About Two Million, Six Hundred and Seventy-Five Thousand, Two Hundred and Fifty Words

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Title: "About Two Million, Six Hundred and Seventy-Five Thousand, Two Hundred and Fifty Words" (on the essay itself), "About 2,675,250 Words" (title in the table of contents)
Creator: Vonda N. McIntyre
Date(s): April 1975
Medium: print
Fandom: female characters, female writers, science fiction
Topic:
External Links:
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About Two Million, Six Hundred and Seventy-Five Thousand, Two Hundred and Fifty Words was printed in The Witch and the Chameleon #3. The essay/article's author is Vonda N. McIntyre.

It is an analysis of a year's worth of short fiction as an example of how long it was taking for most male writers of science fiction magazines to change their attitudes regarding gender issues, specifically women. "This reviewer discovered that SF in general is not, as I had believed, maturing."

McIntyre read all of "SF periodicals except Amazing and Fantasitc, which I couldn't get complete sets of."

Some Responses from Mentioned Authors

The zine with the article was apparently sent to the male authors whose works were discussed. Six of them ( Stephen Robinett, Jack Williamson, Jerry Pournelle, Poul Anderson, jan howard finder, Paul David Novitski) responded with letters. These letters were printed in The Witch and the Chameleon #4.

The men's letters ranged from neutral, to dismissive, to downright offensive. Readers of the zine appeared to unanimously despise Poul Anderson's reply which suggested that feminists, like the Jews, get a sense of humor, that women should be grateful they live in a country that's not as bad as others, and much, much more.

Readers also felt that Jerry Pournelle's letter was also frustrating. He was busy, busy, busy with real work, but had time to tell McIntyre, despite the fact that he felt a "good deal of admiration and affection for Vonda and her boundless energies," to "go to hell."

Pournelle's letter also uses the term trigger in a very modern way, but was likely just an outlier: "I am pleased to see that Vonda reports that my story triggered her "extreme prejudices" although on second thought she reacted violently."

See below.

Some Related Topics in the Same Zine Series

Some Topics Discussed

  • conservatism
  • lack of imagination
  • lack of nuanced emotional characterizations both male and female characters
  • sexism
  • cronyism
  • sloppy writing
  • hypocrisy
  • McCarthyism

Excerpts

The article I promised Amanda was "Misogyny in the Magazines." which I got the foolish urge to write while skimming this year's crop of SF periodicals for award-quality stories. Reading for review is considerably more tedious, I found: a reviewer finishes a work that a typical reader would throw across the room.

A reviewer does, however, gain some benefits, even if they consist mostly of clearer vision, past shattered illusion:. ' This reviewer discovered that SF in general is not, as I had believed, maturing. I discovered that the vast majority of SF writers either ignore the feminist movement, hoping it will evaporate in the sunlight of anti-abortion groups or the dew of Chivalry; or they resist it actively, kicking, screaming, and forcing the most offensive stereotypes possible into their fiction to prove their beliefs. I discovered that those same writers consider the 1950's the Golden Age of Social Structure: future societies come complete with giggling secretaries, 40-year-old "girls," the rare competent woman with the mind of a man," the double standard, and the characterization trinity of Earth Mother, Ice Virgin, and Vicious Bitch. Alien societies have unusually similar characteristics.

After doing a great deal of reading (all tho SF periodicals except Amazing and Fantastic, which I couldn't get complete sets of: 2,675,250 words' worth) and note-taking end a considerable amount of writing, I realized that the article I had promised was impossible to write. To deal with misogyny conscious or unconscious, vicious

