Today’s guest is prolific author Sherwood Smith! She’s written a great number and variety of stories, including both adult and young adult fantasy as well as science fiction. Her plentiful backlist was very welcome news to me after discovering her writing last year when I read her recently published book Banner of the Damned, an impressive, richly detailed fantasy novel focused on cultures and the lives of the characters. I loved it, and the experience of reading it made me want to go back and read everything she’s ever written—and the same sentiment applies to her fascinating guest post about women in fandom. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did!
(Note: unlike most posts on this site, this one was long enough that the whole thing isn’t on the main page! Either click on the title of the post or the ‘more…’ link at the bottom to get the whole thing. Sherwood Smith doesn’t just deliver the awesome, she delivers a lot of awesome!)
|Sherwood Smith at a con|
The Fan Effect
Captain Harville: “But let me observe that all histories are against
you, all stories, prose and verse… Songs and proverbs, all talk of
woman’s fickleness. But perhaps you will say, these were all written by
Anne Elliot: “Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in
books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story.
Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in
–Jane Austen, Persuasion
“The nature of reason must be the same in all.”
–Mary Wollstonecroft, A
Vindication of the Rights of
When a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world it can cause a hurricane in another part of the world.
Author Unknown (quoted by Edward Lorenz in his paper on the “Butterfly effect,” 1972)
The Fan in Fandom
Last month I read that longtime fan Judy Gerjuoy had died. I knew of her as the organizer of the long-running Darkovercon, dedicated to the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley, and including works by authors similar in spirit. Judy was barely 21 when she organized the first, in 1979.
That got me to thinking about the largely unnoticed, but profoundly influential effect women have had on fandom, on the SF and F genre, and on my particular culture—English-speaking, mostly USAn, as that’s what I’ve had most access to.
So many of us female writers began as fans.
I recollect at the Equicon 1972, which turned out to be at least as big as a Worldcon, if not bigger, a thirty-something male fan said with a pleased face, “I don’t know what it is, but suddenly fandom is full of girls!” (He married one not long after—they are still happily married.) The cons went in a few years from hundreds of attendees to thousands. I remember seas of women my age at those cons, we Boomers born roughly 1948-1955. The media took no notice, yet I suspect if thousands of young men had taken to foregathering, there would have been alarums and excursions across all the media.
In my own experience, fandom grew exponentially after the mid-60s, when women discovered Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, and to a smaller extent science fiction like Dune and Stranger in a Strange Land—exciting stories, both, but the last line of the former was “History will call us wives,” as if that was the epitome of female ambition, and the sexual climate of the latter was firmly fixed in the male gaze. As for LOTR, there were barely any women in it, and they most definitely on the sidelines, and Trek’s women were, at best, sidekicks, in their short little skirts that forced them to mince carefully for the cameras.
We were used to that, and other elements of these storylines had powerful appeal. We were young then, and the way we interacted with the material in a social setting not only consisted of dressing in costumes, and doing some early cosplaying at masquerades and picnics, but in writing, both fanfic and original. It’s not that men didn’t write stories or zines. They did. But at least in my experience, it was the women who caused the flourishing of fanfic, and thence, the arrival of women in the publishing world.
In those early days, terrific zines, like Ruth Berman’s T-Negative, were all published on purple mimeo. Within a few years the Xerox had been invented, but many of the serious zineds and writers went directly to offset printing.
Freed of what was perceived as publishing constraints, these women were not writing to please male readers, they were writing to please themselves. Even with male main characters, the stories were written with a distinctively female gaze.
And there were male characters. This surprised me, when reading those zines during the 70s, how many of them had males as the central characters. This is probably why I did not get into much fanfiction writing. I really wanted more female action figures, and it was easier to envision their adventures in my own universe. But I appreciated how fanfiction writers were taking those male-centric shows and refashioning them for the female gaze in various ways.
