March 24th, 2012

Women's History Month - guest post by Delia Sherman

I read my first Lucy Sussex short story in 1988. It was “My Lady Tongue,” and I picked it up because I’m fond of Shakespeare and particularly fond of Much Ado About Nothing. Once I got over the fact that the connection between Shakespeare and the story was entirely a matter of theme (which didn’t take long), I was hooked. Like many of Lucy’s stories, “My Lady Tongue” is about gender and pushing boundaries and breaking rules. It is about a character who is at once a rebel and a citizen, a problem child and a problem-solving adult. It is also written in just exactly the right language needed for the story and the character, beautiful but not self-conscious, atmospheric, but never at the expense of movement or action.

In short, the author of “My Lady Tongue” was clearly just exactly the kind of writer I’d follow anywhere, whatever her subject.

After that, I read every Lucy Sussex story I could find. Since she’s an Antipodean writer (I say that because, although she’s actually a New Zealander, she has lived most of her adult life in Australia, and often writes about Australian history), they were not thick on the ground in the US. Then, in 1996, she submitted “Merlusine” to Ellen Kushner and me for our “music and magic” anthology, The Horns of Elfland.

We were blown away. We know from Louisiana and Cajun music—and she’d got it all exactly right—the history, the speech patterns, how the music makes you feel and how it fits into the culture. Not only that, she’d seamlessly knitted in the French legend of the serpent-bride Melusine as well as dealing with such vexed political themes as racial identity and class in the American South.

And it was a damn fine story, too.

We bought it. Of course we bought it. And when we met Lucy at World Fantasy in Monterey (I think) in 1998, we loved her, too. As a researcher and a historian, she knows an incredible amount about the hidden byways of Australian and American history. As a journalist, she knows how to ask just the right questions. And her sense of humor is as dry as the Outback.

Last year, in preparation for an introduction to a new collection of Lucy’s stories, called Matilda Told Such Dreadful Lies, (Ticonderoga Press—look for it) I read very nearly all her stories, one after another, and was blown away all over again. I love the way Lucy layers history and character and narrative like colors in an oil painting, each contributing its bit to the depth and subtlety of the finished story. I love her free and easy way with genre. Since I’m a bit of an historian myself, I love the way she writes about history, and how it bleeds into and influences the present. I love her characters, her strong women and her questing men, her living volcanoes and glaciers and dolls and books. And I admire her clarity—of thought, of expression, of understanding. Her stories are frightening, sad, acerbic, and frequently very, very funny. I just wish that they were better known in the States.

Bio:
Delia Sherman was born in Japan and raised in New York City. Most summers, she
visited her mother’s relatives in Texas and Louisiana and her father’s relatives in
South Carolina. After earning a PhD in Renaissance Studies, she taught expository
writing at Boston University while she learned to write fiction herself. Her work
has appeared most recently in the YA anthologies The Beastly Bride, Steampunk! and
Teeth. Her “New York Between” novels for younger readers are Changeling and The
Magic Mirror of the Mermaid Queen. Her most recent novel is the Norton-nominated
historical time-travel novel The Freedom Maze. Delia still teaches writing
workshops, most recently at the Hollins University Masters Degree Program in
Children’s Literature. She lives in New York City, and travels at the drop of a
hat.

Book reviews and WHM

I'm thinking about reviews today. That wonderful (and depressing) work by Vida demonstrated that reviews are not distributed at all evenly according to gender.

