QuickRecs: Spring 2020 Semester Edition

No Umineko this week because I’ve been huddled in a ball weeping finishing up my final papers, but y’all are apparently more interested in dry books about other books than I thought, so here’s some of my favorite stuff I read for research this past semester!

edit: Fuck, I forgot one! Read everything Ayanna Thompson has ever written about Othello, especially her introduction to the Arden edition of the play.

The Madwoman Can’t Speak: Or Why Insanity Is Not Subversive
by Marta Caminero-Santangelo

This is the book I wanted to write after reading Madwoman in the Attic — really, the whole ~~but the crazy lady is my inner voice~~ thing has been what I’ve hated most about second-wave litcrit for a very long time. By doing something so radical as asking mentally ill women how they feel and even suggesting we listen to what they say, Caminero-Santangelo clearly and concisely tears apart the idea that “madness” in fiction is a site of reclamation. She also discusses at length the historical pathologizing of nonwhite cultures, especially black culture, and demonstrates how pitching “madness” as subversive to nonwhite women is a slap in the face.

This was far and away the best thing I’ve read in 2020; it’s a deeply important crossing of feminist studies and disability studies.

To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction
by Joanna Russ

Lovelove Russ. This is a career-spanning collection of her essays, but pretty much all of them feel deeply relevant still today (at one point she says something like, “How many more stories about lone white dudes being super important can we take” AND IT WAS LIKE 1975). I love Russ’ voice; it’s the kind of straightforward wit that makes me happy, and got Russ branded as a combative harpy and basically excised from the SF canon. (Reading some of the tone policing she got can be… rough. It’s the exact same criticisms I spent 18 years navigating before I realized what they were actually saying was “stop being a woman and having opinions at the same time”).

It’s hard to summarize the collection because there’s no real thread tying together the essays… even “feminism and science fiction” is kind of a stretch. One that I definitely think worth checking out is “SF and Technology as Mystification,” about how “Technology” as a buzzword has/had become a way for insecure capitalists to show off their capitalo-patriarchal cred to each other. She predicts the Apple fanbase so accurate I checked the date on the essay (it was the 70s again). The essay includes a fascinating discussion of fandom in terms of natural versus manufactured cultural saturation, with Star trek vs. Star Wars as the example.

“Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband” brilliantly predicts Reading the Romance by Janice Radway, and I highly rec both.

Also, while you’re here, read Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’re realize yet again that nothing ever changes and we’re all fiddling in the fire.

I’m in a good place, why do you ask?

Women, Writing, and the Industrial Revolution
by Susan Zlotnik

Speaking of nothing ever changing, this book is utterly fascinating. It’s a study of the different portrayals of industrialization in the writing of men and women in the Victorian era. Basically, Zlotnik argues very persuasively that men’s fiction was characterized by the valorization of a bygone era that actually sucked for everyone but the very privileged (HA HA HA), while women saw industrialization as a chance for unprecedented economic freedom and social participation and so their writing paints the time not as the End of the World As We Know It, but as a place in which there is more to see and do than ever before.

I’d been noticing a very gendered “cyberpunk good, steampunk bad” trend in the SF stuff I’d been reading, which rang all kinds of “this is actually because so many women write steampunk” bells, and this book left me with a lot of interesting thoughts on why steampunk seems to draw women writers. Basically, my working thesis is that women are driven to return to the industrial revolution because it was the last time positive social change seemed inevitable, and by returning to that time women and POC can rewrite a history wherein industry’s promise of freedom is fulfilled. If, as Zlotnik argues, men saw industry not as a site of promise but of sexual and economic threat, it makes sense they can only dismiss it and instead go to a future in which all the ladies are fuckbots and all the men are noir.

Obviously marrying Zlotnik’s book and my vague feelings needs work, but I think that she did identify something really important about contemporary literary trends that makes women’s speculative fiction more complex than “ugh why won’t those stupid capitalists realize what sheeple they are.”

Not in Sisterhood: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Zona Gale, and the Politics of Female Authorship
by Deborah Lindsey Williams

I discovered Zona Gale last semester and was baffled by how utterly the first woman to win a Pulitzer had been erased from literary history. This book is one of very few things written about her, and it examines the question of exactly why and how Gale was boxed out.

The short version is she was a socialist feminist who actually wanted racial equality and it turns out that’s a great way to get blacklisted by white dudes. But the long version is worth reading, not just for Gale but also for the counter-examples she pulls. The absurd amount of care Wharton and Cather put into cultivating personas that would make them palatable is as sad as it is infuriating.

It also includes a rejection letter Gale once got for a short story that cites “it’s great but I’m anti-miscegenation :(” as the reason for them not accepting it. So.

Searching for Sycorax: Black Women’s Hauntings of Contemporary Horror
by Kinitra D. Brooks

This is an important, pioneering book, but it can be a hell of a chore to read sometimes. Brooks has an awful habit of opening sections by explaining again the point of the last section, explaining the point of this section, and then closing by summarizing points and explaining what she’s going to say next. She rarely, if ever, lets arguments lead naturally into one another and it was super annoying at times; like 25 page could have been cut and nothing would have been lost.

The third section on metagenre is also plagued by research problems; when Brooks leaves her home genre of horror, she really flounders around (weirdest example: she believes that hard SF deals with the hard sciences while soft SF deals with soft sciences, which is… so wrong). The whole third section needed to be cut, to be honest. The worst part structurally is how she spends it defining this term “fluid fiction” and then in part four she introduces another new term, “folkloric fiction” (which is well-defined and she clearly has a good grasp on) and she never talks about fluid fiction again, instead using folkloric fiction as the framework for the whole rest of the book. I wonder if it was a page count thing, where the publisher was like “we need one more chapter” so she just churned something out. 

