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Strange Horizons has asked me to do a monthly column, on whatever topic(s) I want. Effectively, it's a blank check. So, of course, I've been thinking about what I want out of the column. (It's all about me, right? Isn't that why they invited me?)

And the thing I want most is interchange, feedback, conversation. I'm not so interested in what I have to say: I know, more or less, what I have to say. I'm interested in how what I have to say affects you, and how what you have to say in response affects me in return.

So I'd like to start this column by making a deal with you: if you disagree, respond; if you agree and it makes you think of something else, respond; if you agree in part and some of it feels wrongheaded, respond. If you completely agree and think it's wonderful, then of course I'd like to hear it, but I'm asking for responses with different views. Right now, as I type this, it's a one-way deal. Can I convince you to come in with me on it? What would it take? (Respond . . .)

This month's topic is a pretty obvious first topic for me: the Tiptree Award or, more formally, The James Tiptree Jr. Literary Award. If you already know a lot about the beginnings of the Tiptree Award, you can skip down to the next section break.

The Tiptree Award was started in 1991 by Karen Joy Fowler, now the best-selling author of The Jane Austen Book Club, and multiple Nebula Award-winning author Pat Murphy. Karen is an interesting combination: she's the world's nicest person, and she's also easily annoyed. She was, at that moment, annoyed that none of the science fiction awards were named after women—Hugo Gernsback, Philip K. Dick, and Mr. Nebula, I guess. Anyway, Karen was annoyed and Pat was impish (Pat is often impish), and somehow they decided that the best way to name an award after a woman was to name it after "James Tiptree Jr.," who was really a woman named Alice Sheldon writing under a male name for a variety of reasons.

Pat was guest of honor at WisCon that year. So she announced the award in her guest of honor speech.

Now Pat and Karen are more than smart enough to know that there was more to an award than its name. Awards need goals, and rules, and some degree of process. Pat set the goal in her initial speech. This was to be an award for works of science fiction and fantasy that "explore and expand gender." That description is still the one we're using today. They wanted the award to have a money prize, so it was to be funded by bake sales: hence the slogan, "If you can't change the world with chocolate chip cookies, how can you change the world?" Chocolate is also an integral part of the award winner's prize.

Now this could still have gone nowhere. I imagine that several great ideas for awards have been the subject of guest of honor speeches at SF conventions, and that's the last anyone has heard of them. But this was WisCon. You'll probably get a column from me about WisCon in the next few months, so let's just say here that when the WisCon crowd decides that something should happen, you can consider that something already finished and tied with a red ribbon. WisCon is, among many other things, a pretty unstoppable machine.

So, before anyone could say "James Tiptree Jr.," people were volunteering to do bake sales, to design logos, to do publicity, and generally to make the award happen. Apparently, it was an extremely exciting evening. (I wasn't there.)

Did you notice that I said up above that awards need rules and some degree of process? That's where I came in. Pat came back from WisCon and called me up. (We knew each other socially, but we were not good friends.) She told me about WisCon, and the award, and I was suitably enthusiastic. Then she got to the point. "Karen and I want you to chair the first panel of judges."

"Really? What's involved?"

"We're counting on you to figure that out."


I don't think I even did the prudent thing, which would have been to say, "Let me think about it," and then call back the next day and say yes. I think I just said yes. Pat and Karen recruited four other judges: Vonda N. McIntyre, Suzy McKee Charnas, Sherry Coldsmith, and Bruce McAllister. Then they smiled at me and said, "Let us know if you need anything."

So the five of us read a lot of books. Pat and Karen wrote to publishers asking for copies of books or stories we wanted to check out. In the course of the year we figured out a bunch of stuff. First, we had to define what "explore and expand gender" meant to us, a process that each subsequent jury has also gone through. (What does "explore and expand gender" mean to you? Respond.) That helped develop one piece of the award philosophy, which is that the award administrators don't guide the jurors at all in what they choose, nor explain any of the terms. Each jury has to figure out the definitions and parameters for itself, which is one reason the award winners are so delightfully all over the map.

