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Helen Merrick

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About the author

Helen Merrick recently completed her thesis 'Feminist/Science/Fictions: A Case Study of Feminist Cultural Production in Critical and Popular Communities' for a PhD degree at UWA. She is currently working as Research Officer for the Women in Leadership Project at Edith Cowan University, and re-discovering the practice of reading for pleasure (still mostly sf!) With Tess Williams, Helen is the co-editor of an anthology of fiction, criticism, poetry and interviews entitled Women of Other Worlds: Excursions through feminism and science fiction (forthcoming from UWA Press, 1999)

Publication details

Volume 3, November 1998

Slumming with the Space Cadets: An argument for feminist science fiction

The conjunction of feminism and science fiction (sf) is one which continues to evince surprise and even amusement from many feminist and academics. This despite the 30 year history of the 'sub-genre' of feminist sf, and postmodernist analyses that celebrate sf as the exemplary literature of our late twentieth-century techno-culture. As a feminist researching sf, I still battle with the sense that I am indulging in an escapist form of intellectual 'slumming'. The characteristic response to this 'spaced-out' interest is succinctly expressed by sf writer and editor Susanna Sturgis, 'Why does a bright feminist like you read that stuff anyway?' (1989, 1).

While an avid consumer of 'malestream' sf since childhood, I renounced the genre upon discovering feminism as a mature age undergraduate (although I occasionally indulged in guilty binges of Isaac Asimov in the holidays). Imagine, then, my delight on reading Donna Haraway's 'Manifesto for Cyborgs', and discovering the existence of that 'monstrous hybrid', feminist sf - my illicit pleasure suddenly redeemed by a respected feminist theorist and indeed elevated to the status of research.

Arising from a pivotal question in my research, this paper is directed to understanding the dismissal of feminist sf as a 'legitimate' subject for feminist study. Whilst a body of specialised feminist sf criticism has developed within the field of sf, sf has at best a marginal presence in mainstream feminist criticism, indicating a rather limited fulfilment of postmodern projects to destabilise hi/lo cultural boundaries and reconceptualise the study of popular culture. Such a marginalisation highlights a number of problematic tensions in feminist literary theory and provides a useful impetus for re-assessing the aims and methods of various critical practices

The feminist urge to revise our ideas about literature has necessitated the construction of canons counter to those of the androcentric tradition of 'great (white male) literature'. Yet the process of building counter-canons (and the methodologies by which they are assessed and constructed) do not always depart so radically from phallogocentric norms (Christian, 1990; Lauter, 1991). The stuff from which literary canons are made is drawn from a limited set of texts - those books that most academics and critics would themselves read (or be seen reading), and, in the majority of cases, this excludes genre fiction such as sf (see Thurston, 1987 for example). Even though the process of constituting feminist counter-canons has entailed a revaluing of texts previously excluded from 'literature', feminist literary criticism also participates in the confirmation of boundaries, even as it transgresses others, and often does not fulfil its potential to speak 'from the border' - the most persistent fault lines being those of the hegemony of white, heterosexual literature, and the re-figuration of the popular and genre as conservative. Examining the critical response to texts issuing from such a 'fault line' highlights the unacknowledged hierarchies of power and cultural value invested in critical processes, that are also the target of criticism from women of colour and lesbian critics.

Despite the rapid increase in studies of contemporary women's and popular fiction in the last decade or so, feminist sf continues to attract less attention than other popular forms, such as romance. Sf has a problematic presence in mainstream criticism for a number of reasons, the most obvious being the persistent view of sf as 'boy's own' pulp fiction, whose technomanic indulgences may well continue to alienate (still largely 'technophobic') feminist critics. A typical example is provided in an essay on 'Women and Utopia':

Many of the tales by Russ, Le Guin et. al. heavily rely on the employment of elements such as time and space travel, sex change and other phenomena which are either not yet of our world or too recent to have sunk deep into our literature. And although, as a teacher of literature, I can have no objection to speculative and didactic discourse, I do prefer it in a less fanciful, less technological form (Rudnik-Smalbraak, 1987, 179).

