Elevate Difference

On Joanna Russ

Last summer, in an effort to learn more about female writers of speculative fiction (SF), I read Charlotte Spivack’s Merlin’s Daughters. While the majority of the book was a rather boring summary of what the aforementioned "daughters" had written, the introduction posited that all speculative fiction has subversive possibilities. After all, the author is imagining a new world and probably one structured by a new social order, right? Not necessarily.

In Farrah Mendlesohn’s On Joanna Russ, the reader finds that in mid-century American SF, only some ideas are subject to question, and that pioneers like Russ were marginalized, or ignored. In the first part of the book, “Criticism and Community,” contributors discuss the relationship between Russ and the SF community, including readers, prominent editors and other writers, as well as her place as an academic. For example, as Russ moves toward a more feminist perspective, she writes to a popular publication about the lack of female characters in most SF novels.

The responses were many and varied, but a prominent colleague took it on himself to 'set her straight'. It was not sexism that kept female characters out of SF, he said; it was the “cerebral plots” that did not necessitate a “love interest.” On Joanna Russ paints the picture of a female writer forced by workplace bottom-pinching and literary marginalization to explain feminism over and over again to both men and women. Responding to Kate Wilhelm, who said she champions equal rights but is not a feminist, Russ noted, “It’s funny, really; having disclaimed feminism, you go on to define it.”

The second part of the book focuses on Russ’ fiction. Contributors here discuss how Russ’ work shows a synthesis of second and third wave feminisms, the necessity of violence for Russ’ protagonists, and the recurrent themes of lesbianism and homosocial bonds. This discussion is interwoven with the relationship of her writing to the work of Hélène Cixous, Mina Loy, Mikhail Bakhtin, and others. In her fiction, Russ defines, expands, and subverts the “feminine utopia” and visions of women as “good”, i.e., not violent or sexual.

I came away from On Joanna Russ with a huge to-read list, including titles by Russ and important works by feminist writers. This book is a must-read for a student of SF, female writers and academics, or any feminist who has forgotten how close the isolation of the twentieth century is at our heels. I was struck by how far we have come from bottom-pinching in the academy, but also how much still has to be done to create a culture where writing by and about women flourishes. Russ herself says in "How to Suppress Women’s Writing":

When the memory of one’s predecessors is buried, the assumption persists that there were none, and each generation of women believes itself to be faced with the burden of doing everything for the first time… without models, it’s hard to work; without a context, difficult to evaluate; without peers, nearly impossible to speak.

Sadly, according to contributor Graham Sleight, as of 2008, says many of her books are out of print, forcing contemporary readers to track her down in used books stores and libraries. It’s well worth the hunt: her work was crucial to the shape of contemporary SF.

Written by: H. V. Cramond, July 7th 2009

Thanks for the review; I'll flag it for Farah Mendlesohn too. One specific point: the Russ books that are out of print are the short fiction ones that I covered in my chapter. Many of her novels are available, having recently been reissued by Wesleyan University Press.