It’s a shame because the other three chapters are excellent. The second part about respectability politics doubly pushing black women writers of genre fiction out of the academy was particularly good, and her analysis of folkloric elements in black women’s horror is fascinating. IDK what happened in the middle though.

Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center
by bell hooks

This was part of my playing-catch-up reading; I somehow had never read hooks’ writing on feminism, only her pedagogy. This book is definitely a really big function of its time (that time being the mid-80s), but enough of the issues it addresses are still issues within feminism that I think it’s worth having around.

Basically it’s a call for feminism to stop being so bourgeois. Her analysis of how popular feminism has left behind poor and/or nonwhite women is excellent. She writes with a specific eye to the differences between black and white culture, but much of her criticism applies to poor women and WOC generally.

This is a good companion to Madwoman Can’t Speak; a lot of the issues the author there talks about come up here as well, specifically the way white feminism inadvertently attacks black family structures, which serves as a complement to Speak‘s discussion of black families being pathologized.

Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous with American History
by Yunte Huang

Huang’s book is a fascinating triple-biography of Chang Apana, the real Chinese-Hawaiian detective who inspired Charlie Chan; Charlie Chan’s author Earl Derr Biggers; and the cultural impact of Chan the character. Huang’s goal is something of a recontextualizing. His thesis is that Charlie Chan is a product of American racism, but also American imagination. For one, he wants to tell the story of Chang Apana and racism in Hawaii at the turn of the century. For another, he wants to examine why Chan was so popular not just with white people in the US, but with people in China themselves. And finally, he wants to discuss what the character is to him as a Chinese immigrant.

Huang is a wonderful storyteller and he weaves multiple stories together seamlessly. He paints a devastating picture of anti-Chinese sentiment through American history, and asks very pointed questions about things like, say, why the (white) actor who played Chan and the (white) guy who wrote him ended up filthy rich, with Chang Apana died of gangrene trying to support a family of 12 on a pensioner’s salary after a forced retirement by a racist police chief.

And yet, Chan was hugely popular in China, and the Swedish actor who played him was a superstar there, culminating in Chinese knockoffs in which a Chinese man would play a Swedish man playing a Chinese man. By examining the history of American representations of China, Huang shows how the positive portrayal of Chan as a smart and admirable man was such a sharp turn from the “evil Chinaman” that Chinese people at the time, including Chang Apana, loved him. At the time, he was progress.

Huang is oddly fond of Chan — too much so for me, to be honest, with all his yellowface and racist pidgin and “Confucius say” nonsense. And I certainly disagree with him that we should be screening the Chan movies out of context; Chan needs to be talked about in a highly contextualized setting, like this book. I also think he doesn’t properly consider how and why Chan’s legacy would be very different to him as someone who came to the US as an adult and to an Asian-American who had to grow up with racist abuse in the form of Chan memes. Still, I think it’d be really hard to come away from this book feeling anything other than horror at the US as an institution.

Yet, his point that the lens of time shows something complex is an important one. America has a racist, violent past that needs to be confronted, and yet, it is an imaginative place that could turn someone like Chang Apana into a celebrity… while also giving the white guys all the money. It’s like a weird racism-progress mobius strip. Which should really be the phrase on the US’ headstone.

2 Comments

  1. Ymfon says:
    Dammit, Act, I was supposed to shorten my ever-spreading TBR list. Oh well; bookmarking this for when the libraries come back.
  2. EC says:
    “Speaking of nothing ever changing, this book is utterly fascinating. It’s a study of the different portrayals of industrialization in the writing of men and women in the Victorian era.”

    It is. At least, the main body is – I really don’t agree with her commentary on the present state of my country in the introduction, or her remarks re Thatcher, and I suppose it’s probably best we leave it at that – I’m half-way through the first chapter at present, and it’s an enjoyable read. I’m not sure yto what extent I agree or disagree yet.

    “Basically, Zlotnik argues very persuasively that men’s fiction was characterized by the valorization of a bygone era that actually sucked for everyone but the very privileged (HA HA HA)

    I’d been noticing a very gendered “cyberpunk good, steampunk bad” trend in the SF stuff I’d been reading, which rang all kinds of “this is actually because so many women write steampunk” bells, and this book left me with a lot of interesting thoughts on why steampunk seems to draw women writers. Basically, my working thesis is that women are driven to return to the industrial revolution because it was the last time positive social change seemed inevitable, and by returning to that time women and POC can rewrite a history wherein industry’s promise of freedom is fulfilled. If, as Zlotnik argues, men saw industry not as a site of promise but of sexual and economic threat, it makes sense they can only dismiss it and instead go to a future in which all the ladies are fuckbots and all the men are noir.”

    So, from the sound of it, you’ve read much better steampunk than I have. The only steampunk I’ve read that isn’t “valorization of a bygone era that actually sucked for everyone but the very privileged” and just generally bourgeoise as all hell is China Mieville’s Bas-Lag trilogy, and obviously he’s a man (and a communist, hence the interest in the industrial period).

    Hence, if you told me steampunk is dominated by women – which I also haven’t noticed, but I’ve read little of it – I’d probably guess that it was more an outgrowth of the gender imbalance in readership for Austen-style period pieces. If you’ve read something that’s actually got a bit of punk in it, or anything which is more than a fetishised version of Empire (like Gibson’s bizarre venture into the genre) or the courtship dances of Victorian Britain, I’d be quite interested.

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