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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 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.


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I have read this story it is very nice.It is good and nice blog post. It would be interesting for example if more female science fiction writers seemed more interested in well, science for example, than they are in their own identity issues.

MBA Distance Learning

@cora: You seem to want to have it both ways.

You say on the one hand: "Those are excellent examples of what Joanna Russ called "the double-standard of content" in "How to Suppress Women's Writing", i.e. that traditionally male themes and experiences are valued higher than female themes and experiences." And on the other you write, "And finally we have what Russ called "false categorizing"".

Doesn't seem like there is anyway to escape that trap accept by praising Russ.

If you write deliberately about 'female themes and experiences' then don't be surprised if you find yourself categorized as 'about female things'. The problem with writers of feminist sci-fi is that they are deliberately writing 'feminist sci-fi'. That's not a false categorization imposed on them, but a deliberate self-categorization. They have categorized something as being about an exclusively female experience. In fact, one of the characteristics of third wave feminism is to ascribe to females some exclusively femine experience which is not of the province of men. So, instead of seeing 'alienation', or 'rejection', or 'frustration', or 'wonder' or whatever it is they experience as some communal experience shared by all of humanity, they percieve it and write about it as a private experience unique to women.

Moreoever, the notion that feminist writers are somehow repressed for speaking out about feminist politics or whatever like this is frankly ridiculous. A quick glance through the Hugo and Nebula award winners comes back with a very long list of female writers writing in exactly this feminist mode about 'female themes and experiences'. One of the surest ways to get noticed in the sci-fi biz if you are female, is to write yourself into being a feminist sci-fi genera writer who writes about 'female experiences' and 'female issues'. The surest way for a woman to be recognized as a deep and serious writer - BY OTHER WOMEN NO LESS - is to write about feminist. But if you do that, I don't see how you can then complain that you've become a narrow subgenera.

Nor for that matter do I fail to notice the inherent sexism of claiming that things like science, politics, war, philosophy and so forth are inherently 'male themes and interests'. My wife has a Ph.D. in biology. I don't need to refute the silliness of claiming that the traditional themes of science fiction are inherently in some fashion male domains with any long list of counterexamples. It ought to be refutable on the face of it.

As for the developing genera of Paranormal Romance and Dark Porn, it is not an exclusively female domain. The original model alot of this stuff is probably John Norman's Gor series with various inputs from Anne Rice in some cases via Vampire the Masquerade. I presume from its setting description of the Gor stuff that its mysogynist crap though I presume that that there is probably someone out there that wants to refute that. I have written elsewhere that The Dresden Files are male centric Wizard Porn/Male Fantasies, though I'm quite positive that quite a bit of Fantasy Romance is consumed by either gender regardless of the gender of the protagonist. I know plenty of men reading Twilight.

Be as that may, it isn't false categorization to call something what it is. There is a very different tone, style, and focus to these books compared to traditional fantasy and science fiction. The writers have set out with different goals and in some cases a different audience in mind. I don't in the slightest deny that they aren't fantasies or science fiction, but they definately manage to carve out a recognizable subgenera.

Likewise, if you set out to write a sci-fi work which is very deliberately a feminist tract, you aren't being pushed into the 'genera ghetto'. Instead you have deliberately gone out and set up your tent there. I've too often tried to go into that ghetto and come back assualted by some mysandrist screed.

There are plenty of women writers who write science-based science fiction. Joan Slonczewski, who has a PhD in bacteriology or some such, comes first to mind. Vandana Singh is a physicist and can be as hard sf as Greg Egan on occasion. Connie Willis, certainly a major figure in the field, has done some interesting work with probability theory.

Pushing female writers (and writers of colour, for much of what Russ says in "How to Suppress Women's Writing" also applies to them) into a genre ghetto of some sort is one of the mechanisms of false categorizations that Russ describes. However, the same mechanism is used inside the different "genre ghettos" to exclude female writers or push them into a subgenre considered somehow less worthy.

