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Joanna Russ For Beginners
H. Kassia Fleisher

Joanna Russ
To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction,
Indiana University Press,


Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing (University of Texas Press, 1983) once saved my life.

That said, herewith comments upon To Write Like a Woman. Which collection of essays, most of them published in the 70's, has almost nothing to do with writing like a woman. It has primarily to do with science fiction, and has occasionally to do with women's issues as they are portrayed/utilized/betrayed by science fiction. Plus miscellaneous feminist scholarship and commentary.

How to utilize this book: 1) Put it on your shelf if you loved The Female Man, are a die-hard Russ fan, and must own every word she has ever scribbled. 2) Thumb through it if you are a science fiction fan who has heard most of these 25-year-old notions already, but want to be able to quote them accurately. Note with particular amusement the discussion of Star Trek vs. Star Wars: "although Star Trek is addictive...it is also, relative to Star Wars, politically liberal, morally serious, and in its best episodes so much less addictive than most of the TV competition that the idea-men of the industry...almost instinctively distrust it." Stay up all night discussing this, particularly the "addiction" analogy. 3) Teach an introductory course in science fiction and have students read closely these discussions of the categories of science fiction, of the political implications of science fiction (raceclassgendersexuality), the cultural work of science fiction - all of which will be new to students. Assign also the work of Samuel Delaney, whom she quotes widely. 4) Call all of your heterosexual friends and read to them the essay "Somebody's Trying to Kill Me and I Think It's My Husband: The Modern Gothic," in which Russ visits (or for us, re-visits) the Gothic novels of the 70's, as read by a huge mass of middle-class heterosexual women - who related to these novels because they had married - and discovered that their husbands were completely alien and threatening to them. Better yet: call your lesbian friends. Chuckle aloud.

What not to do with this book: Do NOT call Sharon O'Brien, author in 1987 of the widely acclaimed biography Willa Cather: The Emerging Voice (Oxford University Press; recently re-issued by Harvard), and tell her about Russ's introduction, written in 1995, to her own 1986 essay "'To Write Like a Woman': Transformations of Identity in the Work of Willa Cather." In said 1995 introduction, Russ rants against a scholarly publishing arena which refused to address Cather's (or anyone's) lesbianism - and suggests that no one (but her?) has done so since. From the bookjacket (even!) of O'Brien's book: "Dealing openly and seriously with [Cather's] lesbianism, the book explores the importance of female friendships [sic] in Cather's life and work and assesses the impact her need to conceal her sexual identity had on the creative process." From Russ's 1995 introduction: "Since 1986 I have learned not only to expect homophobia from a good many feminists but also to dislike the whole courtly minuet of introductions, explanations, notes, bibliographies, and so on which seems to have been devised largely to keep the peasants from bursting into the ballroom and clumping about with you know who." Now, while this may be 100% true-blue in the observation department, the failure to refer readers to those women/feminists who have managed to clump about a bit in the ballroom - ten years ago - well, I'm tempted to burst into Russ's ballroom and....

Most useful sentence in the book to me, from "What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write?": "There seems to be two alternatives open to the woman author who no longer cares about How She Fell in Love or How She Went Mad. These are 1) lyricism, and 2) life." This was first published in 1972. In 1997, the bulk of innovative writing by women remains either impressionistic or experiential: we talk either about how we experience life, or what (narrative) in life we have experienced. Are there no other options? Things are changing. But not by much. And not too fast. Thus the non-point of this response to a collection of essays which together have no discernable point or reason for having been collected (to this responder - holler if I missed something): I wish Russ would write a book called To Write Like a Woman, exploring the question of why (lyrical/life) things are not changing. By Much. Too fast. I could use the help in saving my own life. Again.




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