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From: Michael Straight <straight@email.unc.edu>
Subject: (urth) Wolfe's Women (There Are Doors)
Date: Tue, 30 Jun 1998 13:53:22 

I forward this post from rec.arts.sf.written with Mr. Gilbert's
permission.  I'd be interested to hear what others think of the way Wolfe
writes about women and sex roles, but I don't have much myself to offer on
the subject.  Maybe this will stir something up.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: 28 Jun 1998 23:41:21 -0400
From: Zvi Gilbert <zvi@interlog.com>
Newsgroups: rec.arts.sf.written
Subject: Re: There Are Doors (was Re: Gene Wolfe -- Reccomendations?)

There are spoilers for _There Are Doors_ in the later part of this post.
People who have read some Wolfe but not TAD could read about halfway
before stopping. There's spoiler space. 

Michael Straight  <straight@email.unc.edu> wrote:
>On 23 Jun 1998, P Nielsen Hayden wrote:
>> In <6mojob$692@shell1.interlog.com> zvi@interlog.com (Zvi Gilbert) writes:
>> I entirely agree with you about how "there's something about the sexual
>> themes and gender roles that I strongly disagree with, but that is carefully
>> worked out and internally consistent."  A fascinating and underrated book.
>So can either of you articulate what that "something" is?

Okay, I'll take a stab at it. I just reread _There Are Doors_ over
the past two days so it's fresh in my mind.

Samuel R. Delany writes in _The Straits of Messina_ (a book of critical
pieces and discussions, mostly on his own work): 

     There's a prevailing theory that society, in some mysterious
     way, is and will always be a mirror of some mysteriously eternal
     sex act, i.e., standard missionary position. (p.39)

     ...(which somehow involves vast amounts of male aggression 
     inchoately coupled with total female passivity), and read all
     fictional accounts of sex-and/or-society as accurate, relevant,
     and charged with value as they constitute themselves under the
     shadow of this model. (p.40)

(This discussion is part of a larger argument about _DHALGREN_ and its
critical reception.)  

Delany then goes on to list writes as diverse as Lawrence, Ellison, and
Roth whose work falls under that rubric. 

To that list I would add Wolfe. In all of the Wolfe that I've read, there
is an absolute split between male and female roles, male and female
sexuality, and male and female values that is as wide as anything I've
ever seen in fiction. 

For example, this is true of Severian/Thecla, /Dorcas, /etc. in _The Book
of the New Sun_: men and women (or, more accurately, perhaps, male and
female roles) are very different in that book, not to mention that from
the perspective of Severian, all sorts of relations between men and women
are coloured by the 'torturer-tortured' model that is established for us. 
Other clear examples in Wolfe's writing would include 'Forlesen', and _The
Book of the Long Sun_, with its pantheon of Gods and Goddesses.

_There Are Doors_ is another book of that sort, and, since sexuality and
the relationship between men and women is one of the major themes of the
book, the separation and tension between male and female experience and
roles is foregrounded. (More below.)

[I don't believe in this male-female idealized sex act model myself -- and
that's what (in part) I'm reacting to in the comment of mine that Patrick
quotes above. In the same essay in _The Straits of Messina_, Delany goes
on to discuss his own model of sexuality, where this internalized
male/female idealization is nothing but a social model -- which, when
internalized, does influence sexual behaviour -- but that vastly
diminishes the spectrum of (possible or pleasurable) sex acts when all sex
acts, whether between men and men, women and women, women and men, or
those who are differently gendered, are seen through the lens of the
ultimate Male-Female act.]


In _There Are Doors_, the protagonist (Green) starts on his search for
Lara -- whom we later find out is (one manifestation of) the Goddess. Lara
resides in a different world, reachable through the 'Doors' of the title,
that Green calls 'There'. 

'There', relationships with men and women are vastly different than our
world (or are they?), because 'There', men die after having sex. The
society of 'There' is different from ours, but in a subtle way, and one of
the great delights of reading Wolfe is finding out just how different, and
why, and putting the pieces together for oneself.

Because sexuality and the loneliness of a withdrawn, middle-aged man is
the central theme of the book, attitudes towards sex in the book are
foregrounded. (But this model of sex is found in all of Wolfe's fiction.)

The distortions of male-female relationships created by the fact that men
die after sex 'There' distort relationships MORE strongly in the direction
of male-female separation and difference, of course. However, as in all
fantasy, the fantasy world can be read as a distortion of the 'real' world
-- or in this case, in a sophisticated Wolfeian way, the world that has
only the authorial distortions of realism ('Cee-One', it's called in the

There is internal support in (Green's perception of) 'Cee-One' for a
similar if less absolute male/female split (and not just the various
manifestations of the goddess in Green's life, either) in various
comments: 'Men were looking for love, women were looking for
husbands...'(can't remember the page, sorry)  'The bucktoothed woman
frowned, putting her hands together fingertip to fingertip like a man.
(p.5)' [like a man?]...
Because the male/female difference that Wolfe delineates both 'There' and
in 'Cee-One' are so strong, so (IMHO) incorrect, but also so internally
consistent, clear, and rich, that is the main source of my
uncomfortableness and fascination with _There Are Doors_. 

I'll stop there, but that's the gist of my argument. 

Part of what keeps me reading and re-reading Wolfe's fiction is the fact
that I do disagree with him so strongly about religious issues (including
the Catholicism that informs his books), social issues, and societal
issues -- but he makes quite a case in terms of the consistency of his
views and the power of his writing. 


*More Wolfe info & archive of this list at http://www.urth.net/urth/

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