Update: On 25 September 2016 Letters to Tiptree won the British Fantasy Award for best non-fiction. Well deserved!
If you’ve not heard of James Tiptree Jr, the acclaimed author of science fiction short stories and a handful of novels, he was active from 1967 to the late 1980s. He also wrote as Raccoona Sheldon, and was the pen-name of Alice Sheldon, a former CIA operative and an academic psychologist from Chicago. Tiptree had caused a sensation with his first stories, immediately recognised as an astonishing new talent, and was magisterially described by Robert Silverberg as ‘an ineluctably masculine’ voice. Ursula Le Guin said in a review ‘there are very few writers going who have this power to force acceptance & agreement; it is the power of truthfulness’. Tiptree focused on the marginalised, the alien, invisible and ignored in his stories (mostly women), and readers were fascinated by his powerful insights about what it was like to be a woman, using sf as a way to write women as aliens and ‘other’ in an eternal violent conflict in which sex always brought death. Tiptree kept his true identity secret until he told people that his mother had died, with the place and her name included. Once it was obvious that Alice Sheldon was about to be unmasked, she wrote in trepidation to some of her most treasured professional correspondents (Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Vonda McIntyre, Frederick Pohl) to admit that he was a she, and would they still want to be her friend?
The disturbing contrast between Tiptree’s authority as an author and Alice Sheldon’s insecurity in her friendships are tackled in this excellent collection of letters and essays. They are about Tiptree and her writing, and about the Outing, the fallout, the consequences, how much Sheldon wanted to be outed and how she carried on writing. It was published last year, when Sheldon would have been 100, had she not killed herself, and her husband (by then terminally ill and blind), in 1987.
Letters to Tiptree is a remarkable introduction to Tiptree’s writing and influence, and to Sheldon’s life and careers (yes, careers) outside writing sf, especially if you haven’t, like me, got hold of her biography by Julie Phillips. The book has four sections. The first, Alice, Alice, Do You Read?, consists of thirty-eight letters to Tiptree by sf authors and academics who were invited to contribute to the project. I already knew Nicola Griffith’s essay, published by the Los Angeles Review of Books in 2015, but the others were new to me, as were their authors. Even if your interest in Tiptree is tepid, this collection is an excellent primer on women writing sf and writing about sf, because the letters in Section One – with one lone exception – were all written by women practitioners. Alex Pierce, one of the editors, admitted that she is puzzled why no men, aside from Valentin D Ivanov, wanted to contribute. ‘We invited a lot of men, but – as you can see – almost none took up the offer to write for us. Personally this worries me because I think it means Tiptree’s work is in danger of being regarded as “only” feminist SF, which is very sad on a number of levels.’
The letters veer from worshipful fan letters to tidy essays on My Favourite Tiptree and Why. Cat Rambo’s highly observant contribution notes that if you read ‘The Screwfly Solution’ before and after realising that Tiptree was a she, both readings are quite different. Some of the essays are more concerned to trumpet their own horn solos than explain why Tiptree was so good, but then, why not? This is a book about Tiptree’s influences on other writers, which were legion. Some letters are about feminist politics, some are about sexuality, and sexual identity, gender-queerness and gender-neutrality. Justina Robson calls Sheldon’s construction of her writerly identities ‘gender fu’. All the letters express anger as well as sadness and thankfulness, anger about what Tiptree had to endure, and what many sf writers still endure if they are not men.
Gwyneth Jones describes the Outing as Tiptree gaming her career, a triumphant cocking of male snoots. The revelation that the impressive male author was actually female was clearly a triumph by proxy for women fans, writers and publishers. It would seem that the not-women fans were disappointed that Tiptree was a woman, and his reputation seemed to diminish from the moment of the Outing. L Timmel Duchamp points out that Tiptree’s work would never now ‘enjoy the privilege of being judged without reference to the writer […] the revelation swamped the fiction, and the issue of your gender took front and center stage. And the only people who devoted themselves to writing criticism of your work were feminist critics.’ (Duchamp’s letter is particularly good for its detail on exactly why women turn invisible as authors.) Karen Miller takes great pleasure in the fact that, after the Outing, none of the praise previously lavished upon Tiptree could be taken away. Instead, the critics just treated her like any other woman writer, that is, as a woman first, with anything she wrote now dependent on her female identity. Oh, what a change since James Tiptree Jr’s stories were written by a not-woman and could be taken seriously. In a critical essay in Section Three, Everything But The Signature Is Me, one of the few by a male author, Michael Swanwick states that ‘the sad truth was that after she became herself, the truly first-rate stories were much slower in coming’. ‘Became herself’ is a highly contentious remark which others with a stronger grasp of gender theory can demolish instead of me. It should also be noted that Sheldon herself said that she assigned her weaker stories to Raccoona rather than to Tip, and that she did find it harder to write to Tiptree standards once the Outing had happened.
The principal legacy that the sf community have created in Sheldon’s honour is the Tiptree Award and Honor list, offered every year to the authors and works that have done most to write about gender. This is because, as Brit Mandelo says, ‘people’s understanding of what makes a man or a woman came under a bit of fire thanks to your simply being who you were and writing as you did, living the life that you did’. Pat Murphy’s letter explains how she and Karen Joy Fowler devised the award, and kickstarted its funding with a bake sale (a fine tradition that continues, along with art and craft sales at the WISCON each year). I was delighted at the idea of cookbooks published to raise funds for the prize with titles that reworked some Tiptree stories: The Bakery Men Don’t See (after ‘The Women that Men Don’t See’) and Her Smoke Rose Up From Supper. Unique story titling was something else that Tiptree (following Roger Zelazny) bequeathed to the sf community.
In Section Two, I Never Wrote You Anything But The Exact Truth, the editors have assembled letters written after the Outing, between Alice Sheldon and Ursula Le Guin and Joanna Russ. These are so SAD. Sheldon comes across bravely but desperate, worried that her pen-friends (they had not yet met in person) would not wish to continue to write after such a great deception. “Will the women who mean so much to me see it all as an evil put-on? I never felt evil.’ Thankfully she chose her friends wisely, since neither Le Guin or Russ gave two hoots, and were in fact delighted. (Le Guin: ‘it is absolutely a delight, a joy, for some reason, to be absolutely flat-footedly surprised – it’s like a Christmas present!’) Their love is strengthening, whereas Sheldon’s self-disparagement is distressing. She remarks several times that she has battled with depression, and passes off quickly her fervent voluntary work for rape crisis centres and overnight peace vigils outside the White House, worrying that she simply isn’t good enough. She was flooded with confidences from women writers and readers once it was known that Tiptree was a woman, and felt that she had to carry all their troubles on her shoulders. She had so many issues, she so needed her friends, even if their challenges to her insecurities were ‘hitting something unresolved, unsolved, painful inside me’.
Letters to Tiptree, eds Alexandra Pierce and Alisa Krasnostein (Twelfth Planet Press, 2015), ISBN 978-1-9221012-5-9, $16.99, Aus/NZ$24.95
See also my review of a large collection of Tiptree stories, Her Smoke Rose Up Forever.
One thought on “Letters to Tiptree: homage to a ground-breaking author”
Thank you for this wonderful essay. I quite enjoyed reading Sheldon’s biography — James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon (2007) — especially all the insights into her letters to some of my favorite authors, for example, Craig Strete and Barry N. Malzberg… Maybe I’ll read this one as well!