Joanna Russ, the Science-Fiction Writer Who Said No
January 30, 2020 8:12 AM   Subscribe

B.D. McClay on a new biography of Russ and her complicated relationship to science fictiona and feminism. Science fiction, Russ once wrote, was poised to “provide myths for dealing with kinds of experiences we are actually having now, instead of the literary myths we have inherited, which only tell us about the kinds of experiences we think we ought to be having.” The form aspired not to fantasy but to reality.
posted by Cash4Lead (14 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
This is maybe neither here nor there, but in clicking through I can see that the Russ letters referenced are digitized and easily legible. They don't have the gravity of what I think of as an Author's Papers, especially not the one that's in print on lined notebook paper, instead of in messy, inky longhand on cream paper. That one in particular meanders and snipes in the way that letters used to when you had to put everything in them if you wanted someone to hear it. I love it.
posted by Countess Elena at 9:09 AM on January 30 [3 favorites]

Well, I would not originally have thought "Gwyneth Jones, the natural biographer of Joanna Russ"; Russ's perspective seems very different indeed from Jones's.

The Two of Them is not a book that I recommend to people because it's racist. It's a racist book. It's set on a sort of cartoon-fundie-Islam planet where people talk in a sort of cartoon-fundie-Islamic way. And I don't think you can blame it on "Alias, Grace", because IIRC it's way less clearly set in an Islamic society.

To be fair to Russ, she later wrote that her intent was to create an estranged version of fifties American suburbia, where people were acting in this rigid, ideologically fundamentalist way, doing things they didn't believe, following paths that immiserated and limited them, etc, and that the point wasn't Islam. I assume she was drawing here on Brecht.

And I mean, I believe Russ when she says this. I've read almost everything of hers that isn't in an archive somewhere, most of it multiple times, and she is pretty honest about what she understands of herself. Also, the conversation within science fiction about how to use metaphor and allegory was way more libertarian-online-but-actually-bro at the time than it is now, even among smart, left-wing people.

And it's a shame because there's a lot that's really good, powerful and subtle in the novel, but holy crap, I just can't recommend a book of which about one half is functionally Islamophobic.

Another thing that doesn't get brought up with Russ* is how often she depicts relationships with big age and power differences, up to and including relationships between adults and underage people. She even remarks on this in her own work, eg when Joanna gets involved with the daughter of her host family in The Female Man.

I never heard any scuttlebutt about anything dubious in Russ's personal life, although I infer from her work that when she came out she did have relationships with women moderately younger than she was (as appears in On Strike Against God). And I feel like she's working out some family and queer-community stuff in her writing rather than, eg, advocating for substantial age and power differences in relationships.

At the same time no one ever talks about it and that strikes me as weird and depressing. Russ is a big, complicated writer who is rather more subtle and contradictory than most; she took a lot of literary risks and made some mistakes (as she wrote about her own work). It's tough to talk about her because she is big and complicated; I feel like we're not necessarily at a great place in fandom conversations about big complicated writers.

*I don't know why I'm so obsessed with "the awful truth about Joanna Russ" - maybe because I would rather talk about the awful truth amongst ourselves openly than have it come out later or otherwise.
posted by Frowner at 9:56 AM on January 30 [18 favorites]

Thank you so much for this, Frowner. Perhaps the greatest frustration of literary history for me is that the women writers disappear so quickly that all our effort ends up being spent on making sure their names aren’t forgotten, and this often means making them into refrigerator magnets and action figures; to discuss why they are complicated often feels like a risk to a cultural memory which is even quicker to repudiate women in death than life. I’ve run into the same trouble in talking about Tiptree, who raises the question of how to remember women writers whose work was important but who can’t be made into magnets because they are, for example, murderers (and also, in my view, likely weren’t women writers either, but I’m a trans man and of course I would think so).