The "That's Not Really SF" claim, interestingly, is also used by people who are afraid to get "stigmatized" as SF writers. I don't know if there's a connection here or just coincidence...

Actually, many of the comments here illustrate why the works of Joanna Russ, both fiction and non-fiction, remain relevant.

Take the comments that women SF writers write mainly about feminism and being female and that their themes are no broad enough. Those are excellent examples of what Joanna Russ called "the double-standard of content" in "How to Suppress Women's Writing", i.e. that traditionally male themes and experiences are valued higher than female themes and experiences.

There's also a dose of what Russ called "bad faith" in there, i.e. that women's writing is dismissed as too emotional, too angry, too confessional, too feminist, too whatever to count as proper literature (or in this case proper SF).

And finally we have what Russ called "false categorizing", i.e. that the works of female writers are pushed into some other category. For example, "It's not SF but a feminist screed" or - this is actually the most common way to dismiss female fantasy writers today - "It's not really fantasy but paranormal romance or vampire porn [bonus points if there isn't a single vampire in the book], so let's put it on a separate shelf, so (male) fantasy readers don't have to look at it."

"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."

Dear Ms. Mendleson: I have read Willis, Bujold, Le Guin, Cherryh, Hambly, Kress, Tepper and others and I have to disagree. What perpetuates the idea among men that women don't write SF is that too often they are content to write about feminism and being female. When female writers start applying their talents to writing on and about a wider palette, they are likely to find a broader interest. It would be interesting for example if more female science fiction writers seemed more interested in well, science for example, than they are in their own identity issues. So long as every discussion of female sci-fi writers in inherently a discussion of feminism, don't expect this to change.

As long as "honor" killings continue to exist anywhere in the world, the stories of Joanna Russ continue to be relevant. Period.

"Those of us who like Cherryh really like her."

I like her well enough. She writes in such a way that her gender is not front and center of her fiction at all times, which puts her several steps ahead of most of her competitors. And, she's clearly a nerd - interested in a wide variaty of knowledge. More to the point, she's written several good stories. I can look over my left shoulder and see quite a few Cherryh novels on my shelves.

I just don't think she's ever quite written anything of the first rank. She's close. 'Downbelow Station' is very close to being a master work, and 'Cyteen' might have been had it not reminded too much of other young prodigy works like 'Dune' and 'Ender's Game' and worse yet fizzled out toward the end of the story. But I think she's mostly a serial silver medal winner.

Bujold has perhaps an even better claim, but so much of her work reads like potato chip novels and for all her awards, I really only think she actually deserved the Hugo/Nebula for best novels once - for 'Mirror Dance'. She's a master story teller that constructs a story arc with Victor Hugo skill and a total nerd who writes about engineers with thewes of steel better than maybe anyone in the business has, but she's also to be blunt often junior high prose weaving little more than romance novels in a fantastic setting. I love her works, but she seldom dazzles or forces me to think and I can't help but think that part of her acclaim is that she can get away with what in a male writer would be dismissively called juvenile fantasy.

Frankly, were I a woman who wanted to write SF, I would pretty much dispair. There seems to be a 'secret feminist cabal' that gives the impression that if you are female and want to be published in sci-fi, you must write overtly feminist tracts and diatribes or else you aren't publishable. It's fortunate that there are a few like Cherryh and Bujold forging a better and more novel path, or its very like that mainstream SF from a woman's hand would just wither and die leaving a narrow 'feminist SF' for a certain readership.

As for the rest, I have a signed copy of Delany's 'Babel-17' about 5 feet from me but I certainly do not esteem it or shun it because it was written by a black homosexual. I esteem it because its one of the best sci-fi books ever writen and it was a pleasure to meet the artist because he is an artist and not because of something trivial like his skin color. Similarly, I esteem Gerrold's 'War Against the Chtorr' so well that I ran a RPG based on it, but no one is under any obligation to fit stories by any group of people except authors into an anthology of stories. If it so happens that anthologies don't contain as many representatives of 'people that look like you' as you would like, then fix that problem by writing the stories rather than politicing for some sort of artist affirmative action or quota system.

