"She can write like a man, they said": James Tiptree, Jr. and Claire Vaye Watkins

This week I’ve been blown away by the chance juxtaposition of two works I highly recommend reading: Claire Vaye Watkins’s new essay “On Pandering,” in Tin House, and the biography James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, by Julie Phillips.

These are both works examining at least part of what it means to write as a woman, in/for/against a canon defined primarily by men. The Phillips biography looks at James Tiptree, Jr.—the pseudonym of Alice Sheldon, and the name under which she wrote hugely influential and award-winning science fiction beginning in 1967. As Tiptree, Sheldon successfully published stories, won Hugo and Nebula awards, and carried on genuine and meaningful friendships (and flirtations) via post with other SF writers and fans. Sheldon's cover was “believable” to many partly because of the startling details of his/her biography before delving into writing—childhood trips through Africa; a PhD in Psychology; various jobs in journalism, Air Force Intelligence, a chicken hatchery, and the CIA.  Asked about her reasons for using Tiptree’s name, Sheldon said, "A male name seemed like good camouflage. I had the feeling that a man would slip by less observed. I've had too many experiences in my life of being the first woman in some damned occupation." Tip/Alli wrote complex and questioning stories about gender, sex, and alienation, partially a reflection of her own complex and complicated sexual orientation and self-image. 

For me, one of the most striking elements of the Sheldon biography is the way the larger community treated Tiptree/Sheldon before and after the revelation of the writer’s true identity. Sheldon described the suddenly lukewarm response she received from some quarters after she was unmasked: “When one who writes about serious, violent evil turns out to be female, some readers may feel cheated—particularly if an action scene has stirred them. Now it all seems flat, even false—'What the hell does she know about real fighting?”

Here is a chestnut chilling because it still rings so true, so the frequency so familiar to women who write. Before Sheldon’s identity came to light, in 1975, Robert Silverberg wrote: “It was been suggested that Tiptree is female, a theory that I find absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.” (Forty years later, Claire Vaye Watkins reports: “She can write like a man, they said, by which they meant, She can write.”) When Sheldon was outed in 1977, Silverberg recalled defending Tiptree’s inherently masculine writing and wrote her, “I suppose I will eat some crow over that, but I’m not at all annoyed with you.” This is the partial focus of “On Pandering,” as well—Watkins examines the ways male writers and readers treat women and their writing, the way male approval is too often given as though it is a gift—and too often received as one, by those who have internalized misogyny through years of dismissal and gaslighting. (Gee, thank you, Silverberg, for not being annoyed at Alice Sheldon after she went and embarrassed you by being a woman and a great writer. That’s really nice of you.)

These reports from the field of writing as a woman are two versions of an extremely complex and varied experience, and I don’t mean to do more than to hold them up next to each other as a kind of heartbreaking and energizing start to a conversation, a motivation to do more, try harder. These are two attempts to, to quote a phrase from Watkins, “name those things that are nameless”—as, for example, Tiptree did by revolutionizing the way SFF can look at gender and sexuality, both in her stories and in the act of writing them.

I’m happy and on fire to have read these works concurrently; I’m motivated to seek out more like them, and to remember them in my own writing. As Watkins says near the end of her essay: “Let us, each of us, write things that are uncategorizable, rather than something that panders to and condones and codifies those categories. Let us burn this motherfucking system to the ground and build something better."