The Speculator: On Joanna Russ

A new collection takes stock of the pioneering SF writer and feminist

On Joanna Russ
Edited by Farah Mendlesohn
Wesleyan University Press, 298 pp., $29.95

On Joanna Russ is a collection of essays that manages to revel in everything ever done by the first openly gay, feminist spitfire of fantasy and speculative fiction. As a whole, the book avoids partisan temptations to segregate or compartmentalize the various aspects of Russ’s life and work. As editor Farah Mendlesohn notes in her introduction, Russ is “a thoroughly three-dimensional author and cannot be viewed through only one lens.” By refusing to ignore her contradictions (and refusing to elevate Russ the Radical Feminist over Russ the Fan-Girl), this book invites the broader appreciation and readership its subject deserves.

Born in 1937, Russ discovered SF by 13, entered college at 15, finished Yale Drama School in her early twenties, and was teaching at Cornell by the time her second novel, And Chaos Died, came out in 1970. A bold, ambitious woman, her public persona was shaped by the male-dominated fields she decided to infiltrate. Swiftly embraced by genre institutions like The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (where she sold her first story in 1959), she was applauded and published by important male editors like Damon Knight, Harlan Ellison, Frederik Pohl, and David Hartwell. Russ became a vocal fixture on the wider scene, attending star-studded Milford writers’ workshops and winning major awards (Nebulas, Hugos).

Mendlesohn brings 17 writers (including eight men) to her critical enterprise, which picks up where Jeanne Cortiel’s 1999 Demand My Writing: Joanna Russ/Feminism/Science Fiction leaves off. The essayists all believe that Russ’s career trajectory has much to teach next-generation feminists. And all approach Russ’s seven novels, three nonfiction collections, and three short-story collections impressed by how each book bristles with epistemological invention. Her fiction twists the most shopworn genre conventions — like time travel, sword-and-sorcery, or all-female planets — into scenarios that intentionally subvert stereotypical expectations. Comparing these texts against copious amounts of analytical opinion from her various interviews, letters, book reviews, and pedagogic essays, Mendlesohn’s team constructs a fascinating picture of this pioneering “scholar/practitioner” as visionary cultural critic.

Samuel R. Delany and Paul March-Russell address the semiotic arena, wherein Russ’s most disquieting tropes (such as routinely homicidal female protagonists) can be safely deconstructed. Gary K. Wolfe, Edward James, Dianne Newell, and Jenéa Tallentire speak for the interdependent, incestuous world of SF fandom. Lisa Yaszek, Helen Merrick, Pat Wheeler, and Sherryl Vint go for the women’s studies crowd, who look more closely at the social impact of Russ’s texts than the texts themselves. Keridwen N. Luis and Sandra Lindow both build arguments around issues of developmental psychology. The remaining essays all engage in fairly straightforward literary criticism, although some more clumsily than others. The lesbian reader looking for identity politics will probably glean something useful from all of the above, because these writers seldom forget lesbians exist.

Pivotal clashes of will and perspective are teased out of Merrick’s “The Female ‘Atlas’ of Science Fiction” and the Newell and Tallentire piece, “Learning the ‘Prophet-Business’: The Merril-Russ Intersection.” Russ’s early need to formally debunk popular works by other female authors is partially credited to her belief that there might be room for only one female King of the SF Hill at a time.

In “Russ on Writing Science Fiction and Reviewing It,” Edward James points out that between 1966 and 1980, Russ reviewed more than 100 books for the prestigious Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Russ’s witty, incisive summations proved her widely read in pulp-magazine classics, source material she used to enhance her own fables with resonant borrowings. James notes that as a genre critic, Russ was “prepared to tolerate and even enjoy shlock” — largely because she found it politically important to discuss the problematic clichés of shlock as a guilty pleasure.

Reviewing one author’s sloppy Lovecraftian pastiche in 1968, Russ remarked: “It is one of the worst books I have ever read and very enjoyable, but then I did not have to pay for it.” Such pre-blogosphere snarkiness became a minor Russ trademark. When fans took offense and wrote in to disagree, she sometimes met them head-on. In 1979, she organized “categorical” responses to letters protesting her disdain of derivative Tolkienesque trilogies. To those demanding, “Don’t shove your politics into your reviews. Just review the books,” she replied, “I will, when authors keep politics out of their books.”

And yet, in 1986, Russ could tell Larry McCaffery she regretted using a repressive Islamic setting to mirror 1950s American sexism in her 1978 novel The Two of Them: “I have to be careful about falling into the same sexual or racial stereotypes I criticize,” Russ confessed, “. . . the ‘All Arabs are terrible’ kind of thing.”

This willingness to rethink and reassess the pervasive nature of bigotry and oppression is a recurring motif for Russ, something she insists mythic storytelling is obligated to engage. Although not fiction, On Joanna Russ also embraces that obligation, because nothing meaningful can be said about Russ without it.

