Episode 2: Live with Gary Wolfe!

In the second of our regular series of weekly podcasts Gary Wolfe and I discuss canon formation, Joanna Russ, and all sorts of other stuff. It’s kinda long. I accidentally messed up the first take so this actually is a complete re-recording. We hope you like it. Right now we plan to do this pretty much every week. Comments are welcome!

14 thoughts on “Episode 2: Live with Gary Wolfe!”

  1. I think the two of you shouldn’t underestimate the impact your reviews or your very enthusiastic talk about books have on interested readers.
    I know, at least, that during the two hours I listened to you I ordered the Rickert collection, Jonathan’s “Best SF&F 4” and “Kraken”.

    What are listeners likely to do in front of their PC while you’re going at it?
    Most probably look up the authors and books mentioned, I think.
    (Thus, for example, discovering that some of Joanna Russ’ fiction titles still seem readily available or that Ted Chiang now must have things to say at novella length.)

    Therefore, I have a request to make:
    Could you make a point of pronouncing the authors’ names clearly?
    (or even repeat the full name and not just some shorthand first name)
    Not easy, when one is flinging titles and ideas about, I guess.
    Then again, working in a different medium will put different constraints on the way you state things.
    And while podcasting allows your listeners to go back and listen to your words again, this won’t help much if the author’s name is not distinctly understandable or unambiguously pronounceable.
    Hannu Rajaniemi, anyone?

    Many thanks in advance!

  2. Hi guys,

    I was redirected here from Cheryl Morgan’s blog for the irst pod cast and I have to say I’m impressed and really hope you stick with the weekly format.

    Two suggestions from me: could you post the names of the authors and books covered in the pod cast? The guardaian’s book podcost do this and while it seems pretty small it’s something taht comes in very handy.

    Second, and I realise I’m probably in the minority here, perhaps and hour is slghtly too long? I know you can’t have too much of a good thing, but finding an hour to put aside and listen to a podcost, however interesting, isn’t always an option.

    Anyway, keep up the good work.

  3. About Connie Willis and China Mieville you say that their latest novels are in a sense exactly what you expected from them based on their history. Which I will say seems correct (not having read either of them, mind you). You then go on to say that THE CITY AND THE CITY is something of a “sport” from Mieville. I suppose the question arises, has Connie Willis done such a “sport”? I think I would say, no, not at all. A very consistent writer in tone and aims. (I can say that the novel of hers I most love is LINCOLN’S DREAMS, not her most characteristic novel perhaps, but still well within her wheelhouse.)

    Re Mieville I think PERDIDO STREET STATION fascinating, a tour de force, but not as great as people keep saying. It was too long, and, yes, too gross. THE SCAR had some of the same flaws but I liked it rather more than PERDIDO STREET STATION. And like you I just couldn’t get up the energy to attack IRON COUNCIL.

  4. I enjoyed the parts about China Mieville & editing famous people most of all, because when you’re talking about things of which I’m completely ignorant, it’s much more relaxing cos I don’t want to interrupt and/or argue with you :D

    Really, is Bujold not considered a feminist SF writer? That floored me. Willis, too. Is this because they have themselves backed away from the label? Or is it because they are regarded as such good/popular writers that most people don’t think they could possibly be feminist? Half of Bujold’s books are about gender and reproductive issues!

    I was particularly interested (re: enlightened, sarcastic & cranky all at the same time) by the discussion on feminism as a ‘brand’ and how it can affect the ability of readers to find Sf accessible – how reader perceptions of feminist SF or feminist studies can lead them to think it will be boring or ‘worthy’ or difficult, or that it will consist of people shouting at you (that part made me laugh, hehehe). What makes me crankiest is that you have a point in this – labelling a work feminist may turn off readers. At the same time, though, if you take the label of feminist OFF a work, then that contributes to the misunderstanding of what feminism is… every time someone reads a work of feminist SF and goes ‘wow that’s actually awesome/funny/great’ that is such a boon for feminism and female authors.

    I did get very sarcastic I’m afraid at the part of the discussion about how surprisingly awesome feminist SF can be, especially if you don’t know it’s supposed to be feminist. Though sadly this does reflect a more general reality of readership. I still believe that the labels of feminism and feminist SF are reclaimable. I always think of these labels as being GOOD things and it makes me sad when I am reminded that so many people have other connotations for these words.

