Review: James Tiptree Jr, by Julie Phillips

I have discovered that what I like in a biography is lots and lots and lots of quotations. When I was reading Julie Phillips’s excellent biography of Alice Sheldon, I kept reading bits of it out loud to Mumsy, and Mumsy said, “This is an autobiography?” It’s not, but Julie Phillips has brilliantly pulled together a multiplicity of letters, journals, and papers to create a wonderfully vivid picture of Sheldon’s life.

To step back slightly: James Tiptree, Jr. was the pseudonym of science fiction writer Alice Sheldon, a woman who wrote fantastically creepy sci-fi stories about sex and death and gender and danger for ten years before being unveiled as a lady. Her parents took her to the unplumbed (ish) (at the time) (by white people) depths of Africa when she was small, which ill prepared her for the regular life of an American woman. She was unhappy with the restrictive models of gender and sexuality available to her, and she struggled to find a career that suited her independence, intelligence, and perfectionism, as well as her constricted, conflicted ideas of what women could do and be.

The main thing with someone as clever and prolific in her letters as Alice Sheldon seems to have been is to get out of her way. Phillips quotes liberally from her sources, while restraining the all-too-common biographer’s tendency to analyze cause and effect ad nauseum. The book is all the better for it. Here’s Sheldon’s synopsis for a book she’s considering writing during World War II:

The gal has a Horrid Secret. Wish I knew what it was. As I see it, the guy, a stuffy bachelor, falls for her in a condescending way; the gal turns out to have a no good spouse, and was about to commit suicide when run into. (They find a loaded revolver in her pocket.) … So the husband turns up, and is repulsive, and the good guy is stuffy, and the gal shillies a bit and then repudiates both of them and goes out to Do Good By Herself–all in the middle of World War No 2.

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is the conflict between Sheldon’s obvious aesthetic preference for iconoclasm and her desire to be liked. Not only is she ambivalent about most of the choices available to her, but she also has a hard time committing fully to any of the choices she does make. She marries suddenly after having met her husband once, at a dinner–evidently more because marriage is the next recognized life step than because of any true connection she had with the man. Throughout her life, she struggles to find a role for herself on the edge of what is acceptable. Before her career as a writer begins, the closest she came was getting a degree in behavioral psychology when she was in her forties.

It’s remarkable how important Sheldon’s writing career is, given that it only occupies ten years out of her seventy-one. It’s important because we want to read her stories (they’re awfully good), but for Phillips’s purposes (and more relevant to the book), it’s important to Alice Sheldon. The years when she’s living that double life — the good girl married matron who keeps chickens, and the popular science fiction writer who corresponds profanely about men and stories with a myriad of writers and fans — are plainly the years that are most fulfilling to her. Her joy in the freedom her alter ego gives her shines through the letters she writes in that period, like this one to Ursula LeGuin:

Dear Starbear,

 

Your letter of 8 1 73 just arrived and only by the grace of fate and some minor automotive problems have you been spared from receiving an incoherent telegram proposing immediate elopement to Madagascar.

 

You are beautiful.

 

But after sobering up I came to the sad conclusion that there could be certain problems for example with your spouse and children, and it might be that they do not sell Geritol in Madagascar, or oil for my wheelchair, and so on. And that perhaps even if these obstacles could be overcome, I could probably expect at best to receive a ticket saying No. 142, kindly wait turn … But the vision of us strolling forever beneath the giant blossoming urp trees, while ring-tailed lemurs weave around us in orchestration of our discourse of agreement … will remain with me.

 

By which I mean, dear Lady, that every word of your letter fell into my ears with the silvery plonk of total understanding.

Even if you aren’t a reader of biographies in general (I’m not), I recommend James Tiptree Jr. It will, I expect, accomplish the goal of making you want to read Tiptree’s stories. I am reading a book of them now, and they are awfully good. More later, maybe, but in case I don’t get around to a review of her stories, I recommend “The Screwfly Solution” as a good place to start.

11 thoughts on “Review: James Tiptree Jr, by Julie Phillips

    • They’re good! Like I said, try “The Screwfly Solution” if you can find it — you’ll know where the story’s taking you early on, but it’s just done so well as a piece of writing that you won’t care.

  1. Oh I think I’ll give this a go! And read her fiction, even though in general I’m much more a fantasy than sci fi girl.

    Have you read Hermione Lee’s bio of Virginia Woolf? Lots of excerpts there too! I keep wanting to read her take on Edith Wharton, but the book’s so big my arthritis cringes when I look at it. Thank heaves for ebooks.

    • I never have — maybe I’ll give it a try over Christmas break. Is it still a good read if one doesn’t care about Virginia Woolf at all, which is my situation? Janet Malcolm’s literary biographies are superb enough that I don’t need to be interested in the subjects, but that’s a rare thing.

  2. P.S.: Have you read Joanna Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing? If not you need to! (She mentions Tiptree/Sheldon, which is why I thought of it.) I read it while visiting Amy in Toronto last year, when Hurricane Sandy kept me there a couple more days than planned, which meant I got to raid her excellent book shelves for a bit longer. :)

  3. I have a biography of Alice Sheldon to read but not this one. It seems that she had the most remarkable life and I’m keen not only to read about her but to read some of her stories. I practically never read science fiction, so it should be very interesting – always worth broadening the horizons! I will look out for this book, too.

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