I’m troubled by the transphobia in The Female Man, though I know that as with the book you cite, it’s subtext that she later said was unintentional. I also think Russ is a brilliant writer and a spectacular prose stylist, and I want her to be remembered in all her particulars.
posted by thesmallmachine at 10:22 AM on January 30 [5 favorites]

(To clarify - Russ wrote that she did not intend the society in The Two of Them to be some kind of "authentic" depiction of a Muslim society - she intended it to be people who got it wrong about how to live and who were living in a plastic, unhealthy society just like Americans in the 1950s. She wasn't saying "Islam is a metaphor for Things Being Bad", rather "I am creating a society where people are Muslim space dwellers and have it just as wrong as fifties Americans did".)
posted by Frowner at 10:25 AM on January 30 [1 favorite]

So in the first couple of paragraphs we are treated to: Russ being described as "a raging man-hater"; a ridiculous caricacture of The Female Man ("features both an all-women planet, on which women engage in duels, and a sex-segregated planet in a state of permanent war") which renders it unrecognizable; a quote from a male SF writer about how uncomfortable Russ' writing makes him (who cares); and an attack from the very privileged and heterosexual Ursula Le Guin (I love her, but come on) on the one Black and the one Lesbian involved in a "symposium of letters" for complaining too much. I'm out.
posted by jokeefe at 1:26 PM on January 30 [3 favorites]

“I don't think you can blame it on "Alias, Grace", because IIRC it's way less clearly set in an Islamic society.”

I assume you meant to say “The Handmaid’s Tale” here, yeah? The totalitarian theocracy in “The Handmaid’s Tale” is based around a form of Christianity (as you would expect of a late 20th century American theocracy).
posted by Secret Sparrow at 1:31 PM on January 30

It looks like I didn't mean either - I was trying to refer to "For The Sake Of Grace", the Suzette Hayden Elgin story referenced in the OP which was an origin point for The Two of Them.

Joanna Russ makes a lot of people very mad because she doesn't make nice. Then she makes some other people mad because she is self-critical and changes her views over time.

She also wrote some very good and engaging science fiction criticism, some of which is published in The Country You Have Never Seen, a desert island book for me.

She was strongly influenced by Virginia Woolf - I'd read very little of Woolf's non-fiction and then I happened to pick up an essay and the voice is so similar. To me Russ's is preferable because she has a better class analysis.

The Zanzibar Cat might be my favorite of her short story collections.

I think she underestimated herself, actually. She didn't really like "Souls", her widely anthologized novella, and considered it a bit pat....but it's really awfully good, I tell people about it all the time. You can read it in a pat way if you want but that's not all there is to it.

She is a really good writer, surely one of the best SF writers in English if you're just reading at the sentence level. In both The Female Man and The Two of Them, she wrote stupidly, making metaphors without thinking about how those metaphors intersected with real people's lives. To my mind, she sometimes wrote more stupidly than other people because she wrote more ambitiously and moving forward intellectually, breaking new ground and making new mistakes along the way. For every time she wrote stupidly, she wrote smartly ten times.

If I were recommending a starting point, I'd actually suggest The Zanzibar Cat or The Dark Side of the Moon.
posted by Frowner at 2:45 PM on January 30 [4 favorites]

I’ll echo The Zanzibar Cat!
posted by thesmallmachine at 5:26 PM on January 30

In the spirit of a positive comment, I wholeheartedly recommend Russ' How to Suppress Women's Writing, which is a short, direct, and wholly convincing rundown of what happens with the formation of the canon, etc., and who gets included and who is barred. It's a touchstone text for me and has been since I read it in my early twenties. (Note: link goes to PDF)

She really didn't like Souls? Ah, that's sad, I have loved it for many years as well. When I was getting to know my partner we read aloud to each other our "foundational texts", and Souls was one of those for me.
posted by jokeefe at 10:53 AM on January 31 [2 favorites]

If I were recommending a starting point, I'd actually suggest [...] "The Dark Side of the Moon"
If anyone else is adding to their to-read list from Frowner's great recommendations, the title actually happens to be "The Hidden Side of the Moon" (link goes to Wikipedia). The ISBN-13 is: 978-0312011055
posted by wires at 11:01 AM on January 31

At the same time no one ever talks about it and that strikes me as weird and depressing.

