Reversing Damage

Cat Rambo posted notes from Gwyneth Jones’s speech on reducing world machismo. All makes good sense to me. I find this bit especially interesting because it also applies to fiction:

The Overton Window – the extremes of conversation determine the continuum of the discussion. This is why it’s important to have voices at the extreme left, helping expand the window, which has shrunk in recent years to a point where something previously considered moderate can be considered liberal.

Fiction thrives best when you have extremes of fiction modes being written and reaching readers. Expanding the edges gives cover to material that isn’t quite as out there. Otherwise, the “not-quite-as-out-there” becomes the bleeding edge…and we wind up with a more traditional era of fiction–something we’ve spent the last couple of years coming out of, aided by the infusion of fresh voices from here and abroad. Some writers need more cover than others–indeed, quite subversive writing can get published in the mainstream if it has enough cover.

This is related to the feminism issue, generally, because obviously some of those modes aren’t about the structural (or the formally experimental) but about the nature of who inhabits those narratives and where those narratives take place and what conversations take place therein and the ideas embedded therein. It’s important that a certain number of new voices have the room and space to continue to push boundaries rather than simply replace the status quo with what I’d call correctives or renovations. In such an atmosphere, writers who’ve been publishing but gone invisible during trad periods also have a chance to come back into focus.


  1. says

    Can we label the ends of the spectrum something other than “masculine” and “feminine”? I ask this not to protect the tender egos of men — I’m happy to concede that we are forced to put up, on average, with much less shit than women — but to promote the idea that it is possible to be both masculine and empathetic. Otherwise you force young men to choose: “Do you want to be masculine, or do you want to be sensitive? Do you want to be manly, or do you want to listen to what other people have to say?”

    I was raised by a single mom, whose sister (Martha Fineman) is one of the leading feminist legal theorists in the world. (Really! She has a Wikipedia page!) I vividly remember, as a teen, my mom telling me, “I’m so glad you didn’t grow up to be a man.” I love my mom, and think she’s pretty awesome, but that’s ridiculous. The facts that my wife makes a lot more money than me — that I do the bulk of the housework — that I am an empathetic listener — don’t make me less of a man. (In fact, they make me more of one.)

  2. jeff vandermeer says

    She’s talking about the popularized mainstream culture perception of man/machismo. I agree with you that this popularized definition is crap, but it’s often strongly reinforced in mass media. She’s also talking in terms of corporations and governments, most of which are still headed up by guys.

  3. says


    currently rereading Fireworks and I think the Loves of Lady Purple demonstrates the point about who defines narratives and where the narratives take place perfectly (the whole collection does really, but that one in particular for me). After all, with what the puppeteer has made her, can Lady Purple really be anything else than she is?


  4. says

    As much as I’m glad that SF is no longer the dominion of the arrested development male libertarian Right, I’m worried that we might be coming around full circle and seeing the creation of a New Left liberal orthodoxy — your fiction must espouse and reinforce ideological points A, B and C, etc. Count me down in Harold Bloom’s camp when he says that the politicization of fiction and fiction reading is hurting the medium.

    As for the extreme of fiction, yes it’s extremely important that the transgressive and/or experimental stuff always has an outlet for reaching a wider audience, and the bottom of the barrel usually is at the bottom for a reason, but I wouldn’t dismiss the “middlebrow” so willfully. My colleagues and I have been discussing this subject in regards to SF as of late and it seems like a rush towards the “avant-garde” can lock out less transgressive voices who still have very worthwhile, very quality contributions to make to SF/F.

    In a way it strikes me like the plight of the Neo-Classicist composers, who had to deal with the haranguing of the bleeding edge denouncing them as conservative reactionaries, the same bleeding edge who at the same time turned their back on the audience, the majority of who did not seem very willing to take in their dissonant walls of “forward-thinking” noise. People are close-minded, no one’s gonna argue with that, but maybe classical forms are classical because there is something about them that speaks to the audience regardless of gulfs in time, politics or culture. To take a more direct progression from your predecessors, to want to evoke some of the same tropes they did and as a result seem somewhat more “conventional” should not be a lamentable, anachronistic act for a SF/F author. As Jean Sibelius said, not without a twinge of sarcasm, “not everyone can be an innovating genius.”

  5. says

    I agree with some of your points, but I didn’t read any of this as being about political correctness. Center-of-the-road fiction is always going to have an audience, but it’s not often what excites me. I would like to hope that fiction is a big enough tent that you can find just about anything inside of it. Transgressiveness rejects the politically correct by definition, but it also often rejects normative views of the reality of our existence. I don’t want didactic fiction any more than I want a steady diet of trad fic.

  6. says

    Just to clarify – these notes are from a panel that took Gwyneth Jones’ speech as its starting point and not from the actual speech. It was a lively, interesting panel and people interested in it might like to follow discussion on the Aqueduct Press blog.

    I’m not sure where the idea that we labeled the ends of the spectrum as “male” and “female” comes from – there we were talking about political Left vs. Right and the manner the Overton window has shrunk in recent decades to the point where moderate can seem liberal. But the panel -was- about reducing global “machismo”, as defined here: “A strong or exaggerated sense of masculinity stressing attributes such as physical courage, virility, domination of women, and aggressiveness.”

    “SF is no longer the dominion of the arrested development male libertarian Right” – I’m not sure this is entirely true (see comments here, for example,, but in any case, I’d say we’re asking for more diverse voices, not a substitution of one for another.

  7. says

    Sorry, Cat — I was commenting on something in your LJ, not what Jeff excerpted here. Specifically, “Our whole culture, [Jones] said, ‘…could stand to be a little less masculine.'” If what she meant was “could stand to be a little less stereotypically masculine,” then I have no quibble. I realize you’ve excerpted a larger statement, so nuance has surely been lost.

  8. says

    jere7my – I think “stereotypically masculine” is more accurate, but you’d have to ask Gwyneth what her intentions were.