    Feminism, basically, has branding issues, but taking the good stuff away from ‘feminist SF’ would hurt far more than it helps. Just like any woman in a powerful position who takes pains to explain why she isn’t a feminist hurts the issue. Allowing non-feminists and those who don’t really get the concept to define what is and isn’t feminist, or what should/shouldn’t be labelled as feminist, is basically like allowing Margaret Atwood to define what science fiction is.

    Which is why of course I don’t believe in any writer being able to remove a label of ‘feminism’ from themselves. If a work explores female issues or is important to women, then it counts, damn it.

  5. Not shouting at you, btw, just the universe :D

    Also can I suggest you start numbering your podcast episodes? Makes it easier to keep it all straight for those of us who like their iTunes lists all tidy…

  6. I’ve got to get on with replying to a lot of useful comments, but I will definitely number them from here on. I’ll also strive to keep them under 45 minutes and to limit the long ones to no more than once per week. I hope that will help. Also, show notes I guess. Hmm. Yes.

  7. Thank you for the long and considered comment. I will say I felt remarkably cautious about addressing any of these issues in the podcasts, largely because I don’t pretend to be the most informed person about feminism or feminist SF, and I also don’t want to drag anyone through my own private experience of feminist SF 101, but in the end I felt that since these are personal excursions I would. These are things I’m thinking about at the moment, and working through.

    Are Bujold and Willis feminist SF writers or writers of SF that is of interest to feminists? It’s splitting peas really, and it would be enormously presumptuous and wrong of me to put any words into either Connie Willis’s or Lois McMaster Bujold’s mouths, so I shan’t. I’ll just note that their work is not marketed as feminist SF, which is probably just a function of marketing departments, but does place their work in a slightly different light.

    Your sarcasm and irritation about us saying that works labelled as feminist SF are good is no doubt deserved. These things are unrehearsed and unedited, and unplanned, so you hear the off-the-cuff conversation. I don’t mean to cast feminist SF in a poor light, but I do think there’s a PR problem here as you suggest. I hope the labels are reclaimable, but personally I have historically felt disinclined to read a work labelled as feminist SF. This may be because I encountered several strongly polemical works when I first consciously tried to read feminist SF, but that’s something I have to fight, and I do more and more, but my unthinking reaction used to be that I’m not the audience for the work and not seek it out. As I say, I fight that deliberately, but the feeling isn’t completely gone.

    And do I agree ( I know you didn’t ask me to) that “If a work explores female issues or is important to women, then it counts.” It counts as fiction, as feminist fiction, as SF, as feminist SF. I also agree that creators don’t get to exempt their works from those labels, though they can dissent from them should they choose to do so (something I’m not aware of Bujold or Willis doing, btw).

    Here’s an odd thought, btw. If Bujold writes feminist SF could you see a feminist SF press reprinting her works using the same packaging that Baen use? I’m not commenting on the novels themselves or attitudes of feminist presses – simply pointing out that those books aren’t packaged that way. Now this may mean we need to redefine what we think about packaging, but that itself would be interesting.

  8. Hi Michel – I’ll definitely add information on authors covered and such, possibly as show notes. Also I will try to keep it shorter. The problem is the conversations with Gary are basically the same weekly phone call chats we’ve been having for years and they always seem to end up being about an hour long.

  9. Thanks for the reply Jonathan.

    With regards to the length, I wasn’t criticising. The content on the casts is of the highest quality, and even with the length there’s really no ‘dead speace’ in your conversations where I don’t want to hear what you guys ahve to say. I suppose it’s more a selfish observation on my part, given that I listen at work and people keep bugging me midway through with pesky deadlines than anything else.

  10. Feminist SF certainly has a branding problem insofar as many people have negative associations with feminism – it is not of course something that only feminists can fix! Having people willing to challenge their own biases and assumptions and turn around negative associations of feminism is always valuable and worthwhile.

    I maintain that Bujold and Willis are absolutely writers of feminist SF. If they choose not to be called feminist writers, that is their business, but it has nothing to do with how others choose to classify them. Bujold in particular – I can’t think of a single work of hers that didn’t deal actively with issues to do with feminism & gender. The fact that they are not marketed that way is hardly surprising. As you noted yourself, the feminist tag is rarely a selling point.

    It is important that works not be excluded from the feminist discussion just because they are popular, fun, awesome or commercially viable, just as works should not be excluded from being considered SF just because they have literary merit…

  11. First a confession – I haven’t listened to the podcast yet, but I will! very soon now! honest! But the conversation here between you and Tansy – especially on feminist branding – really intrigued me.

