Wednesday, September 3, 2008

"The Country You Have Never Seen" by Joanna Russ

I've had some massive writer's block trying to write this review. I think it's keeping me from writing other reviews, so I'd better get past it. It's down to a combination of factors that are making me extraordinarily nervous about writing about this book.

For one, there's my enormous respect for Joanna Russ. The Female Man was a revelation to me—not 100% in touch with the GenX female experience, but some of what she said still rings incredibly true. And her writing is so visceral! I've also appreciated all of her short fiction that I've read.

Next there's the success of my review of the James Blish/"William Atheling, Jr." critical collection The Issue At Hand. I got a lot out of that book, and several people told me how much they appreciated the review. Considering that Atheling and Russ are often mentioned in the same breath as being part of a better, truer tradition of reviewing—people who used reviews to profitably further an agenda—I expected this collection to be equally inspiring.

But The Country You Have Never Seen is significantly different. For one, it's less focused than the Atheling collection. It's a collection of reviews, essays and letters spanning twenty years or more. It includes reviews written for outlets as diverse as F&SF, the Village Voice and College English. The essays mostly involve feminism and history. The letters are great, I'm glad they're included, but they're mostly reactions to things she feels are stupid (and in the letters she doesn't pull any punches).

So this isn't a collection of her feminist criticism, or her genre criticism, it's a collection of a lot of different kinds of non-fiction writing. That's nice, but not quite what I was expecting. Her reviews of genre materials, mostly done for F&SF, don't differ markedly from what Liz Hand writes nowadays. (Liz is one of my favorite dead-tree fiction magazine reviewers, but her place in history will be for her fiction, not for her magazine reviews.) Basically, when she mentions feminist themes in her genre reviews, I barely notice—what she's saying is completely uncontroversial to me, and some authors still have these sorts of problems today. E.g. Her review of “Options” by John Varley, part of Terry Carr’s Universe 9:

“Options” seems to maintain that even in a sexually egalitarian society the only people who can really treat the sexes equally are those who’ve experienced life as both—though at the same time the convincing, mildly drab lunar society Varley describes is clearly not egalitarian, a contradiction with which the author doesn’t fully deal. Biology matters, or should, but it doesn’t, or shouldn’t—Varley’s metaphor of androgyny brings with it hidden assumptions that the problem is a physical problem. Varley has been admired for his female characters and “Options” is very well written (there are details that are a real tour-de-force for a male writer), yet the story is really the fearful husband’s, not the serene and informative wife’s, as its lack of emotional involvement and its summaries of what should be dramatized make clear.
One could easily read or write that today. It was interesting to note, in passing, that it wasn’t her feminism that generated the most angry letters at F&SF. The opinion that caused her to have to write a Defense of Reviewing (every word of which is as true today as the day she wrote it) was when she dissed heroic/epic fantasy as both bad and bad for you. Oh, the outcry! The outraged fans! No matter how things change, some things seem eternal.

Of course, she has an amazing talent for getting exactly to the point of something. Consider this review of a Harry Harrison edited anthology:
Harry Harrison’s One Step From Earth is a collection of nine stories bound together loosely (and not altogether truthfully) by the idea of matter transmission. There is another hypertrophied introduction, hypertrophied in this case because it has nothing to do with the stories; in fact the matter transmitter described in the introduction is of the kind used in only on the nine. Two of the tales don’t really need matter transmission at all. The stories are routine, unoriginal, mildly interesting, and readable.

That’s the whole review, and that last sentence probably describes at least 75% of everything published in the short fiction magazines, even today. I’m thinking of abbreviating it RUMIR to save myself the trouble of writing variations on that sentiment over and over.

Then consider the opening of her review of Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism:
That’s not an issue.
That’s not an issue any more.
Then why do you keep on bringing it up?
You keep on bringing it up because you’re crazy.
You keep on bringing it up because you’re hostile.
You keep on bringing it up because you are intellectually irresponsible.
You keep on bringing it up because you are shrill, strident, and self-indulgent.
How can I possibly listen to anyone as crazy, hostile, intellectually irresponsible, shrill, strident, and self-indulgent as you are?
Especially since what you’re talking about is simply not an issue.
(Any more.)

Here you can see the style that also informs works like The Female Man applied in a non-fiction milieu. This also is a perfect example of the sort of thing I’m ambivalent about. This sequence rings absolutely true, and is still used to get folks of differing opinions to shut up. However, it can also be used to calcify one’s thinking. If circumstances change, and people are trying to get you to update your thinking, you may think you’re being attacked like this. For instance, in my view workplace harassment has changed drastically over the last generation. The law is now firm, and the culture has changed. There are still issues about women in the workplace, but they’re more subtle now. Sometimes though, it seems like people want to refight old battles, insisting that the problems they used to fight are still the Big problems—that may be easier than admitting that you’ve won and moving on to the next annoying thing that seems to defy solution. However, when other forces are saying “Look, you’ve got sexual harassment laws. Ipso facto, there are no problems facing women in the workforce and if only 10% of your engineers are women that must be the chick’s fault,” the fact that the folks who should be trying to move forward seem to be stuck in the past isn’t helpful. So when the person in the middle (me) tries to say to them, “Look, physical groping just isn’t the central problem anymore” the old-guard can assume I’m using the tactic Russ laid out above, and keep from changing.

Now, feminist criticism is not one of my main concerns as a reviewer, and it's not likely to become a focus for me. Certainly I notice when authors get weird or particularly old-fashioned about gender (I'm looking at you, Joe Haldeman's Marsbound!) and I don't hesitate (too much) to point it out. However, gender weirdness can come from any direction these days (see my review of Sarah Hall's Carhullan's Army), and generally the problems are more subtle than what so often pissed Russ off. So from this collection I learned more about reviewing for the mainstream, reviewing non-fiction, and some of the discourse surrounding the feminist movement of the 70s and early 80s. It's valuable, and interesting, but not as directly relevant to my current endeavors as the Atheling collection.

This is no fault of Russ', and I hear little voices in my head shrieking about my provincialism. I rebut the little voices! I'm not dissing or ignoring mainstream literature; in fact my various genre readings have several times prompted me to go out and find "mainstream" titles so I get a more complete background. (Ian McDonald's Brasyl finally inspired me to read Heart of Darkness, for instance.) I am well aware of the fact that genre literature does not and should not exist in a vacuum, or in its own ghetto.

Instead it's a combination of what I'm looking for right now, which is help in becoming a better reviewer/critic of specifically genre literature, my ambivalence with old-school feminism, and the wide-ranging nature of the collection as a whole that have led to my trepidation about writing about it.

Bottom line: this is a good collection. It showcases many facets of Russ' non-fictional writings. She had a phenomenal range of topics and styles that is admirable. It is a particularly valuable window into the feminist movement of the 70s and the frustrations they faced from within and without. However, it's not quite what I’m looking for right now. I think I'll wait a few years, then get a copy of How to Suppress Women's Writing. Being more focused, I’ll probably get more out of it.

Ugh. This review is crap, but I’ve got to get it off my plate now. Apparently, for whatever reason, I am not capable of writing a good review of this book right now. This is a shame, because it deserves better than this. To Joanna- my hearty apologies. I’ll be better the next time I review one of your books, I promise!

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