I was playing around with writing a piece for today on James Tiptree, Jr., and ethical literary fabrications, in response to a certain hoax I really don’t care to name. Instead, I woke up this morning to see that Benjamin Rosenbaum has written a post on the same theme over at Liz Henry’s place.
There are ways of doing fiction and writing fictive lives that can emerge in, as Ursula Le Guin said to and of Tiptree, ‘so immense, so funny, so effective and fantastic, and ETHICAL, a put on’. And that was Tiptree to a T. James Tiptree, Jr., the rising star of the 1970s US science fiction scene, was a pseudonym of Dr. Alice B. Sheldon. When the news broke that it was a lady writing, there was a lot of embarrassment on the part of people who had been insisting that only a man could write that kind of “masculine” science fiction.
I’d like to say that Sheldon played them all beautifully, but I don’t think she was playing around. This was a person who never felt that womanhood sat quite right, and was exploring an identity that might have been. This was someone who had lived an unconventional life for an upper middle class white woman of her day – in the CIA and the army as well as expeditions to Africa and debutante balls – and didn’t change any of the facts but her signature in her correspondence with the science fiction community.
The Tiptree persona allowed Sheldon to be herself, to access what she ought to have been able to access were the world a nicer place. As I said in my review of “The Women Men Don’t See”:
Tip was deftly throwing all these experiential truths about women I had innately known but had never heard anyone express, the habits of movement, thought and relating you adopt to live as a woman.
Tiptree wrote like the world was about to end. She wrote funny, fast, and heartbreaking. You can smell the confusion and desire, the worldliness of Tip and the ruthless brilliance of Alli Sheldon reaching you from a typewriter in 1973. There’s no writer I would have wanted to meet more. And whether she was writing as Alli Sheldon, or James Tiptree, or Raccoona Sheldon, it was all her except in name. And maybe even then.
From her 1985 essay “Zero at the Bone,” in which she speculates as to what life might have been like had she been a boy:
At bottom is always the bitter knowledge that all else is boys’ play – and that this boys’ play rules the world.
How I long, how I long to be free of this knowledge!
As Tiptree, this understanding was “insight.” As Alli Sheldon, it is merely the heavy centre of my soul.
Fictive lives and personae can be powerful and healing, for the writer and the world. Done ethically, they are no fiction at all.
I want to close with another quote from Le Guin, from a page on her website called “A Few Words to a Young Writer”:
Socrates said, “The misuse of language induces evil in the soul.” He wasn’t talking about grammar. [...] A writer is a person who cares what words mean, what they say, how they say it. Writers know words are their way towards truth and freedom, and so they use them with care, with thought, with fear, with delight.