The continuing adventures of Sofia Khan have been much anticipated. I adored Malik’s first novel, Sofia Khan is Not Obliged, and its sequel begins very satisfyingly with the immortal words of ‘Reader, I married him’. This is of course the burning question at the end of Sofia Khan when she’s flying off to Karachi with Conall, whom she has only just realised has become a Muslim (the beard, the not drinking, the Muslim friends: none of that clicked before). Would they actually get married, or just save the world chastely together? Conall – her inscrutable, kind Irish neighbour – is all Sofia has ever truly desired, and one month into their new married life in Karachi she realises that she hardly knows him.
Malik clears that point out of the way briskly so we can carry on with their story, which is not so much the story of a marriage as learning what you’ve got once you are married. It is very pleasing to read a novel that tackles marriage as something that needs work, and that needs total honesty. Unfortunately one of this happy couple has not been wholly honest, and has to rethink some priorities in life, dragging the other partner in the marriage along to a bravely bleak ending.
Pause for a realism break. The conventions of fiction mean that a page and a half of dialogue has to stand in for the days of necessary intermittent, accumulating communication that make a marriage work. Sofia certainly talks to Conall, and he does listen. Occasionally he talks to her. But in this novel, almost every plot point and character arc depends on non-communication, the failing to divulge, and characters’ reluctance to pass on crucial information. The Other Side of Happiness depends on these non-communications for the story, and Sofia, to wind their way into your affections.
Everyone is distracted, or unnaturally reticent, or withholding information, although they know they ought to hand it over but haven’t the nerve, or don’t think it’s important, or think that it’s so flaming obvious that anyone who needs to know, will. I have rarely read a novel during which I wanted to scream TALK TO HER! so often, to so many characters, Sofia included. Again and again a massive load-bearing plot twist depends on X not having told Y the facts about Z. It gets to you after a bit. All the female characters spend their lives on social media, texting, talking in bedrooms or living-rooms, yet Things Don’t Get Told. The men are the really taciturn ones, except Conall’s brother Sean (I absolutely relate to Sean), who spends the novel asking helplessly why X hasn’t told Y the truth about Z, thus revealing Z to the grateful reader.
Meanwhile, in Sofia’s personal trajectory, she has a book launch and a wedding, and an unexpected trip to Ireland where she sings the hymns during Mass and does not comprehend Irish dialect. She becomes a publisher’s reader. She tries to work out how to write her next book, on Muslim marriage, when everything she thought she knew about it is getting tragically complicated and too bloody real. She rises, though. Our Sofe rises up, she keeps afloat, her beloved friends bob along with her, and even her mother does extraordinary things. Conall is Sofia’s problem: a more annoying, aggravating, monosyllabic, lovable lunk I have yet to read.
The Other Half of Happiness is not the fascinating, delirious page-turner that Sofia Khan was, keeping me trapped reading it on a sofa for hours. It’s deeper, it’s more serious and a lot braver, in terms of writing about marriage. It is a tear-jerker, though I also laughed out loud. The one-liners may be fewer, but they still devastate.
Ayisha Malik, The Other Half of Happiness (Bonnier Zaffre, 6 April 2017), ISBN 978 17857 607 30, £7.99
Today’s novel from the Really Like This Book’s podcast scripts catch-up is about art: buying it, faking it, selling it, advising on it, collecting it, and valuing your life by what you say about it. Rose Macaulay’s novel The Lee Shore really is completely forgotten, but is a fascinating read. It’s one of a clutch of Macaulay’s pre-war novels that she herself didn’t want to be reprinted once she had become successful in the 1920s, and which have largely avoided being rediscovered by modern publishers. (You can get it as a free ebook download if you shop around between apps.) But in its day it was a triumph. It won a fabulous prize of £1000 from Hodder & Stoughton (about £50,000 in today’s money), which enabled Macaulay to leave home and set herself up in literary London an author.
In the Edwardian period Macaulay wrote a lot about the danger of slipping out of your class if you were upper class, and the importance of maintaining your personal honour and integrity, even if this meant abandoning or being abandoned by your class and all that you had been brought up to expect to have as your life. The way she combines these two contra-indicators makes The Lee Shore a serious investigation of modern and traditional mores.
