Anthology theory

I’m very happy to have this book from 1936, “Contemporary American Women Poets.” To me it reads like poems all in the same or similar registers, mostly formalist, but on a deliberately wide variety of subjects, so they don’t all come from the same position (a common fault of anthologies). Yet there is something huge missing – an experimentalness – a flair – diversity – range. It reads like it’s all poetry that was to one person’s taste.

I prefer the approach taken by María Monvel in her 1930 “Poetisas de América”. She puts in poems by poets she likes, yes. But she also puts in stuff she doesn’t like. She bluntly makes fun of it, or makes little digs about how it comes off as old-fashioned, or it’s trying too hard to be experimental, ultraist, or new at the expense of quality, or she makes it plain that she disagrees with the poem’s politics when it’s all about communist revolution. But she put them in for a specific reason: to represent the diversity of work being written by women. By the standards of “that kind of work” — communist ultraist poems, or romantic epic effusions — the poets she chose are representing, and are good. She put them together in order not to deny their existence; out of honesty. “Contemporary American Women Poets” lacks that dimension of honesty, and doesn’t represent diversity, and so gives a false cross-section of “how women were writing” at that particular time.

That’s why I like people I don’t like! I’m a junkie of difference! Anything else is *not truth* and is oversimplified. If you can look through a lot of different windows at the same thing, then why limit yourself to only one window, one filter, to reality!

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Tiptree winner announcement!

Congratulations to Geoff Ryman, who has just won the James Tiptree, Jr. Literary Award for his book Air: or, Have Not Have. It’s an unusual book and a great story.

The award goes each year to a work of speculative fiction that expands and explores gender. I had a great time being on the Tiptree jury this year!

The short listed works are:

Willful Creatures by Aimee Bender (Doubleday 2005)
“Wooden Bride” by Margot Lanagan (in Black Juice, Eos 2005)
Little Faces” by Vonda N. McIntyre, on SciFiction, 02.23.05
A Brother’s Price by Wen Spencer (Roc 2005)
Misfortune by Wesley Stace (Little, Brown 2005)
Remains by Mark Tiedemann (Benbella Books 2005)

The long list and special mentions will be announced in a week or so.

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genre or movement?

I was challenged to explain what I mean by “genre” and how it’s different from a “literary movement”. So, is modernismo a genre? A movement? Or what? Some theorists talk about genre as form – as poetry, drama, prose; elegy, epic, lyric. Then there’s another way of talking about genre or subgenre, or “historical genres”: science fiction, gothic romance, realist painting. And if a literary movement is some people copying each other to do something a new way, or a particular way, and create a different frame of reference of aesthetic judgement, how is that different from inventing a genre — a body of work that shares some particular characteristics?

Or, think of it this way… a sonnet is a form, not a genre. But we could talk about a historical genre of “courtly love poetry” which often uses sonnet form. Or one could talk about a genre of writing about “courtly love” which would include various form-genres like poetry and exchanges of letters.

So am I way off base in using that word to talk about modernismo as a genre? And suggesting a countergenre? “Movement” doesn’t fit, and I’m trying to talk about the beginnings of decisions about canonicity… though I suppose you can talk about being canonical within a particular movement. But how critics/poets decide who’s in the movement and who isn’t is quite suspect. So if a movement depends on traceable connections between writers, and I’m reframing rather than proving connections, I don’t feel like “movement” is the right word. Plus – it makes me think of going to the bathroom.

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Gender and genre

As I continue reading Latin American literary criticism from the 20s and 30s onward, I keep noticing that critics often decide that women poets missed the genre bus. A critic will launch into a discussion of modernismo, and then mention at the end of the chapter that some women were writing, but they are really Romanticists who came to the party years too late. That in 1910, no respectable poet would still be writing in a Romanticist tradition; poetry has evolved beyond that. And then later, that in 1930, no respectable poet would still be writing in a modernismo tradition, because now the new thing is different.

As if only one genre could exist at a time, and as if there were a model of evolutionary progress. Literary Darwinism. And as if there weren’t fuzzy boundaries, as if even a single poem didn’t have multiple traditions feeding it – not to mention the entire body of work of a poet who might write in many genres, many styles.

But then, in a strange twist; the same critics lament that there was never a great woman Romanticist poet, never a real one who was Romanticist to the core; never a true poet of modernimso.

I see the same thing in science fiction. Oh, it’s too bad women don’t really fit “the genre” — don’t write “hard sf”. (Despite all the ones who did, and still do.) But then when they do… Well, of course when women start doing it, they’ve missed the bus; they’re out of date, they’re stuck in the past, they’re no longer the cutting edge. We men have already plumbed that genre to its depths and discarded it and we have our Great examples. We’ve gone somewhere else to redefine the center of power, now that you women have come.

And I begin to believe the same is true of the “where are the masterworks” argument. (Which is now happening, heatedly, on the WOMPO list.) Where are the masterworks by women throughout history? Where is our female Dante, Homer, Shakespeare? This question always asked as if there could be no possible answer except pity that the terribly sexist conditions of the past precluded women ever acheiving something great. How inassailably logical! Always, we are on the cusp of Now; because of the recent advances in women’s rights and education, we might, someday, hope to acheive a masterwork; the problem is, this arguement has been around for hundreds of years at least. It’s always almost. It’s always as if the problem were new and the carrot were just out of reach. And … this is a big fat lie. And women, if you buy into that lure of Now Almost Maybe and it might be you who surfs the new thing into the open arms of important history; well you’re actually screwing over the women of the past in order to eliminate some competition, you’re elbowing other women out of the way in a roller derby you aren’t going to win, because that token position is a shaky one. Be careful what you’re buying into.

It is very instructive to look at the ratio (As Beth Miller does in her essay “El sexismo en los antologías”) of women to men in anthologies over a long time period. We need more studies like this, with charts and data analysis… To make the patterns and process more obvious to everyone.

I remain convinced that not only are the masterworks out there (one small example – I’d put the Heptameron up against Boccacio any day) but there is something wrong with you definition of masterwork if you think they aren’t.

And I’m also convinced that one solution is to redefine genres. I like my idea of maenidismo as a genre. It fits so well. Redefine and recreate genres in which women’s work is central, is the core. In science fiction, we have some of that with the push to define a canon for feminist speculative fiction. But I’d like to see more thought and discussion; more genres invented. Perhaps the beginning is to take the work by women, and put it all together, and look for patterns, create groupings, look for movements and feedback loops. Then define the genre. THEN look and see if there’s any work by men that might half-way begin to fit in that genre.

I wonder if anyone else has used this approach? Probably; but it’s a new thought to me and I’ve been developing it for many years. It goes beyond the creation of women’s anthologies and studying work by women only. Create genres and traditions, and then let in men’s work halfway, as tokens. This avoids pure separatism, and the ghettoization that seems to accompany it. Even if this doesn’t “work”, with the ripple effects of power that I’d like to see, well, then it ends up functioning like other gender identity-based efforts and anthologies; as pockets for information and women’s work to be preserved for future rediscovery by people like me, which is maybe the best we can hope for.

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