or merely thoughtless, short-cut stereotype or contrived putdown—-even on the most superficial level would take fifty pages, minimum. It would also drive Your Humble and Obedient Servant crazy. Frankly, I preferred my rosy illusions. I did not enjoy realizing that professional editors would accept inept novels like Web of Everywhere, by John Brunner, The Org's Egg, by Frederick Pohl and Jack Williamson, or Orbitsville, by Bob Shaw (all in Galaxy), apparently for the simple reason that the authors' names are known. I liked even less realizing that those writers, who can write excellent SF and literate prose, would spend their time on this' kind of filler (apparently for the money),[1] strewing plot-holes, coincidence, and total lack of characterization liberally behind them. Brunner employed one Vicious Bitch and one Ice Virgin and based his plot on a gimmick-problem that Larry Niven neatly solved in a single short story; Web of Everywhere is best summed up by one of its own characters, the world's "foremost" poet: "It is held together with rivets like a shattered porcelain bowl." (Do tell.) The Org's Egg set up a potentially brilliant human conflict and abandoned it to cuteness; and its major gimmick what can only be described as an inside-out Dyson sphere...

It's also depressing to see the number of gratuitously incompetent women who appear in contemporary SF, sometimes so the author can get off a cheap shot at the feminist movement, but often for no particular reason at all. Then there are the supposedly competent women who fold in the crunch, dissolve in hysterical sobs, "squeal like trapped rats." There are "scientists" who discard troublesome data because of "the ancient and certain knowledge of Woman that if you,don't get caught at it, it did not happen." ("The Rescuers," by Ted Thomas, F&SF, Sept.) Previously independent characters eat up the kind of overbearing and patronizing chivalry peculiar to a certain type of man who thinks he "respects" women. (In fact this type believes women must be coddled, protected, and in general treated like slightly retaredd [sic] children.)

Some stories, like "Mistaken for Granted," by Hal Clement (If, February) , remind us that a fen of the old pros I was so snappish toward above have always included women in their fiction, in participatory ways not as sex objects, love interests, or stand-ins for the reader (to be explained to, at great and patronizing and boring length). "Mistaken for Granted," while no classic, is a good example of the work of a writer who really believes that women as human beings are entitled to a share of life and work. It's interesting to compare the characters of Hal Clement, which included competent women even in the early fifties, with those of writers who only recently experienced a greater or lesser raising of consciousness. For example, Jerry Pournelle often affirms his belief in the equality of women and he seems to be quite sincere, at least consciously. But the old assumptions are still there, and inevitably lines come along (in "Extreme Prejudice," Analog, a story set in an over populated, underemployed future) like "married women voters don't appreciate single girls who have jobs when there are still many families with no job at all." All one's training based, like Dr. Pournelle's on the myth that women work for frivolous reasons jumps in; one starts thinking, well, gosh, with all the unemployment, gee whiz, maybe . . . And then you realize that the narrator, who has just made this observation, is a single man (boy?). How one finally wonders, is the single woman supposed to support herself if she doesn't have a job? Why isn't the employed single man an object of equal resentment? This kind of thing never happens in Hal Clement's work; there is no self-righteousness, no grandstanding, and no self-contradiction: Just human beings of both sexes, living and working as best they can. The more of Sir. Clement's writing I read, the more I admire him. Edgar Pangborn (The Company of Glory. Galaxy) is another well-known writer who seldom takes shortcuts with his characters. They both men and women may have weaknesses and flaws; some may be mean-spirited or petty or evil, but they are all individuals with their own traits occasionally bizarre (a quality too often locking in SF) and motivations. It's interesting to compare this novel with the other three that appeared complete in Galaxy in 1974-, for it's perhaps farthest of all from the "ideal" sense-of-woner, extrapolation-laden, tightly plotted SF story. It's also the only one that's readable.

Two interviews in Vertex deserve comment. The first, by Poul Anderson, is a response to Joanna Russ' analysis, "The Image of Women in Science Fiction." In it Poul basically claims that SF writers never really left women out of their fiction, and if they did they didn't mean to (" . . . the frequent absence of women characters has no great significance, perhaps none whatsoever"). The article gives me an insight into why, though Poul Anderson is one of the few writers who never shortcuts with his prose or his imagination, though his futures are fascinating and compelling, his fiction so often sets my teeth on edge to the point that I can't continue reading it. At one point in his essay he chooses a classic SF novel without women characters as an example of why women often didn't appear, and asks, "Why should Hal Clement's Mission of Gravity, say, bring in a love interest?"

