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Gender is not sex

So my stint as a judge for the James Tiptree Jr Memorial Award is now at an end. We have our winners and our Honour List, and a very pleasing result it is too.

I have been involved with all sorts of awards over the years, and this was certainly the strangest experience. What follows, I must emphasise, is my purely personal response to being a Tiptree judge. I suspect other members of the jury might have a very different reaction.

Part of the strangeness stems from the very specific remit of the Tiptree Award: ‘for science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender.’ You note that the word ‘best’ does not appear, nor is there any explanation for what is meant by ‘expand’, ‘explore’ or ‘gender’. This imprecision suits me. During the eleven years I chaired the Clarke Award for the best science fiction novel of the year I had to set out for each new jury that the award did not define the terms ‘best’, ‘science fiction’ or ‘novel’, it was entirely down to the jury to determine what they understood by those terms. In that light, the terms of reference for the Clarke Award were different every year, and I suspect that the remit of the Tiptree is different every year. At various times during the year we spent on the jury we each spelled out what it was we were looking for in a potential Tiptree winner; all of us had different criteria. Any work that emerges from that process ends up having to tick an awful lot of different boxes for each of the different judges, which may explain why the award has a track record for picking idiosyncratic but highly rated winners. It may also explain why it is far more likely to pick joint winners than any other award I know (as we did this year).

But it is strange also in the structure of the award process. The Clarke Award, whose structure seems to be pretty much the norm where juried awards are concerned, would choose a shortlist first then, at a later date, pick the winner from among those shortlisted titles. This means that many of the arguments – is this science fiction? is it a novel? – can be dealt with at the shortlist stage, and the final selection of the winner then comes down to the single (though inevitably contentious) issue of deciding which is best from among a limited group. The Tiptree, for reasons I’ve never quite fathomed though I suspect it is historical, reverses this process: the winner is chosen first, only then is a short list selected. (In recent years the Tiptree shortlist has been renamed the Honour List to avoid confusion.) This means that every submitted work is in play right up to the moment that the winner emerges; it also means that every argument is in play right up until the end. This was an invigorating process, since it kept us all open to new stuff; yet it was also frustrating because the same arguments did develop several times.

But the perennial problem I had was with the word ‘gender’. Let me explain something about the Tiptree process: the jurors can suggest works for consideration, publishers can submit books, but most of the recommendations come through the Tiptree website. It didn’t take long to realise that each of these processes produced a different take on ‘gender’, not all of which I was comfortable with. This led to two different reactions: the positive reaction was that I found myself rethinking the philosophical underpinning of the award all the way through the judging process; the negative reaction was that I kept encountering works that felt wrong within the context of the award.

This may have been circumstantial: at one point I commented on the fact that none of the works we were seeing was by a male author. I suspect this was chance; certainly a number of male authors have won the award in the past, and in the end one male author did appear on the Honour List. But for a time there I did feel uncomfortable that an award for gender seemed to have uncovered no relevant work by men.

The ongoing process of rethinking gender and how the novels and stories we were looking at could be said to ‘expand or explore’ our understanding of it, brought me up against a surprising number of issues. For one, the Tiptree Award has always been associated with Wiscon, a feminist convention, so should the award have a feminist perspective? That would be one way of looking at it, though in the end I felt that would be to narrow the focus. Wide and complex as feminist issues are, gender can be wider and more complex still. Certainly I think in the end all the stories we chose to honour could be said to be feminist, but it couldn’t be the whole story. One of the most persistent but least satisfying tropes I saw in the work we received was a fairly simplistic representation of feminism, straightforward sexual role reversal. But to my mind most of these did nothing more to ‘expand or explore’ the issues than Charlotte Perkins Gilman had done almost 100 years ago in Herland. This isn’t a blanket ban on the trope: one of our winners, Ooku by Fumi Yoshinaga, used exactly that device, but did so in a way that was both more inventive and more questioning in its use of the idea. I did come to realise, however, that simply fictionalising a feminist notion is not the same as expanding and exploring our understanding of gender.

There were also several works that dealt, more or less overtly, with sex, a couple, in their prurient concentration on the mechanics of sex, bordering on pornography. Still others simply featured a gay or lesbian relationship in the foreground. Some of these were interesting, some were dreadfully dull, some were well written, others much less so, yet I couldn’t help feeling that a decade into the 21st century this alone could not be enough to count as exploring or expanding our understanding of gender. Again, this was not a blanket ban: a couple of works that made the Honour List featured polyamorous relationships, but this wasn’t all they were about. So I came to believe that exploring gender couldn’t just be about sexuality in the same way that it couldn’t just be about role reversal.

