I put Siri Hustvedt’s The Blazing World down late last year. I was enjoying it, but I was overloaded with other things I had to do and reading for pleasure came rather low on the pecking order. This morning I picked it up again; still too much else to do, but what the hell. And practically the first thing I read is a passage about James Tiptree.
She outlines the basic story we all know: how no-one met Tiptree, how Silverberg said the work was ineluctably masculine, the appearance of Raccoona Sheldon, etc. Then we come to this bit:
What interested her was not simply substituting a man’s name for a woman’s. That was boring. No, she pointed out that Le Guin had suspected all along that Raccoona and Tiptree were two authors that came from the same source, but in a letter to Alice she wrote that she preferred Tiptree to Raccoona: ‘Raccoona, I think, has less control, thus less wit and power.’
Le Guin, Mother said, had understood something deep. ‘When you take on a male persona, something happens.’
When I asked what that was, she sat back in her chair, waved her arm, and smiled, ‘You get to be the father.’
… She told me that in 1987 Tiptree shot her husband and then killed herself. Mother said Sheldon couldn’t live without her man — not her husband, obviously, but the man inside her — and she believed that’s why she exploded into violence.
Two things struck me about this passage.
First, although this analysis of Tiptree’s suicide doesn’t conform to the story in Julie Phillips’s biography, doesn’t take into account the husband’s illness or her own, or mention that this was all a decade after her identity was revealed, yet there is something that rings true about it. Le Guin was right that there was something in Tiptree’s writing that Raccoona Sheldon’s lacked, and after Tiptree’s identity was revealed, Tiptree’s writing lacked it also. To my mind, ‘Houston, Houston, Do You Read?’, ‘The Psychologist Who Wouldn’t Do Awful Things to Rats’ and Raccoona Sheldon’s ‘The Screwfly Solution’, which came out around the time of the revelation, were the last really significant things she wrote. The stories that came later, and all of the novels, were distinctly minor affairs when compared to the work that appeared when Tiptree was safely behind her mask.
The Encyclopedia says that the revelation killed Tiptree. That’s not strictly true, it didn’t even stop her writing; but it stopped her being Tiptree, and that took something out of the writing. And for that, Hustvedt’s point about getting to ‘be the father’, works as well as any. It may not be that she couldn’t live without the man inside her, though she certainly went into decline without him; but it is surely the case that she couldn’t write to that high and wonderful standard without him.
The second thing is that Hustvedt’s novel tells of a woman artist who calls herself Harry, and whose work is exhibited as by a succession of male front men. All the time I was reading this far I was asking myself: does she know about Tiptree. It seems to me that there is a lot of James Tiptree in Harry.
Well, now it seems I have my answer.