Dec 13 2010 12:23pm

How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ

How To Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna RussThe cover of How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ is an eye-catcher. The lines of red text are a hard hook: “She didn’t write it. She wrote it but she shouldn’t have. She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. She wrote it, but she only wrote one of it. She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist and it isn’t really art. She wrote it, but she had help. She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. She wrote it BUT…”

The text that follows delineates the progression of marginalization and suppression as it works through each of these issues—as she says in the prologue, “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.”

Most readers are familiar with Joanna Russ’s famous work in science fiction, but she was also a critic and an academic. Of course, those things all go together, much like being a feminist and a speculative writer. This particular book opens with an SF prologue about the alien creatures know as Glotologs and their judgment of what makes art, who can make art, and how to cut out certain groups from the making of art. (They come up from time to time as a useful allegory in the rest of the book, too.)

The best part of this book is how concise and well-exampled each section of the argument is. Scholarly work has a tendency to be unnecessarily long and dense for no virtue other than a page count, but that’s no problem here. Russ cuts through the bullshit to use each word as effectively as it can be used and never lets herself stray from the outline of her analysis—in short, she brings the skills of a fiction writer to her academic work, and the result is an excellent text.

Its length and its readability make it possibly the most useful text on women and writing I’ve encountered in the past few years, because anyone can pick it up and engage with the content. There’s no threshold for the readership. She explains each of her examples so that even if a reader has no knowledge of the texts or writers being referenced, they will still understand the point. Plus, the examples are all hard-hitting and effective. Russ doesn’t pull her punches in her deconstruction of what has been done to the writing of women over the years—she wants it to be as clear as day that, even if it was done in ignorance or good intention, the disrespect and belittling of women’s art can’t be allowed to continue unremarked.

She also discusses briefly the way these same methods have been used on the writing/art of people of color, immigrants, the working class, et cetera. While her focus is on women, she recognizes that they are hardly the only group to be excluded and marginalized by the dominant power structure. In the afterword Russ admits her own unintentional bigotry regarding writers of color and her confrontation of it, a “sudden access of light, that soundless blow, which changes forever one’s map of the world.” The rest of the afterword is filled with quotes and writing by women of color. I find it heartening that Russ could openly admit that she was wrong and that she had behaved exactly as the people she was criticizing throughout her book, because everyone makes mistakes, and everyone can change. The acknowledgment of privilege is a necessary thing.

Which is why I think that How to Suppress Women’s Writing is a valuable text. If I were teaching a class on fiction of any stripe, I would use this book. For women who have spent their whole academic life reading anthologies where other female writers are included only as a pittance and with the “qualifications” Russ lays out (and that applies to the SFF world as heartily as it does every other genre). For men who, despite best intentions, might not have understood how pervasive and constant the suppression of a woman’s art can be.

It would be especially handy to give to a few people who insist that there’s no such thing as sexism in the writing world, genre or otherwise. It might make a nice point.

Russ never loses her cool or becomes accusatory in the text, though some of the examples might make the reader angry enough that they have to put the book down for a moment (me included). It’s engaging, witty and well-reasoned without ever plunging over the edge into “hopelessly academic.”

I recommend picking it up if you get the chance. It’s an older book, but the arguments in it are still valid today—though that isn’t actually a good thing. We have made so many steps forward, but we’re still not quite there, and reading books like this one can help.

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

James Davis Nicoll
1. James Davis Nicoll
Really, no replies yet? Back in the day on USENET, just referring to this book could kick off a firestorm.

ObOnTopicness: the attempts to shift credit for Frankenstein from Mary Shelly to iirc Percy Shelley.
Alex Brown
2. AlexBrown
I work in a public library and when we did a Black History Month fiction display a patron complained that Octavia Butler shouldn't be up there because she didn't write real fiction. When I did a SFF fiction display a patron complained that she shouldn't be up there because black people don't write genre stuff. You can't win against ignorance, you just have to hope they never have children.

James @1: That really bothers me as well. Dammit, Mary Shelley wrote the book, not Percy. Can't we have the first science fiction book? Why does all the credit have to go to dudes?
Iain Coleman
3. Iain_Coleman
A (female, SF writer) friend pressed this book upon me some years ago. I read it, expecting not to like it. To be honest, I was anticipating a lot of tedious, ill-considered ranting.

How wrong I was.

This is an excellent book. Concise, clearly-argued, enlightening and forceful in its logic.

I would recommend it to anyone - particularly anyone who thinks they will disagree with it. They might be surprised.
James Davis Nicoll
4. David G. Hartwell
This is one of my favorite works of practical criticism. I couldn't recommend it more highly.
Ay-leen the Peacemaker
5. Ay-leen_the_Peacemaker
Thanks for the rec. I've never heard of this book before, but now it is going on the To Read list.
Brit Mandelo
6. BritMandelo
@James Davis Nicoll @Milo1313

The Frankenstein case is a great example.