Though the 'masculinist' and 'technophillic' image of sf is influential, other aspects of contemporary feminist criticism contribute to the exclusion of sf, in particular, the construction of selective traditions which are based on conflicting views of the value of realist versus experimental modes and the search for a feminist aesthetic.

Significantly, the exclusion of certain texts from feminist literary canons reveals assumptions about what practices are considered valid forms of feminist culture and theorising, with serious consequences for constituting what Katie King calls the 'apparatus for the production of feminist culture' (1994, 92). As King has argued,

The construction of value of literary forms has been politicized in feminist literary criticism. Not only do feminist literary critics challenge the traditional values of women's writing, but they themselves participate in valuing some forms of writing over others. Genres of writing are highly important in these debates, as objects of knowledge, as producers of knowledge, as the very kinds of knowledge themselves (182, n30).

In feminist studies of contemporary literature, sf texts are not well-represented and indeed their very existence is often marginalised or obscured. The few works of feminist sf that do appear are usually made more palatable to academic interest by ignoring or minimising their sf identity. The inclusion of feminist sf texts necessitates a certain amount of manoeuvring to 'rescue' them from genre and re-position them within feminist 'literature'.

Thus, sf texts are set within the frames of various traditions - 'women's writing' 'feminist fiction' 'postmodern fiction' black women's writing, 'lesbian fiction', and the most suitable 'place' for sf - the tradition of feminist utopian writing. In order to co-opt sf for these traditions, a variety of tactics are used - from denying the 'science fictionality' of the texts altogether, limiting sf to the status of a literary 'device', or casting genre as an old broken shell, from which the butterfly of a new feminist fiction has emerged. In other words, the context of the genre (and possible association with all those nerdy little boys) is denied or avoided at all costs.

A book by any other name...

A sample of studies of contemporary women’s writing not surprisingly provides multiple views of feminist fiction. However, a fairly homogeneous 'counter-canon' emerges, dominated by the names of Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood, Angela Carter, Margaret Drabble, Muriel Spark, Marge Piercy and recently - in response to critiques by women of colour - Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. Whilst none of these are primarily sf writers, Lessing, Piercy, Atwood and Carter have all written works that can, to varying degrees, be classified as sf. (Another writer who appears in both feminist and sf criticism is Monique Wittig). Some texts, like Piercy's Woman on the Edge of Time and Body of Glass were consciously written as sf; other texts have been claimed for feminist sf canons, such as Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and some of Carter and Lessing's work. Nevertheless, in feminist literary criticism, few studies discuss even Piercy's work in terms of sf. Those that explicitly recognise feminist sf as part of contemporary women's or feminist writing are the exception (for example, Gilbert and Gubar, 1988; Kenyon, 1991).

Most studies deal with the excursions of writers such as Lessing and Atwood into the borderlands of sf by minimising or ignoring the specificity of sf as genre, recasting it through substitute terms ('space fiction', 'speculative fiction'), or figuring sf mainly as a series of devices that can be employed in feminist fiction. In the few cases where a feminist sf text such as The Female Man is considered, it is solely in the context of a tradition of women's or feminist writing, demonstrated through juxtaposition with canonical figures such as Virginia Woolf or Perkins Gilman.

The most obvious way to draw such 'unruly' texts into feminist traditions is to link (and subordinate) them to 'mainstream' authors. The only genre sf writer to appear with any frequency is Joanna Russ, and critics undertake some interesting negotiations to draw her work - more specifically The Female Man - out of the entanglement of genre and into the mainstream of feminist fiction. Many critics also cite Russ' criticism, especially 'What Can A Heroine Do? Or Why Women Can't Write', even those who discuss no sf. In this essay, Russ outlines three options for feminist writers who do not want to follow traditional 'female narratives': non-narrative texts, a lyrical mode or - Russ' favoured approach - a turn to genre. Many critics who approvingly cite Russ' model, however, omit the third option of genre (for example, Rubenstein, 1987). Other writers of 'canonical' status in feminist sf criticism, such as Tiptree and Charnas, are rarely referred to, and, despite the common assumption that she is one of the few sf writers to receive critical appraisal outside the genre, Le Guin also receives very little attention in feminist literary studies.