I'm pretty sure it was Vonda McIntyre who came up with another key characteristic of the award. "Listen," she said, "no matter how much they may say it's an honor to be nominated, if your book is on the ballot and doesn't win, you feel like you've lost." So the award doesn't have a set of nominees from which a winner is chosen. Instead, the judges announce not only a winner but also a "short list" of works they really like. That way, the short-listed authors get a nice note saying that their work was honored by the jurors, after the fact, instead of chewing their fingernails and wondering if they'll actually win.

So my jury plugged away, reading books and writing each other paper letters (!), about what we thought about them. At the end of the process, some jurors were actually spending money on Federal Express to make sure everyone else got to read their comments. And we started learning about how juries bog down and what kind of disagreements we could expect. Can a book where the basically likable protagonist commits rape be considered a candidate? Should we consider how famous the author is in the mainstream world, or just think about the book? When it comes down to it, how are we going to turn our qualitative opinions into the quantitative naming of a winner? My jury solved these problems in our own way; the thirteen succeeding juries have each solved the problems in their own way. However, all of them had some past precedent and advice to draw upon, she said enviously. One thing we decided during the process was that it was essential for the jury process to be confidential—open discussion of difficult issues and the work of colleagues was, we felt, challenging enough among the five of us, without inviting the world in to watch.

While we were deliberating in relative obscurity, the WisCon/Tiptree Award machine was falling into place. Bake sales were happening and money was being collected. What the award should actually be was in discussion. As the jury came closer and closer to consensus, Pat and Karen were commissioning an original work of art, finding the source for a chocolate typewriter (!) and figuring out what size check they could write for the winner.

In the event, the first award was a tie (as several awards since have also been). The winners were Eleanor Arnason, for A Woman of the Iron People, and Gwyneth Jones, for The White Queen. Eleanor's memorable response was that it was great to win an award which no one she disliked had ever won in the past! Gwyneth traveled from England (and Eleanor from Minnesota) to accept their awards at the 1992 WisCon, and thus the Tiptree Award ceremony was born. The ceremony is a movable feast, traveling to conventions that take place between April and July around the country, as well as once in England, returning to WisCon every other year.

Over the ensuing years, much has developed and much has stayed the same. Every year, a panel of five jurors reads a lot of books, discusses a lot of definitions, and comes up with a winner (or two) and a short list. Some juries have also chosen to come up with a "long list," usually of books that they liked enough to encourage people to read, but which do not treat with gender in important ways. Every year, an award (or two) is given with a ceremony, a check, some chocolate, and a piece of original art (each year by a different artist). The silly song aspect of the award ceremony, where a bunch of mostly unprofessional singers serenade the winner with some kind of filk-ish parody song in their honor, showed up in the second or third year and has become quite a tradition.

While bake sales still continue and other fundraising activities appear from time to time (we've published two cookbooks, two anthologies, and a reprinted fanzine), there is no doubt that the central fundraising effort is now the legendary Tiptree Auction, the key entertainment at Saturday night of WisCon. Our auctioneer, Ellen Klages, raises the bar for the definition of the word "irrepressible." Ellen has auctioneered in a chicken suit, in drag, and in spangles. She has auctioneered when she was so ill that she had to be taken to the hospital when she came offstage. She has sold a knitted uterus. Actually, she had the audience fill the knitted uterus with money donated to the award, and gave the knitted uterus to Pat Murphy, who wasn't at WisCon that year and thus couldn't refuse the gift! She has sold the right to watch her shave her head.

The administration of the award has "grown up" as well. We are now a 501(c)(3) corporation, a tax-deductible public charity. We have a board of directors (yours truly is chair of the "motherboard"). Aside from the award, we give out the occasional Fairy Godmother Award ("the fairy godmother strikes without warning") to someone doing work in areas of interest to the Tiptree Award whom we've been informed needs a little boost to the pocketbook. We have some formal volunteer roles: a procurer or procuress to get books from publishers, a publicity person, a website manager.