I sat in a hotel room late at night at a con sometime in the early eighties, listening to some fanwriters talk about universes, characters, and storylines. Re the type of story that puts the male character through the wringer, a woman who had penned some particularly graphic hurt/comfort stories (very popular they were, too) smiled sweetly and said, “When I take my toys out, I always put them back to bed again, as pretty as they were before, ready for next time I want to play.”
Before a subset of fandom discovered Alexander the Great and Hephaiston’s passion through Mary Renault, and Francis Crawford of Lymond through Dorothy Dunnett’s historical novels, it was all Frodo, Aragorn, Captain Kirk, and especially Spock. And hoo boy did they suffer!
I think it was in 1974 when “August Moon” came out, in which Spock went into Pon Farr with Kirk, that an deeper itch got scratched. Others have delved into why that storyline works so powerfully for female fans. All I’m here to say is that fanfiction really took off, and I watched it happen. And eventually some of these writing women filed the serial numbers off their stories and went on to highly successful careers.
Tangential to the stories were letter zines like “Marzipan and Kisses”, dedicated to Dorothy Dunnett, in which case participants discussed and analyzed the novels. I remember two super popular threads: determining Kuzum’s father, and did Lymond or didn’t he sleep with Dragut Rais. People were coming out of the closet right and left, and it showed in the zines. IDIC was one of the most important concepts showing up, over and over, in fanfiction. By being able to talk about these issues with other women, in an atmosphere of tolerance and support, the fans could go out into the world and try to live the ideal.
Fans in History
Maybe it’s too much of a stretch to use the word ‘fan.’ This word seems so bound to the present day. And yet when I delve into the history of literature for what the women were doing, I see evidence of fannish behavior: reading, writing about one’s reading, writing stories of one’s own, then going out and trying to live the ideal. Were women doing fandom?
Sure they were. History, as written by men, just didn’t pay any attention.
I am no medieval scholar, but I think that women like Christine de Pizan, who argued in poetry and prose with the misogynistic nature of the best-seller Romance of the Rose, drawing on works by Boccaccio and de Vignay in order to fictionalize her own slant, she got women reading, talking, writing.
Did we hear about her in survey courses? No. We heard about Romance of the Rose, and Boccaccio, but female writers? Nonexistent.
Jump up a couple of centuries.
During the 17th Century the French nation increased in power; the crown consolidated its holdings, and after the last of the religious wars the people began to enjoy relative security, especially as the generational plagues and famines that had devastated France for three centuries began to diminish. Life was relatively stable, enabling two changes: the spread of literacy, and the accepted view of what constituted a man of culture.
The first popular book of manners was L’honnête homme ou l’art de plaire la cour by Nicholas Faret, which was modeled on the first ‘manners for dummies,’ Castiglione’s The Courtier. Though Faret emphasizes good manners and education, he describes the ideal courtier in military terms. Succeeding books were not couched in military terms, and they began to emphasize the necessity to be adept in the art of conversation.
The Lady’s Fan
It’s mid-seventeenth century. The earliest and most famous salon of the 17th Century was that of Madame Rambouillet. (Her rival was Madame Scudėry, she who favored the saying that a thought was worthless if it could be understood by the vulgar. Snobbery was also rampant.) Madame R. opened her house in 1618, countering in part the male-dominated, uncouth court of Louis XIII, and for thirty years the best of French literary figures came to her place to speak about refined love, and other polite subjects.
There were also the games, such as ‘portraits’. These are verbal, or written, pictures of famous court figures, delving behind the courtly mask. One is described cleverly, sometimes in poetry, and perhaps secrets revealed or alluded to. Then participants must guess who is depicted.
Madame de Sevigny and her cousin Bussy-Rabutin were hailed everywhere as quite good at this game, but where the latter confined himself to scoring off the king’s mistresses with his wickedly apt observations (and ended up kicking his heels in the Bastille), Madame Sevigny was far more delicate. And insightful.
She was also good friends with one of the blockbuster best-seller novelists of the day, Madame de la Fayette, whose La Princesse de Clèves went through countless editions. Everyone in Europe was reading it, as well as her other works. Now it is sometimes counted as the first modern French novel, the first psychological novel, but for centuries, the only writers of the period you heard about in school were Moliere, Descartes, Cervantes, and of course the great (male) writers of England.
