How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ
In How to Suppress Women’s Writing, the late, great Joanna Russ talks about how important it is for the writing woman to have role models. In this spirit, I dedicate this post to three of Russ’ clear heiresses (besides, you know, her annual collection)—Ana, Jodie, and Renay, especially when they assemble the patriarchy-smashing Voltron that is ladybusiness. I thought of them after reading each chapter of this book. Ladies, Russ clearly belongs to you.
How to Suppress Women’s Writing finds feminist speculative fiction critic Joanna Russ laying out the nine ways women writers are discouraged, devalued, and defanged by the powers that be—prohibitions, bad faith, denial of agency, pollution of agency, the double standard, false categorizing, isolation, anomalousness, and lack of models. (These methods can be used to suppress the writing of minority groups as well.) Using examples culled from literary history and her own context as a feminist speculative fiction writer, Russ tears into these barriers and shows how stupid they are—and also how lasting they are.
I have known for quite some time that I need to read Joanna Russ. I actually gave my friend Kathryn a copy of The Female Man for her birthday a year or two back, to spread the feminist speculative fiction love around. But I always felt alternately intimidated by her backlog and guilty that I hadn’t tackled her sooner. When I checked it out of the library, I meant to leisurely work myself up to the expectations I had developed for her, but when I couldn’t renew it (because a kindred soul had put a hold on it), I decided to finally hunker down and read it in one sitting, intimidation and guilt be damned. (Incidentally, that’s the proper thing to do with those feelings.)
There needs to be a word—I’m sure there’s one in German—for what a reader feels when she meets a book with which she agrees violently, passionately. It’s not simply finding an echo of yourself in someone who has since passed; there’s a certain way it sets you on fire and expands your world. As Russ herself says, “It’s very difficult to convey to others that sudden access of light, that soundless blow, which changes forever one’s map of the world” (137). Honestly, I wish that I could just quote this book’s entry in my commonplace book, because it’s all so useful, incisive, and beautiful.
In discussing the nine methods of suppressing women’s writing, Russ also discusses how reasonable people buy into these myths. How easy it is, to see Jane Austen as an anomaly whose writing simply came out of nowhere, when you don’t consider that she read Fanny Burney and Mary Brunton—when you don’t consider that she was part of a community. Of the nine methods (all worth dissecting and reading about), isolation and anomalousness were the newest and most blindingly obvious to me. When female writers (or writers of color) are presented as sidebars, as curiosities, in the literary canon, they are divorced of their own context, of the tradition from which they came that runs parallel to the one treasured by the establishment. To the common selection of a single work to represent a female artist’s ouvre, Russ quotes J. J. Wilson: “Nobody ever paints just one picture” (124). It’s Jodie’s Excepto-girl narrative imposed on the historical imagination; this woman writer made it to the canon because she was an exception to her sex. How I hate that phrase. What a back-handed compliment, expressly designed to suppress a group while taking any important contributions it can give. It is “the final means of ensuring permanent marginality” (85).
Russ does not reserve her sharp teeth solely for literary history. Peppered through the book are quotes from her writer friends and discussion of popular trends in writing in the late seventies and early eighties. Russ shares a story about how an editor rejected a story he asked for, because he thought it didn’t accurately portray 1950s American female adolescence, despite the fact that’s when Russ was a teenager. Chelsea Quinn Yarbro shares a story about how she was told she just needed to get laid and have babies to get rid of her working ambitions.
It’s amazing to look back from a vantage point of exactly thirty years and see what has and hasn’t changed in terms of how women’s writing is respected. For instance, how women’s sexuality can be embraced and celebrated in the mainstream—if it’s the right kind of sexuality—is something I’ve been hashing out in terms of modern comedy lately. Of course, Russ is very focused on white, middle-class ciswomen and, while she does stress that these methods can be used to suppress other groups, she doesn’t pull too many examples of that. However, the last chapter, “Aesthetics”, covers her decision to read more writing by black women, and how she begins to see the parallel, not inferior, literary traditions that exist for marginalized groups. Most of the chapter is made up of quotes from her reading, much like my own commonplace book. The last perfectly conveys why representation in media is so, so important:
…if we were to have lots and lots of them (stories) from Indian women there would be … beauty … pride, the feeling that comes from watching the stream of blackbirds traveling in the fall, unable to see the beginning or the ending, just many, many, passing overhead, hearing their voices.
—Flying Clouds, Biographical Note, Lesbian Fiction (142)
It’s important to see your own blackbirds in the sky.
Bottom line: How to Suppress Women’s Writing is useful, incisive, and beautiful, compiling the nine most common methods used and then ripping them to shreds. Required reading for feminists critiquing media.
I rented this book from the public library.