Fri
Jul 6 2012 12:10pm

Reading Joanna Russ: The Country You Have Never Seen (2007)

The Country You Have Never Seen by Joanna RussThe final book in Joanna Russ’s body of work is The Country You Have Never Seen, a collection of reviews, essays, and letters originally published from the mid ’60s to the late ’90s. These include Russ’s inimitable review column at The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction (potentially the full run? I’m uncertain if this is a selection or a complete reprinting); essays like “The Image of Women in Science Fiction” (1970) and “The Wearing Out of Genre Materials” (1971); letters to feminist magazines, queer publications, and SF journals; plus other difficult-to-find small texts. The Country You Have Never Seen was published by Liverpool University Press in 2007 and remains in print.

As the flap copy says, this book “reveal[s] the vital part she played over the years in the never-ending conversation among writers and fans about the roles, boundaries, and potential of science fiction.” That sense of conversation is particularly strong in the reviews and letters, both of which are frequently and clearly in direct response to other letters, reviews, and essays—by fans, as well as by other professionals. Russ’s commitment to challenging mystifications in all of her fields of engagement is also clear here. Her letters, ranging from snarky to serious and sometimes both at once, illustrate how invested she was in not only following contemporary publications in the fields that she loved but also in contributing to discussion within them.

Some of the pieces in the collection are followed by short author’s notes, extending that sense of a conversation into the present as Russ comments on her own misconceptions, corrects her prior opinions, and gives background on some conflicts. These short author’s notes are also some of the last published bits of writing by Joanna Russ before her death in 2011—a corrective commentary to provide further context for her earlier work, giving us a final opinion. One author’s note that struck me as an important revision, emblematic of the others, was appended to her 1979 review of Dorothy Dinnerstein’s The Mermaid and the Minotaur: Sexual Arrangements and Human Malaise, which a younger Russ had called cross-cultural and speaking to women’s experience. In this author’s note, Russ comments that “I can’t regard it now with the enthusiasm I displayed in this review,” and explains that the book is “neither cross-class nor cross-cultural, nor does it apply to any but the white professional middle class of her generation and mine” (164). This 2007 revision speaks to Russ’s introduction to and work with intersectional feminism in the late ’90s—the subject of her previous book, What Are We Fighting For?

This is one way in which an author grows and develops over time—confronting prejudices, blind-spots, and the misapprehensions of a younger self. While it’s quite possible to trace this over the course of her entire career, from book to book and interview to interview, the explicit examples in The Country You Have Never Seen are a fascinating indication of the ways in which she grew as a theorist and writer over her productive career.

Of course, the contemporary author’s notes are hardly where the weight of the book lies: rather, the bulk of the reading in this collection is the pieces themselves, which remain some of my personal favorites of Russ’s oeuvre. As it so happens, this is the book that I re-read for pleasure and inspiration on a regular basis. I respect, admire, and love the rest, make no mistake, but The Country You Have Never Seen is a more intimate, personal collection, a book that provides insight not only into Russ’s opinions on her fields but also—and this is rare in her published work—her opinions on her own work, her process, her ideas about theory and criticism, and her feelings on what seems like a thousand and one topics.

One piece that I try to come back to regularly is a short essay on criticism published as part of Russ’s reviews column in F&SF. If it were within my power, I would quote the piece in its entirety, or make certain that it was reprinted online for all to see. For one thing, the fighting about “negative” reviews, criticism, and opinion is still going and will likely continue on forever and ever into eternity, so long as people review books—but for another, Russ’s deconstruction of the complaints about criticism is so spot-on that I suspect it should be required reading for anyone who wants to do criticism of any sort. (And for fans who read it. In all seriousness, the arguments have remained exactly the same.)

The essay, which runs across pages 164-170 in this book, was published in the November 1979 issue of F&SF in response to readers’ letters-to-the-editor about a prior column in which Russ had criticized the quality and impulse of heroic fantasy. Her response begins, “Critics seem to find it necessary, at least once in a career, to write a statement defending criticism per se.” This is Russ’s defense not only of criticism but also of her particular methodology—one that is incisive, curious, hard-edged, fair, and demanding of brilliance. I’ve written about this particular essay before on my own blog, as well as extensively in We Wuz Pushed, so I hesitate to retread the same ground, but—there are still things to say about it.

