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Resisting the Monolith: Collecting As Counter Narrative

Growing up as a tomboy in a socially conservative town meant constantly being told that my existence was wrong. Girls don’t play video games. Girls can’t get the high score on the math test. Girls don’t like science fiction. Alongside these flat denials of reality came prescriptions for behavior. Girls shouldn’t argue. Girls shouldn’t want to join the wrestling team. Girls shouldn’t beat boys—at anything. It’s no wonder I grew up thinking I was an unpleasant, contrary person. It was a rebellion simply to be who I am.

When I started collecting feminist SF/F, I experienced similar denials about the material I sought. At one book fair I introduced myself to a specialist in science fiction. He was very welcoming and attentive, asking me whether I liked science fiction. I said yes; I had been reading it since I was a child. He picked up a book by Arthur C. Clarke from the table at his booth and asked me: had I heard of this author? At first, I nearly didn’t understand the question. I had already told him that I had been reading science fiction for decades. But I recovered quickly as I realized, oh, he’s certain I don’t actually know anything about science fiction. I assured him I had heard of Arthur C. Clarke. He asked me what books I was interested in—really, he was quite kind—and I told him that I collect feminist science fiction. He cocked his head to the side and asked what I meant by that. I offered a short definition (science fiction that explores feminist themes) and gave Joanna Russ’s The Female Man as a well-known example. With a pleased finality he stated, “I’ve never heard of it.” To him, unfamiliarity was the same as unimportance.

In fact, I had been drawn to feminist SF/F in the first place because it had personal meaning to me, regardless of other people’s interest or apathy. In these texts I recognized others grappling with the same persistent alienation I had experienced as a reader who nevertheless loved the genre. I was especially moved by the slow evolution of feminist thought in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series, which takes place in a world that valorizes men who wield magic, but denigrates women who do. Because I knew and loved the series, I was primed for excitement when I ran across a copy of the third book, The Farthest Shore, that had once been owned by her agent, Virginia Kidd. I purchased it in my capacity as a rare book dealer, fully intending to catalogue it properly, then move it along to its next long-term owner. But as I researched it, I learned that Kidd’s impact on Le Guin’s career was far more significant than I had assumed. In a reminiscence about Kidd, Le Guin stated that “I don’t believe that any other agent, in any other agency, would or could have furthered my writing career, and my writing itself, as Virginia did” (“About Virginia Kidd,” Ursula K. Le Guin Archive). I found myself more and more deeply moved by the story behind this particular copy of a beloved text—and I realized that I couldn’t possibly sell it to someone else. I was going to be its caretaker. That’s the moment when I became a collector.

People often assume that book collecting in SF/F is about the Tolkiens, the Asimovs, the Heinleins. But increasingly, my own efforts in SF/F collecting have been focused on complicating those narratives. We tend to talk about the history of science fiction in declarative statements. H.G. Wells’s book was the first with a time machine…After Frankenstein, women didn’t contribute much to the proto-SF of the 19th century…There were no Black writers publishing science fiction in the heyday of John W. Campbell. But poke at the assumptions in those statements, and that’s when things get interesting. In the process of collecting, I learned about Enrique Gaspar, who published El anacronópete (The Time Ship) in 1887; Jane Webb’s important 1827 novel The Mummy!, set in a future filled with advanced technology; and James H. Hill’s serial science fiction adventures published in the Baltimore Afro-American in the early 1950s. I am not going to be convinced that something “doesn’t exist” just because you said so. Because here I am, existing, despite how many times I’ve been told I don’t.

Debates like this occur like clockwork in the SF/F community, where it’s common to point to an apparent absence as proof. But this line of thinking ignores one of the key concepts of formal logic. The lack of evidence isn’t evidence; it’s an indicator that the premise’s conception is flawed. Book collecting taught me new ways to frame the premise.

In searching for works of feminist science fiction, for example, I’ve found that booksellers don’t always categorize books they sell as science fiction and/or feminist texts when they can be. To find the books I want, I have to approach the book differently than the seller has. Take Ludvig Holberg’s 1741 book Niels Klim’s Underground Travels, a popular novel much like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, in which the main character explores fantastical subterranean countries as a mechanism for the author to critique real-world politics. This book built upon theories of contemporary scientific speculation that the earth was hollow, informed by the work of Isaac Newton and Edmund Halley. Over the course of the narrative, Klim’s travels take him to an underworld society in which women have equal say in the government. When Klim suggests that the country ban women from participation in politics, the Senate’s reply is blunt: “As a Country may often labour under a Want of able Persons, we think it is a great Folly […] to render one intire [sic] Half of the Nation incapable and unworthy of Employment, solely upon Account of their Birth.” I was able to find this book at the shop of another rare book dealer only because I asked “do you have any utopian fiction?” not “do you have any feminist science fiction?” Had I asked the latter, I would have been told no, there was none.

