ‘muzzled’.

  5. Cat

    You can tell what the Sad Whelkfins were really about by their complaints that women and minority authors who won awards were “affirmative action picks.”
    And the Whelkfin complaints about _Ancillary Justice_ and _If You Were A Dinosaur My Love_ are just completely bizarre. “It’s fantasy because taverns plus snow” “using one pronoun for both genders has been done to death” and “it’s pornography” or “it shows hatred of the working class.”
    You would think people would stop saying things like this because it ought to be embarrassing to be so blatantly wrong on a basic reading comprehension level. But they keep it up. It’s enough to make me agree with you that _How To Suppress Women’s Writing_ is still topical.
    Which latter work, by the way, I had mistaken for the one-page summary I see online sometimes. There is plainly more to it and I’m going to have to try to get my hands on a copy. Thank you for bringing that to my attention.

  6. Camestros Felapton

    femmederesistance
    11-03-2015 1:04 PM said:
    //Ok. So, basically, no one is permitted to attack a female writer… ever… or they’re being misogynist. //
    Not only is that a strawman and intentional misrepresentation of what was said but it is also a particularly weak one.
    Criticising works by women is not inherently misogynistic. Read the article above or better yet read Russ’s book.

    //Unless, of course, the women are the leaders of Sad Puppies 4. At which point, it’s open season.//
    I would roundly condemn the kind of attacks on people’s appearance we have seen by Puppy supporters (eg on VoxD’s blog) if they were directed at Hoyt or Paulk. Notably the Sad Puppy leadership did not condemn those kinds of repeated attacks from their Rabid allies.

    //And, furthermore, have you ever analysed the Sad Puppies response to male writers who also decided they didn’t want to be involved? Was it radically different to how the Puppies treated Bellet?//
    Brad Torgersen’s comments to Juliette Wade were unlike anything he directed at male nominees who withdrew.

    //You should ask – is this really about gender, race and sexuality.//
    See the list of works most singled
    out by Sad Puppies. See what their allues in Rabid Puppies say.

    //Or is it about books? Or the US culture wars? Or the decline of traditional publishing? You (I assume) have a brain. Use it.//
    False dichotomy. Notable puppies linked the decline in sales if SF to issues of politics, race and sexuality. That is a simple fact. Pretending otherwise is silly.

  7. LostSailor

    Thanks you. This essay actually goes a long way to proving the Puppies point very succinctly.

    There’s been a lot of sniping about this, as if the pronouns were the be–all and end–all of the book.

    Not on the Puppies side. But on gushing reviews by fans of the book, the pronouns were significant. Indeed, this essay shows how significant the pronouns are: “Personally, Annalee did find the pronouns distracting—but in a way that significantly added to the book.

    Most Puppies would agree with this: …because while the pronouns do take some adjustment, they’re a small part of the novel’s world–building and not a major source of plot or conflict.. Exactly. They are not a major source of plot or conflict, they’re just there and don’t influence the story in any significant way. Which is why Puppies largely ignored them. They’re an affectation. But an affectation that is clearly a signalling one to fans of the message (not the story):

    Ancillary Justice gained steam in the wider science fiction community alongside discussions of the gender binary and deconstructions thereof.

    Indeed, supportive reviews and this very essay discuss the message of the book rather than the story. The story was fairly average; not at all bad, but not particularly prize-worthy on it’s own merits. Leckie is a good writer and hopefully in the future she’ll invest her talents more at story building than message building.

    This was perceived in some quarters not as an expansion of gender and its expression, but rather as an attack on masculinity and the perceived history of science fiction as masculine.

    Perceived by these authors and other supporters of the book, but not so perceived by the Puppies. The story doesn’t rise to the level of being an attack on masculinity. Unless you’re suggesting that the message of the book, not the story is what is most significant. In which case, you agree with the Puppies.

    No one is looking to suppress women writers or force them to write particular kinds of stories, but we do appreciate good stories whatever the sex or gender of the author. I read entertaining science fiction by women writers all the time.

    But it wasn’t the novel that had changed: it was Russ herself who had adjusted her lens.

    And here’s the kicker: if a science fiction authors story can only be sufficiently appreciated by looking through a particular “lens”–in this case a feminist lens–then the author has failed. A better author writing a better story would be (and many other have been in the past) able to illuminate themes of deconstructing gender bias, colonialism, and destruction of culture–of power, prejudice, and privilege–without forcing the reader to adopt a particular “lens”; a better story would simply draw the reader in so compellingly the adoption of a “lens” would be unnecessary. A compelling story–a Hugo-worthy story–is it’s own lens.

    Requiring the adoption by the reader of a “lens” doesn’t work for good stories. But it does work for good polemics.

    Puppies QED.

  8. Adastra

    “Women of color invented genre fiction, and a white woman wrote the first science fiction novel.”

    Could someone unpack this sentence for me? I get the Mary Shelly reference but, “Woman of color invented genre fiction…” has me baffled. I don’t see how any demographic can claim to invent a genre much less all genres. It seems like there is some reference I’m missing here.

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