Judith Merril or How Women Destroy Science Fiction

I didn’t wake up one Tuesday and think, “I’ll go research Judith Merril on the internet; that’ll be fun!” You can credit—or blame—Twitter for this post.

About two weeks ago I saw a tweet from a young woman SFF writer/editor. I haven’t read anything by her yet, even though she’s on my list, but based on an anthology she edited called She Walks in Shadows I can tell you she’s a damn fine editor. Anyway, she’d linked to an editorial in an online SFF magazine in which a writer from the 1960s trashed a woman named Judith Merril. You can’t really hear someone rolling their eyes via Twitter, but if you could…

Of Merril, the editorial writer said, “She had been on an increasingly evident, now unapologetic campaign to destroy science fiction.” (He actually touched a keyboard and typed “destroy science fiction!” Snort.) Merril’s name seemed familiar, and the associations were positive, but I couldn’t remember any details. Fortunately, the guy writing the editorial provided some book names, which I guess proved that she destroyed SFF somehow. That gave me a starting point.

Judith Merril is a name associated in my memory with two writers whose work I admired, and who I like and respect personally (past tense for one of them, he died several years ago). They are Kate Wilhelm and Damon Knight. It turns out Merril’s association with Knight went back a long way; Merril, like Knight, was part of the group that called themselves The Futurians.

Merril, who was born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1923, wrote and published short science fiction and SFF novels. In 1948 she sold her first story, “That Only a Mother,” an epistolary story confronting the terror of nuclear war and subsequent genetic mutations. In 1950, her SFF story “Dead Center” was included in the national anthology Best American Short Stories. It was the first SFF story to be included in that annual literary anthology.

While she clearly had the writing chops, it was as an editor and the cofounder of the Milford Workshop that Merril had the biggest influence on the field. That influence was powerful and continues to this day.

Merril, like a handful of the genre writers around her, wanted to see SFF given respect. She wanted the quality of the writing and storytelling in the speculative field to be equal to the ideas generated. This probably put her at odds with some writers in the field at the time, but her ideas took hold. With Knight and British writer James Blish, Merill co-founded a writing workshop for SFF writers, called the Milford Workshop. The workshop had specific rules for critique, and the emphasis was on storytelling, language, character development… all the things that make a story great. Milford started in the mid-1950s, and if it sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because in 1968 Robin Scott Wilson approached Knight and Wilhelm to help him start a similar program, which he called Clarion.

During Milford’s USA run (it moved to Britain in 1972) some people disliked it; they felt that because influential editors attended it, it had become a clique or a network, favoring Milford participants over other writers. It was not-so-humorously nicknamed “the Milford Mafia” by a few, according to SF Encyclopedia. This doesn’t surprise me. That’s exactly how I feel about Clarion at least ten percent of the time. Let’s look at the no-talents who came out Milford! There’s some guy named Harlan Ellison. He never went on to do anything. A few others; Kate Wilhelm, Robert Silverberg, Samuel R. Delany, Terry Carr. Well, it is getting a little harder to maintain the “favoritism” rant.

During the 50s and 60s, Merril was writing less and editing more, mostly anthologies. From 1956 to 1968 she curated the Year’s Greatest/Best SF anthologies. She was one of the first US editors to use the phrase New Wave, and in 1967 her anthology of British SFF, England Swings, introduced a whole bunch of us to writers like Michael Moorcock.

Editors and champions like Merril encouraged writers like Marta Randall, Ursula K LeGuin, Robert Silverberg, Lucius Shepherd, Vonda McIntrye and Kim Stanley Robinson to write stories with a high degree of attention to writing quality. More than that, many of these stories focused less on an abstract description of some technological/mathematical invention and more on how the invention, the breakthrough, affected people, everyday, actual people.

In 1968, disgusted by the US involvement in the Viet Nam war, Merril moved to Canada and became a Canadian citizen. She continued to write, teach and edit, creating a library of SFF (called “The Spaced Out Library”) at a Canadian college. She was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame, posthumously, in 2013.

If you include Clarion as a direct descendant of Milford, and I do, you see four generations and six decades of Merril’s influence. If you pick up F&SF Magazine and read how many writers attended Clarion, you see that the influence continues. As much as that, she pushed us to expand our vocabulary about our field, to apply standards and a degree of rigor to the work we create and the work we enjoy. To employ a term often used in a different context by white-supremacists, Merril helped us reject the “soft tyranny of reduced expectations.”

If Merril’s true intent was to “destroy science fiction,” then she failed badly, because it’s more robust than ever. Because of editors and people like her, we can proudly claim writers like Nnedi Okorafor, Sofia Samatar, China Mieville, Margaret Atwood and David Mitchell for our own; we aren’t stuck at the dark table in the back corner near the kitchen while the New York Times sweeps up our best and brightest as “literary” and dismisses the rest as “pulp.” And we aren’t embarrassed by the work that’s pulp, either, we embrace it, because for the most part, we are leaving our inferiority complex behind.

If we assume Merril’s mission was something different, like maybe, as she said in her own words, to break down the walls separating mainstream work from SFF, then she was a success. And still is. I think this is leading me to a new catchphrase, “That which women will destroy they first make better.”

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