Friday, April 3, 2015

Andre Norton on "evil and dangerous" gay fiction

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.


  1. While I haven't read them, I suspect she may have been referring to one of Elizabeth Lynn's "Chronicles of Tornor" books.

  2. Did my previous attempt to comment work? I'm not sure.
    I was going to suggest maybe it was Cyteen, but I see that was published in 1988 - after this interview. HRM. Arrows of the Queen was 1987... perhaps I'm too young to know the right books for early 80s.

  3. 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.

    My guess on the book describing sex between brothers would be Left Hand of Darkness (1969). The characters are referred to as brothers even though they change sex. I don't see that as explicit but she might have.

    Dean Koontz wrote a book about two abused male twins who have sex with each other. I can't recall the name or when it was written.

  4. 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.

  5. I believe that Norton was referring to A FUNERAL FOR THE EYES OF FIRE by Michael Bishop. I will add this caution: I read the book in its first edition circa 1978 (Bishop later published a revised edition) and don't have that copy available. But, strange are the ways of middle-aged memories.... I remember reading Platt's interview with Norton when first published and immediately connecting that comment to that book.

  6. It is indeed a Chronicles of Tornor book; specifically, it's The Dancers of Arun. The description she gives is accurate as far as it goes, if hostile.

  7. I think the key to understanding "Andre" is that she was a very conventional lady who just happened to write science fiction--just as Philip Jose Farmer was a very conventional man who happened to take Edgar Rice Burroughs very, very seriously. Phil could pass perfectly as a suburban guy who cared a lot about his grand-kids, was married for decades, believed in orthodox division of gender roles, and used to work in a steel mill. He just happened to write about sex with aliens. "Andre" would have been absolutely in-place at a church bake sale. Eccentricity, in those days, was carefully kept under the radar (by most).