Sleeps With Monsters

Sleeps With Monsters: WE WUZ PUSHED — Lee Mandelo on Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling


Please enjoy this Sleeps With Monsters encore post, originally published July 31, 2012.

“If silence is starvation, and silence is looking into a mirror and seeing nothing, the only way to fix this erasure is to speak radical truths.” [Mandelo 2012, 48.]

It’s hard to engage analytically with the ongoing conversation of a genre without reading its critical voices.[1][2] Often, it’s hard to read those critical voices. Sometimes they’re hard to find. Sometimes they’re just hard to read, since any continuing conversation soon acquires its own implicit assumptions and—on occasion—its own technical vocabulary.

In WE WUZ PUSHED: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling, Lee Mandelo conducts an illuminating discussion of the life’s work of one of science fiction’s most forthright (and challenging) critics and writers. Mandelo (whose critical skills are familiar to most of us from Queering SFF and Reading Joanna Russ) engages with what they contend to be the primary thematic concern of the body of Russ’s work in both fiction and nonfiction, SFF and realism: “Seeing the truth for what it is, and seeing the obfuscations for what they are” [Mandelo 2012, 13]—and making those uncovered truths visible to others. The process of demystification, to which both Russ herself and Mandelo refer, is of fundamental importance.

WE WUZ PUSHED is a short volume. The ebook runs to a mere 71 pages: I imagine the hardcopy might all but disappear on a shelf. But it’s one of those rare works of (soi-disant) academic analysis that’s a fluent joy to read, even for someone who possesses only marginal familiarity with the literature in question.[3] If Joanna Russ’s lifelong concern is with the demystification of sexist mythologies and the “re-vision” (to borrow a term from the late Adrienne Rich) of female subjectivity, Mandelo here demystifies Russ, viewing Russ’s development as a writer and a critic through the combined lens of interrogation of truth and articulation of truth—although Mandelo never presents it in precisely those terms.

“It’s not only about the personal, internal drive to shout the truth. It’s also about the social necessity for truth-telling, the modes available for truth-telling, and why it is culturally valuable.” [Mandelo 2012, 15]

It seems a little bit meta, in a feminist column, to talk about a feminist (writer and) critic writing about a feminist (writer and) critic (who in turn, during her own lifetime, wrote about feminist (writers and) critics). Perhaps even a little bit self-indulgent.

…I wrote that sentence. Then it occurred to me to ask: Is this a thought I would have talking about a Marxist/Jungian/(insert type of writer/critic here) discussing another writer/critic with similar concerns to their own? And the answer is: No, not really. Why? Because, sez the corner of my brain where the demons dwell, women writing about women (writing about women who write about women) aren’t IMPORTANT, and no one will care like they would if it was FOR BOYZ.

Bullshit, sez the rest of me. It is TOO important.

(So, Gentle Reader, you get the sentence and the digression.)

As I was saying before I digressed: it seems a little bit meta to discuss Mandelo on Russ here. But it strikes me that there’s never an inappropriate time to talk about the importance of interrogating truths and uncovering subjective positions—which are glossed over by received wisdom and received mythologies.[4]

Mandelo’s analysis doesn’t gloss, much. They don’t overlook the evolution in Russ’s approach to radical truth-telling, or the failures (by today’s standards, by critical standards, by Russ’s own standards) of Russ’s earlier radicalism vis-à-vis the truths she articulates later. Rather they contextualise both.

“We would gladly have listened to her (they said) if only she had spoken like a lady. But they are liars and the truth is not in them.” [Russ 1975/1990, 140]

The problem with telling the truth (however radical) is to whom you tell it. (Can you hear me, Major Tom?) WE WUZ PUSHED is eminently successful in what it sets out to do. It’s not Mandelo’s fault that their thesis begs the question of the relationship between Russ’s body of work, with its project of “radical truth-telling,” and its audience. I’m enough of a product of academia myself to think that, if this is a question explored in existing literature, the addition of a brief discussion of further reading would have added even more substance to WE WUZ PUSHED’s (already substantial) argument.

If the question hasn’t been explored already? Then I hope it’s something Mandelo contemplates returning to consider in future years. The more criticism that’s enjoyable to read, the more we all benefit.


[1] Especially for people like me, who acquired their theoretical and critical approaches through the time-honoured method of reading a crap ton of stuff, rather than through a formal education in the tools of criticism. I may snark about the impenetrability of Foucaultian and psychoanalytic litcrit, but there’s no denying English graduates have a head start when it comes to identifying and analysing patterns in literature. (Me, I’m still better with archaeological plans. Pictures make everything easier.) Fortunately in SFF, we’re blessed not only with academically-trained and inclined critics, but also with a vast number of enthusiastic amateurs. (Amateur in the “more for the joy than the profit” sense—which characterisation, to be fair, probably includes most of the academically-trained critics as well.)

[2] Not everyone wants to engage with everything analytically. Nor should they: we all need somewhere to go relax when we’ve had enough intellectual activity.

[3] Russ’s nonfiction is an absolute pleasure to read, but to my mild chagrin, I’ve never managed to make myself read more than one of her novels.

[4] Particularly as SFF and its critical margins becomes ever more concerned with intersectionality: the problem of subjectivity—and its relationship with different truths—remains a living, contentious question. More and more, critical discussion is beginning to address (post-)colonialism in traditional SFnal and fantastical narratives, and bringing discussion of those truths to the mainstream of the genre looks set to be as fraught as anything that’s come before.

Find Liz Bourke on Twitter @hawkwing_lb.


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