On Joanna Russ

This is a review of a book of literary criticism. You have been warned.

Personally I think it is a shame that I have to do things like that, especially because many of the essays in Farah Mendlesohn’s new book, On Joanna Russ, are very approachable indeed. However, I know that there are plenty of people out there in Internet land who are deeply allergic to what they call “reading things into a book that aren’t there”, so I have to warn them off first.

Those of you who are left are presumably OK with literary criticism, so I’d like to throw you all in the deep end and start with Samuel R Delany’s essay, “Joanna Russ and DW Griffith”. Delany knows Russ quite well and is perfectly capable of asking her about influences on her work (and getting a civil answer). However, for the purposes of the book he chose to speculate about a connection between Russ and the ambitious but financially disastrous blockbuster, Intolerance, that Griffith produced to try to restore his reputation after the hugely controversial Birth of a Nation. As it turned out — Delany did ask Russ after he had finished the essay — there was no conscious influence by Griffith on Russ’s work. However, as he points out, the parallels are nonetheless there, and our understanding of Russ’s work is enhanced by his speculation, so it really doesn’t matter whether there was an actual conscious influence.

This also has bearing the one topic I found notable by its absence — the change in Russ’s attitudes towards gay men and trans people over the years. Unlike Delany, I have no direct access to Russ. I have no idea whether she was influenced by Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire or vice versa. All I know is that both women were active in feminism in the 1970s, and that aspects of the portrayal of trans people in The Female Man are very similar to how Raymond viciously caricatured them in her, supposedly factual, book. Both books were, as I understand it, written over a period of several years, so there is actually the possibility for influences both ways. Of course many feminist science fiction fans would be outraged at a connection being drawn between what is commonly regarded as the best piece of feminist SF ever written, and a book that is now widely regarded as a piece of unpleasant bigotry. However, both books came out of the same cultural melting pot, and anyone reading Russ today who has an awareness of trans issues is going to see the connection, whether it was intended at the time or not.

It was unlikely that anything in Mendlesohn’s book was going to be deeply critical of Russ. Equally the book doesn’t obviously set out to be a hagiography. If parts of it come over that way, that’s simply because Russ is held in such high esteem by so many people. If she had flaws, well they were understandable given the state of gender politics when she was writing. I’ve already posted about Helen Merrick’s excellent account of how Russ was at the center of some of the much vicious flame wars of her times. Yes, she was that Angry Woman, but she was angry with a cause, and many of us are very grateful to her for being so.

Anger and violence are actually the subject of two essays in the book, and they are two of least successful pieces because they don’t really engage with the issue. They note that Russ’s characters are often angry and violent, and that Russ often presents violence as the only available course of action, all others being blocked or ineffectual. What they don’t quite get round to is ask whether she is right. Even if you can’t give an answer, asking the question can be very illuminating.

Kathryn Cramer has noted in comments here that one of the reasons Russ was short-tempered was that she was suffering badly from depression and from the sort of barbaric treatment that was considered acceptable for such conditions in those times. This isn’t mentioned at all in Mendlesohn’s book, probably because very few of the contributors actually knew Russ well. It does, however, add another question to the analysis of anger as a political tool.

All this brings me to my favorite essay from the book: “Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them in an Age of Third-wave Feminism”, by Sherryl Vint. This is an essay that really does engage with the issue of Russ’s place in the history of feminist thought.

A little history is in order. First wave feminism is people like the Suffragettes, who were concerned primarily with the right to vote. Second wave feminism comprised the bra burners of the 1970s, of whom Russ was a prominent member. They were more concerned with freeing women from the kitchen and baby-production. Some of them were hard-line lesbian separatists. Third wave feminism is all about the have-it-all superwomen of today. It is feminism for people who think that being a feminist doesn’t have to mean hating men, dressing in shapeless dungarees and generally being boring. The third wave feminist is a successful business-woman, and a domestic goddess (though it is entirely OK if the person she is a goddess to is also female).