She uses what we in the trade call the free indirect voice, which is when the reader not only sees the action of the story from one or more characters’ perspectives, but is shown their point of view, their feelings, by having parts of the narrative told in their own words, as if their thoughts had taken over the narration. It’s a hugely effective way to reveal, for example, underlying nastiness or hypocrisy in a character, by having their unpleasantness emerge in how they say what they say. In the case of this novel, all the characters are painfully concerned with their class position, and what they ought to be doing, wearing and saying, because of their birth and status. The tensions caused by the inevitable have-nots clashing with the haves produce disasters. The focus of the novel is the nicest character of all, a kind and helpful and honest young man called Peter Margerison. His free indirect voice is used as the narrative to show us, despite the awful things that happen to him, how he manages to maintain cheerfulness and hope.
We first meet Peter when he is being carried off injured from the football field by the god of his public school, Denis Urquhart. Denis is captain of rugby, and is slightly related to Peter in the sense that Peter’s widowed mother was once married to Denis’s father. Denis inherits money and property and a very comfortable life, while Peter has to struggle to keep up with the class into which he has been born. But he himself isn’t very interested in class status, it’s the standards that his class insist on that drive his life.
Peter makes his living by advising the wealthy and ignorant what art to buy, how to decorate their homes, and tries to educate their taste. He is such an honourable person that he takes great pains to work with his clients’ taste, and to steer them away from the hideous in favour of the beautiful. All this goes very well, and Peter builds up good relationships with his distant Urquhart relations. Until one day he and his main client travel to Venice, and come across a terribly pretentious and possibly fraudulent local art newspaper which advises its readers to buy things that Peter knows are fakes, or impossible to acquire at the prices quoted. To his horror, he finds that the editor of this nasty little newspaper is his own half-brother Hilary.
Hilary is the elder of the brothers by a good ten years or more. He makes sure that Peter feels obliged to follow his lead, and to defer to him as the de facto head of the Margerison family. He is a masterful portrait of petulant entitlement, he is quite the most horrible character in this novel, and it is against him and his shoddy values and slippery standards that Peter has to struggle. But which come first: family solidarity and blood ties, or the abstract values of integrity and honour? Peter chooses honour, in the sense that his honour will not allow him to see his brother fail and go under, and he also chooses honour by refusing to let Hilary dabble any longer in fake art dealing, or to take bribes from the art fakers of Venice. Hilary’s feckless but heroic wife Peggy has too much to do in bringing up their too many children, and she tries to run boarding houses to make a living. Her family spends the entire novel slithering slowly but inexorably into poverty, to Hilary’s fury, because it is never his fault. And Peter, naturally, goes down too, despite the hopes he has, and the good deeds he does, and the social credit and goodwill he still has with his rich friends and the Urquhart family.
The free indirect voice narration, because it brings us so close to Peter’s thoughts but still keeps us at a distance, produces a powerful impression of fragility. Peter’s decent acts and honourable behaviour seem to bring him nothing but trouble, and the worst thing he does, as well as one of the best, is to marry Rhoda, a stray girl who finds herself abandoned in Peggy’s boarding house, to protect her from inevitable degradation at the hands of the villainous dandy Vivian. Rhoda is not of Peter’s class, though she tries hard to keep up with his talk and his standards, and he tries very hard to make her happy and give her security. They have a baby boy, lovely baby Thomas who is the delight of Peter’s heart, and who gives him something to live for when the worst happens and Peter thinks that nothing else can possibly make his world any more awful. He tries for happiness again with his cousin Lucy, whom he has always loved, but who has – inexplicably – married Denis Urquhart.
At the last minute they change their minds, and Peter runs away without Lucy, taking Thomas with him, and finds happiness in a simple vagabond life in a cart pulled by a donkey wandering around the coast of Italy in the summer sunshine. Peter earns money by selling his embroidery – this was a period when embroidery by an artistic young man was considered a little odd but quite reasonable as an aesthetic choice of activity – and they find rest and safety on the lee shore of life, sheltered from the rough winds of the world.
Peter turns into a modernised version of the Victorian scholar-gypsy, though he must take responsibility for feeding his child and the donkey. More Victorian elements poke through the Edwardian setting with the incessant sermonising. Those rich and well-off Urquharts and related peers keep summoning Peter to interviews and offer to lend him money, asked or unasked, and he always refuses. The novel seems to act out a strange, warped version of the code of honourable conduct derived from public schools which we are expected to admire, since Peter sticks to it so assiduously, even though he is made to suffer almost all the way through the plot. In that respect he’s very like Hugh Walpole’s Peter Westcott from Fortitude. He too has his life bound up tightly with the friends he made at school, both the faithful and the cads.