In particular, this essay that is on the surface about criticism and, after that, wish-fulfillment fantasies, contains a wealth of implied argument about the inherent worth of speculative fiction. It is, to my eye, one of the more powerful arguments in favor of the genre that Russ wrote, though one of the less direct. I say this because of the time she spends explaining things like the effort criticism requires (“The problem with literature and literary criticism is that there is no obvious craft involved […] but there is a very substantial craft involved here, although its material isn’t toes or larynxes. And some opinions are worth a good deal more than others.” [167]), what good fiction does (“…[offer] illumination, which is the other thing (besides pleasure) are ought to provide” [170]), and ultimately her personal raison d’être for reading and writing (“…there is no pleasure like finding out the realities of human life, in which joy and misery, effort and release, dread and happiness, walk hand-in-hand. We had better enjoy it. It’s what there is.” [170]).

And she says all of this, these vital arguments about the power and wealth of literature—about speculative fiction. This argument, a clear and staggering defense of criticism and the importance of literature, is made entirely about SF, and published in a major magazine of the field, not in an academic quarterly. There is something understatedly revolutionary, even in today’s cultural climate, about arguing for the primacy of speculative fiction because it is where reality, illumination, and pleasure in complexity reside. The nature, publication, and seriousness of this piece also speak to Russ’s lifelong investment in the field of speculative fiction, and the fact that she believed it to be where the best work—theoretical, fictional, social—could happen.

Then, there are the essays: sharp and wide-ranging, the lot of them, and none previously reprinted in Russ’s collected nonfiction. One is actually a speech given at the Philadelphia Science Fiction Conference and reprinted initially in Damon Knight’s Turning Points (1977), “Alien Monsters.” It deals with the He-Man ethos so unfortunately common to science fiction, why it’s a problem, and how to counter it. Reading the essay makes me wish, desperately, that I had ever had the chance to hear Russ speak; it has a resonance and a rhythm that I would expect from a writer whose work tends to be so precise and evocative. Another piece is the oft-cited essay, “The Image of Women in Science Fiction,” which spawned the (when Russ used it, derogatory) term galactic suburbia as well as several stellar quotes, such as “[…] science fiction writers have no business employing stereotypes, let alone swallowing them goggle-eyed” (210) and a longer section on why SF writers should be (and weren’t/aren’t) engaging in enough social speculation.

Of these essays, perhaps the one that strikes me as the most understated but important for posterity is a short response Russ penned for The Women’s Review of Books as an answer to their request for her to discuss her own work. In it, she delineates the ways that she engages with fiction as opposed to nonfiction, how she sees her work structurally, what it’s in conversation with, and what her feelings about the writing process and her own career are. I cannot say much more than read it, in this case—to quote any part would leave me in a tangle as to what else I couldn’t fit in here. For those curious about her investment in her work, having pursued her writing across the spectrum of her career, this essay is personal, political, and moving.

Lastly, there are the letters. I’ve quoted one about Alice Sheldon recently in the Queering SFF Author Spotlight on Tiptree / Sheldon, but the others also contain gems. Some are pure sarcastic comedy, such as Russ’s suggestion for a way to flag using band-aids in response to an essay on hanky-code in a 1980 issue of the Gay Community Center Newsletter. Others are serious in tone, including indictments of sloppy scholarship, homophobic content in feminist publications, and problematic book reviews. One theme that runs across all of the letters is, as previously mentioned, Russ’s deep and constant engagement with her fields of interest. Not content to sit back and watch change happen, Joanna Russ was perpetually on the forefront of pushing harder at problems and obfuscations, insisting on better ideas, better inclusion, and better thinking. She was a vital, conversational, engaged member of the science fiction field, of feminism, of lesbian politics, socialism, and also criticism—plus plenty of theory and scholarship. These letters give insight into the ways in which she participated over the length of her life and career, and they’re frequently, uproariously funny.

Which brings me to one more thing, before regretfully closing this series on Russ’s work—The Country You Have Never Seen is the funniest book by far in her oeuvre. I’m willing to stake my reputation on that. The clarity and insight of the reviews make them a pleasure to read, but the wit, sharpness, and humor make them a joy. Russ’s F&SF criticism has had me laughing out loud, each and every time I read the book. Just in case I sound like I’m being hyperbolic, let me share two choice quotes that shocked me into giggles:

“I would not execrate Warriors of Day so much if I did not know what James Blish can do when his heart is really in it. Either the typewriter wrote this book, with Mr. Blish’s contribution nothing but occasional pieces of sharp observation and a profound air of disgust, or there is an Anti-Blish hidden in the real Blish’s gray matter, and that is a serious business indeed.” (5)

“All books ought to be masterpieces. The author may choose his genre, his subject, his characters, and everything else, but his book ought to be a masterpiece (major or minor) and failing that, it ought to be good, and failing that, it at least ought to show some sign that it was written by a human being.” (33)

It’s not that Russ is being silly—to the contrary, she is making valid and significant points about the books she’s critiquing. Often, these are honest, harsh critiques, leavened with a playful, “what can I do with this book but throw my hands in the air and weep?” kind of comedy. In a catty-corner way to how humor functions in Russ’s novels—to balance the relentless cruelty and difficulty of the truthful narratives—in her criticism, humor provides an avenue to be honest without being cruel, to show that there’s a sense of play as well as seriousness in this writing business.