I started, therefore, looking for works in which some fresh perspective on gender was woven into the social, political and culture structure of the world of the novel. This, as you might imagine, is less common, but when I found it, as I did in several of the works that came our way, it was much more satisfying. In our two winners, for example, Ooku looks like a fairly conventional role reversal tale (though exoticised by being set in the Japan of the Tokugawa Shogunate), but uses this to explore the way sexualized behaviour is determined not by gender but by power and, especially, powerlessness. The other joint winner, Cloud and Ashes by Greer Gilman, is also exoticised in its setting and language (both cognate with the British north country on the eve of the Renaissance), and also uses gender to explore power issues, in this case access to domestic authority and scientific knowledge. I came away from both works with a more nuanced understanding of gender, and nuance is always difficult to find.

4 thoughts on “Gender is not sex

  1. Thanks for reflecting here on your process in judging for the contest. I’d like to see more of this kind of demystifying.

    One of my favorite science fiction series that explored and expanded my understanding of gender was Octavia Butler’s Xenogenesis trilogy. Then there are sundry works by Le Guin and Delany.

    Hey, would you care to put together a list of other novels/stories that’d fit the definition as prescribed by the Tiptree award?

    Also, I just read a bit about Cloud and Ashes by Greer Gilman elsewhere and wondered if you’d talk about its so-called “lyrical Jacobeanesque dialect”.



    1. “I’d like to see more of this kind of demystifying.”

      So would I. I’d particularly like to hear from other judges how they arrive at their own personal take on what qualifies for the award. And the more I think about it, the more it seems to be prescribed by negatives and oppositions rather than positive ideas. But that could just be me.

      “would you care to put together a list of other novels/stories that’d fit the definition”

      Er, short answer, no. Mostly because there are a lot more works than you’d think. Just about anything by Gwyneth Jones would fit the bill, especially the Aleutian Trilogy and Life. You’ve mentioned Delany, and Triton would be the obvious one there; for Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness, also much of the work of Geoff Ryman, John Kessel, Karen Joy Fowler, not to mention all the works that have won the Tiptree award over the last 20 years or whatever it is.

      “wondered if you’d talk about its so-called “lyrical Jacobeanesque dialect””

      The first thing to do is give you a taste. This is how the book opens:

      He is met at a crossroads on a windy night, the moon in tatters and the mist unclothing stars, the way from Ask to Owlerdale: a man in black, white-headed, with a three-string fiddle in his pack. Or in a corner of an ale house, querulous among the cups, untallied; somehow never there for the reckoning, though you, or Hodge, or any traveller has drunk the night with him. A marish man: he speaks with a reedy lowland wauling, through his beak, as they say. He calls Cloud crowland. How you squall, he says, you moorland ravens; how you peck and pilfer. He speaks like a hoodie crow himself, all hoarse with rain, with bawling ballads in the street.

      Is that difficult? It’s like that the whole way through, nothing actually outlandish, but the cumulative effect is of encountering a language you no longer quite understand. All the way through you find echoes of old English and Scottish ballads, not overt but subtle so that anyone with a background in traditional music will suddenly have a sense they recognise what’s going on even if they can’t exactly say why. And there are borrowings also from the dialect of northern England and southern Scotland (note the spelling of “traveller” in that passage).

      At one point, during our discussion of this book, I said: “the language above all that seems carefully designed to exclude the reader. But the more I persevered, the more I came to like it. It is a paradoxical work in that to enter the novel you basically have to give up on understanding the language and just let the words wash over you in the hope that something of the emotion they carry will seep into you, which they do. So you have to read the book on an instinctual level; yet the effect of the book is
      almost entirely intellectual.”

      I said more to the same effect in my review. Basically, it’s not an easy book to read for the simple reason that you have to think about every single word she uses, there is nothing that can be taken on trust because it is consistently in a language that is never quite our own but not that far separate from it. Yet dive in to the novel and I, for one, found it incredibly rewarding.

  2. Re: male authors: I recommended the Tolbert story… was fairly late in the process, though.

    I have been baffled by some of the Tiptree choices in previous years. I look forward to reading this year’s picks.

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