Yet I venture to say that Madame de la Fayette was at least as influential; people were not only buying her novels for the stories, they were using them to winnow out the ways of court. Or, put a different way, the novels had become guides to civilization, the rules of etiquette. And what is more fundamental in shaping the way we behave and think?
On the surface, women still did not function in the public sphere. Part of the anger and frustration expressed by the street-philosophers and poets was that they knew women had influence, but unless you could gain access to those exclusive salons, nobody actually saw them doing it.
The definitions of public and private were changing rapidly, at the same time as the dangerously accelerating dissatisfaction with the failures of the government. The ‘secret power’ of the salon hostesses added a spin of sexual politics.
Though men were arguing about everything else, they all seemed to agree that there was something “unnatural” about women having power. If you don’t believe me, take a look at the “crimes” Marie Antoinette was accused of before she was beheaded. Remember, she had no governmental power whatsoever. Her job was to preside over court, which she did beautifully, and to produce heirs, which she also managed, though it took long enough to get her royal bedmate to do his part; Louis sounds like he would have been happier playing video games day and night, a beer at his side, judging from his ideas of fun. One of which was to scrape the crud off the bottoms of his feet, roll it into pills, and flick it at his courtiers foregathered each morning for the Rising of the King.
So what were Marie Antoinette’s capital crimes? There was the infamous Diamond Necklace affair—a scam she knew utterly nothing about at the time, it was her name that was used—and then she was convicted, and executed, for being a bad wife and mother, without a single shred of actual evidence: the poor woman had actually loved her children dearly.
Educated bourgeois women, inspired by the Enlightenment, were eager to improve life. By the time of the Revolution, educated women not only were writing letters to one another, and writing novels that depicted a better life, but they were writing broadsides and newspapers, like the monthly paper Jornal des Dames, demanding reforms.
They were largely ignored by the male authorities. It was actually poor women whom the authorities were more worried about. Their demands were less radical—mainly they wanted relief from suffering—but they were taken seriously as a threat by authorities because they supplied the Parisian populace with its livelihood.
The Revolutionary Pike
The rise and fall of women’s participation in the Revolution is not only dramatic, it demonstrates the sharp contrast between what men thought was justice for all, and what they really wanted with regard to women.
The early days were exhilarating. At last anyone could speak out, no matter what gender or rank in life. Everyone, if you read the speeches, was hyper-aware of history being made each day, as the Revolutionaries sought not just to remake a government, but an entire culture.
Women spoke at the assemblies. They attended the clubs, and for a time even formed their own club, under the leadership of Dutch Etta van Palm. Women labored alongside men in revolutionary committees–such as Madame Roland, who worked hard with her husband, Jean-Marie Roland, when he was Minister of the Interior.
Perhaps the height was reached by Olympe de Gouges, a self-educated butcher’s daughter from Montaubon. After the “Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” were written, she took immediate exception. Because it excluded people by virtue of race and sex, it defied the principles of equality that it was supposed to establish. She organized her own Declaration–
According to the articles of the original document; women are also entitled to the full exercise of liberty, property, security, justice, political and civil freedom. Among these liberties, Gouges includes the principles of free speech and assembly.
Along with that were the grimly prophetic words, “Woman has the right to mount the scaffold; she must equally have the right to mount the rostrum.”
Before she was executed in 1793, Gouges had offered to defend the king in his trial.
The irony is that none of the women who spoke out for women’s rights were revolting against the traditional home and domestic roles. The need for divorce and for equal property rights were clearly stated as reactions against abuse and poverty; the demand for education of women, especially poor women, was to give poor women, who had no families to protect them, another career-choice besides prostitution.