I myself am amazed that nobody from Goodreads or Twitter has taken a whack at her. I mean here's a dead woman writer from a marginalized group just ripe to be taken on, and she's being ignored. Is she too obscure? I mean she's not the Designated Female SF Writer that her contemporary LeGuin is, so there must be SOME reason.

I mean it is interesting how women writers are more exposed than male writers, isn't it? Russ gets to be criticized for anti-muslim racism in one of her books, while Frank Herbert's racism in Dune gets him another blockbuster movie project. Russ' older-younger relationships in novels become subject for inferences about her life, while Asimov's overt harassment gets him, well, a TV Foundation series.
posted by happyroach at 1:16 PM on January 31 [3 favorites]

Russ is a feminist, socialist writer. She would be absolutely fucking appalled by the idea that feminist readers should treat her work with kid gloves because of her gender. She did not treat other women writers as above reproach, and in fact is famous for a very direct and negative review of a particular feminist science fiction novel (a first novel from a small press, no less!) as well as for her criticism of Le Guin. I cannot imagine anything she would view as more insulting and trivializing from leftists and feminists than to be let off the hook because she was not successful enough or male enough to deserve serious criticism.

Listen, I do not give a flying fuck about the boring and retrograde work that gets big screen adaptations, etc etc. It is beneath my notice and holds no interest for me. I care about the work of feminist science fiction writers and want it to be the best and most interesting work possible. If it has flaws, I want those flaws exposed and discussed, not for the childish purpose of invalidating the writer but in order to write better criticism and understand more deeply. It interests me not at all that some trivial-minded person on Goodreads may write something stupid and inaccurate if they once find out that Joanna Russ was not a pure paragon who never put a foot wrong.

Feminist science fiction fandom isn't mainstream, big screen science fiction fandom. Some other people somewhere may be stanning Frank Herbert and begging for Dune adaptations and cheering for Isaac Asimov; that's not feminist science fiction fandom. It's absurd to pretend that someone who cares about Joanna Russ is somehow okay with Isaac Asimov, as if everyone who reads science fiction shares the same ideas, interests and beliefs.

Further - and I wasn't going to bring this up - I challenge you to read Extraordinary People, paying close attention to the story in which the adult narrator has sex with a thirteen year old girl under false pretenses (and the other story in which the adult narrator has sex with a fifteen year old girl), and continue to feel that there is nothing worth talking about here.

I would feel incredibly remiss if I recommended Russ's work without mentioning this because sometimes people have been, you know, sexually abused and would rather not read about sex between adults and children. It is not a betrayal of feminism or an endorsement of Isaac Asimov to bring this up.

I really wish that it were possible to accept that writers we admire sometimes produce troubling work and that it's not some kind of giant betrayal to point it out.
posted by Frowner at 5:15 PM on January 31 [4 favorites]

famous for a very direct and negative review of a particular feminist science fiction novel (a first novel from a small press, no less!)

Do you remember which novel it is? I'm interested to see.

What you say about Extraordinary People reminds me of The Vagina Monologues, which had a very disturbing scene that sounds similar. I think that scene has since been rewritten.
posted by Countess Elena at 5:27 PM on January 31

Do you remember which novel it is? I'm interested to see.

I don't - it was pretty obscure and sank without a trace, though. The review appears either in How To Suppress Women's Writing or To Write Like A Woman and is also in The Country You Have Never Seen. I'd really recommend TCYHNS - not only is Russ a fantastic critic but her work gives you this really great picture of the SFnal landscape of the late sixties/seventies.

(I add that as far as scrutinizing someone's personal life goes, there are some disturbing things in Marion Zimmer Bradley's work and it wouldn't exactly have been a human tragedy of staggering proportions if someone had said, "gee, MZB wrote some disturbing stuff, what's up with that?" rather than doubting and marginalizing the children who were abused in her circle. Actual lived human sexuality is complicated, and writers are obviously going to write about things without endorsing them - but because sexual abuse of children/young people is simultaneously so normalized and so "don't talk about it" in our culture, it does not strike me as bizarre to wonder when writers write oddly on the topic. It's not like queer women are too pure to be abusers, either.)
posted by Frowner at 5:40 PM on January 31 [2 favorites]

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