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