Another Word: Being James Tiptree, Jr.
In 2013, my wife Alyx and I blew up our life, lunged across the continent, and started afresh in Toronto. After twenty-two years of comfort and stability in Vancouver, we were on the hunt for a new home and new jobs, and had to renegotiate all the relationships one takes for granted when one is settled: doctors, allergists, ophthalmologists, dentists, dental hygienists, massage therapists, chiropractors—an entire battalion of life-maintenance professionals. As a lesbian couple, this meant coming out to various strangers.
It’s not a terribly big deal. Usually coming out to a stranger goes well. Most humans are fair-minded, but you always run the risk of getting punched in the nose by ugly prejudice.
We also needed a new accountant. A friend recommended someone and when we met him, we were thrilled to find out that he’d long been involved in science fiction. Of course we immediately began talking books. Which went fine for about thirty seconds until he said:
“I don’t read women writers. Ever.”
This was not the punch in the nose I was expecting.
The book talk shuddered to a halt. We went back to talking about taxes. I was offended, but I swallowed it. Alyx and I are pragmatists. Nobody has to pass a reading preferences test to do our taxes.
But I haven’t forgotten. It stings because it’s not a matter of simple individual prejudice. In a world where lists of essential books a man should read contain perhaps one woman author, in an industry where genres women dominate are disparaged despite being highly lucrative and successful market sectors, in a field where the conversation about inclusivity bursts into flame on a regular basis, women’s writing being pre-judged as undesirable is neither simple nor individual. It’s policy.
What does it mean to write in a gendered way? Two hundred and twenty five years after Mary Wollstonecraft, we’re still thrashing this question from every angle despite the fact that many of us reject binary m/f gender. Gender is fluid. Gender is a spectrum. Gender is an illusion only visible through cultural lenses.
Yet, women writers are less lauded, less awarded, less read, less valued. And many men don’t read women. Some, like my accountant, even take pride it.
Why? James Tiptree, Jr. knew the answer. She told us, too, in an essay she wrote in 1974 to be published in case of her death.
Tiptree’s story is well known. From 1968 to 1976, Dr. Alice B. Sheldon played a highly successful gender trick on the entire field of science fiction. Writing under the pseudonym James Tiptree, Jr., she drew on her personal experience with hunting, fishing, military service, covert intelligence, and international politics to craft famously successful short stories that changed the field of science fiction forever. She also engaged in voluminous correspondence with many leading members of the genre community of the time, concealing her true identity—and her gender—from everyone.*
In 1974, before having surgery, Alice Sheldon sent a packet to her literary agent with instructions that the enclosed envelope was only to be opened if Tiptree stopped contacting him—in effect, to be opened in case of her death. Under those circumstances, she suggested the contents should be published in the SFWA Forum. The envelope contains an essay titled “The Secret of James Tiptree Jr.”** It’s just over three typewritten, double-spaced pages. Alice Sheldon takes less than seven hundred words to reveal her true identity to her friends, editors, colleagues, and fans.
The envelope wasn’t opened; the essay was never published. The surgery was successful. Alice Sheldon recovered, and her identity remained secret for another two years.
I’ve long been fascinated by everything Tiptree wrote. “The Secret of James Tiptree Jr.” is an interesting piece of SF history but it also holds broader significance. It tells us why a woman writer might choose to conceal herself behind a male persona, what she gets out of that strategy, and what she stands to lose if her gender is revealed.
Alice Sheldon begins the essay with a joke: “James Tiptree Jr. was born in October 1967 in the imported jam section of the McLean Supergiant.” Then she quickly turns serious, claiming the pseudonym was fateful: “A circuit in the cosmos clicked.” She explains that she was 52 years old at the time, in the process of defending her PhD, and overtaxed by research and teaching obligations. She didn’t think her stories would sell, and she chose a name she thought would be unmemorable to editors.
This is only partly true. Though a writer may submit stories expecting rejection, nobody hopes for it. She certainly wanted those first Tiptree stories to sell. Also, in a series of letters written in 1976 and 1977 to her literary executor Jeffrey D. Smith,*** she says she took the pseudonym to avoid damaging her reputation as a PhD candidate.
Next, she assures her friends, with whom she’d exchanged hundreds of personal letters, painstakingly typed with one finger, that everything she’d written to them was true, “Including, most especially, my feelings.” Knowing her friends would be upset by her deception, she takes care to assure them that, “I have only told the lie of the signature.”
And then she cuts to the chase: “But I know what is really wanted here: the appearance.” Alice Sheldon knows women are judged by their appearance. On discovering James Tiptree is a woman, her looks are the first question on everyone’s mind. She could have simply enclosed a photo, but instead—tellingly—she makes fun of her appearance.