A majority of studies refer to science fictional texts by other terms, and thus enrol sf texts in the construction of alternative feminist traditions. Many discuss texts such as Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Wittig's Les Guérillères and Lessing's work without any reference to sf, speculative fiction or fantasy (Rubenstein, 1987; Lanser, 1992; Fullbrook, 1990; Conboy, 1993). Paulina Palmer's Contemporary Women's Fiction includes Atwood, Carter, Lessing, Piercy and Zoë Fairburns, but also omits reference to sf, with texts such as Benefits and The Handmaid's Tale classed as 'dystopian fiction' (Palmer, 1989).

Attempts to co-opt sf texts for mainstream traditions also downplay the undesirable 'genre' connections by situating sf as 'elements' or 'devices' of feminist literature, thus not condemning the whole work to a sub-literary genre. In Nancy Walker's Feminist Alternatives, sf texts are discussed in the guise of 'fantasy' or 'speculative fiction' (Walker, 1990). Situating 'fantasy' in its broadest, rather than generic, sense, Walker's emphasis on 'realism' renders 'fantasy' as a literary device. Walker's distinctions between fantasy 'as an element in the plot' and as 'fictions wholly constructed of fantasies' potentially blur the boundaries between genre and mainstream, but her reading of The Female Man in conjunction with texts such as Atwood's Handmaid's Tale, Erica Jong's Serenissima and Fay Weldon's The Rules of Life and the absence of other genre writers firmly occludes genre in favour of the mainstream, Russ having been elevated from the ghetto to become part of this 'fantastic' tradition.

Another critic who minimises sf's generic positioning to that of formal or stylistic 'elements' in a text is Rachel Blau DuPlessis. Her metaphor of 'writing beyond the ending' provides a unifying motif for a tradition of women's writing that encompasses novels dealing with 'the issue of the future' which 'may have speculative, fantasy or "science fiction" elements' (1985, 178-9). DuPlessis effectively extricates Russ from the genre, arguing that Whileaway (the 'eutopia' of The Female Man and 'When It Changed') is presented 'as if it were science fiction' (183, my emphases). This comment appears directly after DuPlessis' discussion of Russ' 'What Can A Heroine Do' outlining the options open to women writers. Sf becomes just a bit of decoration in The Female Man: 'The sci-fi material, written as if on Russ' dare to herself, is presented to dress up ... to camp up - the essential truth about Whileaway' (1979, 6). It seems rather absurd to describe Russ' writing in sf as a 'dare', considering that she had been writing sf and sf criticism for almost 20 years before the publication of The Female Man, and that nearly all of her creative writing has continued to be within the genre.[1]

Counter-hegemonic challenges

Alongside the multiple traditions of women's writing and feminist fiction produced in feminist literary studies are others that emphasise divergence from the white, heterosexual model of feminism. Such traditions are part of the broader challenge to hegemonic feminisms from women of colour, and lesbian and queer theorists. Most lesbian criticism of contemporary writing that deals with sf texts frames them in the context of utopian writing. There are a few general surveys of lesbian fiction that mention sf, such as Paulina Palmer's Contemporary Lesbian Writing. Unlike her first book (Contemporary Women's Fiction) which focused on mainstream authors and did not mention genre writing, here Palmer casts her net much wider in order to argue for the strength and diversity of lesbian fiction. Palmer covers writers such as Russ who are 'appropriating and reworking the popular genres of the thriller, science fiction and gothic [which are] widely read' (Palmer, 1993, 1).

Amongst the multiplicity of traditions constructed through contemporary feminist criticism are those based on ethnic and racial groups, one of the most visible (in the US at least) being that of African American women's writing. The relation between black feminist criticism and sf is problematic, as the only established black female sf author is Octavia Butler.[2] While most black writers do depart from realist modes of writing, such texts are more likely to be linked to their traditional cultural heritage (and termed fantastic or 'magic realist'), than claimed for the predominantly white genre of sf.

