I owe my awareness of
this book Joanna Russ’ 1983 work How to Suppress Women’s Writing to the ancient Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf-lovers. I am shockingly under-read in Russ’ works1, but this one I made a point of hunting down, because then, even mentioning the title could be reliably counted upon to start a flame war. Combustible = interesting. I suspect the main reason this work is no longer flame war fodder is because it is annoyingly difficult to acquire. It has been, what’s the right word? Oh, right. Suppressed.
As I will show, it’s not enough to have good will towards women’s writing. One also has to be continually on guard against tendencies one may not be aware of having. Tendencies one may have convinced oneself one does not have.
Russ starts off with a SFnal fable, before launching into the central thesis of this book: how to ensure that the arts remain unsullied by those impolite enough not to be straight white men.
Despite the title, Russ makes it clear that she is talking about work by all the unwanted: women, authors of colour, queers, the whole magilla.
Russ is very funny and also very, very bitter. I don’t know if there is a Scoville scale for bitterness but this would somewhere up in the millions. And why shouldn’t someone be bitter when the dominant aesthetic models require the writer to not exist?
If women are denied the basic necessities needed to write — literacy, spare time, even the meagre funds needed to purchase paper and pens — then one need never worry about how to categorize their writing because there won’t be any.
2. Bad Faith:
Less a method than the essential mortar that holds all the other methods together, intellectual dishonesty is a crucial tool.
3. Denial of Agency
When confronted by a work that appears to be by a woman, find some alternate explanation. A classic example, and one that is still with us, is Shelley’s Frankenstein, which people still try to credit to her husband.
A more recent example, and one Russ could have known, was the conviction of some Lee Killough fans that Lee was a man, because police procedurals are a man’s field.
An even more recent example occurred a few days ago when I ascribed Farah Mendlesohn.‘s research to “Torque Control”.
4. Pollution of Agency:
Show that women were wrong to write about the things they did and argue that their writing only serves to illuminate the essential flaw driving such an unfeminine activity.
Don’t forget to use figures like Plath to show how unhealthy literacy is for women! You may ask “Well, in a more supportive atmosphere, wouldn’t Plath have lived longer?” That’s what Bad Faith is for!
5. The Double Standard of Content
Subjects that traditionally appeal to men are clearly important while subjects seen as the domain of women are not. It follows that True! Art! Can involve football but not diapers.
This is one of the points Russ makes that I have to try to keep in mind, because I tend to enjoy stereotypically guy stuff. That’s why I was willing to treat Jupiter Rising as seriously as, say, Consider Phlebas. And somewhat more willing to reread The Snow Queen than Dune. But I’ve never reviewed an Asaro and I wonder if the heavy romance element is part of the reason.…
[Editor’s note: yabbut you review Bujold, and she has beaucoup romance cooties.]
6. False Categorizing
If you are forced to acknowledge that women exist, make sure you do so only in terms of how they relate to the men in their lives. Also, find ways to categorize them that makes them .… less significant to the field in general than the guys.
One of the methods used is dismissing someone as a regionalist, which I guess is the geographic equivalent of writing about icky feels. A detail I had forgotten is that being egregiously Canadian counts as regionalism. Gosh. Note that not all regions are considered as regional as others.
If you absolutely must acknowledge a woman as an artist, focus on one specific work of hers to the exclusion of all her other work.
Don’t forget to treat the author as some kind of weird freak, a one-off rather than a member of a large class of artists.
9. Lack of Models
When assembling a literary canon, don’t forget to exclude the women. The fewer models to emulate, the fewer women will be inspired to emulate them.
Encourage that tiny handful of women you do let to think of themselves as something other or superior to women. I think this is called “being one of the boys” syndrome.
Remember that virulent chauvinism is an essential part of any true artistic canon. It’s OK to have women in your art, as long as they’re weak or toxic or exist only to cast the men in a positive light.
Russ exhorts the reader to keep up the struggle.
The most interesting detail in this is that this book is apparently considered an amateur publication, because at least as of 1983 this sort of thing wasn’t mainstream academia. Huh.
In which Russ wrestles with how her book applies to her own criticism.
An absolute necessity in any non-fiction book. This is a reasonably decent example.
One of the wonderful things about the passage of time is that it grants a reviewer like me somewhat more perspective than a writer like Russ could have had. In this case, what
twenty-three thirty-three years tells me is that it will be a *long*, perhaps never-ending, struggle to see that works by women (and persons of colour and all the other groups who do not fall into a very narrow category) are recognized. Scarcely a day goes by where I don’t see male-skewed SF, recommendation lists that overlook excellent writers of the wrong whatever in favour of often quite second-rate work by straight white men, or where some apparent dullard who somehow lucked his way into a position of authority uses that position to denigrate women’s work.
What’s really annoying is when I catch myself contributing to the problem. There was a year when all the books I reviewed for Romantic Times were by men. The stats for this site tend to drift guy-ward if I do not pay conscious attention. Good will is no guarantee that one is not ruled by implicit bias.
I would love to point you at an e edition of this book, or at least an easily acquired paperback— but of course, if any Russ book were going to be denied inexpensive, accessible editions, it would be this one. As near as I can tell the only version of this that is available is this Print on Demand edition.
1: And there’s no point to me doing A Year of Russ because Brit Mandelo did it already and better than I would have done it.