Macaulay, who had grown up in Italy, was perfectly conversant with how English gentlemen could live there without losing caste. Her earlier novels The Furnace (1907) and Views and Vagabonds (1912) have a good look at the danger to the English character that will ensue if certain standards are not upheld when living abroad, though she is generally, though not always, on the side of the vagabonds. She always depicted the freedom of Italian living as a beautiful, desirable, perfect existence, but also an impossible one if an English gentleman was to fulfil his national and class destiny. Living like an Italian would be like going native, and a gentleman must never do that. Somehow, Macaulay does try to get around this for Peter, to find a way he can retain his integrity while still living in freedom, and in a rather unrealistic way, she does manage this. But I can’t help thinking, what was going to happen to baby Thomas when he caught cold in the winter, and there were no more tourists to buy his father’s embroideries, and they needed a doctor, and new boots, and so on? And what about school? Would Peter have been content to send his son to an Italian village school? How would he bridge the gap between the public school of an English gentleman’s son, and the total lack of income or savings that his life of freedom brought him?
The Lee Shore is about the essential question of choices in living, and how to live with them. An excellent novel, very good for a long train ride.
I knew about Alison Bechdel from her culture-changing idea of the Bechdel Test, that thing you ask of films, books and other cultural productions. If two or more women are having a conversation, if it about something / someone other than men? If the film or book can answer ‘yes!’, then it has something to say to more than one segment of the population and has a fair chance of not being gender biased. She was also awarded one of the 2014 MacArthur ‘Genius’ Awards, to allow her to keep writing and creating. Fun Home is far more than a graphic novel, because it’s a memoir, not fiction at all. (It was also made into a smash hit musical.) It’s painful, beautiful, poetic and symmetrically chilling. It’s about Alison Bechdel’s childhood in Pennsylvania in the 1960s and 1970s, during which time she grows to realise that her father is more than an obsessive house renovator and the grim community mortician (Fun as in Funeral). He oppresses his family, but he also loves them, and he loves boys too, though is too closeted to come out. Thus the circle of escape, obsession, dictatorialness and unexpected admissions of pleasure continues. The story moves back and forth in time like a weaving shuttle, so the reader experiences layer after layer of story, with each new layer gaining texture and resonance from its foundation.
The sad and ordinary fact of Bruce Bechdel’s death, hit by a truck as he crossed the road, is examined again and again for clues and for answers. He took the children camping, he took them to stay with friends in New York (where he could go cruising at night on Christopher St), he had them cleaning and doing chores every day, he taught them to swim. Helen Bechdel, a former actress who gave up her dreams to be the mother of a family, endures her husband’s erratic ways and endless, casual affairs with angry endurance. She retreats into acting and a thesis, while he is in a world of his own, sourcing chandeliers and Victorian glassware, and foolishly buying beers for underage boys. The children separate as well (the renovated house certainly has enough space), so isolation and private experiences become normal.
When Alison goes to college she works out the name and the meaning of her own sexuality, which adds another layer to her relations with her father. She had loved men’s shirtings and suits as much as he did, and she fetishised the lines of a man’s body, wanting that shape for herself, as much as he wanted their bodies. The artwork tells more than half of this complex, shifting story, with frames repeated to silently show that yes, there was more going in here, in this particular exchange or event, than the younger Alison had noticed. Although the seven episodes of the book move back and forth in time in a patchwork of recollections and linked stories, the language of the narration begins simply, increasing in complexity as more understanding emerges. When moments of comprehension surface in the small or adult Alison’s mind, the effect is stunning: word and image working together simply and beautifully to hit the reader for six.
You can read this as a memoir of family life with an unusual proximity to death and its processes (I’ve barely mentioned the family funeral home business: that’s an entirely separate story). You can read it as a sad story of closeted homosexuality (Bruce), or as a satisfying and wryly self-deprecating memoir of an out lesbian at ease with herself and her life. You can read this as a book about the importance of reading the right book at the right time to realise the truth about sexuality, in all its manifestations. You can certainly read this book as a pointed rebuke at the pretentiousness of college English literature tutorials, and the dangers of obsessing over one particular text (Bruce was also a high school English teacher). We don’t read a lot about Alison’s brothers as adults, and perhaps that was by their wish. At the end of the book, her first acknowledgement is to her mother and brothers for ‘not trying to stop me writing this book’. Her portrait of her mother is understanding but also unsparing: Helen was an expert mother and an understanding woman but not warm or friendly. Those children lacked hugs. That family lacked warmth. It was not a fun home, by any means.
