Literary Birthday: Joanna Russ

One of the few female and openly gay writers in postwar science fiction—at the time even more straight male-dominated than the rest of the publishing world—Joanna Russ (born today in 1937) first made her name with a metafictional story cycle featuring the time-traveling assassin Alyx before penning the controversial women-only utopian novel The Female Man.

Russ, who once wrote “I will not trust anyone who isn’t angry,” later decanted her fiery feminism into the 1983 landmark study How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Reprinted in 2018, this still-relevant book lays out how the literary establishment ignores and marginalizes non-male voices. Russ boils these double standards down in the book’s most famous entry: “She wrote it but look what she wrote about becomes she wrote it, but it’s unintelligible/ badly constructed/ thin/ spasmodic/ uninteresting/ etc., a statement by no means identical with she wrote it, but I can’t understand it.”

Nota Bene: Can Books Teach Empathy?

From Jessa Crispin in The Baffler:

Reading Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, I wondered, what the hell is it going to take? For decades we have had these types of critiques … And yet still we have critics like Jonathan Franzen speculating on whether Edith Wharton’s physical beauty (or lack of it, as is his assessment of her face and body) affected her writing, we have a literary culture that is still dominated by one small segment of the population, we have a sense that every significant contribution to the world of letters was made by the heterosexual white man…

Crispin then jumps right past celebrating the continued necessity of Russ’s work:

I am worried we’re all subdividing into tiny, highly specific demographics, and that I’m only going to be encouraged to read the works of other white, middle class, heterosexual, spinster, Cancer sun and Taurus rising women who came from the rural Midwest but now live in an urban area, because only they can truly understand and speak directly to me. It’s a cliché that literature builds empathy. It can help you along in that process, but only if you aggressively work against the impulse to treat literature like a mirror. The first step is to notice that you are doing that…