Large press has more money to send review copies into the wilderness and so books published by large press are more likely to get reviews (at least in theory) and publishers who do clever marketing will get enough buzz about a work to guarantee mention in key places. But this is just the beginning of it. There are publishers (who produce amazing books) who some critics will not review anything from because they know they will get criticised if they say anything negative - not all editors and publishers are understanding when a critic dislikes something. There are publishers who don't check who writes what or know enough about the magazine or organisation - someone sent the CSFG a post-apocalyptic book for review the other day, for instance, and CSFG doesn't put reviews on its website (or hasn't ever, yet)

When publishers get it right, though, and reviewers get books that fascinate them, then life can be very cool. I got to write a review essay about Sara Douglass because Ticonderoga always keeps my particular preferences in mind. Ticon often publishes books by friends of mine (which just shows that I have friends who are fine writers) and I will not review books by friends. They do the check and they know my limitations and they do not send me books by friends. Angry Robot, likewise, has a setup - as do most of the academic publishers - where I don't get review copies (not paper, not electronic) of volumes I can't use. Prometheus sends me a wider range - but Jill Maxick is a living miracle, for these books always reflect my interests - and so I can review or comment on most of those I receive. And yet I had a complaint from a much bigger publisher that I only once reviewed anything they issued. This would be because they have never sent me anything and that once I got the book for myself. And another was perplexed that I didn't review books by friends.

Most publishers who send me work (and this includes the academic presses) are very careful to reflect what they know of my interests. This is important. It's a signal that those Vida statistics are not as simple as reviewers choosing male writers. It's also a question of what publications are available for review for the places you write for. I will go out and buy books I want to write about when I have the money, and I suspect I'm not the only person who does that. But if an interesting book appears in my letterbox, then I don't have to and I'll write about that book ahead of the mythical one I have not yet seen.

All this is just a subset of possible illustrations: the gender imbalance is due to complex causes. Some of it is choices by reviewers (I need to do a pie chart for my reviews and essays to find out what it looks like, but I admit I'm a bit nervous), some of it is the policies of the place the reviews appear (what publications are offered for review, what do the editors tell their reviewers? - BiblioBuffet tells me very clearly I can write about the books I want to write about, so if I only write about books by male authors, then I'm the one who has made that choice, for instance, not BiblioBuffet), what do publishers and writers send notes about and which books do they send out and to whom (I get more books by male writers than female, across the board) and which reviews and essays elicit reader interest?

This last is one reason I chose the subject I chose for this year's Women's History Month. I wanted to see if people wanted to read about women in the arts. And they do. Lots of readers. They're not chatting about the posts on the posts, but they're coming to read them in droves. I don't think that this is because of gender - I think it's because interesting people are writing interesting things about other interesting people. And that's the bottom line. We need to stop assuming that audiences only want to read about books by men. Yes, there are many readers who discriminate by gender, but there are even more readers who aren't being given a chance to make that choice, because so many wonderful books by women aren't having enough light shone on them. If a reader doesn't know a book exists, how can they decide if they want to read it?

It's not enough to remind people to read books by women. It's not enough to get readers realising that the gender of a writer is not an indication of how good or bad a book is. We have to change the system by which knowledge of the existence of good books by women reaches the reading public.

Speaking of books - it's almost time for my library visit. I'm still running background checks because my eye still can't deal with solid work, so my check for the weekend will be long slow narratives. During the week it was the narratives surrounding Martin Guerre. I'm going to have to bite the bullet next week and do solid work regardless, but at least I learned a heap about my own assumptions of what creates story while I was dealing with life and the universe.

(no subject)

Hi new people who are reading my blog. If any of you feel like introducing yourselves, I'd like that very much. I've noticed you flitting in and out (my stats announce you), but if you are shy or just passing through, that's fine. You might be both shy *and* passing through - that's fine too. My blog isn't normally this exciting. I say this firmly, to force things back into a semblance of normal.

This is a quick post, because I need a break and this evening I intend to actually do work. I'm very tired of my eye and even more tired of finding new areas of dumped mess in my flat. I intend to sort notes and work out where I was up to before the world became so very interesting (only ten days ago!). When I've done that, I have a section of the Beast which needs attention. I intend to force it to lose 2/3 of its weight. A Beast on diet! And all this will take me to where I should have been at 4 pm last Monday.

I rang my mother and said "No dramas today," and she said "Thank goodness!" and she is now watching Phryne Fisher and we're going to dissect it evilly when she's done. Which will be in ten minutes. Which will be my break. There is logic in all this.