I'm afraid that sums up Poul Anderson's perception of what we ore talking about when we complain that women are severely underrepresented in SF: he thinks we want more "love interests." (Not to mention that using Clement's work is a cheap shot, since most of his fiction, as I said, does contain believable women.) In Anderson's work women and sex and love (and hormones and virginity) are all mixed up in a terribly coy tangle: Poul is one of those "chivalric" gentlemen." He really does attempt to use women in participatory roles, but be crumbles into gooey sentimentality whenever real emotion threatens to materialize. He's such a fine writer that I can only wish he would tackle sexuality and the characterization of women with the graceful but no-nonsense hardbeadedness with which be handles other topics.

The other interview is with William Rotsler:

But what is very significant now . . . almost totally ignored by the science fiction writers, is the women's liberation movement. It is changing and is going to change the sexual relationships, yet 5? writers seem to go on making 1950 sexual relationships "work" in their stories. No way. Not th.it cultures don't swing back and forth in their feelings and what they consider important, but I think this is an undeniable on-going situation that demands consideration by all writers and most notably by thos^ protending to "predict" the future.

I agree with this so totally that I find it difficult to believe that the same man said this as writes the fiction that appears under the name William Rotsler. "The Raven and the Hawk" (Analog, September) is supposed to be a parody, and might hove succeeded as such (if Rotsler hadn't been so heavy-handed with neologism six on the second page alone and bad future slang and other self-indulgences, though at least he seems to have got Tuckerisms out of his system). But one part of the story is not parody; it's reproduction of bad space-opera. "Blacksword would know how to handle her. A touch of bigmouth from her and he'd bolt her into a corner of the control room. And she'd love it." Later, the main character (the nebbish whose fantasy that is) does just that to one of Rotsler's ubiquitous spaceport whores, and she does love it, or at least puts up with it with a pretense of liking when it's to her financial advantage. I suppose his believing that she loves it is what's supposed to be funny; you will, I hope, excuse me for not feeling that stories in which men beat up and use women and get away with it can be amusingly parodied by stories in which men beat up and use women and get away with it.

Many writers genuinely are trying to free themselves and their fiction from the assumptions we were all taught as divine truth. Whatever their flaws and failures, they are trying. Perhaps some of them are learning that it isn't enough to suddenly woke up one day and say "I'm not going to be a sexist any more." Speaking as someone who's been throught the process, I have to say that changing takes hard work and thought and a refusal to allow the past to dictate your life. SF readers and writers must stop looking to the past: we.must resist being expected to accept its crippling "ideals" over and over again in the future. SF may change more slowly than our own reality, but it will change.

It must.

Responses

From the Six Letter by Males Cited in the Article

[Stephen Robinett]:

Thanks for the copy of W & C-3 with Vonda's article on last year's SF. mags. I was glad to see her taking an empirical approach to determining the feminist content of the msgs, rather than using a Procrustean approach, praising or condemning stories solely on their feminist qualities. She's written too many stories herself to fall into that one.

As to Vonda's comments on Dolores Gomez in Stargate, I haven't the slightest idea whether Dolores is a token feminist character. Once posited, characters tend to do their own thing. If they turn out to fit someone's idea of what a character should be, fine. If they don't too had. Whether I'll "mature" is also problematical. We'll all hold our breath on that one.

[Jack Williamson]:

In spite of the saddening fact that Vonda didn't care much for The Farthest Star. I enjoyed her article. Her candor is nearly always stimulating, and sometimes she's right. Altogether an interesting issue, and I was glad to see it.

[Jerry Pournelle]:

Thank you for The Witch and the Chameleon #3.

I presume I was sent this "because my story is mentioned in Mclntyre's article.

I am in the middle of a novel and haven't tine to review the zine. As for the mention given me, I see that Mclntyre and the Panshins ought to get along splendidly, since both seem to make the assumption that writers have no imagination, and anything they write must be based on unconscious assumptions.

