Farah Mendlesohn on Joanna Russ, Interviewed by Graham Sleight
On Joanna Russ, the subject of the interview, and The Secret Feminist Cabal.
As a fan of the writer Joanna Russ, I was delighted to see that Wesleyan University Press had published a selection of critical essays her work. Below find English critic and reviewer Graham Sleight's interview with the editor of On Joanna Russ, Farah Mendlesohn. I would also note that Aqueduct Press just published Helen Merrick's excellent The Secret Feminist Cabal: A Cultural History of Science Fiction Feminisms--a great companion book to the volume on Russ in that it provides further context for Science Fiction feminism. - JeffV
Joanna Russ (1937 - ) is one of the most important and influential writers of feminist sf as well as being a longtime critic and teacher at the University of Washington. Her books include the novels The Female Man (1975), The Two of Us (1977), and The Two of Them (1978); the collections The Adventures of Alyx (1976), The Zanzibar Cat (1983), and The Hidden Side of the Moon (1987); and the non-fiction books How to Suppress Women’s Writing (1983), To Write Like a Woman (1996), and The Country You Have Never Seen (2007). A couple of years ago, the critic Farah Mendlesohn asked me if I wanted to contribute to a book on Russ’s work the she was planning to edit. I wrote a chapter on Russ’s short fiction, and the book, On Joanna Russ, was published in 2009 by Wesleyan University Press. I recently talked with Farah about the book and her own experience of reading Russ. - Graham Sleight
Graham Sleight for Amazon.com: How did it come about that you decided to compile a book on Joanna Russ's work?
Farah Mendlesohn:I was sharing an elevator at Readercon with Samuel R. Delany and he asked me what I thought of Russ's work. By the time we'd drifted to breakfast, eaten breakfast, and embarked on coffee, I appeared to be editing a collection on Russ.
Amazon.com: How much had you read Russ's work before you embarked on editing this book?
Mendlesohn: All of it, both the fiction and the non-fiction. I am not sure when I read The Female Man, but I'd read all the novels by the time I went to University (thank you Women's Press) and most of the short stories by the time I had left. I read her critical work for my undergraduate dissertation, which would have been partially about Russ, but she didn't quite fit my parameters which required people to have been writing for thirty years, and her fiction career was rather more compact than that.
Amazon.com: What sort of importance did she have as a writer for you?
Mendlesohn: When I was young, she turned me into the kind of feminist I am. I grew up as a second-generation feminist, so I missed out on the epiphany of many of my colleagues. I do wonder if this is one reason why Russ has always been less widely popular than Le Guin, in that she doesn't really cater to entry-level feminism. Her target could be understood as the Irenes of this world (the protagonist of The Two of Them), who have grown up thinking of themselves as equal, and taking the rhetoric for granted, and then slowly realising that they've been sold London Bridge.
Amazon.com: How did you decide what aspects of Russ's work needed to be covered, and in what sorts of ways?
Mendlesohn: I wanted to cover all the texts. I was less bothered by a particular approach because I'm not the kind of critic who thinks that there is just one way to go about something. For me, all critical movements are filters: apply one, and one aspect of a text shines through; apply another, and a different aspect is revealed. I did care however that we represented Russ as deeply involved in both feminism and Science Fiction. One of the issues that makes me grind my teeth in frustration is the tendency of some (not all) feminist readers to be unaware of the context in which older women writers worked, a context in which while they may have been battling for recognition they were also welcomed colleagues. More important however, is what I perceive is actually a worsening situation for women writers in which their work is being sidelined.