It's effective at yanking off the denial!veil from a reader in a way that the dense and difficult feminist scholarship (though also genius) isn't. As a woman scholar, I love the hell out of that.

@David G. Hartwell



Oh, it's so worth it. I'm glad I ran across a copy.
James Davis Nicoll
7. James Davis Nicoll
Some samples, for the Russ-curious readers:
James Davis Nicoll
8. James Davis Nicoll
Can't we have the first science fiction book? Why does all the credit have to go to dudes?

Political correctness gone mad! Next you'll be calling for lettuce in the writing paper!

(providence has provided me with an actual cane I can shake at this point)
James Davis Nicoll
9. B. Durbin
#1: (jaw drops to floor) Wait, there's people who argue that Mary Shelley didn't write Frankenstein? That's... wow, that's appalling.

On a similar note, I've discovered that every argument that Shakespeare didn't write Shakespeare can be boiled down to snobbishness. As in, "How could the have poetry in his soul?" But if you confront the person who believes that Edward deVere or Francis Bacon wrote the stuff with that, they'll be indignant, because no, that's not what they meant...

Yeah. Same song, different verse. Why is it so hard to believe that somebody who's not on top could have competence, if not greatness?
Brit Mandelo
10. BritMandelo
@B. Durbin

Because then we might decide we're real people who have the same rights as the people on top, and they can't have that. (Effectively.) Shakespeare, despite some modern "scholars" who don't believe in him, was at least allowed to read, write, perform and make a living for himself. No woman in his age had those rights.
James Davis Nicoll
11. jere7my
It's a great book, but I hear Joanna Russ's brother Marty actually wrote it.

Daniel Brown
12. I_Slap_Raptors
I haven't read this yet, but I intend to hunt it out. It reminds me a lot of that ridiculous notion doing the rounds about the possibility that Jane Austen might not have written her own work, based on some personal correspondence.

Supposedly her correspondence lacks her 'trademark style' and has corrections and spelling mistakes in it. If I'd known that all personal communications from authors were written in their 'trademark style' and were word perfect and error free, I'd have been emailing all my favourite authors for ages now... Sheesh!
Brit Mandelo
13. BritMandelo

Oh, jeez. I hadn't heard that one. That's patently ridiculous--personal correspondence is personal! If that was the case, nobody has every written any of their own fiction. (Some of my best writer-friends don't even use capital letters in email, for example.)
Michael Burke
14. Ludon
@BritMandelo 13
Well, I guess your own comment can be taken as proof.

"If that was the case, nobody has every written..."

But then, I've found silly things in my comments after posting them - even though I had read them over twice before hitting the post command.

Anyway. I really wanted to point out that the same thing happens in the visual arts too. I'm old enough to have heard people say that asians cannot produce true works of art because their slanted eyes don't let them see the world properly. (In researching aviation history, I've also come across comments that they couldn't be pilots for the same reason.) I've even heard people say that gays can't be good artists because they lack the intellect to create emotionally expressive work. Whatever.

I'm not a woman but that doesn't matter. I can see that this book could hold meaning for anyone interested in the arts. That's why I'll look for a copy of this one.
Brit Mandelo
15. BritMandelo

Yup, there's an example right there. Whoops. *g*

The book is useful as an analytic study of the structures of suppression, so yes, it's useful across the arts--Russ uses several painters as examples in it, actually.
James Davis Nicoll
16. Raskolnikov
Interesting coincidence, I just read this book a couple weeks ago.

Pretty good, and a lot of very damning points are made. The strongest indictment is probably the extent to which the book isn't dated, that so much of the analysis remains right on the money. That said, this didn't have the impact on me that most of Russ' fiction has, it was powerful and quite valid, but I've read a lot of more recent work that made very similar issues. A question of timing, undoubtedly, if I'd read it when it first came out (if I'd been alive then...) and I was able to not reject it out of hand it would have been mind-blowing. If I'd read it even three years in my own personal development it would have also been very challenging. Now, it was good but not transcendent.

The most interesting part for me was at the very end, when Russ engages forcefully with her own struggles on race and racism. That seemed like the most interesting conceptual move, and very honest in an emotional and ethical sense.
Beau Williamson
17. BeauW
I'm a big Joanna Russ fan (On Strike Against God, while not genre, is some of the most stunning prose I've ever read). I have How to Suppress... on my shelf, but for some reason I haven't read it yet. Thanks for reminding me.

My copy is sitting next to "The Gentle Art of Verbal Self-Defence" by Suzette Hayden Elgin (who also wrote one of the great linguistic SF novels: "Native Tongue"). It's not about writing per se, but it is about how to use and abuse language in interpersonal conversations. Excellent source material for writers, or anyone who talks to other people.
18. kirtland
James Davis Nicoll
20. Eugene R.
And the natural follow-up to this volume is Ms. Russ's later collection of essays, To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction, which came out in 1995, 12 years after How to Suppress Women's Writing.
Brit Mandelo
21. BritMandelo
@Eugene R.

I am absolutely going to be on the lookout for that one.

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