Alison Bechdel, Fun Home. A Family Tragicomic (London: Jonathan Cape, 2006), ISBN 978-0-224-08051-4, £12.99
In this week’s Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up, Ire-read that bit in Louisa M Alcott’s Good Wives (1869) where Jo March goes to work in New York. (I should warn any Alcott scholars looking in that I haven’t read any Alcott criticism for years.) Alcott was a great believer in work – on evangelical grounds, also from common sense, and because she herself had to work to survive. Her four girls from Little Women never seem to stop working, but the housework and the self-educational didactic work episodes are not as convincing as the simple need to earn a living. Jo is my particular Little Woman, the one I like best and identify most with (and I know I’m one of millions, but we can share her), so the more I read about her, the more interested I was in the stories.
Rereading Good Wives as an adult – because I don’t think I’d read it for at least twenty years – was extraordinarily interesting, as well as soothing, entertaining, delightful, and mildly irritating. I was amazed at how early this novel was published: 1869 is nearly 150 years ago, five generations ago, but Good Wives is totally fresh in its dialogue and how the characters develop. The blurb on the front of my Puffin edition (marketed to girls in the 1970s) calls it a ‘period piece’: well, it may be set in a different period, but it’s a modern story about growing up and embracing responsibility, as well as getting married. Nothing ‘period’ about that, and there is barely any history in the novel to ground it in the American nineteenth century. Little Women had the Civil War lurking in the background all the way through. Good Wives only has the merest hint that the war had happened, because (spoiler) John Brooke gets wounded and comes home to marry Meg. But the causes of the war are barely mentioned.
At the very end of Good Wives, when Jo’s new venture, a school at Plumfield, is being described, we’re told that a ‘merry little quadroon’ was one of the abandoned boys that she and Professor Bhaer took under her care, even though folk said (and I’m sure these were the background chorus of ‘society’ that the eternally perfect March family lived among, like the Pharisees), that taking him in would ruin the school. Well, that’s quite a divisive statement. A quadroon is an outdated term for a person with one black grandparent, or some ancestry approximating to that, so the novel is noting that mixed-race children existed in the comfortable and victorious North of the 1860s, and were being abandoned. It was Jo’s duty, as well as her pleasure, to take in a stray child like this and look after him. This boy has disappeared by the time the Plumfield sequels Little Men and Jo’s Boys was published, so perhaps Alcott didn’t want to develop him as a character, but only use him as a social indicator of a different kind of destitution that society needed to take responsibility for, rather than have people like Jo and Professor Bhaer do it through private charity.
Jo’s sense of responsibility is matched by Professor Bhaer’s general perfection and goodness. I was never very sure about a girl like Jo marrying a man of nearly 40 when she was 26, and I still don’t find them at all romantic. Laurie and Amy are much more glamorous and exciting for the romance that Alcott could write really well when she wanted to. Professor Bhaer is a father figure of Jo’s very own. She doesn’t need to share him with her sisters, like she has to with their own father, and she can take him away to live in Plumfield, the house where she was forced to spend dreary hours as a girl being a companion to crotchety Aunt March. So in Good Wives, Jo gets to remake her family life to suit her own requirements, in which money is not a very important consideration, as long as they have enough for their needs. She gets a husband and children of her own; she’s able to write as much as she likes without criticism because she has to, to increase their income; and she is an equal partner in the enterprise of the school. Such terrific feminist and creative messages really appealed to me as a girl, and probably continue to appeal to girls like I was. It’s a great wish-fulfilment ending: the result may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly suits Jo, especially that Aunt March has been tidied out of the way and her house is now Jo’s.