Vint identifies Irene from Russ’s novel, The Two of Them, as an archetypal third wave feminist. She’s a successful career woman working alongside her sensitive, understanding male partner and lover, Ernst. This in itself is a fascinating reading, because third wave feminism didn’t exist when Russ wrote the book. The parallel is, however, quite startling. And of course, as anyone who has read the novel knows, Irene discovers that she is not as free of oppression as she thinks, and eventually has to kill Ernst to escape his domination.

Vint ends with a plea for first and second wave feminism to work together rather than in opposition. The third wave folks need to understand that “we’re all in it together” and not let individual ambition destroy the sisterhood that has got us so far. But at the same time second wave feminism has to understand that the world has changed (because they made it change) and that these days women are much more free to be themselves. We can’t go back to the days of, “we’re all in it together so you must do what I, your lesbian separatist leader, says, or you will be drummed out of the movement.” I want feminism to remember The Dispossessed, and not The Carhullan Army. I know I’d be one of the first people to be shot if feminism went back to the way it was in the 1970s, and given the impressiveness of Sherryl’s shoe collection I suspect she wouldn’t be far behind.

Another fascinating essay is Sarah Lindow’s “Kittens Who Run With Wolves”, which focuses on Russ’s children’s book, Kittatinny: A Tale of Magic. Lindow is a specialist in the treatment of disturbed children, and her essay makes liberal use of a classic feminist text, Reviving Ophelia: Saving the Selves of Adolescent Girls, by Mary Pipher. I’ve decided that I need to read Pipher’s book, because the material that Lindow quotes sounds like it has much wider application. The essence of Pipher’s argument is that girls suffer in their childhood in a patriarchal society because they are forever being told, either directly or through the media, that there are things they cannot do simply because they are girls. This is a very good point, but it occurs to me that it is also true of young people of color in a racist society, or of disabled and trans kids in just about any society. The whole point of Kittatinny, of course, is that the young heroine discovers that she can do things for herself, she doesn’t have to be “just a girl’.

There are many other excellent essays in the book. Gary Wolfe looks at the Alyx stories and demonstrates how Russ was doing genre-bending long before it became newly fashionable. Lisa Yasek provides another excellent essay on the “housewife heroine” issue. Edward James takes a look at Russ’s career as a reviewer, and one I can see Russ was in just as much trouble from those who claim to know the one true correct way to write a book review as I tend to be.

As an aside, it occurs to me that those people who complain that book reviews should always be neutral and objective, and not bring in the reviewers personal viewpoint in any way, are very like those people who claim that books that have no obvious character ethnicity (and are therefore default white) are good because they are “colorblind”. If you get criticized for standing out from the cultural norm it is probably because you have said something interesting and subversive.

There are some essays in the book that are written by people more deeply into academia and are both difficult to understand and somewhat eccentric in their subject matter. That is the way with academics. Someone will always want to count how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. But overall the book is a fascinating and thought-provoking introduction to the work of a very fine writer of feminist science fiction. If you are interested in that sort of thing, this is a book you should read.

I’m deliberately publishing this review on Ada Lovelace Day. Russ might have been a writer, but she was a science fiction writer and had good knowledge of real science. In her early days she was very critical of works that she felt were insufficiently scientifically rigorous. She certainly counts as a woman in technology. Most importantly, however, she encouraged young girls to believe that they can have whatever role in society they want. That’s very much an Ada Lovelace Day message. I’d like to close by quoting the final few lines of Graham Sleight’s essay, which I think fit the bill very well indeed.

The challenge for readers now – when some feminist arguments have been, if not won, then at least normalized into Western culture – is to see that her fierceness is necessary; that these battles have not been won and that, as always with letters, the onus is on the reader: what do you do now?

4 thoughts on “On Joanna Russ

  1. Tangentially, I’m intrigued at how these observations interweave with anarcha-feminism, which I have some history with.
    For me, one of the distinctions is that feminism derives directly from anarchist first principles, rather than being a first principle in itself. This doesn’t make much practical difference within feminism, but has important implications for relations with other issues and demographics.

    Anyway, you reminded me several times of two of my own first principles (particularly in your compare and contrast of the “waves”): “One size fits all — doesn’t” and “You can’t do everything, but you have to do something.”

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