NYTBR Shows Ron Hogan What For

By Neal Comment

Back in May, when Bookforum ran a review of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon, you may recall I highly doubted the NYTBR would take heed. “It’s hard to imagine the Review deigning to review a biography of a science fiction writer” were my exact words, actually, so imagine my surprise when I got my advance copy of this weekend’s issue and they went and put the review on the cover. Of course, being the self-aggrandizing megalomaniac that I am, I like to think that I personally goaded Sam Tanenhaus into making the assignment… but if that were the case, he would have gone with Jonathan Lethem, like I asked, so I’m forced to fall back on theory #2: Alice Sheldon had a lot of lesbian impulses, and you know how the NYTBR loves the ladies who love ladies.

Actually, there’s one more plausible explanation: Sheldon’s literary fame, or the science-fiction equivalent of it anyway, rests to some degree on the fact that she published her stories under a guy’s name. That’s not all there is to it, of course; Tiptree’s work was rightfully acclaimed long before people realized “he” was Sheldon, and the stories wouldn’t continue to be read and admired today if they weren’t great. But there’s a lot of other great writers from that era who aren’t as well-remembered, because you can’t hear their names and go, “Oh, yeah, that’s the guy that turned out to be a woman.” So coming on the heels of the revelations about James Frey and J. T. LeRoy, her circumstances can’t help but fascinate the Review—and the fact that readers quickly “forgave” Sheldon is marveled at not just in the review itself, but in the editorial note at the beginning of the issue. But it’s worth noting that the Sheldon/Tiptree case isn’t anything like what Frey or LeRoy did; Sheldon never used her art to promote a phony “real-life” drama. She just used a pseudonym, and if science fiction fans “forgave” her for that, it’s probably because they had any amount of experience with writers who used pen names to shield themselves from public scrutiny, the most famous being Cordwainer Smith (who, like Sheldon, was also connected to the CIA).

Also, one can’t help but chuckle at the review’s declaration that biographer Julie Phillips “obliges even the readers already clued in to Tiptree’s secret to turn the book’s pages with increasing suspense.” Which readers would those be, one wonders: the ones who saw the book’s title on its cover? But, after all, I’m such a fan of that original Bookforum review that just about anybody else’s efforts are going to come up short in comparison. Still, good work with the cover placement, Sam! If we were the brownie-distributing sort, you’d get one for that bold stroke alone.

(Incidentally, if anybody knows the origins of the phrase “show * what for,” it’s been driving me nuts ever since this headline first popped into my brain.)