Joanna Russ: Brilliance and Articulate Rage

Debbie says:

Joanna Russ died last week. If you’ve never heard of her, then you don’t know that she wrote The Female Man, the most important feminist science fiction novel ever written (which, to me, means that it could be the most important science fiction novel ever written). She wrote a good deal of other fiction, almost every word of it feminist, and also a lot of incisive, hard-hitting nonfiction. Perhaps her most famous nonfiction book is How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

photo of Joanna Russ

Tributes are flying around the web. There’s an excellent collection of links here, most of which I still have to read. I’m struck by Paul Kincaid’s comment: “She wasn’t important. She was essential!”

That is certainly my experience. In 1973, when The Female Man was published, I was 21 or 22. I was just becoming a part of the science fiction community, where I have spent the last forty years. I was aware that feminism was in the air (if you asked, I would have said I believed in “women’s liberation”, which was the phrase of the time) but I had never read Betty Friedan or Kate Millett or Germaine Greer. I would have read them eventually, of course, but I read Joanna Russ right then, and so many things I had never understood fell into place, the way a kaleidoscope will fall into a perfect pattern.

I just opened my old and battered paperback of The Female Man at random, and found this:

I am a woman. I am a woman with a woman’s brain. I am a woman with a woman’s sickness. I am a woman with the wraps off, bald as an adder. God help me and you.

Open again, and find this:

I’ve never slept with a girl. I couldn’t. I wouldn’t want to. That’s abnormal and I’m not, although you can’t be normal unless you do what you want and you can’t be normal unless you love men. To do what I wanted was abnormal, in which case it would be abnormal to please myself and normal to do what I didn’t want to do, which isn’t normal.

So you see.

The Female Man is written from several voices. I think those two passages are from the same voice, but I haven’t checked yet.

In any event, this was a book that opened eyes, that changed minds (including my mind), that initiated fury and passion and activism and terror. A male friend of mine at the time said, admiringly, “That’s not a novel. That’s articulate rage.”

Joanna Russ is much more than The Female Man. She wrote fine novels and stories before that book and more fine novels and stories after it. “The Little Dirty Girl” just popped into my head as I wrote the last sentence. “Useful Phrases for the Tourist” is an early “phrase book” that gives you an idea of the alien civilization it was written for, is hilariously funny, and tells a story. Picnic on Paradise and other stories about Alyx created the female kick-ass heroine genre.

She was the first person to write about what we now call “fan fiction” (then “K/S” for “Kirk/Spock” and later “slash fiction”), a thriving, creative community made up almost entirely of women writing for women without the mediation of the (mostly male) publishing world. When she wrote about it, it consisted of a couple of hundred people. Now, the Organization for Transformative Works , which by no means represents all of fan fiction, has 170,000 stories by 16,000 people. I personally believe that fan fiction might never have blossomed, even with the Internet, if Joanna hadn’t turned her spotlight in that direction. I know she wrote her own fan fiction, and spent some time obsessed with Buffy the Vampire Slayer; I only wish I knew what pseudonyms she used.

Personally, she was extremely difficult: demanding, didactic, unpredictably warm or hostile. Difficult enough that even if she were male, people would have thought she was difficult. But they would have cut her a lot more slack. My own face-to-face encounters with her were few: she was ungracious to me the first time I met her, and after that I tended to sit on the sidelines and listen, rather than engage. But I listened to some fine analysis, mostly about fan fiction. I can’t remember if I heard her say, “You can’t see around corners, but you can hear around corners,” or if Teresa Nielsen Hayden quoted that to me shortly after Joanna said it, but it stays in my brain.

She was plagued with health problems–bad back, allergies, and later chronic fatigue syndrome (which kept her from writing much)–none of which made her more pleasant or easier to be around. Friends who got close to her got slapped, which is another reason I stayed on the sidelines.

I’ve read most of the words she’s written under her own name, many of them over and over. Of course, no single person most shaped how I’ve lived my life and what I believe today, but if I absolutely had to pick one, she’d be a serious candidate.

9 thoughts on “Joanna Russ: Brilliance and Articulate Rage

  1. Bravo, well said.

    Counterpoint: In my own single experience with Russ — as a young and foolish fan at my first worldcon — she was in fact gracious to me, during an encounter that lasted all of one minute.

  2. I actually just picked up “Female Man” recently and couldn’t get into it. I respect her as a pioneer, but there were so many clunky passages early on (like a sentence where she described a co-worker by saying, “Mrs. B was a negro.” huh-wha?) I just couldn’t take it seriously. I will attempt to go back and read it again- maybe I just wasn’t in the right headspace. Please tell me it gets better after the first couple chapters, though…

    1. Sarah, I know it’s hard, but it’s also important to remember time and place. When she wrote it, Negro was the polite word. You may not remember the United Negro College Fund, or the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, but both were created and named by African-Americans.

  3. Damn. just…damn. She was one of my influential voices too. Picnic On Paradise is sitting there on my shelf, I can see it from where I sit. Her loss grieves me beyond words. And what voices are rising to replace the ones we are losing? It may become all our voices, maybe, as blogs are written and people rise. May we walk in her foot steps. Thanks for honoring her here!

  4. I agree.–she was essential. If it hadn’t been for Russ, Leguin and Tiptree, (and others, of course) I’m not sure how long I would have stayed interested in SF. I, too, found her awkward to read at the time, but it was what she dared say, and did say, that so was so important. She taught me the basis of feminism and that I am a feminist.
    It’s difficult to explain to those who came later, just how thirsty we were for the words.

  5. If I may demur, The Female Man was published in 1970, years after ‘Black’ had replaced ‘Negro’ as the polite term for African-Americans as used by others, especially the part of the population that included Joanna (young, brilliant, savvy, feminist, educated).

    The ‘Negro’ references occur, as I recall, in one of the four parallel universes in which the world is still locked in the Depression of the 1930s. Many aspects of that universe are profoundly different from our own. Joanna Russ wove rich extrapolations.

    Rather than be offended by the details in these four colliding worlds, embrace them and watch the complex weave of social, psychological, and historical threads.

  6. I’ve been wondering what to say about Joanna Russ, because she was important to me, though I haven’t read her in a long time. I think that she didn’t want her readers to get lost in her books; she was constantly trying to shake you out of whatever rut you were in, and that included defying the expectation that a novel will carry you along with its own momentum. Her work is never smooth, never easy, and there have been times when I resented that. But it can be bracing!

    “Mrs. Allison was a Negro” is a good example of what I would call deliberate awkwardness. It’s Jeannine’s thought, and it’s typical of the character’s self-consciousness, unease, and lack of direction. The point of that sentence — which certainly is an awkward sentence, coming out of nowhere and going nowhere — is not to describe Mrs. Allison, it’s to get you into Jeannine’s mind, which is a very awkward place to be.

    1. Janet, I think this is especially insightful and on point. Even taking Paul’s point about the timing of the change of polite words, this clarifies what Joanna was doing and how it fits into her whole writing style.

      I think Paul is right about the timing, but (if my memory is good for anything), in 1973 many people would have paused to decide which word they wanted to use, and many others would just have used “Negro,” as they always had, being careful to enunciate the final “o.” Jeannine fits that profile very well, I think.

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