Whenever someone insists that no one can can write a culture or gender not their own, my mind strays to James Tiptree, Jr. Tiptree’s story used to be well-known in science fiction and fantasy, but recently I’ve become aware that younger readers and writers have never heard it, so it seems worth repeating.
Tiptree emerged in the late Sixties as a star of the New Wave — that loose group of emerging writers intent on experimentation and introducing mainstream sensibilities to science fiction. Primarily a short story writer, Tiptree came seemingly out of nowhere and quickly gained a reputation for brilliant, original writing. The titles alone were a lesson in writing: “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” “Love Is the Plan, the Plan is Death,” “With Delicate Mad Hands,” and countless others that instantly lure you into reading.
At the same time, Tiptree remained a mystery. Tiptree never attended conventions, and from broad hints, the science fiction community understood that the name on the stories was a pseudonym for someone in the counter-intelligence community. Gardner Dozois wrote:
No one […] has, to my knowledge, ever met Tiptree, ever seen him, ever talked with him on the phone. No one knows where he lives, what he looks like, what he does for a living. […] He volunteers no information about his personal life, and politely refuses to answer questions about it. […] Most SF people […] are wild to know who Tiptree “really” is.
Some fans began to try to track Tiptree down. All sorts of speculation abounded.
Meanwhile, Tiptree’s reputation continued to grow. In Again, Dangerous Visions, Harlan Ellison enthused that, “[Kate] Wilhelm is the woman to beat this year, but Tiptree is the man,” and the implication that the male writer was the more important one in no way lessened the compliment to Tiptree.
Robert Silverberg, Tiptree’s editor and correspondent, imagined “Tip” as “a man of 50 or 55, I guess, possibly unmarried, fond of outdoor life, restless in his everyday existence, a man who has seen much of the world and understands it well.” Hearing one fan theory that Tiptree might be a woman, Silverberg declared the idea “absurd, for there is something inelectably masculine about Tiptree’s writing. In fact, Silverberg declared Tiptree more masculine a writer than Hemingway. Similarly, Joanna Russ, another correspondent, wrote that, although obviously a feminist, Tiptree had ideas that “no woman could even think, or understand, let alone assent to.”
You can probably see it coming: in 1976, fannish detective work revealed that Tiptree was not a man. As Tiptree wrote to Ursula K. Le Guin, “The thing is, I am a 61-year-old woman named Alice Sheldon — nickname Alli – solitary by nature but married for 37 years to a very nice man considerably older, who doesn’t read my stuff but is glad I like writing.” For a decade, a woman had passed herself off as a man, deceiving virtually everyone. She never slipped, and what revealed her secret was not her prose.
The Secrets of Tradecraft
When Tiptree’s story is told today, it is often with ridicule for the men who declare her male (but rarely Russ). And there is humor, of course, in over-confident pronouncements being debunked. However, in all fairness, the assumption was not completely unfounded. Although the field was opening up, science fiction in 1967-1977 was still largely written by and for men. By statistics alone, the assumption seemed reasonable.
Even more importantly, all that Sheldon had lied about was her sex. She really had led the adventurous life she claimed. She had lived in masculine company and she knew how men in the company of men talked to each other, and how they envisioned women. The men in her stories are forever eyeing woman and sizing them up. In stories like “The Girl Who Was Plugged In,” Sheldon mimics to precision a macho man imagining a woman:
“Sitting up in the bed is the darlingest girl child you’ve EVER seen. She quivers –porno for angels. She sticks both her little arms straight up, flips her hair, looks around full of sleepy pazazz. Then she can’t resist rubbing her hands down her minibreasts and belly.”
At the time, it would have been easy to miss the sense of mockery.
The same combination of mockery and realism appears in “Houston, Houston, Do You Read?” when a drugged manly man finds that the world below him is entirely female:
“Gawd…” Bud’s hand clasps his dropping penis, jiggles it absently until it stiffens. “Two million hot little cunts down there waiting for old Buddy. The last man on earth…”
By contrast, the constant feminist perspective is more muted — more a matter of theme and plot and the occasional comment.
The truth is, Sheldon enjoyed playing a role successfully, passing as one of the boys. She was so secure in her double identity that she even started releasing stories as Racoona Sheldon, a pen name that was identified with Tiptree almost immediately (It could have been an effort to mislead with a partial admission). And what are story titles like “The Women Men Don’t See” if not private jokes that nobody except her understood? Sheldon worked hard to maintain her male identity, and used her knowledge of a spy’s tradecraft to maintain it.
Sheldon continued to write for another decade after her unmasking, meeting many of her correspondents, and adding to her reputation before her suicide alongside her husband in 1987.
She was not the first woman to begin a writing career under a male pseudonym. The Bronte sisters originally wrote under male names, and George Elliot was the name assumed by Mary Anne Evans. In science fiction, C. L. Moore was not known as a woman initially, either. But none maintained the deception with the success that Alice Sheldon did. Her success shows that, contrary to common assumptions, identifying personal details about the author from their stories is unreliable.
Of course writers can depict other genders or cultures. For obvious reasons, woman do so more often men, but I also remember how F. M. Busby was thought a woman because of his sympathetic women characters and his use of initials (Ironically, with no intent to deceive, but because he was Francis Marion Busby). Writing a gender or culture not your own takes motivation and knowledge, but unquestionably it can be done.
And who can be surprised? If writing is not about empathy, what is its point?