sexta-feira, abril 27, 2018

SF-of-a-Different-Persuasion: "James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon" by Julie Phillips




“What I do with emotion is not, strictly, to ‘bottle it up.’ I parcel it out. I make it drive me in work; I try to use it to understand the world; I occasionally try to form or express little bits in objective writing or drawing; I try to stay out of situations which encourage it; I take it out in physical exertion – and what still can’t be handled I do ‘bottle up’ and sit on. What else can one do? […]”

Alice Sheldon in “James Tiptree, Jr. - The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” by Julie Phillips


Biographies have traditionally had a complex relationship with "truth." Hesketh Pearson's brilliantly readable mid-twentieth-century biographies favour "good stories" over the boring facts. Julie Phillips didn’t have to tackle one of the most difficult things in writing a biography: correct the distortions and myths in previous biographies. It was all a blank sheet. Phillips seems to favour the "bag of facts" approach to biography which has been gaining favour but this too has its problems – notably, that reading such a book tends to be a chore, not a pleasure. The challenge, I think, is to keep a balance between telling the story and being rigorously, “checkably” factual.

When it comes to autobiographies, you sit down with your blank sheet of A4 and start sucking your pencil (or your mouse), desperate for inspiration; isn't the mining of your own life likely to be more quickly and readily available at all hours of day and night and perhaps require less effort than having to pass what you have learned of the nature and life of other people through a process of synthesis and precis and imaginative marshalling? There may also be the thought that the hanging out of dirty linen (linen from best Irish flax?) on a public washing line may be helpful to one's own bruised psyche. Though full disclosure is very fashionable these days, of course, I'm not sure this is necessarily therapeutic. This also applies to biographies. Just as in so many films a scene airing much emotion is accompanied by a sly, tinkling, solo piano as the filmmakers slip into telling-you-what-to-feel mode. Perhaps we can make a distinction between a case where a writer dishes the dirt on him/herself, with little collateral damage caused, and a case where Big Bertha transmogrifies into a cluster bomb and the havoc spreads inexorably from the centre, like a pebble chucked into the Tralee Ship Canal outside Blennerville.

Tiptree/Sheldon was literally a Feminist-in-Disguise for generations. I'd agree she doesn't fit the current shrill, superficial version of feminism that is sometimes just online shaming (and not all that progressive often) but I'd wager she's going to have a lot more credibility as a feminist in 100 years’ time and all the twitter "feminists" will be forgotten along with the motherhood-on-a-pedestal Victorians, the racist anti-Union feminists of the early 1900s and the anti-sex pro-Reagan 1980s groups. Feminism is a very old and long tradition. I think he/she had been thinking about it lucidly for a lot longer than most all of us. Too bad his/her story ended the way it did. We may never know what it really happened and what made him/her do it.

Without delving much deeper into the book, I would say the aim of any writer is to publish something that sells. In the book blogosphere, I meet lots of people who think they can write, including two or three who think they can write so well, that they want to charge people to listen to their advice on what these people should be reading. They call themselves bibliotherapists. I can't tell you how desperate I am to tell them that they are living in cloud cuckoo land and that the country is full of bin men, shop assistants and dog walkers who are in every way equal, but haven't got their brass necks. I imagine a lot of writers who pick an unusual subject - like writing about a writer such as Tiptree - have had enough of emptying bins or walking dogs. That also goes for Biographers.

As one alien said to another after visiting earth, 'What do you think?' The other alien replied: 'Well the ones with the intelligence seem ok, but I'm not sure about the ones with the testicles.', and this coming from a Sapiens belonging to the latter; Tiptree belonged to the former.

NB: Must-read for those of you who love SF-of-a-different-Persuasion. Unmissable as well because of the letters between Tiptree/Sheldon and some other SF writers, namely Philip K. Dick, Joanna Russ, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

A coda:

“’And then about three o’clock in the morning Mrs. Sheldon called me back and told me that she had actually killed Mr. Sheldon. I remember she said, ‘Jim, I slain Ting by own hand and I’m about to take my own life, and for God’s sake don’t call the police, to give me time to do what I have to do here.’ And by this point there was nothing I could do. I did call the police, and they went over and found that both of them were dead.’”

John Morrison in ““James Tiptree, Jr. - The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon” by Julie Phillips

Tiptree/Sheldon was true to herself to the end of her days. Big testicles. What a woman! My kind of SF.



SF = Speculative Fiction.

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