First Impressions – Vector #264
At the level of high culture with which this book is concerned, active bigotry is probably fairly rare. It is also hardly ever necessary, since the social context is so far from neutral.
That is from How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ and it is worth bearing in mind every time awards season rolls round or another anthology with no women in the table of contents is published. It is tiresome to have to constantly rebut the same talking points from those who ‘just care about good writing’ and, besides, you probably couldn’t do it as succinctly as Russ. Her chapter on bad faith – just two pages long – says it all:
Conscious, conspiratorial guilt? Hardly. Privilege groups, like everyone else, want to think well of themselves and to believe that they are acting generously and justly… Genuine ignorance? Certainly that is sometimes the case. But talk about sexism or racism must distinguish between the sins of commission of the real, active misogynist or bigot and the vague, half-conscious sins of omission of the decent, ordinary, even good hearted people, which sins the context of institutionalized sexism and racism makes all too easy.
How to Suppress Women’s Writing is small and imperfectly formed; Russ herself calls it “oddly-sized and oddly-shaped” and, although it is passionate and powerful, it is also sloppy and repetitive. It is showing its age as well. Written in 1978, it wasn’t published until 1983 and the British edition didn’t appear until 1994. At over forty years old, many of its examples seem outdated and, despite the fact the issues Russ is addressing certainly haven’t gone away, this can make it easier to dismiss. It would be nice if there was slightly fresher edition available for a new generation of readers. I can think of plenty of people who would benefit from one.
Another book of Russ’s that could do with a new edition(although not on grounds of age) is A Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews, published – in rather desultory fashion – by Liverpool University Press in 2007. Despite the subtitle, the book is divided into three sections (the third is letters) and without any pause for niceties such as an introduction we are plunged into the first review. It is from 1966, originally published in F&SF and sets the tone for the book. You will see what I mean if I quote the first and last sentences of the review:
Strange Signposts is a bottom-of-the-barrel anthology… This is one of that damned flood of anthologies that do nothing but cheapen the market, exasperate reviewers and disappoint all but the most unsophisticated readers.
Russ is utterly merciless, as well she might be since that is the role of the critic. It seems like it was a bit too much for F&SF, it was a year before she was invited back. Soon she was writing more frequently and at longer length though, her final column appearing fourteen years later. Like How to Suppress Women’s Writing, it is scrappy, wonderful stuff; ugly knots of “i.e.”, “e.g.” and “italics mine” giving way to devastatingly precise judgements. As Nic Clarke says in her review of On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn, Russ is “a sharp, eloquent and intellectually restless critic and often a very funny one”.
It can be a frustrating reading experience though. The back cover claims the book compiles Russ’s “most important essays and reviews” but it isn’t clear what the selection criteria are which makes for a frustrating reading experience. For example, on page 126, in the course of one of her reviews, she footnotes one of her own essays, ‘Someone’s Trying To Kill Me And I Think It’s My Husband: The Modern Gothic’. One might reasonably expect this essay to be re-printed here but no. There is a reason for this – it is already collected in To Write Like A Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction, published by Indiana University Press in 1995 – but the reader is only alerted to this possibility by a passing mention on page 267. Another flaw in the production of the book is that it doesn’t contain a proper index. This means I can’t check my impression that Russ makes a reference to George Bernard Shaw once every three pages or so. You forgive Russ these repetitions because regrettably the message that SF needs to look beyond its limited horizons does need to be hammered home: “Outsiders mean bad and stupid things when they say “science fiction,” but sometimes the bad and stupid things are unfortunately accurate.” Plus ça change. That quote also gets at another truth: reviewers review out of love, not hate, it just isn’t unconditional love; Russ wants what we all want:
All books ought to be masterpieces. The author may chose his genre, his subject, his characters, and everything else, but his book ought to be a masterpiece (major or minor) and failing that, it ought to be good, and failing that, it at least ought show some sign that it was written by a human being.
Is that so much to ask?
- On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn (Wesleyan University Press, 2009) – Reviewed by Nic Clarke
- The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms by N. K. Jemisin (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Anthony Nanson
- The Folding Knife by KJ Parker (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Stephen Deas
- Blood in the Water by Juliet E McKenna (Solaris, 2009) – Reviewed by Penny Hill
- City of Ruin by Mark Charan Newton (Tor UK, 2010) – Reviewed by Gary Dalkin
- Tome of the Undergates by Sam Sykes (Gollancz, 2010) – Reviewed by Jim Steel
- Wolfsangel by MD Lachlan (Gollancz, 2010) – Reviewed by David Hebblethwaite
- Muse and Reverie by Charles de Lint (Tor, 2010) – Reviewed by Amanda Rutter
- The Left Hand of God by Paul Hoffman (Penguin, 2010) – Reviewed by Lalith Vipulananthan
- The Unlikely World of Faraway Frankie by Keith Brooke (Newcon Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Andy Sawyer
- Fun with Rainbows by Gareth Owens (Immersion Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Chaz Brenchley
- The Orphaned Worlds by Michael Cobley (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Martyn Taylor
- Brain Thief by Alexander Jablokov (Forge, 2010) – Reviewed by Tony Lee
- Veteran by Gavin Smith (Gollancz, 2010) – Reviewed by Stuart Carter
- Yukikaze by Chohei Kambayashi (Haikasoru, 2010) – Reviewed by Ian Sales
- The World Inside by Robert Silverberg (Orb, 2010) – Reviewed by L. J. Hurst
- This Is Not A Game by Walter Jon Williams (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Shaun C. Green
- Blonde Bombshell by Tom Holt (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Simon Guerrier
- Retromancer by Robert Rankin (Gollancz, 2009) – Reviewed by James Bacon
- Conflicts, edited by Ian Whates (NewCon Press, 2010) – Reviewed by Ben Jeapes
- Lonely Werewolf Girl by Martin Millar (Piatkus, 2009) – Reviewed by Anne F Wilson
- The Midnight Mayor by Kate Griffen (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Lynne Bispham
- Mr Shivers by Robert Jackson Bennett (Orbit, 2010) – Reviewed by Mark Connorton
- Neverland by Douglas Clegg (Vanguard, 2010) – Reviewed by A.P. Canavan
- Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem (Faber & Faber, 2009) – Reviewed by Dan Hartland
- Sunshine State by James Miller (Little, Brown, 2010) – Reviewed by Jonathan McCalmont
- The Last Pixel Show by Graham Andrews (New Theatre Publications, 2010), Mistaking the Nature of the Posthuman by Steve Sneyd (Hilltop Press, 2008) and Time Grows Thin by Lilith Lorraine (Hilltop Press, 2009) – Reviewed by Maureen Kincaid Speller