Guest Repost: Tansy Rayner Roberts–Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing Is a Book that Must Not Be Forgotten

The following is a response to Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing, reposted with permission from Tansy Rayner Roberts. Roberts is a Tasmanian writer with a fantasy trilogy called The Creature Court coming out from HarperVoyager starting June 2010, featuring flappers, shape-changers and bloodthirsty court politics. The first book is called Power and Majesty, and tells the story of Velody, a dressmaker who discovers a hidden war being played out in the night sky of the city of Aufleur, and of Ashiol, the exiled Ducomte who would do anything to avoid ruling the people who cast him out.

Now here’s Tansy 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 5 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 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 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 50’s, and other serious examples of sexism and misogyny in academia and the world of the arts of the 70’s. 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.

This entry posted in Feminism, sexism, etc, Fiction, literature, Media criticism. Bookmark the permalink. 

16 Responses to Guest Repost: Tansy Rayner Roberts–Joanna Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing Is a Book that Must Not Be Forgotten

  1. 1
    delagar says:

    I read Joanna Russ for the first time when I was fifteen or sixteen. In those days I was so determinedly *not* a feminist, because, you know, feminists were those bad people who hated men.

    The first book I read by her was The Female Man. I remember how much it unsettled me. I remember how I couldn’t finish it, and how I couldn’t stop reading it, either. I kept picking it up again, every few months, and reading it again, getting a little further each time. Each time I’d look for more books by Russ, and read a little more by her, and get angry again, and quit reading.

    Russ is why I’m a feminist today, probably, though I was years on the road.

  2. 2
    paul says:

    How far we haven’t come. In late 70s, no professor at a major widwestern university was will even to supervise a thesis on Woolf, for fear of damaging their career.

  3. 3
    Jay says:

    Just ordered the book :)

    Thanks for the suggestion.

    I’m reminded of author Inga Musico’s project – she only read women authors for a full year.

  4. Thanks for the comments, guys!

    Jay, I hope you get something out of it. That sounds like a great project – I think a lot of writers/readers could benefit from doing that. I know all the arguments against any kind of quota system, but there is nothing better than challenging your preconceptions and maybe training yourself to see more/differently than you did before.

    I already read mostly women and reading all men for a year would kind of defeat the point for me! I think the most challenging thing for me to do along those lines would be to read non SF-fantasy books for a year, to try to get over my resistance to Literature with a capital L.

  5. 5
    Mandolin says:

    Tansy: Have you considered reading non-white authors for a year? Or authors from outside the first world?

    ETA: Those are things I’m thinking about. Also, if you decide to do lit, I’d be happy to toss you some reccs. :D

  6. Mandolin: I did consider it, actually. The first reaction of restricting my reading in any way is quite confrontational, and that’s something I should definitely think about.

    I am actively trying to read works by non-white writers at the moment, and it’s actually an exciting time in spec fic right now with so many non-white authors start. It’s a big issue in YA at the moment, and I’ve been using blogs like the excellent Reading in Colour to find new books. Being me, I automatically gravitate towards books by *women* of colour, though I am determined to educate myself about Samuel Delaney and Octavia Butler once I’ve read my way through the complete Joanna Russ – I’m trying to do this with one classic author a year, and they are the next two on my list.

    I’d love to hear your recs! I don’t see myself doing a year of X and nothing else any time soon, but I am very keen to increase my experience of non-first-world and non-white literature. Especially if it’s by women. :D

  7. 7
    Mandolin says:

    BTW, Tansy, it was interesting to see this mirrored in the Atlantic:

  8. 8
    mythago says:

    Tansy, excellent piece. And I know what you mean. I remember being a little off-put by the sex scene between the protagonist and a teenage girl in The Female Man, and later thinking “You know, if this were in a book by Saul Bellow or Phillip Roth and the only difference was the gender of the older person, it would be hailed as Great Literature and scene the reader is supposed to ‘identify with’.”

    I’m picking up Nalo Hopkins now and enjoying her writing greatly. I also liked N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

  9. Mandolin: that’s a brilliant article, I have noticed a lot of discussion about this stuff in the lit world in the last year or two and I think it’s fantastic that female writers with such high profile are risking their reputations to point out these kinds of imbalances publicly.