Perhaps I have read Vonda incorrectly, but I don't think so; she seems to imply that my stories are all expressions and descriptions of things I would like to see. Crap.

If she means in her article that the society I have described in "Extreme Prejudice" (note the title. Please note the title.) is sexist, I could have told her that. If she thinks that society is not very pretty, for reasons even more important than sexism (yes, I do believe there are worse ills than sexism) nearly anyone sane could have told her that. If she means that I am not supposed to write about societies that she would not approve of, go to hell.

But perhaps I have judged Vonda too harshly. I wish I weren't so damned busy that I don't have time to do a reasoned piece on this, because it's important, and Vonda is a friend I'd rather have think well of me than otherwise; but there's all too much of this kind of thing lately. If a writer describes as a viable society something that a critic doesn't like, why is it always assumed that (1) the writer likes that society, or (2) that the writer had a number of unconscious assumptions which reveal, through his stories, the true state of his thinking?

Are we, then, to insist that only utopias are viable? Or that people who live in social orders which we find unpleasant would themselves automatically be filled with loathing and a burning desire for revolution? Surely that is both censorship and bad social science?

In "Extreme Prejudice" I quite consciously assumed that Watergate followed by inflation followed by a long-lasting depression coupled with minimal research and development would result in a certain kind of social order. I quite consciously assumed for the purposes of the story that one result of this would be a drawing together of people to rally around memories of "the old days" when things were not so bad (for my characters the old days are the 50's-—60's) and this would bring a violent rejection of a number of changes that have taken place in this decade. That reaction resulted in a social order that not even the most nostalgic of the nostalgia buffs would find pretty; or so I would have thought.

My assumptions are open to question, of course, and I'm perfectly capable of doing a story based on quite different ones; but I am not about to let Vonda or anyone else tell me I can't play with ideas in this way.

And I would have thought the title said a great deal about the story.

I must get back to work. I retain a good deal of admiration and affection for Vonda and her boundless energies? but next time, analyse my story, not me. I am pleased to see that Vonda reports that my story triggered her "extreme prejudices" although on second thought she reacted violently; it makes me considerably happier with the story since it does seem to have got its point across even if that point remained unrecognised.

[Poul Anderson]:

Thank you for The Witch and the Chameleon #3 which was interesting to read. Ordinarily I don't respond to fanzines the sheer volume of them makes that impossible -— but perhaps here a small comment or two may be in order.

Believe it or not, I am entirely in favour of women and men getting an equal break. How could a libertarian be otherwise? But it does seem to me, first, that whatever remaining grievances women have in the more advanced Western countries, these are small compared to the really savage oppression of their sex in several other cultures or the discrimination against certain ethnic groups; in short, they do not impose any handicap that a competent, determined individual cannot overcome. Witness the fact that countless women have overcome it, and continue to do so. A good writer, engineer, scientist, doctor, or what-have-you, who is female, does more to break down prejudice than any amount of noisy self-pity ever could.

Although I certainly do not accuse Kate Wilhelm of that, she is mistaken, and therefore harms her cause, when she says that on her first sale to John Campbell, she had to send in a notarized form that her work was original, just because she was a woman. The fact is that this was Streets Smith policy at the time on every first sale. I went through the same routine myself. This reminds me of many a joke about the Jew who sees discrimination where none was intended; most such stories originate with Jews, who know what real discrimination is, and feminists could help themselves considerably by developing a similar sense of humour.

The second point I would like to make is that distinct sex roles are an important part of most people's identities, therefore unlikely ever to be discarded by more than a few. Besides, when two people form a close partnership (and, for obvious reasons, usually are male and female) a division o£ labour is often practical. Now I have known parasitic husbands as well as parasitic wives, and disdain them equally. However, in an honest division of labour, does it matter who does precisely what? If a couple wants children and most do there are sound biological reasons for the wife concentrating her efforts on them; this does not mean it has to be the only thing she does! Nor does it mean that the husband should not do aproportionate share of the household chores, after he's finished bread-winning. Let the individual couple work out what arrangementsuits best.

