Reading Joanna Russ: How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983)

Joanna Russ’s first book of nonfiction is the inimitable How to Suppress Women’s Writing, published in 1983 by the University of Texas Press. While one other edition was released by The Women’s Press in the 1990s, the University of Texas has continued to offer the book as a print-on-demand title, so it is still in print — if not necessarily easy to find on a store shelf. Instead, its primary circulation has become word-of-mouth; effective in some ways, but ironic, considering what Russ has to say about similar situations in the text.

Last year, I wrote a review of How to Suppress Women’s Writing. I still agree with what I said there — the book is brilliant, absolutely worth reading, and absolutely worth spreading around so others can read it — but there are a few more things I’d like to add, now that I’ve read so much of Russ’s other work, to place this book in the context of her prior writings.

So, assume this begins after the last sentence of that review closes. (Can’t promise I won’t repeat myself a little, though.)

How to Suppress Women’s Writing is, as I’ve said previously, a brilliant book. The reasons for that are manifold — it’s not just the deadly precision of Russ’s arguments, though that’s certainly one of the best parts, but also her skill in bringing together mountains of information into the most concise, streamlined “narrative” possible. It’s a feat, a display of technical and analytical skill that’s frankly a bit breathtaking considered from an authorial perspective.

Russ synthesizes decades — really, centuries — of data and anecdotal evidence into smooth, sensible, easy to grasp explication; not only does she use evidence from the literary world, she also engages with similar occurrences in the visual arts, particularly painting, and to some extent the theater, for the express purpose of drawing connections between the methodologies of suppression common across the Western patriarchal field.

This act of synthesizing cannot be complemented enough — the work Russ does in this book, the intellectual engagement with her evidence, is astounding. To look at these mountains of data and to be able to cull them, consolidate them, and see past them, in such a way as to be able to actually derive the patterns behind suppression, the patterns underlying and overlying the texts themselves… That’s a feat of genius. I may seem to be overstating, but I don’t think it’s hyperbole in the least. The ending lines of the introduction make it seem simple: “What follows is not intended as a history. Rather it’s a sketch of an analytic tool: patterns in the suppression of women’s writing.” (5) The truth is that this sort of vast cataloguing of texts and interpretation of patterns hidden between and around them is extremely difficult, and few scholars will ever manage something of the magnitude of How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

That Russ did it, did it well, and did it while suffering medical complications, deserves the appropriate level of admiration.

The other things I failed to discuss in the prior review, so impressed was I by the scalpel-sharp precision of the text and how blown away was I by the view of my own field, are manifold. But, one of the most striking to me now, is how humorous the book can be. This is true of much if not all of Russ’s work, and yet I fail time and time again to mention the razor-edge of her wit, how frankly damned hilarious she can be. Her comedy is used as both a tool and a site of commentary; it can be the source of tension, or the release of tension. She was fully aware of the complexity of the arguments she was making in How To Suppress Women’s Writing, and also aware of how upsetting they could be. Her humor — from the slapstick, like the mental image of the Glotologs “frumenting,” to the sarcastic, to the biting — serves to lessen some of the unbearable pain of the text.

Another fabulous thing about this book is its references and end pages, like the immensely useful glossary. Possibly, this appeals only to the academic nerds amongst us, but I would recommend even the folks who normally skip footnotes attend to these. For one thing, they’re like a massive reading list — all of the women writers, critics, and commentators Russ cites throughout the book are available to the reader, there, organized (thank goodness) by the chapter of their appearance. This makes finding the reference the reader wants much easier; in the same way, the detailed glossary makes for excellently easy research. For example, say I remember that there were some great lines in here about Emily Dickinson’s “straightening up” by her family after her death — true story, this one — all I have to do is find her name in the glossary and there’s a list of every page her name appears on. Fantastic!

Aside from the research utility, there’s something else these endnotes and citations do.

They do the work of remembering.

One of the things Russ refers to time and time again in How to Suppress Women’s Writing is that the history of women writers — as friends, as colleagues, as individuals, as a group — is written on sand. Each generation feels that they’re the first and the only to want to be a woman writer, that they must do it on their own. Similarly, feminist history is in a state of perpetual erasure. By using extensive citations of real women writers’ works, and real books devoted to women writer’s like Moers’ much-cited Literary Women, Russ is creating a concrete list of the past. Using the references she uses, documenting them so thoroughly, creates a history and a set of possibilities not written in sand; the knowledge that not only were there networks of talented women writing, we can prove it. It’s not new. It’s a history, and the presence of a real history is a boon to young critics and writers. It defeats the pollution of agency, it defeats the myth of the singular individual woman, it creates a sense of continuity and community.

You wouldn’t think footnotes could be so important, would you? But, they are, in the context of the work Russ is trying to do with this book, not only to delineate the patterns of suppression but to render them ridiculous and impotent.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing invites re-reading; on second perusal, I found more than I had the first time. The humor is more obvious, the arguments doubly interesting with repetition, and the culminating effect all together different: the first time, I was understandably upset though struck with the clarity of the argument; the second time, I was pleased to have read it again, to have closely read Russ’s brilliant synthesis of information and to have appreciated her genius. The arguments are still great, and still immensely emotional for me as a writer in a tradition that has contributed as much as any to the erasure of women artists, but the book is more a treat. (And I still think it should be assigned reading for starting university students; what a difference it might make in how they see their continuing engagement with “the canon.”)

Honestly, I would be happy to read it again — and probably again and again after that. Russ is always a rewarding read, and How to Suppress Women’s Writing is one of the most powerful examples of that.

After this comes her first collection of short fiction, The Zanzibar Cat.

Brit Mandelo is a multi-fandom geek with a special love for comics and queer literature. She can be found on Twitter and Livejournal.


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