    Firstly, apart from the very recent Aqueduct press books, and the long defunct Womens Press sf series from the 80s, what examples are there of books that have actually been ‘marketed’ as feminist sf? Books will retroactively be labeled or claimed for feminist sf (mainly by feminist sf critics), but marketed? Of course there are the books that are written by avowedly feminist authors who are known to be ‘shouters’ so if that’s the sort of thing that scares you , then those with sensitive constitutions might be forgiven for avoiding them. (Though does this mean certain types of readers would thus avoid sf like _Spirit_ by Gwyneth Jones? or her whole Bold as Love series? If not then there is some weird logic going on here because she is pretty much the scariest feminist I know – in a really really good way)
    Ok – I’ll stop with the narky here :-)

    On the whole issue of whether Bujold or Willis can/should/do get to ‘count’ as feminist sf authors – for the most part, Tansy – they don’t. Bujold in particular has been mostly absent from feminist sf criticism. Bujold has admitted to having an uncomfortable relationship with what gets thought of as the ‘mainstream’ of U.S feminism, and has not always accepted her work being classified this way. (For more on this, see the great email conversation between her and Sylvia Kelso, reprinted in her collection of essays _Three Observations and a Dialogue_ from Aqueduct press). Willis too has had problems with ‘mainstream’ feminism, as indicated by her article ‘The women sf doesn’t see’.

    Part of the problem of course is the lumping of everything under the label ‘feminism’ or feminist sf – we are not talking about a singular, monolithic movement (or theory) although it often gets set up this way. (Just as people’s politics or ideas do not remain static – think of le Guin…) I find it more useful to think about ways of reading – i.e. to talk about how texts can be read from a feminist perspective, or are ‘feminist friendly’. And certainly I read both Bujold and Willis as being feminist friendly (although not always exactly in synch with my own particular positioning).

    So I’ll go and have a listen before i say more… but I am intrigued – who / what are these feminist authors or texts that certain sf readers would know not to go near? Who are the contemporary shouters and umbrella-wielding ‘lady militants’ (as Dick described Russ in that classic Vertex debate).
    apart from scary-ole me, of course ;-)

  12. It’s terrific to get your comment. When you get to it I hope you enjoy the podcast. I think you’re exactly spot on about branding. I can only think of Aqueduct and The Womens Press as examples of feminist sf branding. I think my views on “feminist SF” branding, as opposed to branding used on SF written by women, were completely based on The Womens Press. The books were all uniformly packaged in grey, with lightly colored images appearing on the front in a grey frame. They looked a lot of things, but they didn’t look fun or inviting, or at least they didn’t in the 80s. They looked serious and worthy, sort of like homework. Given when I encountered them I’m not surprised that was the message I took away from them anyway (I feel similarly about the Aqueduct branding. I love the press and the books, but not the branding). Most other commercial SF was brightly – even garishly – packaged and I struggling through a Politics/Economics degree and had a strongly negative view about anything that looked like text books – which The Womens Press sort of did. That said, I did buy a number of them and still have them. It’s where I read Joanna Russ, Rosaleen Love and others.

    As to shouters, I can’t say I’m overly sensitive myself. I LOVED the ‘Bold as Love’ books and liked ‘Spirit’. I am a little weary of Sheri Tepper’s later fiction, mostly because I think she drifted from writing stories to delivering polemics, which I don’t find very rewarding as fiction. For feminist SF to be good it’s got to be good as fiction first and I think when polemics drown the narrative the fiction loses. Le Guin is, as always, an incredible example of getting this right. I’ve never felt ‘yelled at’ by her, or by Jones for that matter. By comparison, I found a book like Gate to Women’s Country heavy-handed, shouty, and dull.

    One of the things that I’ve struggled to articulate well I think is that I’d like to think there was a more complex way of describing a work than as ‘feminist SF’. There’s nothing wrong with such a label, it’s just that usually any worthwhile text is more complex than any single label can fairly encompass.

    I do think you touch on a distinction I find interesting: “feminist friendly” as opposed to “feminist SF”. With “feminist SF” I can’t shake the feeling I’m going to get a worthy work that might shout at me, while a work that’s “feminist friendly” doesn’t sound that way at all. Others mileage may vary on this, and I don’t want to suggest that the “feminist SF” label is useless or bad, just that my own personal experience wouldn’t encourage me to pick up something solely on that description.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.