Closing our discussion of Russ’s publishing career on laughter, on her love for her communities, her work, and what she accomplished, seems just about right to me.

*

Thank you for following along over the past year as we’ve worked through Joanna Russ’s astounding, vibrant, immensely important books. You can read the entire line-up of articles and commentary here. I’m sorry to be finished; sorry, also, that these are the last of her words, her works. For those who want a bit more, who aren’t ready to be done quite yet, Stone Telling Magazine has also published a pair of essays on Russ’s early poetry that I researched in late 2011 (Part 1 and Part 2); there are also books like Farah Mendlesohn’s collection of nonfiction, On Joanna Russ.

To one of the best of us, the brightest and most brilliant, I raise a glass—and wish we could have had a little more time with her.


Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. Also, comics. She can be found on Twitter or her website.

10 comments
Eugene R.
1. Eugene R.
Truly an excellent collection of Ms. Russ's reviews and essays, liberally leavened by her wit and levity, as you so aptly noted, Ms. Mandelo. One of my reading regrets at the moment is having put this book down and not gotten back to finishing it. Though, that may be my own reluctance to nibble at the last of the Russ. (sigh)

One thing that struck me in reading her November 1979 F&SF column was a short aside that Ms. Russ makes in discussing the proposition "Everyone's entitled to his own opinion":

"Have you ever noticed how often people say 'I feel' instead of 'I think' or (God forbid) 'I know'?" (166)

This observation, which has affected the way that I write, came at me from a very different direction. I encountered it in a column by William F. Buckley. Curious to think of Ms. Russ and Mr. Buckley sharing some critical crotchets. It takes all (intelligent and educated) kinds, I suppose.
Shelly wb
2. shellywb
I really enjoyed this series. I appreciate the additional insight you gave about works of hers I'd already read, and the many reasons you gave to pick up those I hadn't. Thank you.
Eugene R.
3. S.M. Stirling
C.S. Lewis was once asked why he didn't review or discuss certain types of fiction -- mysteries, IIRC.

He replied that he simply disliked that whole -type- of story; and that this made it impossible for him to tell a good example of it from a bad example, so he didn't try.

I've always been struck by the degree of intelligent humility in that decision.
Brit Mandelo
4. BritMandelo
@Eugene R.

Hah, I had no idea of the Buckley "connection" - that's kind of delightful, and definitely curious.

@shellywb

Thank you for reading, and I'm glad you enjoyed the series.

@S. M. Stirling

Russ makes a similar comment, in Magic Mommas , about how she really can't venture to judge certain kinds of dimestore-rack men's novels, because they just aren't in her orbit of enjoyment and never will be. I suspect most good critics are aware that there are some things they really can't evaluate for lack of any sort of connection to the work.

(I'd also say that that's not the case in Russ's criticism of heroic fantasy, if you're referring to that; she's quite clear that she, herself, has enjoyed books in the vein, and that enjoyment is informing her criticism of the tendencies she noticed in a series of contemporary books falling under the umbrella.)
marian moore
5. mariesdaughter
Thanks for alerting me to books that I missed the first time around.
Pamela Adams
6. Pam Adams
Brit,

Definitely thanks for the series. I'd actually, despite becoming an SF reader in the mid-1970's, read relatively little Russ. Your guidance and discussion has made for a wonderful year, and I've been introduced to works I probably wouldn't have gotten to otherwise. Thanks again! (Now to get back to my The Mystery of the Young Gentleman fanfic!)
Brit Mandelo
7. BritMandelo
@mariesdaughter

My pleasure.

@PamAdams

Hah! Enjoy the fanfic. And I'm glad you've enjoyed this series--it's been great having comment-conversations with you on various things!
Eugene R.
8. Randy Byers
Brit, I just wanted to add my thanks for this series as well. Russ has long been one of my favorite writers, and I appreciated the overview of her output and all of the work you put into it. Here's hoping you convinced a few new readers to give Russ a try.
Pamela Adams
9. Pam Adams
I think that the collected letters of Joanna Russ would make for a fascinating book.
Brit Mandelo
10. BritMandelo
@Randy Byers

Thank you.

@Pam Adams

Yes, yes it would.

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