An Interview with Justine Larbalestier
Some genres seem to be premade for academic examination. Take, say, the whole continuum of upper-class white men who write “literary” fiction and are much beloved by the New York Times Book Review, like Updike or Roth or DeLillo. But the same sort of critical thought has not extended to the speculative fiction field -- especially when it comes to recent veins of study like gender or race. Until, of course, recently.
Justine Larbalestier, an Australian writer who is currently best known for her engaging young adult Magic or Madness trilogy, which was just shortlisted for the Andre Norton award, has twice dipped her toe into the waters of speculative fiction scholarship. Her first nonfiction book, The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, is required reading for anyone who wonders how women in the genre have been portrayed over the past 80 years. This goes triply true for any reviewer who wants to actually apply knowledge to his opinions.
Daughters of Earth, her second approach to widening the discussion about gender in SF/F, collects seminal (no pun intended) short works by writers like James Tiptree, Jr., Pat Murphy, and Karen Joy Fowler and couples them with essays by critics like L. Timmel Duchamp and Andrea Hairston. Rather than turn into a love fest featuring all the usual suspects, Larbalestier has instead collected smart pieces of scholarship that both knock the subjects off of their pedestals while explaining how they got there in the first place.
In addition to all of this, Larbalestier also pens a popular blog that dispenses advice to writers and discussions about cricket and most topics in between.
I had the opportunity to pick Larbalestier’s brain about her nonfiction work and the impact it has had on both her writing and the field at large.
In your speech about researching Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction, you mentioned this bit about Isaac Asimov's take on women as characters in SF:
One of the letters I had already seen was by the 18-year-old Isaac Asimov supporting the idea that women and love (interchangeable items) have no place in science fiction. They're interchangeable terms because according to Asimov and others, the only place for a woman in a science fiction story is as the love interest not as, God forbid, a scientist. In one letter, in support of another correspondent he writes:
"Three rousing cheers for Donald G. Turnbull of Toronto for his valiant attack on those favoring mush. When we want science-fiction, we don't want swooning dames, and that goes double. You needn't worry about Miss Evans, Donald, us he-men are for you and if she tries to slap you down, you've got an able (I hope) confederate and tried auxiliary right here in the person of yours truly. Come on, men, make yourself heard in favor of less love mixed with our science! (Astounding Science Fiction [September 1938]: 161).”
How far have women in SF come since the above, in your opinion? Are females still either "mush" or amazons in need of a "real man?" Or does that simplify the argument too much?
We've come a long way (I am so tempted to add "baby"). There are more women publishing science fiction and more books that don't make gendered assumptions about what men and women are capable of. I am full of boundless optimism about feminism's progress.
On the other hand, those arguments about the place of women in SF are still being repeated here and there. I don't think discourses go away; they just get less traction. There's now more space in the science fiction world for many more discourses.
What was the general response to Battle? Was there one? Were there passionate arguments from any quarter?
It was pretty much only reviewed in the scholarly world and the science fiction world, and the reviews were overwhelmingly positive. Some of them so over-the-top my mother could have written them. I think the book answered a need that many scholars and readers in the field had. I put my finger on something extremely obvious, so it led to a lot of people standing around and nodding. Fans have long known that talking about science fiction as a genre separately from talking about it as a community leads to all sorts of misreadings of texts. They were very pleased to see themselves quoted -- from letters and interviews -- and given the same authority as scholarly texts. And why not? They were talking about the exact same things.
One of the many things I love about science fiction is that it is a genre that actively theorizes about the world. This is because so many science fiction stories are metaphors made literal. The battle of the sexes goes from Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy spatting to an actual battle with armies and weapons etc., etc. Which means it's already doing what scholarship about it does. Pretty cool, eh?
What led to the assembly of Daughters of Earth? Did it grow from your previous research?
Wesleyan Uni Press asked me if I'd be interested in editing a book of feminist science fiction. I agreed for several reasons. Lots of people had been asking me how they could get hold of the stories I talk about in Battle of the Sexes; also, I've always wanted to do a book where short stories and essays about them are side by side. Also, I figured it would be easier than writing another scholarly book. Hah! I was so wrong.
But, yes, it did grow out of my previous research. I gave my essay writers very explicit instructions that I wanted them to historicize the story they wrote about. I wanted them to look at primary texts -- letters about the stories, editorials, stories that were written in response to it or it was written in response to -- not just secondary criticism. I wanted the anthology to illuminate the conversation about sex, race, gender, feminism etc in science fiction. I think we succeeded.
Do you think SF/F is especially slow to change? Or is it a reflection of the publishing industry as a whole? And do you feel this is a global phenomenon or an English language phenomenon?
I can only talk about the English-language science fiction world. I know very little about the rest of the SF world. And, despite being Australian, I know more about the state of it in the US than anywhere else because that was my primary research interest.
But, no, I really don't think SF is any slower to change than any other genre. We live in a sexist world; much of our literature is sexist too. There's a long tradition of stories in science fiction that specifically challenge that.
Who do you think is doing interesting work now? How would you sum up present day gender issues in SF?
You know, I'm a terrible person to ask about current science fiction. I haven't done any SF research since 2003. I switched to a whole new career writing YA novels and that's largely what I read -- YA and non-fiction research books. I can't even remember the last adult SF book I read.
I can say that the recent kerfuffle over Harlan Ellison's behaviour at the Hugo Awards was very heartening. The vast amount of folks were outraged. Back in the day, no one would even have noticed that something untoward had happened.
Are you aware of gender (of characters, of writers) when you are working on your own fiction?
Absolutely. How can you not be? Being male or female means that what you say or do is read differently than if you were the other gender. The colour of your skin, your sexuality, your class, the length of your hair, how attractive you are, what country you're from, your height and weight -- all of it plays a huge part in how you move through the world and how people make sense of you. A writer can't help but be aware of it.
How did you move from nonfiction into YA?
I've always read and loved YA. I've been a huge fan of Patricia Wrightson, Margaret Mahey, and Diana Wynne Jones for years and years. It feels inevitable that I've ended up writing it. Getting published was much less inevitable. It took me many years -- hundred of short stories and two novels -- before I sold my first novel.
YA is the freest of the commercial genres. I get to write whatever books I want. Crime, science fiction, romance, whatever. No matter what I write, it gets shelved in the YA section of the library or book shop. And the blurring between middle grade and YA, as well as between YA and adult, means that I have a wider range of stories I can tell and voices I can tell them in than ever before.
It's a very exciting time to be writing YA. My peers are people like Holly Black, Christopher Paul Curtis, John Green, Maureen Johnson, Margo Lanagan, E. Lockhart, Melina Marchetta, Geraldine McCaughrean, M. T. Anderson, and Scott Westerfeld (my husband). As diverse and talented a group of writers as you could come across, and there are many, many, many more where they came from.
What has surprised you most about switching from nonfiction to fiction?
I expected writing fiction to be a lot more fun and to spend a lot less time chasing down footnotes. I was right. One of my biggest frustrations with scholarly writing was having to anticipate every argument against me and respond accordingly. The level of second guessing did my head in and made my writing feel hemmed in and dried out. Not fun.
The biggest surprise (and joy) is that I'm able to earn a living writing. Something I've always dreamed of. I've also found the level of collegiality and support from my fellow YA writers as well as booksellers and librarians to be overwhelming. It's a wonderful community.