Reading Joanna Russ: To Write Like a Woman (1995)

The next of Joanna Russ’s books, To Write Like a Woman, is a collection of essays and letters originally published between 1971 and the early ’80s. These pieces range in subject and tone from a letter titled “Is ‘Smashing’ Erotic?,” which discusses young women’s relationships in the nineteenth century, to one of her more oft-cited essays, “What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can’t Write.” To Write Like a Woman was published by Indiana University Press in 1995 and remains in print today—one of only a few of Russ’s books still in print from their original publishers (or in print at all).

 While the last nonfiction collection in Russ’s oeuvre (Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritan & Perverts [1985]) was focused primarily on sexuality, To Write Like a Woman shifts the focus to criticism—of literature, primarily, but also film, history, and scholarship. In these essays, Russ employs the same panache, precision, and wit that made How to Suppress Women’s Writing so stunning to deconstruct texts from Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” to the genre of the modern Gothic.

In Sarah Lefanu’s introduction, she notes that Russ’s criticism “aims to include the reader,” to “show the way into the books and stories she’s talking about” (xiii)—not to exclude the reader, not to obfuscate or mystify the discourse, the text, and the theory. Russ’s precision, which I have admired over and over again in the course of this series, is something that Lefanu also praises; without her diction, her gift for language that is not abstruse in the manner common to scholarship but rather “sensible [… and] elegant,” Russ’s criticism wouldn’t be so powerful, or so pleasurable, to read.

But enough of the introduction—though, in this case I agree spot-on with Lefanu’s ideas about the book. In fact, she’s probably said it all better than I will. Still, I’d like to dig into my initial responses to reading To Write Like a Woman, and my responses the second time around. Both readings have things in common: at first and now, I was enthralled, provoked, educated, amused, and drawn tightly along Russ’s remarkably clear and incisive lines of explication and analysis. There may have been a bit of appreciative envy, too—I consider Russ one of the best scholars of the past century, and these essays are of a kind with her previous academic writing, which is to say: pretty damn brilliant.

As I’ve already discussed several of these essays elsewhere (in We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, recently released from Aqueduct Press), I’ll attempt not to repeat myself—instead, I’d like to focus on some of the pieces that I haven’t given much prior attention to. In particular, the several essays on genre are great reading: “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction,” “Speculations: The Subjunctivity of Science Fiction,” “SF and Technology as Mystification,” “On the Fascination of Horror Stories, Including Lovecraft’s,” and “Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me  and I Think it’s My Husband: The Modern Gothic.”

All five of these essays are concerned with the structures and themes of particular “paraliterary” genres that are commonly excluded from academic discussion; all five employ Russ’s technique of beginning with a large picture and slowly deconstructing it into its commensurate parts until the whole becomes, delightfully, clear again.

The opening of “On the Fascination of Horror Stories” is one example of how Russ can knock prescribed theory and thought sideways with a casual, elegant observation:

There’s nothing new in interpreting horror stories and horror films as crude descriptive psychology, but I believe that most work in this area has been done from an intrapersonal, Freudian point of view, and so concentrates on issues of sexuality and guilt, which is fine for some work (especially nineteenth-century fiction, e.g., Arthur Machen’s Black Crusade) but which leaves out issues like the relation of self to other or the ontological status of the self, in short, the characteristic issues of much modern horror fiction. […] Horror fiction is a fiction of extreme states […] and the message is […]: Someone has been here before. (61)

— and just like that, the predominant lens through which horror has been interpreted (Freudian) shifts and a whole other section of thematics and arguments is revealed. Also, the connection Russ makes between Adrienne Rich’s analysis of Emily Dickinson’s poetry and her own analysis of horror fiction here is a brilliant mind-bender. Though, of course, it’s not “just like that,” because the rest of the essay goes on to elaborate this point and make proofs of it, while also having fun with the base material of the scary story. (Humor is all over this essay; the actual opening is an anecdote about how horrified other people are that she likes Lovecraft. I can relate.)

