Feminists devote magazine to science fiction writings

Cleveland Plain Dealer, September 7, 1999


Their conversation started mildly enough. These women, writers and critics, were talking about feminism and supernatural writing and things got a little, well, monstrous. 

Batya Weinbaum frowns remembering that evening in a San Antonio hotel room after a seminar in 1996. That was when she and her colleagues agreed: Feminist writers of science fiction are ignored by the feminist publishers. 

So, between frustration and jocularity, Weinbaum, a Cleveland State University professor of multicultural literature and the others conceived a feminist journal dedicated to creative works in fantasy fiction and other supernatural genres. 

Weinbaum and fellow fantasy devotee Robin Ann Reid took out a note pad that evening and scratched out the initial ideas for FEMSPEC. They envisioned an interdisciplinary journal that would welcome manuscripts from writers questioning gender in its most far-flung, fantastic applications. 

"To be writing from a feminist place makes publishing all the more difficult," Weinbaum said. "That's why [we launched] FEMSPEC. There was definitely a need for a critical journal that approaches feminist science fiction and fantasy writing as serious literature." 

And now, with a $22,000 gift from Cleveland State, they can afford a modest debut. The first 40-some copies are expected to be on sale this month for $15 an issue at Mac's Backs bookstore in Cleveland Heights. 

FEMSPEC also will be available through subscription in the CSU English Department. For now, the journal will be published twice a year. 

"At least, that's our intention," Weinbaum said. She flipped through the 96 pages of a galley proof. "If you had asked me two days ago about another issue, I would have said no," she said laughing. 

Now that the journal is about to be placed on shelves, Weinbaum can look back on its beginning and relax ... sort of. She and Reid still have on their minds the frustrations endured by writers of feminist nonrealist work. 

"Various rejections . .." said Reid, a professor at Texas A&M University who once chaired the fantasy section of the Popular Culture Association. "We've shared the stories. Batya had work rejected by science fiction journals for being about feminist science fiction, and I'd had work rejected by feminist journals for being about science fiction." 

But in FEMSPEC, the short story by Marleen Barr, "The Feminist Pathfinder Does Not Probe Mars," can explore mystical gender roles and not be labeled, Weinbaum and Reid said. It doesn't need the marketing term of science fiction to have an audience. 

In the story, the protagonist, a professor, receives a visit from a spacecraft, the Sojourner vehicle, toting a camera to obtain pictures of sexist men on Earth. 

The evidence that Sojourner provided proved Whileawayan scientists' following hypothesis to be true: Sexist men are not more interesting than rocks. 

The story goes on: Sojourner returns to Earth and gathers specimens. They are on exhibit in our renowned Tralfamadore Planetarium. Hordes of schoolgirls gawk at them daily. 

That's what FEMSPEC is about, Reid said. "We're interested in work that addresses gender issues and has fantastic elements."

Science fiction--as an umbrella term to include fantasy, horror, magical realism and supernatural writing--was for years a male-dominated genre: male writers, male readers, male characters. According to Weinbaum, acclaimed science fiction author Octavia Butler once was told to stop writing science fiction. "Editors told her to write serious literature?She does incredible stuff [in science fiction], and it's great literature." 

Science fiction has gone from stories with characters primarily marketed to 14-year-old boys to stories about women in new surroundings doing heroic things, said Susanna Sturgis, a free-lance editor and past reviewer for the Feminist Bookstore News in San Francisco. 

Author Maureen McHugh of Twinsburg has written and published three science fiction books, all by a science fiction publisher. 

"I consider myself a feminist," McHugh said. "My heroines are doing extraordinary things, though not necessarily nice things." 

She is at work on her latest novel, Nekropolis, an anti-romance story, McHugh said. The protagonist fantasizes that her life would be wonderful if she could meet the perfect man. But what happens, McHugh said, when she does? 

The feminist houses wouldn't look at the manuscript, not that she sought them out, she said. She took her first novel, China Mountain Zhang, to a science fiction publisher that had published one of her favorite science fiction books. 

"My novels don't have aliens or spaceships. They take place in the future, but are considered science fiction. It's a marketing term," McHugh said. 

Feminist publishers seem biased against fantasy, "anything not dealing with the so-called real," Weinbaum said. "The feminists are still trying to prove themselves ... to prove that they are legitimate. They aren't taking big risks--only if it's profitable." 

Nancy Walker, operations manager at Spinsters Ink, a publisher of feminist writings in Duluth, Minn., said while their focus is women's issues, feminist science fiction isn't something the editors there enjoy reading. 

"It's a matter of taste," Walker said. "There is no one to really edit that kind of writing. We tend to stick with the things we know." 

Exactly, Sturgis said. "The feminist editors don't understand a lot of the science fiction, so they avoid it." 

That relegates writers of feminist science fiction to a publishing environment that isn't particularly feminist. And it matters, Weinbaum said. The mainstream stories dilute the woman's perspective. 

When writers of science fiction get ignored by the feminist houses, they have to slant their works to succeed in the mainstream press, Weinbaum said. It is an avenue that writers have reluctantly chosen because none other existed. 

"A porno picture was on the cover of one of Pamela Sargent's books," Weinbaum said. "A large portion of the women's movement died to overcome pornography." 

Sargent, a noted writer of science fiction, criticized the cover art on "Women of Wonder" too, but couldn't do anything about it, Weinbaum said. "The authors don't approve the covers," Weinbaum said Sargent told her. "Marketing wins out over editorial everv time." 

But not at FEMSPEC, Weinbaum vowed. "We're imagining something that doesn't exist to change the reality we live in." 

Willer is a Plain Dealer copy editor.