In most cases I have personally known, couples have done precisely this. Sometimes both persons have regular jobs, sometimes just one, sometimes neither whatever the situation may be they seem to get along pretty well. If maybe my life has been very sheltered, but the fact is that, while admittedly encountering some cases of gross sex prejudice and injustice, I haven't encountered many. And most of those I do recall date back some thirty years, to a much more primitive milieu than I think most of your readers have experienced.

Indeed, nearly all the women whom I have known at all well have been, on the whole, rather awe-inspiringly capable. I have met far more male than female klutzes, and proportionately more females who were doing a good job of coping with difficult circumstances. This may be the reason why Sandra Miesel feels that I idealize her sex too much. On the other hand, Vonda McIntyre says I go all sloppy and patronizing. Neither is intentional. A writer can only try to represent the world as he or she sees it, and can only be certain of failing to communicate more than a small part of this.

Even in non-fiction, communication keeps failing. For example, in that by now seeming notorious little essay in Vertex, I never said that women should be in a science fiction story only if there is reason to have a love interest. Rather, what I said or tried to say —— was that in many science fiction stories there has been no reason for a love interest; therefore it was simplest to have all the human characters be of the same sex; and, because most writers happen to be men, it was easiest for them to use males. Thus no systematic discrimination is implied.

Incidentally, although Vonda has evidently forgotten it, I did mention with approval that Hal Clement does from time to time use female human characters in a completely neutral way, simply showing them as admirable human beings. I've attempted the same, as have a number of other writers. The degree of our success or failure is for the readers to judge. But the good will has always been there.

So why must there be those factional fights? Why can't we try, first, to understand each other's viewpoints and correct errors in these, then second, go on to get rid of whatever injustices we find? We aren't enemies. The real enemy --- but this letter has gotten far too long already.

[jan howard finder]:

Vonda H. Mclntyre's article brought to mind several stories that seem to play hob with the stereotypes that she deplored. In particular, I just finished "The Black Hole Passes" by John Varley. (I've liked all the stories of his that I've read so far.) In this story, to me, he does a complete role reversal of his two characters. Neither is impossible to sympathize with or empathize with. "Something's Coming" by James P. Girard tells of a man who can cry and not be weak. I've read a couple of stories by Arsen Darnay. Maybe the trick in writing SF that is not so stereotyped is to write the story and add sexes later. Then one could introduce sex, if desired (by author and characters) in appropriate points. Now I realize that I have only discussed male authors, though Arson is a new one on me and I rate it as a tossup between male and female. Perhaps I am trying to point out that there are male authors who can write less sexistly (?). Truthfully, I read too many female authors who have only male heroes and the women are good for two or three things.

Kate Wilhelm's letter seemed pretty accurate. I strongly disagree on one point. This is where she says that not being the financial support of the family and being able to stay home enable her to develop a style of her own. I think this can produce the opposite result. If there is no pressure to develop and write for an audience, then perhaps this lack of pressure will stunt, not help, a writer's development: "Oh what the hell, I don't HAVE to make a living writing.

[Paul David Novitski]: I'm amazed at Vonda's fortitude in ploughing through all those SF magazines, but was glad to have many of my opinions reinforced and some unfamiliar writers brought to my attention, particularly William K. Carlson. I'm glad Vonda mentioned John Varley, though she missed some of his better stories that have appeared recently in F&SF. Most of his stories invlove [sic] [2] deep emotional relationships between two people, or a human and a symb, a symbiotic spacesuit. His protagonists are women, or men, or both: biological mechanics is common in his stories and often individuals 'opt for a new organ, limb, or sexuality. Recently John has been nominated for the John W. Campbell award for best new writer, which doesn't surprise me: watch for him.

