Joanna Russ

University of Texas Press (1983)

ISBN: 978-0292724457

Reviewed by Tansy Rayner Roberts

This is a book I should have read fifteen years ago. This is a book someone should have put in my hands the week before I started university, and locked me in a room until I had read it. I should have read it again before I started my Honours degree, and every year I worked on my PhD. When I walked out of my head of school’s office, numbed by his awful pronouncement that the work I had done over five years was not enough, that the thesis was simply not worthy of a doctorate because of its scope and subject matter, I should have gone home again and read this book from cover to cover before I began my campaign to prove him wrong.

(He was, as it turned out, wrong, but that is a story for another day.)

I don’t believe in “should” when it comes to books. Who are you to decide how I should spend my limited reading time? But yeah. Someone should have told me about this book.

(Except, of course, they did.)

Part of the reason I did not read it for so long, even once I had heard that it existed, and even after I had bought it to put on my To Read shelf, is that I thought I knew what it had to say. I’ve spent my life training myself and being trained to see women’s work and art as valuable. It’s not like I need to be convinced that what this book has to say is true. But the experience of reading it was still important and I’m glad I finally found the time.

This is not an angry book. It is not a book that condemns men. It is a book that shows how our culture’s traditional (patriarchal) way of reading and studying and archiving literature has forced limitations upon all of us, preventing us from understanding the importance of a huge percentage of the work written in our language. Men and women both have been convinced that women’s writing (and indeed, art in general) is less valuable and less significant. And it’s really fascinating to read about some of the ways in which this has happened.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing isn’t a perfect piece of academic work. It has a definite unpolished feel about it in places. I was surprised at how little science fictional content it contained, tending instead towards examples from literature, poetry and the art world, though quite a few names relevant to the SF field jumped out at me from time to time, such as Vonda McIntyre and Samuel Delaney. Considering the generalist nature of the book, the odd framing narrative referring to aliens with funny names felt a touch out of place.

It is very powerful, though, packed with information and brain-expanding material. The arguments are elegantly divided by theme which makes the document very readable despite the academic content and tone. The message is very strong and succinct, and I found the historical references quite compelling, building up the story of the wealth of women’s writing and art that has been lost, erased from history, and merely forgotten, not because it wasn’t “good” enough, but because the very definition of what is “good” is skewed so heavily male that a female artist has to be turned into something akin to a mythological figure in order to be included – and that the price of being included in “canon” is often to have her work and personal history misrepresented, and her influences ignored.

While I knew already that a lot of work by women had been forgotten or quietly “disappeared”, I still have a tendency to say “yes, but” when people call up the argument that women simply write less. I don’t think I will ever agree with that argument again, after this book. While I have often voiced the idea that a lot of women’s work has been removed from history, and dismissed as unimportant, I had no idea quite how much we might be talking about. How have I not put this together before? I knew there was a huge history of novel writing by women in the 18th century, the year that the novel was invented, and yet it stunned me to learn here that three quarters of novels written in that century were by women. Where are they now? It’s a REALLY good question.

This book is full of really good questions. It challenges the reader to think beyond the culturally accepted definitions, and look at books in an entirely different way.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing was written in the early 80’s and obviously by its references is grounded in the twentieth century. Russ refers to her own university years in the 50s, and other serious examples of sexism and misogyny in academia and the world of the arts of the 70s. Sadly, while the book has most definitely dated, it has by no means become irrelevant. Many of the imbalances referenced in this book have been at least partly rectified, and I would love to show the Russ of 1983 how much progress has been made in the cultivation of women’s studies and women’s texts in the last 27 years. But this is still a very necessary work.

While Russ does provide information and arguments that can still be used today, in relation to current issues, I believe the greatest value of this particular text is as a tool to re-examine and interrogate the history of literary canon. History is important, and I think we forget what effect history has on the literature and art that is valued and remembered. Discussions of “canon” whether they be literary or genre-based, often give the impression that somehow the canon of Important Works just appeared, through the democratic process of people buying the books they liked best, and those books being reprinted over and over. It is important to remember that “canon” is an artificial construct, and by and large has been one decided upon by old white men who think they speak for everyone.

They do not speak for me.

Towards the end of the document you can feel Russ’s palpable impatience and frustration with what she is trying to say, and at the end of one of several afterwords piled upon each other like a tower of blocks, she says plaintively that she cannot finish it and charges the reader: “You finish it.” It’s an important statement, and one which establishes that the book is supposed to be the start of a conversation, not a complete text in itself. One of Russ’s other afterwords struck me as being particularly important: having spent the whole book telling us about the ways in which culture has marginalised women, she adds a coda about how her own preconceptions are part of the cultural marginalisation of race. She gives an anecdotes about how the work of Zora Neale Hurston seemed so very thin, uninteresting and lacking in substance to her upon first reading, and how she then set out to educate herself about the writing of black women by reading book after book after book, and upon re-reading the same book by Hurston, discovered that it in fact had a great deal to say, and that she was now capable of listening to it. I admire Russ’ ability to put herself out there and show her own flaws and failings as a reader, in support of her discussion of how our entire culture has limited itself in the appreciation of a particular kind of writing. It also shows her holding up her hands and saying – I am not just accusing those straight white male university professors over there of being the cause of this problem, I am saying that we are ALL the cause of this problem, and we need to stop and rethink the entire history of writers and literature.

The part I perhaps have not yet expressed well enough is just how good a read this slender volume is. I raved about it to my mother over coffee this afternoon and ended up giving her the book to take away with her – my mother, who I recall from my childhood once told me that she had read all the science fiction in the library and was bored with it now, had never heard of Joanna Russ. Russ is funny, and snarky, and bitchy, and clever. I particularly enjoy her smackdowns of Virginia Woolf, noting how A Room Of One’s Own (another of those vital feminist texts I’ve never read because I assumed I knew what it was going to say to me) has helped contribute to many of the damaging myths about women writers. I would happily read the expanded version of this book with half a million footnotes, so enjoyable is her writing style.

I have made a vow to stop saying that anyone SHOULD read anything, but I am making an exception with this one. If you have ever been interested in the history of books and literature, if you have ever started or finished a degree in the Arts, if you have ever voiced an opinion about a book or an author, or ever intend to do so in the future… then, yeah. Actually. You should read this book.

And then, every decade or so, you should read it again. It’s a book that must not be forgotten.