The other essays in this group are equally incisive and often provocative. I have, in fact, used “Towards an Aesthetics of Science Fiction” in my own arguments with colleagues who are less than receptive to speculative fiction—though I don’t agree with all of the aesthetic parameters Russ lays out, thinking through why the genre is what it is in this way is fascinating. Russ’s assertion that contemporary criticism cannot be applied like a one-size-fits-all from realism to speculative fiction was boggling and, then, enlightening, the first time I read this essay—but of course they can be read the same way! I thought.

Then the essay went on, and I realized, oh, no they can’t, not really—that’s genius.

The second time through, I found it as provocative and intriguing as the first. Russ proposes many structures inherent to SF, some of which I find convincing and other of which seem to have evolved since the essay was written in the early ’70s. That speculative fiction is inherently didactic by virtue of the fact that it “analyzes reality by changing it” (xv), I’ve agreed with just about every time someone asks me, “so, why SF?” That it’s inherently religious in tone, I’m not so sure, but Russ makes a powerful argument for that on grounds of the sense of wonder. Regardless of how much of it you agree with, reading this essay—and the following two, in the same vein—will provoke a great deal of introspection and analysis of what you think SF is, in relation to Russ’s thorough, precise, conversational deconstruction of the genre as a whole.

I would also be remiss in not mentioning the letters, like “On ‘The Yellow Wallpaper’,” because the first time I read it I actually stopped what I was doing to email a friend—who had been in a class with me that discussed Gilman’s story as realist fiction—to say “holy shit, it’s a ghost story!” My entire conception of the story shifted on its axis after reading this essay, and gladly so. Russ is spot on the mark in her examination of why the academy often strips out the genre elements of stories, and in doing so renders them flat, or wholly other than what they were meant to be. This letter is in response to a “Freud-via-Lacan” interpretation of the story published by the NWSA Journal. Russ begins by castigating her fellow feminist critics for their restricted English literary cannon—one that cuts out “paraliterary” genres—which is just as bad as the old restricted cannon, and then digs into her problem with the original essay:

But “The Yellow Wallpaper” is a ghost story. To anyone at all familiar with the genre the signs are unmistakable: the large, beautiful house so mysteriously let at a low rent after standing long untenanted, the narrator’s romantic wish for a ghost, her sensitivity to the evil influence that dwells in the house, her husband’s fatuous ignorance of anything wrong and his belief in a limited an foolish rationality. These elements are conventions in a tradition that existed before Gilman wrote and that continues to exist today, a tradition in which a great many women have been active in both England and the United States.” (161)

I had to go back and re-read the short story with a new set of eyes, and I found it doubly rewarding—in fact, I loved it. As a ghost story that is balanced between the rational and the supernatural, with the dividing line so blurry as to be unreal, “The Yellow Wallpaper” is still a story about madness—but it’s quite a bit sharper, and deeper, and more critical. Russ also takes into account Gilman’s publication history, in which the majority of her works are genre pieces. When one story is taken out of context—something Russ discusses extensively in How to Suppress Women’s Writing—the whole shape of a writer’s work is distorted. This includes feminist narrowings of the cannon to exclude paraliterary genres.

She closes the essay with the line, “Surely we can hope for more for ourselves, our students and our discipline.” (166) This is a sentiment that echoes through and under all of the criticism in To Write Like a Woman: a hope that by elucidating mystifications, by destroying strictures and revealing truths, we can move on into a better future. The willingness Russ displays in this book to use her skills and her intellect to try and bring the world forward—not just the academy; her readable, welcoming prose proves that—is moving. On my second reading, focusing more on the technique and the precision of Russ’s writing, I was especially aware of how careful she is to do just as Lefanu says: to invite readers in, to welcome.

There aren’t enough critics out there who want to bring the average reader in, instead of blocking them out. To Write Like a Woman is dually valuable for this reason—it’s not just brilliant scholarship that the world genuinely needs, it’s also a book for anyone who loves books and wants to learn more about them.


Next, What Are We Fighting For?: Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism (1998).

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic and occasional 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.


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