However, Jo has to meet Professor Bhaer before any of this can happen. Since (I think) one of the points of Good Wives is to find out what Jo will do next, the episode where she goes to New York alone to work is fascinating. Her parents let her go: that is quite interesting enough as a start, because it shows the huge difference there is between novels about girls’ lives written in a British context, and those in an American setting. In Mrs Gaskell’s North and South, which was published only 15 years earlier than Good Wives, the poor heroine Margaret Hale is trapped at home being an angel of the house, and is totally tied to the selfish vagaries of her inadequate parents. There is no way that she can go out to work: her class and her society will not allow it, even though she shows signs of making an excellent district nurse and social worker. Class and society’s expectations are certainly a consideration in Good Wives, but Jo’s parents see nothing wrong with her working for her living. Mrs Hale of North and South would have apoplexy at the thought, as would the terrifying Mrs Thornton, Margaret’s future mother-in-law.
Mr and Mrs March also see nothing wrong with Jo moving out alone to work in the big city. Mrs March’s first and only worry is class-based: she is unsure that Jo would be suited to ‘going out to service’ as she puts it, working as a governess or nursery maid. Living and working in a big boarding-house is not a bother to them, or to Jo, because the owner, Mrs Kirke, is a family friend. It would be unusual in a British Victorian novel to have the daughter of a minister of religion at the same social level as a boarding-house keeper. In fact, I think it would be impossible to find a British Victorian novel where a boarding-house was described as a desirable place to live for a middle-class girl of some education. I don’t think this is just the social snobbery of the period: there is something about the sanctity of the home in British Victorian fiction that makes living with your family the default mode for the middle classes, and these long, didactic, moralising and serious novels were written for the Victorian middle classes. For the British, the boarding-house was several social steps down. It’s not like that for the Americans, which is a rather different society. This is why I like Good Wives so much. It’s a completely different world.
The real point of letting Jo go to New York alone, apart from letting her meet her future husband, is so that she can try out being a professional writer with only her own judgement and initiative to help her. Annoyingly, Alcott souses this episode with morals, so although Jo does really well in writing fiction that the cheap periodicals market will buy, and sells her stories successfully, entertaining a new readership – the teenage boys and young thoughtless men that she has so much affection for – Professor Bhaer is brought in to point out the great harm that the magazines that she publishes in, do to young readers, and how he would destroy all magazines like them rather than let young people read them. This is a pretty strong and impressive message – it stops Jo in her tracks, makes her burn all her stories that she’d sold to these terrible magazines (I never understood why she burned them, unless it was to hide from the so-admired Prof. Bhaer that she had soiled her purity with such writing?), but she does not give away her precious earnings. That would be a moralistic step too far: if Jo had still been living at home, under Marmee’s eye, she’d have given the money to the poor or something equally depressing. But as she’s an independent writer, she chooses to keep the cash as the payment for her time, even if the results are now in the fireplace. This is a relief. If you’re going to work for the money rather than for the sake of the novel you long to write, you may as well keep the money if you get it. There’s no point being a martyr once you’ve done the work.
And what, may I ask, is so wrong with the blood and thunder magazines that Jo was writing for? Why did Alcott, who wrote herself for similarly sensational genres, come over all holier than thou about the moral turpitude of sensation writing? Because the evangelical message that permeates all of the Little Women novels will not be quenched. Christian evangelism as a norm is another thing that I found very surprising on this re-reading: the unquestioned conviction that there is life after death; that Beth, when she dies, will be well again. These are strongly dogmatic Christian beliefs that Alcott obviously felt deeply, and are presented as the foundation of the common-sense morality that enables the March family to live with dignity in relative poverty, according to their class values. By dabbling in sensation fiction Jo is stepping away from these values, and Professor Bhaer is brought into the plot to bring her back to the fold, and marry her as well. He’s not as perfect as John Brooke, but he is still a Victorian male paterfamilias.
And after Alcott, there was Coolidge: next week I’ll be reading Susan Coolidge’s heavenly trilogy What Katy Did, What Katy Did at School, and What Katy Did Next. I read these incessantly as a girl, and I recently located the sequels, about Katy’s sister Clover and her adventures in life. After reading Louisa May Alcott’s relentless evangelical messages – I haven’t even mentioned the temperance propaganda in Good Wives – I want to read more of the same, but without the religion, and with a lot more teenage drama.
