Farah Mendlesohn, ed., On Joanna Russ

Anyone who wants to discuss science fiction since the mid-1960s, particularly with reference to sf’s increasing willingness to ponder questions of sexuality and gender, had better know their Joanna Russ. Happily, Farah Mendlesohn has, in On Joanna Russ, made that not only possible, but enjoyable.

In her introduction, Mendlesohn introduces a writer who wrote that “she does not trust people who can write without anger.” Mendlesohn notes that Russ’ own fiction stands as a body of criticism of science fiction. She makes one point that I can’t agree with completely, on the intertextuality of Russ’ work: if one can catch the references and follow the archaeology of the work, and if one can dig into the poetics, the reading will be a richer experience. That holds true for almost any reading experience, or for that matter, any experience of art. While I readily grant that this is particularly important with Russ, I don’t think, as Mendlesohn insists, that one must do those things. Russ’ fiction, as discomforting as it can be and as subversive as it is, is quite able to stand as das Ding an sich, complete and in control of its own universe.

The first group of essays, “Criticism and Community,” presents an historical overview of Russ’ emergence and impact as a writer and critic, starting with Gary Wolf, who in “Alyx Among the Genres” presents a vivid picture of Russ’ identity and practice as writer of science fiction and a participant in the larger sf community. Wolf establishes Russ as a manipulator of genre tropes, working from the inside, as it were, toward what became ultimately a frontal assault on the “maleness” of the field. Edward James, in “Russ on Writing Science Fiction and Reviewing It,” takes Russ’ reviews for The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction as her key works of “criticism” during the period 1966-80; she was, after all, a writer commenting on the work of other writers.

Lisa Yaszek, in “A History of One’s Own: Joanna Russ and the Creation of a Feminist SF Tradition,” notes Russ’ centrality to any feminist history of science fiction, and her key role in establishing such a thing. Yaszek does make a key point about the relationship between politics and aesthetics here, but, although she makes reference to the historical context, I’m not sure that she’s really inside it. She seems at several points to want to appropriate commonalities for feminist sf that rightly belong to the field as a whole. Helen Merrick’s “The Female ‘Atlas’ of Science Fiction? Russ, Feminism, and the SF Community” follows with an examination of Russ in the larger community and the degree to which her writings, both commentaries and responses, pointed up the degree to which androcentric viewpoints dominated the field. (Merrick includes a quote from Poul Anderson’s response to “Images of Women in Science Fiction” that is simply lethal — Anderson, although his heart was [probably] in the right place, just didn’t get it. Historical perspective again — he was pretty much in tune with his time, which is why he didn’t get it.)

Diane Newell and Jenéa Tallentyre, in “Learning the ‘Prophet Business’: The Merril-Russ Intersection,” discuss the interactions of who were at the time two of the most prominent women in the field, Joanna Russ and Judith Merril. Merril, through her best-of-the-year anthologies, was a strong supporter of emerging talent and instrumental in pushing sf beyond its previous norms, with a stronger focus on social contexts. Russ, on the other hand, was investigating the possibilities within the prevailing norms and coming up with some unsettling answers.

The second section of the book, “Fiction,” presents a number of viewpoints from which to investigate Russ’ fiction. Sherryl Vint’s “Joanna Russ’s The Two of Them in an Age of Third-wave Feminism” points up a generation gap in feminist thought: where Russ and her cohort were very aware of the systemic nature of sexism in science fiction (a reflection of the society at large, to be sure), the “third generation” feminists subscribed to a sort of exceptionalism that de-emphasized that very tendency. (Think of the relative potency of “activists” versus “advocates.”) Pat Wheeler returns us to the theme of anger in “‘That Is Not Me, I Am Not That’: Anger and the Will to Action in Joanna Russ’s Fiction.” Wheeler sees that anger as a means of transgressing boundaries and achieving visibility. (And that’s almost a perfect equation: anger translates to action which translates to attention which achieves visibility.) Rebellion is the focus of Keridwen S. Luis’ “Les Human Beans? Alienation, Humanity and Community in Joanna Russ’ On Strike Against God.” It’s another perfect equation: alienation as the basis for rebellion, and rebellion as a search for independent identity, formulated here in the interlocked questions “What is a woman? And why would anyone want to be one?” (Hint: being a “woman” is something you learn, and it’s something that only exists in relation to “man.”)

