Russ and the Russians

I have a week with more deadlines than capacity to fill them. A tried and true way to meet these deadlines is to make them just a little easier. When I came across a short piece I wrote 11 years ago (30 April 2011) I re-read it for memory’s sake and then I thought, “This is perfect for the Treehouse series on books.” I also thought, “Next Monday is impossible. Will it help?” And it does and it’s very appropriate for this year. We all need more tools to help us deal with this dangerously-developing world, after all. Not all books we read at this time need to be comforting.

I originally posted this to Even in a Little Thing, my blog at LiveJournal.

“This morning I can’t stop thinking about Joanna Russ. I am one of the many who was deeply influenced by her without actually really enjoying her fiction.

It’s funny, but I had been reading Russian writers for several years before I discovered Russ. This doesn’t mean I was at all old when I discovered Russ’ writing. What it means is that Dostoievsky and Chekhov were easier reading for a fourteen year old than Russ was for a nineteen year old. Dostoievsky and Chekhov matched my assumptions of person and of narrative and of who benefited by what behaviour far more closely. They still do. Chekhov writes about my family, I think.

I didn’t have any guidance in reading any feminist writer. Some don’t need it, but Russ is really not one of those. Her works stand alone, but, in standing alone, they’re not easy. I discovered her by chance and have never had a proper conversation about her writing with anyone. They made me angry and edgy and I wanted to talk about this and find out why. No-one around me was reading her. No-one was interested in a conversation. In my late teens, my friends’ idea of intellectual freedom was Isaac Asimov and Gene Wolfe and Ursula le Guin. This was the Le Guin of the late seventies and early eighties, before she realised that women could be wizards.

It was hard for Russ to deliver her message in that environment, and it was hard for me to see what she was saying. This is why I didn’t enjoy her writing, even as I read every word. It pushed me far beyond places I knew and showed me that the world didn’t have to look that way. It’s easier for feminist readers these days, I think, but that challenge and the wonder when I realised what she was doing and that it was possible to change paradigms when writing fiction, and the loneliness when there was no-one I could talk to about it – all that was the good fortune of my growing years.

Since then, I’ve always put the challenges Joanna Russ taught me into my fiction, my non-fiction, my teaching, my life. I’m not her, however, and I try to make them unobtrusive. I believe that it’s possible to change paradigms without it hurting so much.

I must be very naive, because I also believe (thanks to Russ) that it’s possible to change paradigms without forever going back to the simple: feminism #101, cross-cultural understanding #101, crowing about being clever for getting something that should be understood rather than saying “Right, I know that – time for the next step”. I don’t expect rewards for it because of that silence in my late teens – that emptiness alerted me to the effects of writing change. The presentation of the simple and the crowing of how clever one is attracts more notice, but it doesn’t do the job.

Joanna Russ didn’t present me with the lure of material rewards. She taught me about living in a world which is different.

Her writing made me uncomfortable because it touched so closely on what hurts.

I’m not at the stage yet where that discomfort can leave me. We still accept the gender bias in novels and in the book industry almost unthinkingly. Some of our assumptions have been eroded or have crumbled or have been torn down, but our Berlin Wall is still standing, for the most part. Russ carefully cut a door in that wall, however, and it’s possible to walk through that door and see the universe differently.

I really have to revisit Russ, as an adult. The world is a lesser place without her.”


6 thoughts on “Russ and the Russians

  1. Oh, you have opened the door to a deep conversation. I discovered Russ in my early 30s, not my teens. I wish I’d found her in my 20s, when I was desperately looking for some good feminist fiction and didn’t yet know to look in science fiction. (Most of the mainstream feminist work of the 1970s was so consumed by its anger that I found it unreadable, while the science fiction channeled that anger into incredible stories.)

    Russ was so angry, but she did wonderful things with that anger.

    1. I wasn’t angry enough early on. I assumed that being hard working and able and a good person was sufficient. There’s a whole subject just in that anger and what it taught us, isn’t there?

      1. Oh, yes. I wasn’t all that angry, either — definitely associated the anger with my mother’s generation. I’m angrier now, but my anger is much broader than it would have been in the 80s. And I still might be too much of an optimist for We Who Are About To, even if my optimism has taken a big hit in the last few years.

        1. I still find other women supporting systems that fail most women and that are also, alongside that, not good for professional writers. I encountered a feminist the other day who explained that a job for a writer that didn’t allow time for professional practice was not for questioning. Society as a whole has stepped backwards and we’re separating the financially possible from the sensible and even from the useful again. Women are the single largest group affected, but every not-prestigious-enough minority and every person with the wrong kind of disability or the personality that is not a perfect fit are also being shoved out doors at a massive rate. Russ is one of our voices again, because we need her toughness.

  2. I was inspired by your piece to incorporate a few words about Russ’s We Who Are About To … in my post today.
    I am not sure what the person who said “a job for a writer that didn’t allow time for professional practice was not for questioning” means. Was that person saying a writer is lucky to get any job, so don’t complain about being overworked, or was it more than that?
    I was very lucky in my last job, where I worked as a legal editor and reporter. The work was intellectually stimulating and once it was done my time was my own. I say lucky, but it was for an employee-owned company with a good union as well, meaning our rights were protected. Still, it would have been even more wonderful to make a living writing about more of the things I wanted to write.

    1. It was more than that. It was an implied argument (whether intendedly so, or not) that this was the way the job was, and that anyone applying for it should simply accept the subsequent loss of career was a writer. What it reminded me of was the attitude to female teachers in the early 60s in Australia. One could either work or be married at that time. Marriage meant the loss of a job. Although the fact that professional expertise is not capable of being maintained at university level except by sacrificing family and social life (ie doing it as a second job) has additional implications. Some professions are worth the employer incorporating training/continuing education and some are not.
      The requirements for the job are enormous. PhD, additional proof of research experience, industry knowledge, admin experience, teaching experience, grants, professional experience, publications and more. Dead-ending part of those requirements upon entry into the job is not going to ensure good teaching. From the moment of entry into that workplace, the writer’s learning about industry and their capacity to enhance their writing skills and to maintain a publication record is severely jeopardised. To be honest, this has always been the case for fiction writers who turn to academia, but it was difficult to do all the things because uni jobs are time-sucking at their best. In this instance, it’s impossible, because there is no university support for what used to be a significant factor in those jobs.
      I’m going to watch for jobs like this, not because I want one, but because the departments that employ along those lines are going to be less good for students. I won’t suggest them for my writer-friends.

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