First Light is an Unbound book, initially paid for by its subscribers. Because the book has to sell before it’s published Unbound have to do a great deal of pre-sell publicity, and it certainly helps if the author, or subject, is famous. In this case – First Light: A Celebration of Alan Garner, edited by Erica Wagner – the subject is famous (if you’ve read any of his novels: I was stunned to discover that my husband hasn’t, so his pile of books-to-be-read is now substantially larger than it was). The editor is famous if you’ve read any of her novels, or any of the newspapers or magazines that she writes for. But, even if one wanted to buy the book because one liked The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, or Wagner’s book reviews for The New Statesman, outside these two groups there is a gaping hole, and into the hole a host of celebrity contributors have been poured. If writing by a Big Name is printed in a book supporting a Lesser Name, then all the Big Name’s fanbase will flock to buy the book, or at least tweet about their intentions of so doing. This is the third Unbound selling strategy.
First Light is an exceedingly handsome book (though, annoyingly, it lacks an index). It’s a deeply absorbing collection of 43 essays and poems, a Robert Macfarlane word-map and Cornelia Funke’s unexpected illustration of Garner as the Horned One. It creates a fractured kaleidoscopic picture of Garner, packed with surprises. He was the teenage sprinter who did his training with Alan Turing on Alderley Edge. He was a promising young classicist who left his hard-won place at university to learn how to write. He is the descendant of generations of stone-workers who have lived in the same place in Cheshire for hundreds of years. He rescued a medieval hall, and moved a Tudor cottage 16 miles to join it. He carried an oak shovel around in his kitbag for four years during his National Service, worried that if he didn’t have it with him it might disappear again, as it had in his infant school, and in the mine down the road where the Victorian miners dug it up. It was later carbon-dated to the Bronze Age and still works perfectly well. Things get dug up in his own garden all the time.
He also wrote novels. The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and The Moon of Gomrath captured me before I was 12, but I never really liked The Owl Service or Red Shift, though we had to read them at school. I inexplicably missed out on Elidor, but devoured The Guizer, The Stone Quartet and A Bag of Moonshine. As an adult I returned to Garner when I found Strandloper and Boneland high and dry on a bookshop shelf(I reviewed them two years ago for Vulpes Libris). I’ve got Thursbitch and The Voice that Thunders on my reading list now (with Elidor). If nothing else, First Light has given me a much better grip on what other Garner works are out there that I should be reading.
The essays that really spoke to me are the ones that told me more about the books I know, or now want to know, by how they worked on other readers. Helen Macdonald and Rowan Williams’ poems do this. Neil Gaiman’s observation about Boneland makes complete sense of the whole Colin and Susan saga for me: that there is a missing third novel that hasn’t (yet) been written, preceding and explaining the terrifying, schizophrenic anguish of Colin’s search for his sister in the Pleiades. I’m so tired of Stephen Fry’s multiple appearances in every medium, but what he says about Garner’s writing rings true: Garner is a writer who trusts his readers. Ali Smith’s recollections of seeing The Owl Service on TV, Philip Pullman’s carefully-chosen words about the moral relationship between craft and writing, and Margaret Atwood’s totally bonkers story about a people-skinning raccoon – these are the Big Name contributions to draw the unGarnered reader in, to find out what their heroes think of him. It’s unclear what the Atwood story says about Garner or his writing, but what anthology editor is going to refuse a short story from Margaret Atwood? Perhaps it was simply a present.
Less well-known names (unless you’re into archaeology or professional storytelling, for example) give revealing recollections of how a Garner book did things to their mind, or how he popped up in their professional or private lives one day holding a thing of wonder to show them, and how he has never left. There is pain in some essays, that articulate how Garner’s writing works as healing and therapy. These moved me: seeing behind the public frontages of these Big Name authors lessened my dislike for their writing.
There are also New Big Names included who were presumably asked to write something because they are so hot right now. There are So-So Names who get in because they are part of the London literary scene, on the spot for commissioning because they move in the same circles as the editor, or in Unbound’s orbit. Many of these contributions were uninteresting, being not much more than ‘My favourite Alan Garner book and why’, which we can all write ourselves. At least one was a regrettable froth of self-indulgent twaddle. The most memorable essays are those by specialists pointing out something hitherto unnoticed or remarkable that Garner has said or done, and the people from Garner’s life who have no particular public presence, whose biographical stories prevent the book slopping into woolly mush. It might so easily have gone that way, had it merely been a luvvy-festschrift (which is good, because Garner is absolutely not a luvvy). Despite all the necessary publicity and puffery needed to get this book off the ground, it’s a great addition to biography. I’m glad I subscribed.
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