For lists of winners, short lists, and other detailed information, go to our website,, woefully in need of an update though it may be.

That's the story of the Tiptree Award, a story that can be told with only the barest allusion to the role of gender in science fiction and fantasy.

I think it's also interesting to contrast the Tiptree Award with some of the field's other awards.

Science fiction and fantasy's leading awards are the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the World Fantasy Award. All members of the World Science Fiction Convention of a given year and the previous year are eligible to nominate and vote for the Hugo Awards, but in fact only a tiny fraction of the membership votes even for the most popular categories (Best Novel and Best Dramatic Presentation) and the core voters join every World Science Fiction Convention, some of them only to maintain their Hugo franchise. The only defining characteristic of the winner is "best," which is arguably more subjective than "work that best explores and expands gender," but subject to far less discussion and reification. For several years now, the same few authors and series have been winning year in and year out, implying if not a certain level of popularity contest, at the very least a strong advantage for voter familiarity.

The Nebula Awards are selected by vote of the membership of the Science Fiction Writers of America. While some people join and some people leave this group every year, the core membership is much the same from year to year. The nominees are also selected by popular vote, except that two juries are selected every year—one jury reads all the eligible novels and the other reads all the eligible short fiction and each is invited to add one work per category to the final ballot. The Nebula Awards go to a wider variety of authors and works than the Hugo Awards do; "best" is still the only criterion. Because the SFWA membership is comparatively small, campaigning for nominations and awards is common practice; at the same time, the membership is large enough to preclude or at least interfere with substantive voter discussion of potential award winners and reasons to vote for or against.

The World Fantasy Award jury is comparable to the Tiptree jury: a five-person group with a mandate to read widely, including reading works nominated by convention members, and to choose a "best" work in each of several categories. That jury, however, is very closely overseen by the administrators of the convention, who put their stamp on the award winners as a whole. The World Fantasy Award winners are a very respectable and varied group of books, and the process, like the Hugo and Nebula Award processes, works well. Nonetheless, I believe it is easier to second-guess what books are likely contenders for the next World Fantasy Award for Best Novel than it is to have the vaguest clue what work will win the next Tiptree Award.

While stability and predictable process are important to other awards, fluidity, flexibility, and unpredictability are the hallmarks of the Tiptree Award. At the same time, the fact that the Tiptree Award has a subject matter guideline provides its jurors with somewhat of a hook to hang their decisions on. Never having served as a juror on a "best" award, I'm hard put to know how the jury conversations go. I do know, however, that when I discuss the question of which book is better than another with friends and colleagues, we very frequently bog down into complete subjectivity. Perhaps we agree that one book is more skillfully crafted than the other, and the other is more intellectually challenging, or more emotionally gripping. Which is better? Is craft more important than impact? Tiptree jurors can, and do, also engage in these conversations, but they do have that one phrase to come back to: the work that best explores and expands gender. Thus, if a jury reads a book and feels that it "explores and contracts gender," as happened with one work of Sheri S. Tepper's, it can be ruled out quickly. Another story that catches the minds and hearts of all five judges (as Ted Chiang's "The Story of Your Life" did in 1998) can be nonetheless saved for the long list because gender is not a core issue in the story.

Don't like what one jury thought was gender? Wait a year—next year's jury will undoubtedly see it differently. Hated the winner? Okay, fine, especially if it made you think about why you hated it. See a trend in award winners that you don't care for? Get on the web and nominate some other options—missing some books is inevitable, so we rely on our supporters to keep their eyes open as well.

Underlying all these questions of history and procedure is the central question: why have a Tiptree Award at all? Do science fiction and fantasy deal poorly with gender issues these days, or have we grown up? Is the award really a feminist award in a vaguely transparent disguise? If it isn't, should it be? Does the science fiction world need a feminist award? Has the field changed enough—has the award helped the field change enough—in the last fourteen years to render the award irrelevant or passé? And has everything that can be said on the subject of gender already been said? (Lots of opportunities to respond here.)

