November 22nd, 2011

Mooncat close-up

Anne McCaffrey

I just heard of the death of Anne McCaffrey, and I find myself very saddened. These days, she isn't rated particularly highly by many readers, and her books have come in for a lot of criticism over rape issues, homophobia and other matters. I gave up reading her in around 1990 myself, because I couldn't face the dolphins and Pern had lost its magic in the later books.

But, but, but... I was 14 or 15 when I first read her, and the first book of hers I read was Dragonflight. I finished it in one sitting, turned to the front and read it all the way through again. Then I made my mother read it (she enjoyed it, too). I was an awkward teen, and that book somehow made life better. Lessa was awkward, too, and stroppy, and she talked back and got told off -- and did what she had intended anyway and was proved to have been right all along. We live in a culture which tells girls, over and over, that they aren't worth much, that they should dream small, stay quiet, play nice, be good, and fit in, all in order just to be acceptable, to be allowed a tiny piece of space in which to breathe. We excoriate books in which girls achieve or have fairytales come true for them as 'Mary Sue'. We pull down women who achieve as hard as we can -- and there is a fair amount of sexism in the way Stephenie Meyer and her books are talked about, whatever flaws they have. Same with J K Rowling. All writers have feet of clay, but female feet are more visible. In Lessa, Anne McCaffrey gave me a heroine who got to be female AND got to be tough and stroppy and to come out on top -- no more Anne/George dichotomy, where you were a wimp or a tomboy, no other choice. Lessa got her dragon and saved her people and went on being the lead in her own life. Most of the other girls I read about back then settled for being the supporting character in their personal dramas, they own lives, subsumed into an ending that required male agency to let them breathe and act and live. This was the 70s, remember. Most leads in sff were male. Most active characters in everything were male. I loved Lessa. She changed my life, she really did, because after I read about her, I knew that it was okay for the heroine to be the star. Twenty years later, my god-daughter read Dragonsong and felt the same way about Menolly and her story as I had about Lessa.

I wrote to Anne McCaffrey and told her how much I loved her books, and that I wanted to be a writer myself, and she wrote back, a very friendly, kind letter encouraging me and giving me tips on keeping writing. I met her, a few months later, and told her I'd written to her, and she said she remembered the letter and asked me how my writing was doing. It meant a lot to me then. It still does. She was the first 'real' writer I ever met, and she was kind to me. I know she wasn't always very friendly to her fans, and that in later life her health meant she was less patient, perhaps, and less available. No-one can be perfect. As far as I'm concerned, she gave me something very valuable: she let me know it was all right to want to write, and that it was possible for a girl to write the sorts of books I loved (all the writing girls in the books I'd read up till then wrote romances or wholesome family stories, not dragons and spaceships and sword-fights).

So I'm sad, tonight, to hear that she has died. Thank you, Ms McCaffrey. Thank you from the difficult girls, the plain girls, the did-not-fit-in girls, the stroppy girls, the girls who weren't the right kind of good enough. You made us feel better, stronger, more real, more permitted .And that is a really big thing to have done.