@ David Starr: Norton and Brackett

>True, but Alice Mary North used a male
>pen name, and "Leigh" is ambisexual;
>Does that exclude them from the sorority ?

Why should it? I'm sure both Andre Norton and Leigh Brackett figured it would help sales to use a male sounding pen name. Part of being a successful writer is getting people to buy your stuff. If a male pen name helps, what's wrong with that?

Just to correct some gross misinformation above.

(1) The New Wave produced such writers as J.G. Ballard, Mike Moorcock, M. John Harrison, and many others who were and are giants in the field.

(2) Some of you are putting words in Farah's mouth with regard to how she might or might not feel about writers not commonly seen as feminists. Just because she's edited a book about an author commonly perceived as a feminist doesn't mean your conclusion naturally follows.

(3) I think typifying Russ's work in the way you do, D, kind of proves the point of a book like the Secret Feminist Cabal.

Those of us who like Cherryh really like her. If you ask us to name SF writers at random, her name will come up in what marketing folks call the evoked set right away. I'm not sure if she'd pass the ideological filters displayed by Ms. Mendlesohn with respect to feminism, but her writing is not short of strong female characters with whom readers of both sexes can identify (if not always love).

A bit of time-travel ... Go back 35 years, when I read SF by the metric ton. There were women in the field even back in that stoneage, rather a lot of them. LeGuin (I never understood what all the fuss was about), McCaffrey (yes, Virginia, she wrote some real honest-to-gosh SF before hitting the big time with that dragon stuff), St Clair, Tiptree (very odd material, until I realized that she was a woman hiding behind a male pen name, after which it seemed less odd), Wilhelm (OK, not great), Sherrod (a couple of books in a lump, then not much), and the oldies, Hull, Brackett, and of course Alice North in her various guises. Very little of it was memorably top-drawer, but most was at least passable - and don't misunderstand me to be belittling the feat of turning out passable fiction. And of course there was Russ. Back then we didn't have the stock phrase "hostility issues," but that's what Russ's fiction was about. She didn't write SF in any useful way - and I say that as a reader who lived through "New Wave" and such claptrap. I was interested in scientific themes and their social implications, and occasional good writing. But Russ didn't need readers, she needed an analyst. I hope "feminism" has progressed a bit since that era, because judging by The Female Man, there's nothing there but self-perpetuating fantasy and blatant misandry.

Can women write SF? More to the point, can they write SF which appeals to the same audience as male-written SF? From some of the late St Clair's shorts, I'd say - damn right. You'd never confuse it with the masculine stuff, but it holds its own just fine.

@ Celebrim: More science

Golden Age definition of Science Fiction:
Start with the world as it is, change _one_
important scientific assumption, and write
about the effect that has on society.

@ David Starr: Norton and Brackett

True, but Alice Mary North used a male
pen name, and "Leigh" is ambisexual;
Does that exclude them from the sorority ?

Certainly more guys write science fiction than girls, but Andre Norton and Leigh Brackett wrote an awful lot of good stuff.

"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."

Dear Ms. Mendleson: I have read Willis, Bujold, Le Guin, Cherryh, Hambly, Kress, Tepper and others and I have to disagree. What perpetuates the idea among men that women don't write SF is that too often they are content to write about feminism and being female. When female writers start applying their talents to writing on and about a wider palette, they are likely to find a broader interest. It would be interesting for example if more female science fiction writers seemed more interested in well, science for example, than they are in their own identity issues. So long as every discussion of female sci-fi writers in inherently a discussion of feminism, don't expect this to change.

If you want a broader audience, I would not glory in all the feminist science fiction. It smacks of seeking and recieving aclaim for political reasons rather than literary ones. I would glory in the works by women that aren't. My experience with Sci-Fi geeks is that they have more interests than in the politics of the moment.

Excellent interview. Thank you.

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