Few book-length studies of African American women's fiction contain any reference to, let alone discussion of Butler's work. There are, however, a number of journal and magazine articles on Butler, with journals like Black American Literature Forum running a special issue on black sf writers Delany and Butler (vol.18, no.2, 1984). Black feminist criticism has its own 'canon' of female writers, inclusive of, but much more comprehensive than the Alice Walker and Toni Morrison 'diptych' that represents women of colour in most white feminist criticism. Butler is a marginal figure in most studies, usually mentioned in connection with her 'slavery' novel Kindred, (not published as sf) and thus placed firmly within a tradition of Afro-American women's history. This is in sharp contrast to feminist sf criticism where her work is, often problematically situated as part of the almost exclusively white feminist sf canon.

One of the few book-length studies of Black women's writing to discuss Butler is Karla Holloway's Moorings and Metaphors; which does not discuss her work in terms of sf, but locates her solely in the context of African American women's history (Holloway, 1992). Apart from Kindred, which receives a two-page discussion, two of Butler's sf works are mentioned. Holloway is obviously familiar with Butler's sf but discusses the novels in a decontextualised manner that is rather disconcerting. The character Anyanwu from Wild Seed is used as an example of 'ancestral mediators' in contemporary fiction by Black women, without any explanation of the fact that '[her ancestors'] lifetimes (and hers) are scattered across three centuries' (47). [3]

Utopian (re)visions

Within mainstream and lesbian feminist literary studies, sf texts appear most commonly in the related but separate branch of criticism focussed on utopias and utopian writing, where the overlap between the major 1970s feminist sf texts and a 'utopian tradition' make their presence undeniable. 1970s feminist sf texts are often situated as the modern form of the feminist utopia, but, as Robin Roberts has commented, '[d]iscussing utopia instead of science fiction ... provides an instant literary pedigree and legitimacy' (1995, 187). Utopia remains a favoured form for the analysis of texts that I would consider primarily as sf, an analysis which does not greatly enhance understanding of the text's literary form and function, or of the relation and interaction with feminist politics and epistemology.

Many feminist utopian studies cover a range of feminist sf texts often corresponding closely, even exactly, to the list offered by Russ in her 'Recent Feminist Utopias' (1981). However, while in Russ' article (and in sf criticism generally), these texts function as examples of utopian visions within sf, most utopian studies encompass sf within a utopian tradition. Few provide definitions of 'utopian literature' which justify its treatment as a literary form separate from sf or fantasy, or that delineates the formal and historical relationship between the two. Rather, the forms are conflated, or sf is subsumed into the utopian tradition (Ben-Tov, 1995). One such example is Frances Bartowski's study, Feminist Utopias, which surveys an eclectic group of authors, including Marge Piercy, Joanna Russ, Monique Wittig and Suzy McKee Charnas, with almost no mention of sf (Bartowski, 1989). Pairing lesser-known genre works with more mainstream literary authors such as Atwood helps legitimate their presence and argues for a cohesive feminist utopian tradition that effaces the many differences in historical, cultural and generic contexts. Like many other utopian critics, Bartowski's arguments for a utopian tradition rest on the assumption that utopian desire is a universal force of feminism. There are problems in shifting too easily from 'utopia' as political impulse, to 'utopia' as literary tradition. Constructions of 'utopian traditions' often neglect to clarify delineations between 'utopian vision' as a characteristic of feminist movements and/or feminist literature, utopia as a topos (either as a community or in fiction) and a 'utopian tradition' (which in Western literature is marked historically as white and androcentric).

