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.