Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction

I don’t typically talk about all the academic books I read here (though… is that something people want?), but I bought this for a research project a month ago and I’m still irritated about it so I’m unloading on you instead of poor Mr. Act, who has his own shit going on.

This post is really a lesson about due diligence and the necessity of academic presses, for all their flaws.

The backstory here is that my original research topic for my sci-fi class this semester was going to be about LGBTQ+ representation in the speculative fiction of black women set in Africa, which is one of those great hyperspecific things you get to write about in academia. African speculative fiction is an up-and-coming field in English-language academia, and speculative fiction is already pretty niche, so I was pretty excited to find this book; it was the kind of thing you could build a research proposal around in the “okay this is how things are here, but what about in [other context]” way. As far as I could tell no one had written specifically about my topic yet, which is a double-edged sword: it means it’s something that needs attention, which is good, but it also means it’s very hard to propose research about it, as proposals rely on using preexisting research to show you’re not just making things up. The end result is that I was relying very, very heavily on there being usable essays in this collection; my ability to propose the project was basically hinging on it. I perhaps rushed into the purchase for that reason.*

There are 10 essays in this book. Two of them are about “Gender Identity and Sexuality in Current Fantasy and Science Fiction.”

The rest are about cis women, with little or no mention of gender identity or sexuality as a lens.

Beyond that — which I’ll come back to — they are terribly written. Not just as though they’re by undergrads, but like, if my COMP101 students gave me some of these I’d give them a B. These are essays by people with very limited experience in academic writing.

The two essays that are actually on topic are “Tipping the Fantastic,” by Cheryl Morgan, the only actually useful essay in the bunch, a survey piece about trans representation in speculative fiction, and a piece called “Badass Bisexual Babes.” The Morgan piece is genuinely interesting and useful, but unfortunately its nature as a survey piece not really grounded in any school of thought made it not useful for my proposal. (If anyone wants to read it, I’m happy to scan a PDF.) It was also obviously by someone with little experience writing this kind of essay; it needed to be in a real queer theory anthology as the “and here’s an up-and-comer doing important work” honorary mention essay, not trying to carry a whole anthology.

One of the things that seems to have happened here is that the editor, Francesca Barbini, interpreted the common phrase “Gender Identity and Sexuality” as “Gender, Identity and Sexuality,” and as a result just published a bunch of essays about cis feminism instead of what that phrase actually means, which is essays grounded in queer theory. While one might expect some proportion of essays submitted to such an anthology to make this mistake, it is the editor’s responsibility to make selections that are academically sound, and if they don’t get enough papers in that vein, to issue calls until they do. This is why editors of these anthologies are always major academics in the field; having someone who understands the terminology and context of current topics of debate is key to producing a timely and competent collection. Experienced academics are also, ideally (but definitely not always) capable of keeping an eye on their own biases. That the editor could publish one essay about trans issues in a “gender identity” anthology and feel like they’d done their job signifies that this person wasn’t thinking about who the marginalized people were in this context, and that’s a recipe for a collection full of all kinds of -isms and -phobias.

Suffice to say that after throwing this book against a wall I did the research I should have done in the first place and found that the publisher, “”Luna Press””, is actually Barbini’s vanity-publishing project. Barbini’s only academic background is an, and I quote, “MA Honour in Religious Studies at New College, Edinburgh, focusing on the Ancient Near East and the Dead Sea Scrolls” which, and this might shock you, has fuckall to do with queer theory. I didn’t bother looking up all the authors, but Morgan seems to just be someone who works in the publishing industry, which explains why she could write a competent survey piece, but also explains why it seemed to have no theoretical underpinning despite being a competent survey. Without being taught the context, you can’t contextualize things.

Academia is full of institutional problems. Academic presses are cumbersome, self-important, expensive, and still (still still) obsessed with cishet white dudes. But their ability to bring to bear literal centuries of thought on topics is actually deeply important in making sure marginalized voices get heard at all, and the work they due in peer review, editorial studies, background checks, and all the other minutiae of publishing ensures a level of quality that is necessary for productive discourse.

