“Long before I became a feminist in any explicit way, I had turned from writing love stories about women in which women were losers, and adventure stories about men in which the men were winners, to writing adventure stories about a woman in which the woman won. It was one of the hardest things I ever did in my life.” – Joanna Russ
“Russ’ ideas are radical. They’re scary in a genre that has the potential to be the most revolutionary of all but usually opts for the safety of the mainstream.” – Sue Lange
Joanna Russ died this past week. It made me quite sad to hear of it, because she was one of the first serious authors of fantastika that I read in high school, where I was fortunate to attend a sort of fantastic literature boot camp under the glower of my American History teacher Mr. Cahoon. He gave me a copy of The Female Man early on, and it profoundly affected my ideas about power, identity, and the edifying capacity of literature. Combined with a pile of other important books, such as On Wings of Song, Dhalgren and Nova, The Word for World of Forest, The Steel Crocodile, Friends Come in Boxes, Spacetime Donuts, and others, it pulled me to fantastika as both a world of words to love and a cultural perspective to explore.
I came back to her work again and again (mostly her criticism) until the early ’90s, when I attempted to abandon both fandom and literature for the halls of academia. Her criticism always shook me up with its combination of anger, uncompromising focus, and the recondite enlightenment that it inculcated in my mind. Russ’ perception was fiercely concentrated on the flaws she found in a literature that she found valuable, flaws that mirrored widely-reproduced perceptions about women and agency and the potential for literature to enquire about social issues. She was a critic in both the best and the toughest senses of the word, and her fiction was an extension of her concerns about the shaping and reinforcing (or questioning) of ideas through the written word. Her remorseless creativity served to illuminate the problems that she saw as inhibiting the potential of SF to achieve a greater understanding and analysis of the human condition, and in fact of the ways we construct that notion. As Farah Mendolsohn put it in her introduction to a volume on Russ’ work, “the refusal to go along with the storying of the world” was the backbone of her writing.
I am ashamed to say that for some years I abandoned her insights, and much of what I had gained from my geekish life as avid reader and fan, as I tried to make a new, mundane existence for myself in the social sciences (honestly, a sort of fantastical endeavoral in itself). I was away from fantastika for over a dozen years as I tried to be an “adult” and a serious graduate student in anthropology. But my attempt failed, partly because I could not walk away from the things that had, on some level, saved my life and given me the clarity of vision and the sense of purpose to pull myself away from the family and background that constantly clawed at me from the more distant past. That attempt to abandon all that had sustained me was foolish, because in it I tried to not look back (in fact, was essentially told by my training to not look back), and lost some of the breadth of vision and imaginative flexibility that the fantasika of my youth had gifted to me.
When I simultaneously abandoned the academic path (never really being more than a Sith apprentice) and returned to fantastika, I dove back into the identity end of the pool (as the article from my old Forces of Geek column above illustrates). I played lots of D&D, wrote some fiction, read lightly, reveled in geekery. But as I recovered my love of the literature, I gravitated back towards the sort of writing that had bent my brain in my early years; while I shifted more towards fantasy than SF, I started looking for the kind of writing that advanced my thinking, challenged me to cogitate and digest rather than just absorb, and had deep passion within it.
What I found, at first, were unexpected things, not like what I remembered from my first life in fantastika. Look at the list I cited above: only two women authors are there, and while some of the other titles have strong gender themes or characters who exemplify some of Russ’ ideals, and they are all pretty challenging works in their own right, they also reflect some of Russ’ criticisms of and concerns about the field (while often deeply resonating with her great piece on the aesthetic of SF). I found a literary field with more diversity than before, both in content and form. What I gravitated towards were works with some of the fierceness, that tackled some of those ideas and issues that had first unnerved me when I read Russ’ work. And now, I got more pleasure out of the encounters, found more of the elements that had made her work so eye-opening to me, and founds echoes of what Graham Sleight called “the tension between the world we have inherited and live in, and the world we can imagine (and, therefore, could construct).”
I see the effect her writing has had on me as I look at what I read and how I think about fantastic literature. I’m contemplating the question of what I would include on a fan’s essential bookshelf (for another SF Signal endeavor) and the books that come up in my mind are all ones that I would not have considered without the series of jolts and discoveries her work has given me. My first instinct would be to go for an array of “classics,” but I find those to be less and less essential. I would rather recommend books that shake up the genre, that do what Sue Lange talks about in her look back on Russ, to be scary and strange and discomforting, books such as Elizabeth Hand’s The Glimmering, Nnedi Okorafor’s Who Fears Death, J.M. McDermott’s Last Dragon, James Morrow’s Only Begotten Daughter, and others. I am not saying that these are books in “the tradition of” Russ, but rather that they are books that I have gotten more out of because I read her work, because she said that understanding how, say, a female character, functions in a narrative can open up that narrative and show you what it is trying to do. I feel that I would be a more impoverished reader and thinker without the early intervention of her writing in my life, a distinction that she shares for me with Samuel Delany.
Both she and Delany taught me about critical distrust and the need to truly analyze a text, to take that verb seriously as understanding not just how a narrative or an idea works, but what it is comprised of, how it was built, and what resonance the design has with the history behind it. Russ also taught me to admire richness and complexity as well, not merely to damn things but to appreciate the potential within them, whether a genre, a story, or a moment in time that could be combined with others to create a fiction that incites reflection and consernation in the imagination. She showed me that anger has its place in assessing literature, as does a sense of play.
I’ve been thinking about her a lot as I reflect on some recent books I have read too, such as Ekaterina Sedia’s intricate, subversive House of Discarded Dreams. Sedia’s book gradually both unnerves you and draws you in, creating a mesmering intimacy that does not shout out its concerns or conflicts, but that brings you to a point where you have to wonder what the word “fantasy” means and, eventually, what our lives are composed of. The main character, Vimbai, is a conflicted young woman adrift (literally) in a realm where dream and reality seem inseparable. And she is not there as an object, or as a loser, or to obtain something, she is the correct protagonist for the telling of the tale. To read a book like this,for me, is an affirmation of what Russ told us was possible in her work.
I feel that there is more fantastical writing in the world now that echoes Russ’ desire for there to be stories in the world that do not fall prey to formula, but rather hunt conventions, feast on them, make new life from them, construct something divergent that has the potential to disrupt easy assumptions or facile progressions. She wanted us to look at women differently, but not separated out from the stories we told. In the end, her work,while bitter and raw sometimes, was a call for us to move forward and shake off the assumptions that made women in fantastika into not-women, into cardboard cutouts, into plot devices. I see this call increasingly heeded, and I am happy that Joanna Russ gave me the tools of perception to see it, and to revel in it, and to continue seeking out the difficult, the painful, and the human in fantastic literature.
It is saddening that these lessons only come into sharp focus now.