Joanna Russ died yesterday. She wasn’t important, she was essential!
I couldn’t write much about her here, I never met her, knew her only through stories by others who did. So in memory I am appending my review (first published at SF Site) of On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn, a good collection of essays but even so one that couldn’t capture the full range of the woman or her work.
Anyone who came into science fiction during the late 60s and 70s would have been aware of Joanna Russ. Even if you never read any of her relatively few novels or stories, you couldn’t avoid the name. Of the three great women writers who did so much to transform science fiction at this time, Ursula K. Le Guin, James Tiptree Jr., and Russ, Russ was far and away the most controversial. So much so that it was known for her name to be greeted with boos at an sf convention, and believe me even in the conservative world of fandom that was unusual.
Now, I’m not so sure. Judging from Amazon, only three of her novels have been republished so far this century, her last short story came out some time in the 90s. The books that aroused so much passion, for and against, are hardly available now. Yet a book-length critical study of her work by Jeanne Cortiel came out in 1999, a collection of her essays and reviews appeared in 2007, and now we have this excellent collection of essays. I can’t help feeling that today she is better known among science fiction academics than among science fiction readers, and she is known more as a radical feminist than as a pioneering sf writer.
And I can’t help feeling that this collection, good as it is, is not going to do much to change that perception. This is because, with a couple of exceptions, most of the contributors consider her work within the context of feminism rather than within the context of science fiction. Thus her second novel, And Chaos Died (1970), which is an interesting engagement with science fiction ideas but is not overtly feminist in affect, is hardly mentioned at all. Furthermore, other than Samuel R. Delany’s somewhat oddball contribution, no-one attempts to engage with the structure of her sentences rather than the structure of her arguments.
I am not criticising the book for that; Russ was far and away the most important feminist ideologue in modern science fiction, and you could not begin to understand her work without bearing that in mind. Nevertheless, she was also deeply knowledgeable about the genre, its history and its tropes, and these informed her work also. Indeed in many ways the young Russ was a traditionalist, using her reviews, for example, to proclaim the virtues of a very conservative form of hard sf. Yet the more overtly feminist her fictions became, the more radical they became in structure, in use of language. I would like to have seen an examination of the parallel transformation of traditionalist into radical in literary terms as well as in political.
The closest we get to this is perhaps Jason P. Vest’s essay on violence in her work, though the fact that he completely fails to recognise that her barbarian heroine Alyx’s reminiscence of a red-bearded Northman called Fafhnir or Fafh or something, is actually an overt reference to Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories means that he misses out on many of the traditionalist aspects of her early work.
Violence does turn out to be central to her work. It is not just the subject of Vest’s chapter, it also crops up in just about every other essay gathered here, whether about her fiction or her criticism. Some, perhaps taking their cue from Russ herself, seem to sanitise this by talking about anger, but in fact anger almost always manifests itself in violence. And this is true even in those chapters devoted to her criticism.
Dianne Newell and Jenea Tallentire quote Rosabeth Moss Kanter: “For token women, the price of being ‘one of the boys’ was a willingness to occasionally turn against ‘the girls’.” (quoted, 76) This seems to sum Russ up to an uncomfortable degree. The first five chapters in this book consider Russ as a critic, and her place within the sf community. Gary Wolfe places her Alyx stories critically within the traditions of sf, while Edward James looks at her review columns in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction and in so doing detects a writer intensely supportive of traditional forms of science fiction. These two, while praising Russ, unconsciously place her as “one of the boys.” The three succeeding essays, by Lisa Yaszek, Helen Merrick, and Newell and Tallentire, examine Russ in relation to the burgeoning feminist movement in science fiction. These three all stress her importance in the movement, her implacable advocacy, but all three also tell tales of her attacking other women writers who might be her rivals, including a devastating demolition of Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, and a rather cruel rivalry with Judith Merrill, whose place she would occasionally take as a reviewer at F&SF. From the three, therefore, we get a sense of her turning against “the girls.” Alongside this, we should note also that Delany, in his essay, points out how much of the violence in her stories is by women directed at women.
