Andre Norton on "evil and dangerous" gay fiction
by Andy Duncan
Past and Present Future / April 03, 2015
Charles Platt’s 1983 book Dream Makers Volume II: The Uncommon Men & Women Who Write Science Fiction includes a chapter on Andre Norton, based on an interview Platt conducted at her home in Winter Park, Fla., in March 1982, when she was 70 years old.
At one point, Norton asks Platt a reasonable question about gender (though the verb he uses is “cross-examine”). From there, she very quickly steers the conversation into a discussion of gay themes and sexual themes in science fiction. Here’s the complete passage, complete with Norton’s abrupt segue. The “I” is Platt himself:
She pauses, here, to cross-examine me on how many female writers will be in Dream Makers II. Will I be including Anne McCaffrey? C.L. Moore? Leigh Brackett? Marion Zimmer Bradley?
I explain that some of them write fantasy, which I don’t enjoy.
“You class Anne McCaffrey as a fantasy writer? She is not. And she is one of the leading writers. If you leave her out, you are going to run into trouble.” She tells me this very firmly.
“Jacqueline Lichtenberg is also of importance. Her books are difficult reading, but they are interesting.”
Since most of the names that Andre Norton has mentioned have been active in the field for many decades, I ask if there are any modern women writers whom she admires.
“Of course right now I’m very upset, in the new attitude in fantasy toward homosexuality. I feel very deeply that this is wrong. At least half of the readers of fantasy are under twenty. Some of them, who are exceptional readers, are only ten or twelve.
“There’ve been some very bald books involving homosexuality. One of them fell into my hands, and I was so outraged that I simply threw the book in the garbage. And that book was up for a prize. Another was sent to me, and I opened in on a sex scene that was so absolutely nauseating that it made my physically ill!
“This trend is getting stronger and stronger. For a good many years, when I was in the library, they would not buy science fiction and fantasy books, because those were considered trash, as a result of those dreadful covers on the magazines. So I fought and fought to get them on library lists.
“I have friends who teach science fiction in high school, and they have to be so careful, now, in vetting the books because of this new trend, for fear of using anything that any parent could object to.
“I feel that all the work that I tried to do, to establish science fiction as a perfectly good form of reading, is being undermined.”
Is she objecting, for example, to the John Norman books about warriors and slave girls?
“Well, now, I’ve read exactly one of those, and I thought it was a very poor imitation of Edgar Rice Burroughs. No, those are sadistic, but another book, for example” – she asks me to omit its title – “not only described a homosexual relationship, but an incestuous one, between two brothers, in the greatest detail.
“You don’t have to go in for sensational material in order to write a good book. Some people are now writing books that would strike an impressionable young person in a very questionable fashion. This is an evil and dangerous thing.” (Platt 98-99)
This was two years before Norton was named the first female Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and 23 years before SFWA posthumously named its new young-adult-novel award in her honor.
I keep trying to read Norton’s comments, as presented by Platt, as a denunciation of explicit sex in young-adult books -- into which category Norton seems to consign all science fiction and fantasy -- and not an expression of homophobia per se. However, I find inescapable Norton’s implication that the portrayal of gay sex is especially bad for young readers because it could turn “an impressionable young person” gay, which to her would be “an evil and dangerous thing.”
My guess is that every Andre Norton Award winner, nominee and juror to date would disagree with that attitude, likely even find it abhorrent (as I do).
They were complicated people, our ancestors, Norton not the least of them. But am I suggesting SFWA rename its award? I am not.
I’m not really sure how comparable this is to the Lovecraft/World Fantasy Award situation. For one thing, Lovecraft’s racial attitudes are on display throughout his fiction; you can’t miss them. If Norton’s fiction, however, contains any homophobic themes, it’s news to me. I don’t want to make too much out of one intemperate late-in-life interview.
Moreover, Norton’s strong female characters and the example of her life and work empowered countless female sf readers and sf writers, whatever their sexual orientations, in ways Lovecraft never did. I don’t know whether she would have described herself this way, but she was undeniably a trailblazer for feminism and inclusivity in science fiction. Note, above, how readily she takes Platt to school on basic gender parity, as if she has had to do that a lot, and does not mind doing it.