Alice Sheldon was a beautiful woman even in her sixties. She may not have thought of herself as attractive, but she certainly knew that others did. In “The Secret of James Tiptree Jr.,” however, she cannot possibly say so. She knows that just as a woman suffers if she’s unattractive, a woman who displays vanity also suffers. She cannot possibly own the reality of her looks; the social cost is too high. Instead, she says she “was considered good-looking, still look[s] at least clean,” and makes a joke about trying to hold her stomach in.
In short, she disparages herself. After years of hiding behind a male persona, in an essay she intended to be published only after she was dead, she hides under the hair and skin of an unremarkable woman.
Having disposed of her appearance, she quickly changes the subject. She states that every biographical detail she claimed as Tiptree is true, including her liberal politics, her army experience, and her knowledge of hunting and fishing. Another joke: “But I’m not a butch type—more of a farmer woman with over-achievement problems.”
Then, after two and a half pages of half-truths, jokes, understatement, and self-disparagement, she asks with great earnestness, knowing no answer is forthcoming:
Now how do you feel?
I wonder what you feel, about this.
She asks this because she feels guilty for a very specific reason:
Tip has been conscious of no dishonesty. Not him. But I have. As I saw my brave sisters I went through terrible qualms.
The brave sisters are her fellow women science fiction writers, such as Joanna Russ, Ursula K. Le Guin, Kate Wilhelm, and Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. Having avoided gender discrimination by pretending to be a man, Alice Sheldon is nonetheless conscious of how deep those gender traps are, and how dangerous. Through her correspondence with Le Guin and Russ, she knows the challenges women face when writing while gendered. She suspects her women colleagues may feel double-crossed. She adds: “I tremble to find out what you feel.”
Finally, before signing off, she offers two tantalizing tidbits, which could be expanded into entire volumes of books.
First, she offers her reason for continuing the deception after having made so many close friends among her fellow writers, and even while suffering those terrible qualms of guilt:
Everything sounded so much more interesting coming from a man. (Didn’t it. Didn’t it, just a little? Be honest.)
This is key. Alice Sheldon has put her finger on the whole reason why my accountant doesn’t read women writers, and why a gender gap exists in all measurements of a writer’s success, including reviews, awards, advances, and fame. Everything sounds more interesting coming from a man—not just to men, but to everyone. More important. More serious. More worthy of attention. More laudable.
Writing as Tiptree, Alice Sheldon didn’t just avoid gender discrimination; she supercharged everything she wrote with gravitas and authority. When Tiptree spoke, people paid attention. They took his writing very, very seriously. Of course she couldn’t give that up. I’d find it hard to give up, too.
Finally, she hints at what she learned by being Tiptree:
Tip is real, you see. And Tip says, sisters, this was very, very informative. Maybe something we should all try. Of that more later.
Of that more later. This is an odd statement considering the essay was intended only to be published after her death. And it’s frustrating. I want to know, what did you find out, Alli? Why didn’t you tell us?
We are left to conjecture. But I suspect that what she found out was this:
Writing as a man gave her freedom that was missing when she wrote as herself. Tiptree’s gender and anonymity granted her psychological permission to take risks, make mistakes, and devote thousands of hours to her solitary art and craft, excluding and ignoring other obligations on her time and attention. Being Tiptree certainly allowed her to avoid gender discrimination, but more importantly, it allowed her to overcome the barriers in her own mind.
And I agree: Maybe this is something we should all try.
I’m not saying we should all impersonate white men to avoid being buttonholed. I’m simply saying that enough external barriers to our work exist, not just for women, but for writers of color, for gender non-conforming writers, for writers with children and families to nurture and support, for writers with physical and mental health challenges. The only barriers completely within our control are those within our own minds. We should embrace whatever tactics help us overcome them.
* It’s not my intent to give a precis of Alice Sheldon’s fascinating life. Short versions are available online (https://www.kirkusreviews.com/features/slow-unveiling-james-tiptree-jr/) but cannot begin to do the subject justice. I highly recommend Julie Phillips’ award-winning biography James Tiptree, Jr., the Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, which illustrates a life rich with contradictions, and with more twists and turns than a whodunnit.
** The letter is held in the Special Collections of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas in the records of Tiptree’s literary agent, Robert Mills (MS 307, Box 22, Folder 28). Many thanks to Kij Johnson for bringing it to my attention.
*** Reprinted in Meet me at Infinity (Tor; 2000), a collection of Tiptree’s uncollected fiction and nonfiction.