Butler, interstitial

There are just a couple of things left over from our first session on Butler that I wanted to note here before our second session.

I underlined that Butler’s career as a writer of SF was partly enabled by a new set of institutional forms for producing SF writers: the Clarion Workshop, together with formal SF instruction available at colleges and universities.1 These forms are a slightly belated version of the much wider transformation of U.S. literature by the writing workshop from the end of World War II onwards. Mark McGurl’s celebrated book The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009) argues that the MFA program shapes the whole of post-1945 literature, not by imposing any particular style but by disseminating a specific range of norms and concerns to specific populations. McGurl’s focus is on literary writing, with genre fiction as the “outside” of the system, but SF is (marginally) present within the higher-education creative writing system from 1970 on. One index of the difference is that Butler, of course, received no credential for her studies, no MFA in SF; her highest earned degree was an associate’s.

What I now want to emphasize, because it is less obvious, is that the state was therefore central to Butler’s trajectory, to her acquisition of the cultural capital necessary to become an SF author—that is, to produce and publish her work, to become known, etc. Butler’s remarkable autodidacticism depended on and flourished in the framework of public schools, public libraries, and Pasadena City College, CSU-LA, and UCLA: which is to say she had some access to every tier of the California public higher education system in its golden age. And before all this comes the public library system: I mentioned in seminar her essay, written shortly after Parable of the Sower, on public libraries: it can viewed in this scan of Omni 15, no. 10 (August 1993) on the Internet Archive. Butler understood very well what the existence of robust public cultural institutions meant for someone of her race and class position:

Public libraries in particular are the open universities of America. They’re free; they’re accessible to everyone; they may offer special services to shut-ins, to children, even to nonreaders….

I’m a writer at least partly because I had access to public libraries. (3)

And she also understood what the Reaganite and post-Reagan dismantling of these institutions meant for society. To interpret the social vision of Parable, I think we need to consider what it means that Butler imagined these functions of the state being completely subtracted, and what Lauren and Earthseed propose in their place.

On the matter of Butler’s identities, I think we will have much more to say in seminar. By way of footnote from last time, here is a recording of the Freedom Singers singing “We Shall Not Be Moved” at the 1963 March on Washington, to help give some more sense of what Butler is touching on in the scene of Lauren’s preaching. Butler would have been 16 in August 1963. By the time of Parable’s publication the high point of the Civil Rights movement was thirty years in the past.

I do want to register some hesitation, however, about any gesture of “placing” Butler in African-American cultural history in this way, if it ends up constricting our reading, or worse, making us misinterpret Butler by assuming that there is a singular and self-contained African-American culture into whose history all black writers can be inserted in the same way. Consider that Butler’s publishing career is roughly contemporary with Toni Morrison’s, who in 1993 won a Nobel Prize. Butler’s comment to Charles Rowell about her early career is notable:

I was asked by the Washington Post to review two books: one was Claudia Tate’s Black Women Writers at Work, a book of interviews, and the other one was Confirmation, a huge anthology of black women writers edited by Amina and Amiri Baraka. After I went through the two books, I wondered why I was not in them….I guess the more exposure I got, the more people realized, “Oh, yeah, she’s black.” (Rowell, 65–66)

This comment slyly and self-consciously indicates Butler’s social distance from the core of African-American literature and the actors who made it, in the very decades of her early career, a significant university subject, a significant aspect of American literature, and, in fact, a form of cultural capital. Butler’s work only comes to function as this kind of cultural capital belatedly, and, she hints, on the basis of an identification she regarded ambivalently (“I’ve never allowed a picture on the back of any of my books”).2 As I hope we will discuss, this discomfort seems hardly to register with many of her most enthusiastic readers.


  1. Equally important to Butler were the emergent institutions of feminist SF: she was a guest of honor at WisCon 4 (1980), and her early interpersonal SF network from Clarion in 1970 included a number of feminist SF pioneers.↩︎

  2. The social distance is also a literal, geographical distance from the Eastern seaboard and Chicago, the two home bases of black cultural activism.↩︎

Author: AG

Associate Professor, Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick

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