In the search to provide a long and distinguished history for a form of fiction manifested in the 1970s within a popular, 'pulp' field, many feminist utopian critics link nineteenth-century female responses to the socialist utopia with seventies feminist texts in order to provide a continuity of tradition. The impulse to establish continuity ranges across historical periods, cultures and genres, looking for, and thus finding, only linkages and similarities. A recent collection edited by Jane Donawerth and Carol Kolmerton attempts to circumvent the problematic relationship between sf and utopia by arguing that they 'historically speak to one another' and that together they 'constitute a continuous literary tradition in the West from the seventeenth century to the present day' (1994, 1). They further conflate utopias and sf in order to produce a long and continuous 'literary tradition', arguing that together, they 'amount to a literary tradition of women's writing about a better place' (1). But the collection, ranging from Margaret Cavendish and Perkins Gilman to female sf writers from the late 1920s until the present, does not bear out this claim for a seamless history of women's utopian writing. Donawerth's chapter on 1920s women sf writers argues that they form a bridge between nineteenth century utopias and later feminist sf (1994). The establishment of this inclusive tradition forms the basis of the relationship drawn between the two fictional forms or genres:

From the nineteenth century on, a clear and traceable tradition of women's writing often derives its permission for women's writing from the example of Mary Shelley and its techniques of revising gender from the feminist technological utopia. Indeed, after World War I, most feminist utopias have been published as science fiction (Donawerth and Kolmerton, 1994, 9).

While Donawerth certainly provides ample evidence for the connections between 1920s women's sf and technological utopias, the impetus to construct a continuous tradition neglects the influence of male sf writers and the whole pulp magazine culture (of production, consumption and direction) on early women's sf. As Heather MacLean comments in her review,

These female authors are indeed writing as off-shoots of a patriarchally oriented/established base, but they are in dialogue with that base. To deny that connection is to remove some of the pertinence of the genesis of the text. In order to establish a tradition, it might have been more fruitful to examine the ways in which these texts repeat deviance from the norm (1995, p.276).

A surprising number of utopian studies adhere to the simplistic but still common view of 'utopian fiction' as a 'blueprint', leading to distorted and decontextualised readings, particularly of separatist sf texts. Diane Crowder, for example, has criticised authors Sally Miller Gearhart and James Tiptree ('[l]ike Gilman and Lane before them') for choosing to 'eliminate men in fantastic ways that do not satisfy our need for a concrete blueprint for action' (Crowder, 1993, 239, 243-4). Another example is Anne K. Mellor's 'On Feminist Utopias', which, drawing on Ernst Bloch, defines feminist utopian thinking as a 'concrete' view of utopia which offers 'potentially viable blue-prints for social organisation' (1982, 242-3). This assumption allows Mellor to conclude that all-female worlds portrayed in feminist sf represent a transparent desire for separatism. A decade later than Mellor's article, the notion of utopia as a form of 'blue-print' for feminist change is reiterated by Sonya Andermahr, in a collection of lesbian criticism. Andermahr categorises a group of (sf) utopias as portrayals of all-female societies which are explicitly lesbian and 'start from the premise that separatism is a prerequisite for social change' (1992, 139). Such readings are not only naive in their refusal to read women-only sf worlds metaphorically (hindered by the fact that often the texts are not recognised as sf), but are often based on texts that only in the loosest possible definition can be termed 'utopian', let alone separatist.

Genre criticism - a parallel tradition?

The construction of counter canons and selective traditions of women's writing is problematic for all critical projects, including feminist sf criticism. Given that 'canons' arise haphazardly, as it were, from a complex interaction of professional and academic studies, textbooks, university courses, publishing markets and literary reviews, it is perhaps impossible to avoid their construction altogether. Nevertheless, we should recognise that 'the literary canon is ... a means by which culture validates social power' (Lauter, 1985, 19).

