Friday, September 17, 2010
FFB: Joanna Russ: HOW TO SUPPRESS WOMEN'S WRITING (UTP 1985), TO WRITE LIKE A WOMAN (IUP 1995), THE COUNTRY YOU HAVE NEVER SEEN (LUP 2007)
Joanna Russ was kind of a fortuitous presence in my early reading of adult fantastic ficiton...her hilarious "Useful Phrases for the Tourist" was in Robert Silverberg's anthology Infinite Jests ("Are you edible? I am not edible."--an early exposure, for me, to what I call a story of apparatus), which I read when I was about eleven...at about the same time, I saw my first issue of F&SF on a newsstand, at the drugstore where I bought my comics and the occasional book or National Lampoon, the January 1976 issue with Russ's "My Boat" leading it off...it and Stuart Dybek's "Horror Movie" looked intriguing, but it cost a Whole Buck, and I could get four comics for that, if I even had a whole buck on me at the time. Meanwhile, the first F&SF I owned was the November 1971, featuring Russ as the book reviewer, leading off her column with Shulamith Firestone's speculative feminist nonfiction, The Dialectic of Sex.
Her three important nonfiction books primarily about literature, as opposed to the mixed collection of essays Magic Mommas..., which I've briefly reviewed previously, and her last completely new published work so far, history of the feminist revival What Are We Fighting For?, are all witty, challenging, and often brilliant...and often harder to find than her only sustainedly in-print novel, the brilliant The Female Man. How to Suppress Women's Writing is a a book-length study; To Write Like a Woman a collection of longer essays, and The Country You Have Never Seen mostly a collection of her book reviews, public letters, and shorter essays. The first two are excerpted on Google Books at the hypertext links...it both is and is not remarkable how much of her work has been Google Booked, given her importance and her relative lack of support by her publishers...though, notably, all three of today's books are in print, from their respective university presses. I'm not sure if Russ is on record as wary/annoyed by Google's book project as Ursula Le Guin has been...but Russ is at least semi-retired as a public figure, having a degenerative back problem that had her writing most of her later works standing up. (As someone who is wondering what the hell is suddenly up with his worsening eyes, I have nothing but sympathy.)
Suppress was Russ's first extended work of nonfiction, and is an excellent approach to the subject at hand, well documented and willing to note where the exceptions to the overarching problem exist, however partially. I like To Write even better, particularly "Someone's Trying to Kill Me and I Think It's My Husband," a brilliant quick study of the state of the supermarket gothic in their first flourish (they are not quite back in the nonetheless related form of the paranormal romance). The Firestone-led column is one of the many review-essays and related writing collected in Country, which collectively allow for Russ's playfulness and wit to express themselves perhaps most blatantly...another F&SF essay memorably runs through a series of metaphors for the books under discussion, each except the last considered as a variety of toy rabbit.
Russ began her academic/creative career in drama, as I recall, rather like her near-exact contemporary Barry Malzberg...they were both writing stage drama while working within academe, at least as grad students; Kate Laity has done something similar, while going on to profess while freelancing, while Malzberg left campus to become a full-time freelancer and off-and-on literary agent and editor; Russ, I believe, split the difference, continuing to teach in drama off and on while conducting her literary career...the latter in prose rather than in drama. Hence also one of her several points of community with Fritz Leiber, who was first professionally an actor before he was a writer and who consistently wrote prose with a dramatic sense to it, often in dramatic or near-dramatic form. (Then there are all the busy screenwriters who are among "our" prose writers, such as Leigh Brackett, Robert Bloch, Henry Slesar, William Goldman, George R. R. Martin, Alan Brennert, Harlan Ellison, Bruce Jay Friedman, Jules Feiffer [the last two also stage playwrights] and others...while Jack Sharkey might've been one of the few to eventually make a career mostly based on stage drama, writing dozens of one-act plays for Samuel French and their clients in mostly community and amateur theater.
That's only one point between Leiber and Russ, who also both wrote among the most challenging work in fantastic-fiction (i.e. Leiber's Conjure Wife and "Coming Attraction" and "The Night He Cried" [with the arguably limited target, looming larger at the time, of Mickey Spillane's fiction and its influence) to Russ's The Female Man and her affectionate parodies of Lovecraft and vicious ones of Heinlein and his imitators), their mutual love for bringing an extra dimension or several to adventure fantasy (Leiber and Russ even wrote one story each which feature the other's avatars Fafhrd and Alyx within their own fiction cycles), and, of course, both serving as reviewers and columnists for the most visible fantasy amgazines on newsstands in the 1970s, among other markets.
Country might be the last new book we see from Russ, and that is a pity, except only in that it's a fine collection of work from throughout that career, and worth the stiff price of the paperback edition (or even the very stiff price of the stiffer format). It occurs to me that Liverpool delayed its publication...Russ might've wanted it out in 2005, making neat ten year itnervals betwen her purely liteary nonfiction books. (But maybe not.)
And it occurs to me that I don't remember if I had the wit to suggest to Patti Abbott, when she asked me about utopian and dystopian fiction, that The Female Man goes beyond its seeds in "When It Changed" to posit a throughline of incomplete dystopia and utopia at every stage of its narrative, not even least the parts set in the here and now of its composition-space/time...along with Damon Knight's "The Country of the Kind," one of the more challenging and meliorated of utopias for its larger implications (even as Leiber's "Coming Attraction" and Kate Wilhelm's "The Winter Beach" and its expansion Welcome, Chaos among other work are meliorated dystopia).
Please see Patti Abbott's blog for a rundown of the other, more prompt Friday "Forgotten" Books for this week.