Book collecting creates opportunities for intentional accidents—for serendipity. You sift through hundreds of books and finally, miraculously, run across one you didn’t even know to look for. This is especially true when you are collecting where your knowledge, experience, or background give you an edge. One of the most interesting books in my feminist SF/F collection is a galley of Suzette Haden Elgin’s book Native Tongue that was sent by Betsy Wollheim to James Tiptree, Jr. I discovered it entirely by accident and bought it on eBay for the price of lunch because the seller didn’t realize its significance. Native Tongue is built around a feminist constructed language and asks the question, “What would happen to American culture if women did have […] a language that expressed their perceptions?” (Elgin, “Introduction: The Construction of Láadan,” from A First Dictionary and Grammar of Láadan, via sfwa.org). Wollheim sent this advance copy to the pseudonymous woman author famous in science fiction for writing such “ineluctably masculine” language that others thought the idea she could be a woman “absurd” (quoted in Julie Phillips, James Tiptree Jr., 2). As a woman reader of science fiction with a degree in linguistics, this book sings to me. Perhaps someone else would not think this book was so important, but it is to me. That’s what matters.

The fact is that we always need diverse perspectives in book collecting. Many of the great rare book institutions in the anglophone world were started from the seed of a private collector’s donated library. It is these institutions that are the foundation of our access to the sources we use to understand history. This is a vital sequence: if material is not accessible to researchers, it can’t be studied. If it is not studied, it can’t be included in the histories that scholars publish. If it isn’t included in these histories, readers will not know that it existed in the first place. And many of them will therefore deny its existence due to lack of evidence. The work of community memory needs collectors.

Building a collection—whether as a private collector or as a rare book professional at an institution—requires inherently subjective decisions about what material to include. This is a feature, not a bug. There is too much material, and all collectors have logistical, monetary, and time-based constraints. These constraints are eased significantly if a collector has support of some kind, particularly wealth. And indeed, many of the famous collections that have dominated our idea of book collecting in the Western tradition were created by people with vast amounts of assistance, money, leisure time, or a combination of these. But a historical record preserved only by the wealthy cannot represent the vastness of human experience. If everyone is collecting similar things—say, because the collectors who are donating to institutions or the curators strengthening their holdings all come from similar backgrounds and bring similar experiences—then gaps will form. In fact, we know they already have. We need to bring the widest variety of perspectives, experiences, and expertise to this inevitable filtering process. None of us filter in the same way, and that’s the value. No two collections are alike.

It’s not always easy to collect in a world where strains of power have so long dominated the culture. As a woman in the male-dominated field of the rare book trade, I am a business owner—but more likely to be mistaken as an assistant. Some of my colleagues have asked “why aren’t there more women collectors?” when they should be asking “what am I doing that makes women collectors not want to do business with me?” It’s exhausting to keep being told you don’t exist. But in reality, collectors have always been working around the stereotypes of book collecting. If one doesn’t have much money, there are magnificent collections to be built from “found” material—say, the ephemeral handouts traditionally produced at SF/F events—or in trade, offering one’s own fanfic/zine/art for another’s without any money changing hands at all. If one doesn’t have much space, collections like those just described could potentially fit into a shoe box, without the need for a gigantic private library. If one doesn’t have much time, collecting might be a way to rest after a long day, structuring in moments when one can focus on a rejuvenating hobby. My own collection has developed around parameters that were shaped by both my limitations and my advantages. I can’t afford to spend much on a single book. But my knowledge of my favored subgenre and my enjoyment of poking around secondhand marketplaces has allowed me to find opportunities within a more modest price range, as was the case with that Native Tongue galley.

One day, drained and discouraged, I retrieved a bit of my strength again when I found an 1803 book with the bookplate of the Hroswitha Club. It marked the ownership of the book collecting club founded in 1944 by women who were barred from joining premier male-only book collecting organizations like the Grolier Club. I look at the engraved illustration tipped onto that book’s endpaper and I feel as if I’ve just shared a knowing glance with those women across time. Women collectors have always existed. Black collectors have always existed. Disabled collectors have always existed. LGBTQIA+ collectors have always existed. They said we don’t exist, yet these works show we’re here. Collecting connects us to that ancestry. And when future scholars are writing their histories, they can’t ignore these works or claim they don’t exist—because they are here. In collecting them, you made sure of it.

Collecting, like history, is often viewed as a single grand narrative. In SF/F, it’s easy to become weary with the focus on Verne and Wells, the era of the US pulps, the authors of the so-called “Golden Age.” Those books are part of the story. But they are often mistaken as the entire story. This is exactly why you—you—are needed: to prove that simplified narrative wrong. To honor and celebrate all kinds of people who have existed, lived their lives in joy and pain, and created art. Collecting is storytelling, and your collection can be a counter narrative, an act of resistance to a monolithic past. Whoever you are, you know: there have always been people like you.

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Rebecca Romney

Rebecca Romney is a rare book dealer and writer. She is the co-founder of the rare book company Type Punch Matrix and co-founder of the Honey & Wax Prize, an annual book collecting award for a woman in the US aged 30 or younger. Romney has appeared on the History Channel’s show Pawn Stars as the rare books specialist since 2011. Her first book, Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History, was published by HarperCollins in 2017; her second book, Jane Austen’s Bookshelf, about building a rare book collection of Austen’s favorite women authors, is forthcoming from Simon & Schuster. In 2019 she wrote the introduction for the Feminist Press’s reissue of Judas Rose, part of Suzette Haden Elgin’s feminist science fiction trilogy that anticipates Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In 2020 she edited Projections, an anthology of science fiction stories as early as 1836 that predicted some aspect of modern life, based in large part on texts she ran across in her work as a rare book dealer. Romney is a collector of feminist science ficiton, with a special emphasis on association copies. Learn more about her work as a rare books specialist at typepunchmatrix.com.

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