Published in: Village Voice, February 3, 2009

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart Turns 50 This Year

On the eve of his PEN American Center celebration, the Nigerian author sits down with the Voice

At Town Hall on February 26, the PEN American Center will host a star-studded tribute to Nigerian author Chinua Achebe. This literary gala, co-sponsored by Anchor Books and Bard College, will gather fellow luminaries like Toni Morrison, Ha Jin, and Colum McCann to honor the 78-year-old polymath, who remains one of African fiction’s most authentic and prophetic voices. Continue reading “Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart Turns 50 This Year”

L.A. Consequential

Hipsters and hustlers, actors and addicts: Wanda Coleman’s new short-story collection

Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales
By Wanda Coleman
Black Sparrow Press, 160 pp., $22.95

Are the 13 short stories in Wanda Coleman’s Jazz and Twelve O’Clock Tales good enough to make white America reassess black America? To paraphrase a typically wry line from the book’s cop-culture parable “Shark Liver Oil,” Coleman knows she has the power to entertain, but only does so hoping “. . . the consciousness of that other community across town might be raised.” This slender volume of elegant prose does what decades of Jerry Springer and hip-hop have failed to do: reveal painful social truths without promoting human pathology. Continue reading “L.A. Consequential”

Meet the East Village “It” Couple of Young-Adult Lit

Living large in Y.A.

Teen-fiction authors Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier are living the dream. Major industry talents from Holly Black (author of Valiant) to David Levithan (Boy Meets Boy) routinely drink and schmooze in their spacious East Village digs. They cultivate fans and colleagues on their heavily trafficked blogs, enjoy upscale working vacations in Mexico, and migrate yearly between New York and Sydney. They rack up frequent-flier miles visiting libraries and book conventions to promote their latest literary efforts. And, most importantly, they finance this haute-bohemian lifestyle by writing speculative and fantastic adventures for smart adolescents. Continue reading “Meet the East Village “It” Couple of Young-Adult Lit”

Noir Mom

A Detective Pursues Her Own Daughter’s Abduction in Crossing the Dark

Crossing the Dark
By Heidi W. Boehringer
Serpent’s Tail, 244 pp., $14.95

Heidi W. Boehringer’s first novel, Chasing Jordan (2005), was a harrowing post-feminist meditation on how the modern nuclear family provides no safe haven for any of its members. The plot point she used to symbolize this systemic failure was a loving mother inadvertently causing the death of her own child. Crossing the Dark, Boehringer’s second book, now transplants the same basic theme and distaff perspective into the breezier realm of genre fiction, namely the police procedural. Once again, the lead character is a working mother — with all the mental and material insecurities inherent in that condition. But this time the mom is a recently divorced cop, and the crime around which the novel pivots is the kidnapping and serial rape of her 13-year-old daughter. Continue reading “Noir Mom”

Solea Completes Jean-Claude Izzo’s Trilogy of Mediterranean Noir

With Solea, the third and final volume of his groundbreaking “Marseilles Trilogy,” out this month in English, Jean-Claude Izzo’s dark, revelatory portrait of the city of his birth is complete. Izzo died of cancer in 2000, but his strategically multiracial and pop-culture-savvy French crime novels spearheaded a Mediterranean noir movement that has since spread to Italy, Spain, Belgium, Algeria, and beyond. Although full of picturesque seasides, beautiful women, gourmet foods, and thriving rai and reggae nightclubs, Izzo’s town isn’t exactly the southern France of glossy tourist brochures or President Sarkozy’s conservative agenda. This is the young, disenfranchised, and disgruntled Marseilles that ultimately exploded in 2005’s nationwide race riots, provoked by National Front agitation and years of institutionalized oppression. Continue reading “Solea Completes Jean-Claude Izzo’s Trilogy of Mediterranean Noir”


The Devil & Dave Chappelle
By William Jelani Cobb
Thunder’s Mouth Press, 321 pp., $15.95

If any of the topical essayists currently appearing in New York dailies were graced with the wit, sensitivity, and insight of William Jelani Cobb, I’d rush to the newsstands every morning. Never annoyingly glib, cranky, or prolix, this former Queens resident brings persuasive humor and scope to a range of topics that beggars the often sloppily framed polemics of Gotham’s op-ed-page pundits. Continue reading “Op-Education”


Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century
Edited by Alex Steffen
Abrams, 596 pp. $37.50

In the wake of a freshly Democratic wind blowing through American party politics, the inspired optimism of a massive how-to handbook titled Worldchanging: A User’s Guide for the 21st Century should garner a national audience well beyond any stereotypical tree-hugger fringe demographic. In fact, this year’s media foregrounding of Al Gore as the “acceptable face” of aggressive ecological reform in this country is an index of just how much the reach (and grasp!) of eco-warriorship has expanded (alongside the Internet) in the past 10 years. Continue reading “Worldchanging”


The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction
By Justine Larbalestier
Wesleyan, 295 pp., $19.95 paper
Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril
By Judith Merril and Emily Pohl-Weary
Between the Lines, 282 pp., $29.95 paper

As inspirational as reading science fiction can be, the genre’s primary texts won’t tell you all you need to know about the “literature of possibility.” That’s because no other genre generates as much creative input or feedback from its fandom. Yeoman editor David Hartwell of TOR books, an SF tastemaker since the late ’60s, likes to recall that a few decades ago America’s SF production was so small that every fan could read every book and story published within a year, and potentially respond to every idea introduced into the field’s mind stream. Continue reading “Spaceballs”

Pretty Persuasion: Going for the Girl Market

If you passed Trina Robbins on the street, chances are you wouldn’t suspect she was the foremost pop historian of women in comics. Nor would you peg her as the author of Go Girl!, an offbeat superhero comic book aimed at adolescent girls. Today most comic books featuring female protagonists are written by men and depend heavily on the fetishized sex and violence that give television hits like Xena and Buffy a certain cross-gender appeal. But Robbins–whose last major mainstream effort was a Wonder Woman comic about domestic violence–is fighting to prove the commercial viability of comic books that neither burlesque nor hyper-sexualize their female characters. Continue reading “Pretty Persuasion: Going for the Girl Market”