From Other Fans

[Amanda Bankier]: ((Detailed answers to Mr. Pournelle's and Mr. Anderson's letters would require a young book, and most of the arguments would be pretty elementary to most of my readers. I expect that anyone particularly struck by any points will write about them* I would like however to remark that the terra "discrimination" appears to be misconstrued by Bet. Anderson to mean "deliberate denigration". There doesn't have to be malice aforethought to produce discrimination, and in fact It probably arises more often from exactly the sort of unthinking conventions he describes. -AFB- )) [3]
[Ursula Le Guin]: Thanks for W+Ch ---- It's beautiful! Vonda's article is absolutely terrific. If you have a couple of spare copies, do send them to me, I'll take them to Australia and raise a few consciousnesses there -- in the SF workshop I'll be teaching before the con. Vonda's article and Kate's letter would be really useful, and fun to use.[4]
[Joanna Russ]: I think Bradley's letter is very worth talking about. Unlike, for example, poor Poul's. Can we quietly omit, such stuff in the future? He's a nice man in a personal way but it's hopeless; I feel like a rock climber at the 14,000-foot pass in the Rockies looking back through a telescope at an enthusiastic amateur in the Flatirons (foothills outside my study window) who's proceeding Eastward, yelling "Hey! You're in the wrong place! The mountains are this way!" It's a sheer waste of time to argue with him; we'd better just let him go until he and his crampons and bolts (or whatever) hit Chicago.[5]
[Avedon Carol]:

Ah, my mind is clearer now. Poul Anderson and Marion Zimmer Bradley have given me the answers I have been seeking. If I am a "competent, determined" science fiction writer, my gynecologist will not tell me that the pain in my abdomen (which is actually caused by an ovarian cyst) is "nothing" for $25, the creeps who keep tying up my line with obscene phone calls will stop, the auto mechanic will not overcharge me even more than he overcharges everyone else because I refuse to play patty-cake with him, the doctor who delivers my baby will not needlessly slice my perineum, and males who I am merely a cock teaser when they find out I have no intention of going to bed with them.

I guess it is also my fault that I was not raised on a farm, but born instead to the son and daughter of a bunch of Armenian immigrants who learned that a woman must not speak to a man outside of her family until she is married; and that I was raised in the suburbs where the idea of a woman doing anything besides getting married and doing housework was not even discussed. I can't imagine why I was so limited that it never occurred to me that I could be a doctor [...].

... since I am obviously unfit for anything other than mere clerical work, I shall simply have to pray that despite my blatant incompetent, some wierd trick of fate will prevent me from walking into a rapist; or that, even I do get raped, the experience will turn me into a "competent, determined individual," and I will become a doctor anyway.

So, the answer to sexism is this: if we women become "competent, determined individuals," we can be doctors and lawyers and science fiction writers. Incompetent women will still remain secretaries and housewives. Incompetent men will continue to be our gynecologists, psychiatrists, employers, and husbands.[6]

References

  1. ^ McIntyre apologizes for this last comment in the next issue of "The Witch and the Chameleon": "I'd like to clarify something I said in my review in the last issue of WatCh. The line was about "these writers who . . . would spend their time on this kind of filler (apparently for the money)." This was a very snobbish thing for me to write: sounds like someone giving a lecture on Art and the Evils of Money, What I mean, I think, is that writers should not write only for the money because there are hundreds of ether professions in which money can be made much more quickly and easily. So writing only for money bad writing, sloppy, fast, shallow writing is a disservice to one's self and one's audience alike. I should never have called anyone on "writing for money", because of course we all do. We couldn't afford to write at all, otherwise. But when the financial return becomes the be-all and end-all of one's work, the work turns into nothing but grinding out words to fill pieces of paper. That's certainly not Art, and I think I could probably make a decent case for its not being very good Entertainment, either."
  2. ^ It's a typo but somewhat charming that the mistake involves the word "love."
  3. ^ from Amanda Bankier, from "The Witch and the Chameleon" #4
  4. ^ from Ursula Le Guin, from "The Witch and the Chameleon" #4
  5. ^ from Joanna Russ, from "The Witch and the Chameleon" #5/6
  6. ^ from Avedon Carol, from "The Witch and the Chameleon" #5/6