This makes for an interesting parallax view: the radical trailblazer in the experimental fiction that marked the upsurge of feminist sf who was also a devotee and advocate of the most conservative forms of the genre; the leading feminist advocate who went out of her way to dismiss the writing of other women in the genre. It suggests that Russ was prickly, difficult, not an easy person to like, which perhaps explains the intensity of the reaction against her from some sections of the sf community. It also suggests someone caught at a particular moment in history, dragged in one direction by her instincts and in another by her beliefs. This divided nature goes some way towards contextualising the intense power of key works like The Female Man (1975).
Except that you won’t find any such division in the 11 essays that follow on her fiction. There was a strong and angry woman in her first Alyx story, “The Adventuress” (1967) just as there was in a late non-sf novel like On Strike Against God (1980), and the assumption seems to be that there is a continuity between them, that sometime around 1968 awareness of feminism simply provided a context for the violent anger of her work. Indeed, by 1995, in How to Write Like a Woman, Russ was consciously identifying herself as an “outsider artist,” and most of the critics of her fiction seem to take that at face value, the adherence to conservative, traditional forms of genre has disappeared from the analysis of her work. Did she become a literary radical at the same moment she became a political radical, or does analysis of the politics overwhelm any consideration of the literary, and of the contradictions that might entail?
Indeed, Delany notes that her feminism was informed by Marxism, and there is an awful lot of class conflict running alongside the gender conflict in her work. But this isn’t picked up by any of the critics here, not even by Delany, who raises a host of interesting critical hares in the first part of his essay but chases none of them down, preferring to pursue a tenuous connection between The Female Man and D.W. Griffith’s silent epic, Intolerance. Even with this detour that ends up shedding little if any light on Russ’s work, this is one of the most interesting essays in the collection.
Although, perhaps Griffith isn’t too strange a comparison, since in the essay immediately preceding Delany’s, Paul March-Russell compares her work to that of Griffith’s contemporary, the early feminist writer Mina Loy. But this comparison feels more appropriate if only because it puts the feminism centre stage. In fact, feminism is the central concern of at least seven of these essays, those by Sherryl Vint, Pat Wheeler, Keridwen N. Luis, Sandra Lindow, Andrew M. Butler, Jason P. Vest and Paul March-Russell, while being a constant background referent in the remaining four by Delany, Graham Sleight, Tess Williams and Brian Charles Clark. Of these, Sleight looks at some of her key short stories, Lindow considers her children’s book, Kittatinny (1978), and Vint concentrates on The Two of Them (1978). But in the main these essays keep returning to The Female Man, On Strike Against God and, more than any other, We Who Are About To … (1977). The concentration on this last novel, more even than on her most famous work, The Female Man, is revealing, because it is a short novel that allows the critics to isolate many of the themes to which this book returns again and again. It features a small and isolated cast (Clark), illustrates the Bakhtinian sense of carnival (Williams), displays class differences (Delany), and above all features female violence (just about everyone).
One aspect of Russ’s work that, perhaps surprisingly, doesn’t come in for a great deal of analysis here, is her use of humour. In her discussion of On Strike Against God, Luis quotes the male antagonist describing women as “humorless,” and comments: “a particularly nice piece of irony in a book that is so humorous and aware of itself as part of that same ‘lunatic fringe'” (122). Yet this is the first indication that Luis has given that there is anything at all humorous about the novel, treating it rather as though it were an acerbic and po-faced diatribe about the role of women. March-Russell even begins his essay by decrying those critics who have stressed Russ’s humour. While Sleight, who is more alive to the comedy in her writing than most of the contributors to this book, says of “When It Changed” (1972) that it struck “almost a comic note” (198), as if even he is hesitant about saying her work is actually funny. It is just one more example of the way the political seems to overshadow the aesthetic in any consideration of Russ’s work.
Don’t get me wrong, Joanna Russ is an incredibly important figure in the history of science fiction and the author of a couple of novels and several short stories that deserve to endure. This beautifully produced collection of essays is a fitting tribute to her, and even those who know Russ’s work well will learn from many of these essays. Even so, this is still only telling part of the story about an elusive and complex writer. We’d be better off if all her work were back in print, but until that happens this is a superb reminder of what a valuable and important writer she is.
2 thoughts on “Joanna Russ, 1937-2011”
You make me feel we need a volume 2.
Such sad news! Condolences to all of Russ’s loved ones.