Some of the field’s newfound inclusivity may have appalled her in her old age, but it nevertheless was an inclusivity she helped to inspire, throughout her long career. We all should do so much.
I am curious, of course, to know what novel involving gay brothers Norton might have been talking about, and what prize contender she threw into the trash. Suggestions are welcome. Were these by woman writers, I wonder? She must have made some connection, in her head, between “modern women writers” and gay themes. [Added later: One likely candidate emerges in this subsequent post.]
I also wonder whether the word “bald” in Norton’s phrase “very bald books involving homosexuality” is a misprint of “bad.” However, Norton could well have meant “bald” as in “blatant” or “explicit.”
P.S. I am soliciting comments from Platt, and will pass those along as I can. For the record, Platt wound up including five women writers in his book, none of them suggested by Norton, out of 28 writers total.
Source: Platt, Charles. “Andre Norton.” Dream Makers Volume II: The Uncommon Men & Women Who Write Science Fiction. New York: Berkley Books, 1983. 95-102.
“The Ether Vibrates” was a regular column in Startling Stories, and I am tickled to use it as the header for posts responding to mail from multiple readers – which, to my surprise and delight, is beginning to come in.
Thanks to all who have commented so far. While I won’t cut-and-paste here the full text of every comment, the full text of all comments mentioned below (plus others) can be read by clicking the comments link beneath individual posts.
Many have suggested possible candidates for the unnamed sf or fantasy novel Andre Norton complained about to Charles Platt in March 1982, one that, in Norton’s words, “not only described a homosexual relationship, but an incestuous one, between two brothers, in the greatest detail.” The first to suggest to me Elizabeth A. Lynn’s Chronicles of Tornor trilogy (1979-1980) were Interrociter (on this blog) and Yves Menard (on Facebook). While Menard recalls “the theme was introduced in the very first volume,” evidence from online reviews (some hostile) suggests Tredegar Trafalgar is right that the second volume, The Dancers of Arun (1979), is the one that so squicked Norton: “The description she gives,” Trafalgar writes, “is accurate as far as it goes, if hostile.”
In addition to that, The Dancers of Arun was, in March 1982, a recent book by a woman writer that had received much positive attention in the field. It and its predecessor in the series, Watchtower, both were World Fantasy Award nominees, and Watchtower won. All this fits the context of the Platt-Norton conversation, as recounted by Platt.
Whether Lynn was aware of Norton’s comments at the time, and whether she associated them with her novel, I don’t know. I’m soliciting comment from Lynn, which I will pass along as I can.
Others commented on the larger point, Norton’s apparent dislike of explicitly gay themes in sf and fantasy. Mark Mills (a.k.a. Cinrambler) writes:
I think you have to put her remarks in context of the time. Jesse Helms successfully cut funding for AIDS prevention programs that "promote, encourage, or condone homosexual activities" in 1987. Norton is George Takei in comparison.
A fair point, Mark, though your Norton-Takei comparison may remind some of Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen:
“When you say ‘hill,’” the Queen interrupted, “I could show you hills, in comparison with which you'd call that a valley.” (Ch. 2)
Carmen Webster Buxton writes:
More fair points, though now I’m interested to know specifics of any Norton books with “subtle hints of same sex attraction, especially between some of the male characters.”
I would guess it was more a rant against explicitness. If anything, some of her books seemed to me to have subtle hints of same sex attraction, especially between some of the male characters. I'm sure she got dissed by mainstream critics, so anything explicit enought to make the genre look "trashy" might alarm her. And after all, she came of age in the 1920's and 30's.
Speaking of Norton in general and vintage sf in general, James Davis Nicoll writes:
Thanks, James. I’m happy to pass along the link, and I look forward to exploring your site. That the first thing I see there is a photo of Leigh Brackett is a very good sign!
May I suggest you look at my Because My Tears Are Delicious to You reviews, in which I revisit books I loved as a teen? Also, I'm rereading the fifty Andre Norton books Ace used to advertise next to Heinlein. And also I am rereading some of -- actually, my site in general is a cornucopia of older material: Jamesdavisnicoll.com
Simone Caroti and David Drake, meanwhile, wrote much longer comments, which I’ll take up in posts of their own.
Thanks for reading and responding, everybody.
Source: Carroll, Lewis. Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. 1871.