Critical studies of feminist writing within genre fiction would seem to be the approach most likely to provide contextualised and informed analyses of feminist sf. In contrast to (mainstream) literary criticism, 'genre criticism' generally entails a focus on 'popular' fiction and forms that have traditionally been considered conservative, formulaic and not 'literary'. A consequence of focusing on 'genre' is the corresponding argument for the 'generic', formulaic and intertextual nature of all forms of writing (including, for example, academic criticism or PhD theses). Feminist writing in genres from sf to romance and crime fiction has attracted increasing interest from feminist critics, coinciding with the legitimation of popular fictions as a focus for cultural study. Unlike most literary criticism, genre studies also usually entails an awareness and analysis of the production, publication and reception of, or audience for, texts. As Helen Carr has noted:

Genres represent a set of conventions whose parameters are redrawn with each new book and each new reading. The concept involves a contract between reader and writer. Once we think of a text as an example of genre, we can no longer approach it only as an artefact to be analysed in some contextless critical purity. We need to ask who reads such books why and in what way, seeing them as ... texts-in-use (1989, 7).

In this framework, the significant context of the work becomes not the 'relation to the "Great Tradition", but the consequences (both potential and actual) of the insertion of ...[the text] into the domain of popular culture' (Laing, 1994, 13).

A number of genre critics challenge the more traditional literary and sociological approaches to popular fiction, which adhere to formalist literary values, situate texts as commodities (and readers as consumers) and are often based on 'rescuing other, less enlightened readers from the predatory tentacles of the pleasures of popular fiction' (Longhurst, 1989, 1). In contrast, interdisciplinary cultural studies aims to challenge the literary canon as 'given' and thus undermine the dichotomy of major and minor literature.

The privileging of the popular which would seem to be a central function of genre studies is not, however, necessarily accompanied by disruption of traditional critical hierarchies of literary value (or of the critic's 'authority'). A number of feminist critics who focus on genre revert to the argument that genre writing is essentially conservative and automatically presents obstacles to feminists attempting to appropriate the form. Often, it is assumed that a successful feminist subversion means that the genre form itself has been transcended - in other words, it is no longer 'genre fiction' but feminist fiction. In this formulation genre fiction such as sf remains outside the sphere of feminist influence and transformation: you cannot have good feminist literature that is also sf; a truly feminist text will break the confines of genre conventions and pass over the literary borderland into the realm of 'real' literature.

In many studies of feminist genre writing, a contentious issue is the 'popularity' of this fiction, and how much this signals 'conservatism' (see Palmer, 1989, 5). As the cover blurb of Into the Mainstream states: 'it is selling, but is it "selling out"?' (Gerrard, 1989). According to Nicci Gerrard, genre forms have been 'eagerly' taken up by feminist publishers, writers and readers and 'heralded by some as the way out of a literary cul-de-sac' (147, 115). Gerrard does not agree; in her analysis, 'accessibility slither[s] towards compromise', and popularity is synonymous with conservatism, which is incompatible with 'cutting edge' feminist theory and politics:

can a novel that is popular entertainment and therefore confined by intrinsically conservative rules be converted to political ends? - if not, does that imply that radical ideas are the preserve of the elite, only to be diluted down into accessibility? (119).

Writing specifically of feminist sf, Gerrard argues that despite the opportunities offered by the form, it could be 'a trap for more dogmatic writers who become locked into empty rhetoric, banal theory and feminist cliché' (142). In other words, conservatism is inherent in the very form (which form?) of 'genre fiction' (which genre?), which is distinguished from feminist-appropriate fiction by its popularity. Anne Cranny-Francis also fluctuates between the idea that '[a]s a political practice ... the feminist use of generic fiction seems very appropriate'; and the 'danger' that 'the feminist text may be recovered for patriarchy by a narrative which contradicts discursively the story told by the narrative' (1990, 3, 195). Patricia Duncker is even more overtly dismissive of popular genres:

All the women's presses, in the last days of the 1980s and on into the 1990s, have been engaged in promoting women's genre fiction because the combination of feminist textual noises and a brisk escapist read sells extremely well. It is clear ... that I am not a convert to this kind of writing (1992, 99).