We've had a lot of controversy swirl around the award over the years. Two of our biggest critics are well-known writers, each with more than one Hugo and Nebula Award trophy on their mantelpiece. One, a woman, sees the Tiptree Award as part of the totalitarian feminist machine that wants to control what she writes. One, a man, sees the Tiptree Award as somehow designed to exclude him personally from recognition and praise. (In the early years of the award, he wrote a book which he believed would either win or be proof positive that the award was unfair. He didn't win, so he believes he de facto demonstrated the basic injustice of the award's premise. The judges just thought it was an inferior book.)

A leading editor got very angry when a book from his list with a lesbian protagonist didn't get much attention from that year's jury. He wants the award to be a feminist award, doesn't understand (or agree with) the distinction between feminism and gender in this context, and seemed unable to understand the jury's response, which was that having a lesbian protagonist is no longer an exploratory or expansive auctorial decision.

In the first three years, the question was, "Will a man ever win the Tiptree Award?" Once Theodore Roszak shared the prize with Elizabeth Hand, that question went away. Now, after three male winners in a row (John Kessel, M. John Harrison, and Matt Ruff), some people are asking if a woman will ever win the award again. . . .

One experience that comes from having fourteen juries struggle with the question of "what does 'exploring and expanding gender' mean?" is the awareness that we do not have a social consensus, even in the science fiction community, on what gender is, let alone how it relates to feminism. Over the years, we've seen at least one award winner that many readers consider anti-feminist (Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon, a book that examines a rather bloodthirsty all-female society). We've seen the award go to Mary Doria Russell's The Sparrow, which many readers (no matter how much they appreciate the novel) see as treating little if at all with gender. In that case, the judges were most interested in Russell's treatment of celibacy in the characters' lives. Two years ago, the award (well, half of it) went to Light by M. John Harrison, a book which features a serial killer of women as a main character: can that overused and disturbing topic ever be a legitimate ground for exploring and expanding gender?

Another huge set of questions which the award raises are the questions of race, class, and other social divisions. What's so important about gender, that it has its own award? Should we be expanding our focus, becoming an "RCG" (the educators' term for Race/Class/Gender) award?

No one on the Tiptree Motherboard, and hardly anyone who's served on a jury, would deny that race and class are important questions that deserve comparable attention to gender. As the award has grown in scope and influence, the Motherboard has made an effort to ensure that at least one person of color serves on each jury. And at the same time, Tiptree wrote a great deal about gender, and a good deal less about race. Thinking about Tiptree's works as I write, I'd say that class is a factor in many of them. However, the American approach to class is to deny its existence and thus never call it by name, and Tiptree/Sheldon generally followed that pattern.

And, of course, of race, class, and gender, gender is far and away the one that the "other side" is most motivated to consider. White people have very little obvious reason to really engage with the problems of people of color. Upper-class people have comparatively few obvious reasons to really engage with the problems of the poor. (Give yourself an extra point if you thought about public health risks when you read the previous sentence.) But men have very significant reasons to really engage with, or at least acknowledge, the problems of women, the most obvious being that all men have mothers and many men want women in their lives, as partners, wives, and the mothers of their children.

So the award concentrates on gender, while making more than token and less than equivalent efforts to acknowledge the issues of race and class. Is this a good decision? (Respond.)

That's the Tiptree Award: eccentric, unpredictable, fluid, controversial, well-funded (as such things go), trying to struggle with hard questions while staying open-ended and open-minded. Take a look at the list of winners and the short lists. Is what we're doing worth doing? Are we succeeding? How would you do it differently? (You know the drill by now: respond.)

Debbie Notkin has been a specialty bookseller, a reviewer for Locus, a fanzine publisher, an editor at Tor, a WisCon and FOGcon organizer, and more. She is the chair of the Tiptree Award motherboard. She blogs with Laurie Toby Edison, her photography partner in body image work, at Body Impolitic.
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