The ability to pass on accumulated knowledge is fundamental to human endeavor. When I took Lit Crit as an undergrad, I fucking hated it, but it was necessary to get me up to speed on what humans had been talking about for 2000 years without having to do 2000 years of reading myself. When I started to specialize — into feminism and further into popular fiction — there was still years of reading I had to do to catch up. There’s still years of reading I have to do, on top of the reading I have to do to stay current. And I’m still playing catchup in so many areas — recently I’ve been focusing on black feminism and queer feminism (hence this topic), where I’d lagged behind between under- and post-grad. And, yeah, there are times this is a shitton of work and I have to read dry-ass texts that are no fun. But as bastardized as it’s been by white heteropatriarchy, we’ve refined the teaching-and-learning process this way for a reason, and I got a rather stark reminder of what happens when I get lazy about my own work and lean on other lazy people.

The moral of the story is: if you want to learn about theory, buy from academic presses. If an academic press isn’t involved in publishing the book, take the time to investigate the background of the editor or author.  If it looks like they have no business talking about a topic, check the references — journalists can still produce excellent popular texts by doing careful research. But if a book by a nobody cites three sources, it might be time to move on. There are only so many hours in a day, and there’s a fuckton of human history to cover.

*Incidentally, while I had to abandon the topic, I did find this piece, which is excellent.

8 Comments

  1. SpoonyViking says:

    (though… is that something people want?)

    Yes. :-)

    1. Diana says:
      Seconding this!!
    2. Seed of Bismuth says:
      Please yes
      1. Ymfon says:
        Nope, just lazy! There are a million academic works out there with really interesting information in them, but reading and analyzing them takes huge amounts of time, effort and often specialist knowledge; so if somebody’s offering to take on all that work and let me just enjoy the fun parts, of course I’ll vote in favour.
  2. CrazyEd says:

    proposals rely on using preexisting research to show you’re not just making things up

    But then what is that research based on? There has to be initial research somewhere… And literary academia loves to just make shit up!

    Not just as though they’re by undergrads, but like, if my COMP101 students gave me some of these I’d give them a B. 

    What is it about undergrads that makes them seem stupider than high school sophomores, though? Now that’s a research proposal. Maybe not in your field, but hey.

    The two essays that are actually on topic are “Tipping the Fantastic,” by Cheryl Morgan, the only actually useful essay in the bunch, a survey piece about trans representation in speculative fiction, and a piece called “Badass Bisexual Babes.”

    “Badass Bisexual Babes.”

    This is an essay in an academic book. Amazing. You can’t just throw that in there as an aside and not expect someone to wonder “wait, what?”

    “Gender, Identity and Sexuality,”

    A lack of Oxford commas instantly turns me into a prescriptivist.

    This is why editors of these anthologies are always major academics in the field

    I mean, I dunno. I agree with you that this would definitely improve the quality of these sorts of books, but on the other hand… this seems like such a major mistake that even a moderate academic in a field shouldn’t have made it. Hell, I wouldn’t have made it, and I know shit about the topic.

    That the editor could publish one essay about trans issues in a “gender identity” anthology and feel like they’d done their job signifies that this person wasn’t thinking about who the marginalized people were in this context, and that’s a recipe for a collection full of all kinds of -isms and -phobias.

    … So I’m guessing the other essays weren’t even about LGB women/feminism? Sheesh, I really could’ve done a better job.

    1. Act says:

      But then what is that research based on? There has to be initial research somewhere… 

      Yes, usually in long-term projects that are well outside the purview of a single seminar structured by someone else.

      What is it about undergrads that makes them seem stupider than high school sophomores, though?

      Different expectations. High schoolers are expected to regurgitate information in a predefined structured format. College students are expected to give their own ideas in a format they believe is best suited to expressing them. Transferring from one to the other is absurdly difficult. We don’t prepare students to think on their own in the US.

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