Marleen S. Barr is a pioneer of feminist science fiction criticism and a leader in the fight against the ghettoizing influences of genre-labeling in literary criticism. While the noteworthy Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction (University of Iowa Press, 1992) has been praised as Barr's seminal work in feminist science fiction criticism and theory, it is in Genre Fission: A New Discourse Practice for Cultural Studies (U of Iowa P, 2000) where she takes on literary critics' discriminatory practices against "genre fiction" in general and fantasy and science fiction in particular.
Currently teaching at Fordham University in New York City, Barr has mentored a whole new generation of feminism and science fiction scholars through such editorial endeavors as the collection Future Females, The Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), Envisioning the Future: Science Fiction and the Next Millennium (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2003), and, of course, her triumphal co-editing (with the redoubtable Carl Freedman) of the Science Fiction special issue of PMLA entitled Science Fiction and Literary Studies: The Next Millennium (11.3 [May 2004]). Being a woman who always follows her opinions with action, Barr also has published a genre-bending novel, Oy Pioneer! (University of Wisconsin Press, 2003), which joyfully erases the boundary between the fantastic and the real in its search for truth.
Marleen S. Barr is a most outspoken scholar on the ability of SF to foster real change in society, and in her struggle against "textism," she does not pull her punches. Her introduction to the first Science Fiction special issue of PMLA, entitled, "Textism—An Emancipation Proclamation," exemplifies her fervent honesty:
I am going to stick my neck out and just say it: Sven Birkert's now infamous review of Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is a discriminatory diatribe symptomatic of a pathological, knee-jerk science fiction aversion that automatically denigrates all examples of the genre. Birkert's utterances are fighting words, exemplifying what Neil Easterbrook calls the "antipathy for sf" that provokes "genre wars." Genre wars are revolutionary wars in which liberty, equality, and fraternity (and sisterhood) confront spurious elitism in determining literary value. (429)
Barr's understanding of Westfall and Slusser's definition of "textism" (from Science Fiction, Canonization, Marginalization, and the Academy, Westport: Greenwood, 2002) as a "discriminatory evaluation system in which all literature relegated to a so-called subliterary genre, regardless of its individual merits, is automatically defined as inferior, separate, and unequal" (429-30) harkens back to the "separate but equal" arguments of pre-Brown vs. Board of Education racism. Separate is never equal, and separation is itself a political act of power production fueled by fear. As she notes in PMLA (and, remember, this is the journal that the very literary critics Barr names read), "To be a literary critic who is afraid of starships (not to mention phasers, warp drives, photon torpedoes, and other starship accoutrements) is to be a literary critic who is antifiction. An antifiction literary critic is as absurd as a Jewish pope" (432). Write on!
But hers is not the righteous indignation of a Gayatri Spivak; no, Marleen S. Barr has the knowing Socratic glint within her eyes that lets you know that she knows that the world could be a better place if we'd all just admit our role in keeping it the way it is.
It was on a beautiful bright day in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida that we first spoke with Barr about her new novel, her current critical work, talking horses, alien husbands, and plastic-covered furniture. That conversation conducted during the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts Conference serves as the basis for this interview.