You can’t get away with a critical anthology that doesn’t include some aspect of psychology, usually analytic theory. Sandra Lindow’s “Kittens Who Run With Wolves: Healthy Girl Development in Joanna Russ’s Kittatinny” uses developmental psychology as a tool to examine girls and socially acceptable norms as subverted by Russ’ young adult novel, Kittatinny. Andrew M. Butler, in “Medusa Laughs: Birds, Thieves and Unruly Women,” begins by noting a passage from Russ’ What Are We Fighting For?: “A combination of Freud, Chodorow and Cisoux is not enough equipment for the study of anything.” Somewhat shamefacedly, Butler bases his commentary on the psychoanalytic theories of Sigmund Freud and particularly Hèléne Cisoux as expressed in “The Laugh of the Medusa” (Chodorow is out of the mix on this one, although Jacques Lacan provides part of the foundation) in a fairly close reading of the iconic figure of Medusa and the role of laughter in Russ’ works. Think of the role of laughter in puncturing absurdities, and the idea of Medusa (complete with snaky hair and all the phallic imagery that calls up), and I think you can see where Butler is headed.

Jason P. Vest’s “Violent Women, Womanly Violence: Joanna Russ’s Femmes Fatales” explores Russ’ use of violence, real or implied, as a means of expression (and note that violence is territory traditionally reserved for men), and also as a means of achieving equality with men. He points out that in Russ’ hands, violence is not imitative of men but an expression of the characters’ status as mature human beings. Russ effectively subverts the traditional idea of the femme fatale, from a woman who uses deceit and seduction to lure men to ruin to one who uses men’s tools — violence and aggression — to retain (regain?) control of her life.

Paul March-Russell, in “Art and Amity: The ‘Opposed Aesthetic’ in Mina Loy and Joanna Russ,” uses the poetry and writings of Mina Loy, an early twentieth-century poet and bohemian, to establish a critical and historical framework to view Russ’ work, centered on the idea of “amity” as “a form of loving that goes beyond the socially determined forms of love and friendship, and beyond the existing cultures and traditions of love.” It is, as is so often the case with Russ, about abolishing certainties. Samuel R. Delany, being Delany, has produced, in “Joanna Russ and D. W. Griffith,” a gem of an essay that is not terribly amenable to summary: it’s about Russ as a stylist and her uses of style, built on a parallel to Griffith’s Intolerance. He begins, “My claims for Joanna Russ are large. She is one of the finest — and most necessary — writers of American fiction to publish between 1959. . . and 1998. . . .” And then he proves it.

Russ is not a writer who offers a great deal of comfort, an idea that pops up time and again in this collection, and one that is the main focus of Graham Sleight’s “Extraordinary People: Joanna Russ’s Short Fiction.” Russ’ short fiction is continually “arguing out . . . of a series of tensions” and doesn’t offer easy resolutions.

And with Tess Williams’s “Castaway: Carnival and Sociobiological Satire in We Who Are About To. . . .” we are once again examining subversion, this time on the basis of carnival theory, developed by Mikhail Bakhtin with particular reference to the works of Rabelais, although Williams makes a strong case for it here. Think of “Carnival” as the festival of reversed norms. Subversion is also the theme of Brian Charles Clark’s “The Narrative Topology of Resistance in the Fiction of Joanna Russ,” focusing on Russ’ recognition of and subversion of edges and boundaries, both formal and thematic. In Clark’s view, Russ makes fiction that works in the seams between forms, and his argument is convincing. (And as you might guess from the title, yes, it’s fairly dense, but persuasive nonetheless.)

Mendlesohn has put together a fascinating group of studies, solidly built and convincing — so much so that when I didn’t agree, I found myself forced to defend myself to myself. I’d go so far as to say that anyone who really wants to understand what’s happened to science fiction (and fantasy — there’s a large measure of spillover) since about 1968 would do well to study this book.

(Wesleyan University Press, 2009)

About Robert Tilendis

Robert M. Tilendis lives a deceptively quiet life. He has made money as a dishwasher, errand boy, legal librarian, arts administrator, shipping expert, free-lance writer and editor, and probably a few other things he’s tried very hard to forget about. He has also been a student of history, art, theater, psychology, ceramics, and dance. Through it all, he has been an artist and poet, just to provide a little stability in his life. Along about January of every year, he wonders why he still lives someplace as mundane as Chicago; it must be that he likes it there.

You may e-mail him, but include a reference to Green Man Review so you don’t get deleted with the spam.