But as the Terror accelerated, so did the pressure from men to keep women out of the assemblies and government centers, and get them back into the home where they belonged. Not that all revolutionary women got along perfectly: bourgeois women took care to point out that rowdy, drunken women going about disturbing the peace were prostitutes and fishwives, not good homemakers; the poor women felt that the better-off women were turning their backs on them and their needs; women connected to powerful men did what they could to survive, and other women were quick to point fingers, then some, like Charlotte Corday, simply acted, without talking to anyone at all.
While sitting in prison awaiting execution, Madame Roland wrote a memoir looking back at her activities during the Revolution. The ending, when she realizes she is going to face the scaffold, is a heart-rending plea for the safety of her daughter and for the maintenance of the ideals of liberty. Before that, she observes in a tone of brooding outrage:
I never had the slightest intention of becoming an authoress. I realized very early on that a woman who becomes known as a writer loses much more than she gains. Men do not like it and her own sex are always so critical. If her works are bad she is jeered at, and rightly so. If they are good, then everybody says she cannot have written them herself. If forced to admit that she was responsible for most of it they turn to picking holes in her character, her morals and her talents. All her personal faults are set in the balance against her wit.
And so Napoleon came along, and the pendulum swung back again.
The Power of the Pen
Through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, women were earning livings by penning novels, plays, and pamphlets, anonymously at first, or under male names. If they were outed as female, they were usually overlooked by subsequent critics and magazines until they were forgotten; who has heard of Eliza Haywood, she who wrote bestselling novels and plays for decades during the eighteenth century? Her stories were so well known that Richardson and Fielding (some say) lifted her plots.
Skip up a century. Another nearly forgotten is Catherine Grace Gore, who wrote the first silver fork novels of the sort Georgette Heyer became famous for in the twentieth century. Her Pin Money had a tremendous impact in the 1830s, firmly establishing a sub-genre that is still popular now.
For that matter, Georgette Heyer died a bitter woman in part because she had never received the critical attention she craved. This was while male writers whose prose was no better, whose stories followed popular patterns (though not those of romance), were lionized and awarded.
I can see the eyes rolling if I bring up the White Male Lists of Classics as picked by white males. My point about them is this: these lists might be the books you studied in literature classes, but how many of them have we ever picked up again? The books that truly shape us are the ones we read over and over again, even if they aren’t on some (man’s) “great literature” list.
Women’s fiction still doesn’t get the critical attention that male writers’ fiction gets, and yet people are buying and reading women’s works, if Amazon and B&N rankings, and discussions on sites where women congregate, are anything to go by.
Women have, as they did in the past, shrugged off the dismissive attitude and organized themselves. Part of their influence—even power, I think—has been in how easily they flew under the male-dominated media radar.
When women took over romance publishing, they made it into the biggest market share ever. And as the Internet grew, reaching into every home, the female voice is heard—some of the most remarkable and forward-looking sites are written by women, for women.
Many of these are women who dressed up in Star Trek or Jedi costumes in days of yore, wrote fanfiction, went to cons, cosplayed, and the like. It was all training. Then they went out into the world and did their part to make that world one they want to live in, even though no one seems to know their names.
About Sherwood Smith (from the FAQ page on her website):
I was born in 1951 and recently retired after twenty years of teaching. I have been married for over thirty years. We have two kids, three dogs, (two of them rescues) and a house full of books. That’s because my husband is a professor, and I studied history in graduate school, and we both love reading!
I started writing novels about another world when I was eight, but the work was so hard I switched to making comic books of my stories. (I actually began making little books when I was six and seven, out of paper towels taped together.) I went back to novel writing when I was ten, and I never stopped. I tried sending out my novels when I was thirteen. I typed them on a manual, and wow, did that take a long time, especially since I was (and am) a terrible typist. I got letters saying “We almost bought this…but;” and “Try us again!” but nothing sold, so when I got to college, I figured I needed to learn something about writing that I just didn’t yet grasp. It took fifteen more years to gain some skill, but meantime I went to college, lived in Europe, came back to get my Masters in History, worked in Hollywood, got married, started a family and became a teacher.
I discovered that studying history was a good thing for an author. One begins to see how cultures are shaped, how people thought, acted, ate, and lived.