Duncker is interested in more subversive fiction, which in her view can only occur in genre writing when the 'form of the genre breaks down. And we are reading a new kind of political fiction: feminist fiction'. Again, the 'popular' is positioned as 'apolitical' (as if conservatism was not 'political'). For Duncker, feminist fiction and genre fiction are mutually exclusive categories, and 'feminist genre fiction' is thus an impossibility. A number of critics echo this view - evidencing undercurrents of 'traditional' forms of criticism: the suggestion that the popular is necessarily and intrinsically conservative (Cranny-Francis, 1990, 1), that genre 'conventions' and codes are more constricting (and phallocentric) than the codes of 'literature' (Gerrard, 1989, 147-8), and that the market for genre remains 'consumers' rather than 'readers'. To quote Duncker again: 'Most of the consumers of genre fiction eat the novels like a favourite meal. They want to know what they are buying, even if it is junk food. Feminism, on the other hand, should always be disruptive, unsettling' (1992, 125). The message is clear: 'Good' feminists don't like junk food!

Even those who are more enthusiastic about feminist genre writing, such as Cranny-Francis, emphasise the 'dangers' of conservatism and phallocentrism that lie 'embedded' in the very forms and codes of genre. This is a familiar feminist dilemma, of course: the question of whether feminist discourse is constricted or even undermined by the very structures of the literary forms and language inherited from an androcentric tradition. It is not, however, a problem specific only to genre or 'popular' fiction, but to all forms of writing. The tendency in feminist criticism of genre is to see such forms, including sf, as the repositories of the most extreme limitations on feminist strategies of deconstruction and re-visioning. Of course, there are significant differences in the way, for example, Joanna Russ and Anne McCaffrey utilise sf, and some feminist interventions are more successful or destabilising than others. My concern, however, is with the recursive argument which aligns 'conservative' and collusionary practices with a particular 'form' of writing such as sf, so that successful feminist appropriations, by their very nature, cannot therefore be considered sf (and thus participate in the transformation of the genre). I would challenge the notion that certain modes of writing can in themselves be inherently radical or conservative. The codes and conventions of genre, indeed all writing, are not static. To ignore the fluidity of genre over time and cultures is also to deny the transformations brought about in sf by feminist interventions.

Although writer Leslie Dick also supports the notion that genre tends to a norm of conservatism, she points to extra-textual factors that need to be acknowledged when talking of popular fiction (and indeed in today's megacorporate publishing atmosphere, all literature): 'genres are not just forms, they are also institutions. Between, on the one hand, marketing, and on the other, audience addiction, genres have a tendency to rigidify, to sediment and fossilise' (Dick, 1989, p.209). In literary genre studies, little attention has been paid to economic and institutional analyses of the production and reception of texts in contrast to studies of media, and some feminist studies of romance (for exceptions, see Thurston, 1987; Radway, 1987). In a field like sf, at least certain sections of the 'audience' have been extremely active in challenging its writers to be radical and socially responsible in their writing, particularly amongst the feminist fan community (Merrick, 1997).

The approach to popular fiction through genre criticism, while it carries an intrinsic validation of 'the popular' through its focus on 'genre' fiction, and in so doing seeks to escape the confines imposed by the canons of literary criticism, nevertheless ultimately retains an unspoken border between 'high' and 'low' texts. Subsuming a variety of fictions, from romance to horror and sf and fantasy, under the 'convenient holdall' of genre effaces the individual histories, conventions (or lack thereof) and communities of readers of each form. General pronouncements about 'Genre' fiction homogenises a multiplicity of forms into a whole that is judged intrinsically conservative in comparison with some unmarked and often unnamed heterogeneity of possibilities signalled by literature 'proper'.

All of the approaches I've discussed so far focus on the 'literary' value of feminist sf texts. Their worth is judged according to fairly exclusionary notions of 'feminist literature', which, depending on the critic, is either predominantly 'realist' (movement fiction) or is 'avant-garde' and experimental. sf is not 'realist' and is therefore excluded from the first category, and is seemingly not 'anti-realist' enough to form part of the second. In both cases, feminist sf is excluded from the mainstream of feminist criticisms, the ghetto wall of genre apparently proving too distasteful a barrier to breach.