I take the absence of women on the Hugo ballots (the major award in the field) very seriously. I think it's possible to make an argument that the SF world as a whole is actually less welcoming of women than it was twenty years ago.I don't mean that men don't read women, or discriminate against them consciously, but that too many men, when asked about good SF, don't remember women (and I have evidence of this from the reader survey I undertook which can be found at the back of my most recent book, The Inter-Galactic Playground). This takes place at all levels: take a look at your local mass market bookshop or local library shelves. How many of the sf books stocked are written by women? For the purposes of this exercise, ignore the fantasy. In the UK, one publisher has decided it's ok to produce nice repackaged sets of SF "classics" which include not a single woman: I am well aware that their argument is that they are repackaging their bestselling authors, but the effect is geometric and long lasting. It perpetuates the idea that women don't write SF, and so makes it more of a "surprise" that they do, and hence reduces the chance of their work being bought. Women writing SF should be normal by now, but it actually feels less normal in the bookshops than ever. The recent fuss over the Mike Ashley-edited Mammoth Book of Mindblowing Science Fiction is a good example (the book contains not one story by a woman). My own stance is that the packaging isn't Ashley's fault, but it is his fault that when he thinks of thrilling stories, the names of neither women nor people of colour pass through his cortex. I won't bother to comment on the men who think this is just fine. I'm straying here, but I wanted Russ positioned very solidly as an sf writer. The feminism is the kind of SF writer she was, and even then only one aspect of the kind of writer she was. But over and above all, she was an SF writer.
Amazon.com: To pick up something in your last answer: you speak about Russ as someone deeply involved in sf as well as feminism – for me, this was one of the things the book uncovered. The breadth of her sympathies in Science Fiction and Fantasy--her fondness for Lovecraft, for instance--wasn’t something I’d expected. Was this an aspect of her work you were aware of?
Mendlesohn: It would be more accurate to say that it never occurred to me that it would be otherwise. I have what I consider the typical SF fan trajectory: myths and legends when I was a child, met my first proper SF book when I was twelve, by fourteen felt any text without a rocket ship or a tentacled monster was peculiarly lacking. Of course my favourite writer would share my experiences and sensibilities. But what Russ does, and why she is so important, is to demonstrate that all this material that is so often considered trashy, is part of a particular aesthetic that can be as well written as any Henry James novel.
Amazon.com: One of the things that comes out in this collection is the intensity of Russ’s work and, often, its anger. Are there any writers in contemporary SF who you feel have the same sort of quality?
Mendlesohn: Perhaps Margo Lanagan? She is an Australian writer for young adults who clearly is very angry at the way children and teens are treated. One of my favourite non-fantasy writers is Anne Fine, and in The Tulip Touch she points to the hypocrisy of adults who think certain things are too strong for children to read about, but do little to prevent children experiencing. Lanagan’s work tackles that head on, as the controversies around the brilliant Tender Morsels have displayed.
Amazon.com: Some of the response to Russ's work today is along the lines that although her concerns--particularly her feminist concerns--were relevant when she was writing a few decades ago, that isn't so true now. How would you respond to that?
Mendlesohn: I could write a whole essay. But see above for comments on the short lists, on books in the shops, on the complacency of many men. I could talk about the way men who I really, really like, hang about in all boy groups at Worldcon, or one of my current issues, the ways in which many of the texts about SF cheerfully confine women's work to the chapter on feminism and somehow don't see women's writing as part of the mainstream of the field, even when it's winning the prizes, or the men who accept places on public panels in shops or major events, and never, ever think to say to the organisers Er, don't you think we should have a woman or two on this panel? Or even, and yes, I mean this, might say to the organiser, You should have a woman on this panel. I'll step down and you invite X or Y. (I also offer this tactic to any man who discovers an anthology he has been invited to participate in contains no women. Unless it happens to be titled, Best Work By Men, of course.)
Which I suppose takes me to one way in which Russ's work has shifted: I think The Female Man is a difficult novel to read now. It's anger can be overwhelming and it operates with extremes which white western women have come to cope with by pretending they only happen "over there" (in class, this would be my cue to explain how we do too have 'honour killings' in Britain, and they happen in nice white families all the time, and let's not use that term hey, because it helps us to pretend it’s Someone Else’s Problem). But The Two of Them does speak to the condition of many women. For all it's flaws (see immediately preceding comment on Someone Else’s Problem) it speaks to that moment when you realise that all the rhetoric of equality you've been brought up on, somehow doesn't explain how you don't have a single female senior manager.
Amazon.com: In closing, what's the first book by Russ that you'd recommend a reader new to her would pick up, and why?
Mendlesohn: The Hidden Side of the Moon. I use several of the stories with my students and all of them have gone off to read more Russ. My favourites are “My Dear Emily”, “The Little Dirty Girl”, and “Mr Wilde's Second Chance”. All three of the stories draw attention to her astonishing skill with language, form, structure. All three of them are poignant in different ways. All three get under the skin.