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 “Well, that seems like a pretty outdated way of thinking.”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.
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.
Russ, Joanna. How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Austin: University of Texas Press. 1983.
© 2015 by Annalee Flower Horne and Natalie Luhrs