    Mythago: I have the Jemisin book on my to read shelf and am even more excited about it since reading her interview in Locus (part of it here I particularly liked the part which isn’t reproduced on that page, but is in the full magazine, where she talks about the many and vibrant roles that women and POC had in history, and that fantasy has let itself down by highlighting only a small group of archetypes (ie. queen, princess, barmaid, unusual woman in chainmail/slave, foreigner, exotic other).

  10. 10
    Jake Squid says:

    I also liked N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

    Yeah, I can’t recommend this one enough.

  11. 11
    Mandolin says:

    (Tansy, just making sure you know this is Rachel S., under the pseudonym I use on this site, for clarity’s sake.)

    I agree that it’s good that it’s being discussed in the lit community, but I still feel like everyone either agrees that it’s a problem in a general, abstract way that does not need to be addressed with specifics, or else is really dismissive. At least that’s how I felt during my MFA, which concluded in 2008, but maybe I had a false impression because of where I was, or maybe things have really changed even in the last two years.

    Mythago: My favorite Nalo is SALT ROADS, which is one of those novels that makes me feel like if I can ever get that good, my life will have been worthwhile.

  12. 12
    Mandolin says:

    I guess I feel like in the spec community, I run into feminists who are really hardcore about their beliefs, and dealing with them head on in the fiction and in the system.. whereas by and large, even the awesome feminists (and they were awesome) I knew when I was doing my MFA in the lit world were more heads-down, work within the system, well you know the other side has a point, sort of quiet about it. I felt like there was less exploding boundaries and preconceptions. But on the other hand, when the system is your teacher and your teacher is sitting right in front of you asking why all the girls in your class are so angry and all their characters are so slutty, then that’s really different than being in a situation where the system is an editor or a speaker at a con who you have to deal with sometimes, but not every day, all the time, across the table, holding direct power.

  13. Heh I probably should have known that, Rachel, but did not!

    I think you’re absolutely right – something that Alisa K and I come up against over and over is “here we are, having the first act of this conversation AGAIN” and it seems impossible to move to the next stage.

    I have found there are heads-down-don’t-talk-about-it-too-loudly feminists and rage-against-the-machine feminists in both worlds, though I agree very much that there are lots of the heads-down variety in the academic world. That could be because I never experienced the academic world as an online thing, only in person, and I myself am far more vocal about EVERYTHING now than I was six years ago when academia was a part of my life. I also spend a lot more of my life online. :D

    I think it’s easier to be vocal about discrimination outside the workplace than inside it, absolutely. It takes an amazing amount of courage to speak up for your or other people’s rights when your income and professional standing are on the line.

  14. Mandolin and Tansy,

    Regarding the Atlantic article that Mandolin linked to and this whole topic in general, you ought to check out, if you don’t know about it already, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts. From their “About” page:

    VIDA seeks to explore critical and cultural perceptions of writing by women through meaningful conversation and the exchange of ideas among existing and emerging literary communities.

    VIDA was founded in August 2009 to address the need for female writers of literature to engage in conversations regarding the critical reception of women’s creative writing in our current culture.

    The need for VIDA was made apparent by the overwhelming response to a single email (reproduced below) written by co-founder Cate Marvin in August 2009. This email, which called for the need to create an independent forum for women writers of literature, was passed from person to person, from website to blog, with all indicating an immense enthusiasm for the ideas and call to action that Marvin had expressed in her letter. This remarkable outpouring of interest and support inspired Marvin to seek the input of poet Erin Belieu, who would then help her co-found the organization.

    VIDA’s structure is “grass-roots.” The individuals presently involved in creating VIDA are spread across the country, represent different identities, work from within a range of aesthetics, and share the common goal to create a forum at which all women writers may engage in much longed for conversations about literature being produced by women and its reception by the larger culture.

  15. 15
    mythago says:

    Mandolin – thanks for the rec, I’m working my way through Skin Folk. She also edited an awesome anthology called Mojo: Conjure Stories (and for my money “Daddy Mention and the Monday Skull” is one of the best. short stories. ever).

    I was initially reluctant to read Jemisin because I’m allergic to the new publishing trend of every book being “one in a series of however many books you can stand!”, but it stands on its own.

  16. 16
    Cate Marvin says:

    Russ’ How to Suppress Women’s Writing was seminal reading for me when I was a young writer and student. I have not doubt it influenced me, deep down, to co-found VIDA: Women in Literary Arts with poet Erin Belieu in 2009. Please check out our site and see what we have brewing!