Friday, September 17, 2010


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 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 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 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.


George said...

Hope you're feeling better, Todd. Joanna Russ' THE FEMALE MAN really shook things up way back when. I've always found her writings insightful.

Todd Mason said...

Thanks, George...the whole corpus is better, but the eyes are still fighting me. TFM remains her best novel, and I'm happy to see the current edition has a somewhat less unprofessional package than the 1980s Feminist Press edition did (the two covers on the Bantam, almost bestselling editions were certainly professional, at least). I still need to pick up a copy of THE TWO OF THEM...and you, as I've mentioned on-blog I think, definitely read ON STRIKE AGAINST GOD for a contemporary-mimetic approach to some of the matter of TFM.

Richard R. said...

I read that Silverberg anthology, but don't remember the Russ contribution. But there's an awful lot I don't remember. I'm not even sure I understand why I remember some books, stories, articles and not others. Perhaps it's association. I know the first time I read James Clavell's SHOGUN it was near my birthday, and I'd gotten a box of Hershey bars (10 or 12 of them, I think) as a gift as well as my usual, traditional Rhubarb pie. I ate that pie and those bars while reading a big chunk of the book, and loved it (the book). Was it because of the tasty treats, or Clavell's writing? I'll never know.

I didn't realize you'd been under the weather, but I too am glad you're feeling better.

This is a darn nice piece.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Quite an interesting essay, Todd. I will have to find THE FEMALE MAN now that you and Olivia, my fantasy-loving friends, recommend it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Oddly, my university library seems to have everything but THE FEMALE MAN.|Sruss%2C+joanna|Orightresult|U1?lang=eng&suite=pearl

Todd Mason said...

Alas, even though I spent most of the weekend asleep, the eyes are not improving. I can barely read waht I write here, even with my strongest reading glasses...and I can see just well enough to drive, and that's it.

Well, Patti, if any time-travel story is sf, then THE FEMALE MAN is, inasmuch as it's not quite a time-travel story at all, so much as four Joanna Russ avatars in four different realities who eventually, as with Borges's many conversations with himself, manage to meet.

Thanks for the kind words, Rick and Patti, and with luck this won't be my last FFB for a while.

C. Margery Kempe said...

Gee, name checked while I was away with the rom writers and I missed it. Hope you're feeling better soon, too. Argh -- not being able to read?! Horror indeed.

I love The Female Man and despite some resistance, the students I've taught it to have also found much to intrigue and challenge them in its pages. I'm sorry to say I don't have all these collections and I really need them, because I've never not liked something by Russ and she is criminally overlooked -- not sure why. Maybe it's that whole crossing of boundaries that is so hip and transgressive now or at least seems to be for some mainstream writers; marketing disapproves.

C. Margery Kempe said...

And for goodness sakes, stay off the road if you can't see! They can get along without you.

Todd Mason said...

Transgression is only Kewl when it trangresses other people's taboos. You know, hipster, the ones the squares try to box us in with. Our taboos are sacred, doncha know?

And, of course, there's no mainstream.

And thatks for the concern...but I can actually See Again...dry eye and baby cataracts (they're so blurrily cute at that age) are a Nasty one-two punch.