Consequently, a number of important feminist histories are obscured: the feminist battle with the malestream of sf; the development of one of the most fascinating (and pleasurable) bodies of contemporary feminist fiction; the function of feminist sf as a catalyst for the formation of a community of feminist sf fans; and finally, the imaginative interaction between feminist sf and feminist critiques of science. [4] The impact of feminism on the community of sf fans is a largely under-researched area, although some fascinating work has been done on media sf - especially female Star Trek fans (Penley, 1997; Jenkins, 1992).

Starting from the question, why does feminist sf have such a marginal position in literary theory, I have been led to a number of deep-seated problematics in contemporary feminist thought. My construction of contemporary feminist criticism is inflected by a desire to engage with a genre that remains outside the reproduction and inscription of feminist counter-canons. This positioning encourages, even demands, an interrogation of the mechanics of canon formation, and highlights a number of unquestioned assumptions about the processes and goals of feminist criticism and the objects constructed for and through these practices.

Excluded from the field of 'literature', genre fiction such as sf is marked by its lack of realism, and by its over-determined tropes, conventions, and pulp history. In contrast, 'feminist literature' (and/or 'women's writing') is 'unmarked'. Once declared as such there is no need to justify the act of feminist critical interpretation - unlike the often defensive practice of critics of genre who must justify their use of sf in the production of feminist knowledges. By default, sf is situated outside a heterogeneous field of texts represented monolithically as 'literature', through the unproblematised labels 'feminist fiction' or women's writing' which are not clearly differentiated, but constitute overlapping and ambivalent objects of knowledge.

How do or should we define and divide feminist from women's fiction, and what does it mean when feminist critics use these terms, these objects interchangeably, as the self-evident cultural capital of feminist literary criticism? Does 'feminist fiction' actually 'exist', other than as the already-assumed goal of feminist canon formation, which is, in fact constructed through the assemblage of (certain) texts and authors, a laboriously-produced 'object' which must be shown to exist to justify 'our' intellectual practice as feminist teachers, academics and critics? Rather than a constative, or purely descriptive discussion of an already constituted object, I would stress the performative nature of canon-making in treatments of 'feminist fiction'. To make a rather crude observation (informed by my 'genre' perspective), there is no 'feminist fiction' section in the bookshop. The process of canon formation, or the constitution of an object like 'feminist fiction' is perhaps inescapable, but critics can and should foreground and problematise these practices and make clear how, why and for whom they read, classify and interpret texts.

And while feminists are engaged in this complex but illuminating process, it might be more difficult to escape my question:

So why don't you read sf?


1. Russ began publishing sf in 1959, with the short story 'Nor Custom Stale', published in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Russ published sf criticism from 1971 onwards, often in Science Fiction Studies.

2. There are other African American female authors who have written sf, although few have been as closely associated with the field as Butler. Jewelle Gomez has written sf/fantasy; and Virginia Hamilton has written fantasy. See Hopkinson, 1996. Hopkinson herself published her first sf/fantasy novel in 1997, Brown Girl in the Ring.

3. Even more disorientating is a parenthetical reference to Butler's 'Xenogenesis' series. In the midst of a theoretical discussion, a metaphor from Butler's sf is used to illustrate politics as a facet of 'cultural insertion into critical inquiry': '(a sort of Ooankalian[sic] tentacle, to use an example from Octavia Butler's Adulthood Rites)' (41). This is the only mention of the book and no explanation of Butler's aliens is given, which would render the comment incomprehensible to anyone not familiar with the Xenogenesis series. I am intrigued by the possibility that Holloway is here assuming a knowledge of Butler's work amongst readers and academics of Black feminist fiction, suggesting that Butler may be so widely read in these communities that Holloway can confidently insert the Oankali reference without explanation

4. The importance of feminist sf has, however, been recognised by a number of feminist science theorists - in particular Donna Haraway and Hillary Rose, who offer quite a different view of feminist sf's potential as 'texts-in-and-of-use' to feminist epistemology. See for example, Rose, 1986, 1994; Haraway, 1990; and Donawerth, 1990.


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