Joanna Russ (1937-2011)

Reliable sources are reporting that Joanna Russ died this morning at a hospice facility in Tucson, Arizona. She was 74 years old.

I have a Strange Horizons column due in a few days, and I'm going to scrap what I was working on and instead write about Russ, so I'm not going to try to say anything very coherent here. Russ was extraordinary. I've had every reaction it's possible to have to a piece of writing with her work, at one point or another, I think. When I first encountered "When It Changed" and The Female Man, I was in high school and they terrified me in a way that just about nothing ever had -- I had always unconconsciously thought that I was the default audience for books: me, the white guy. Suddenly I was reading something where I didn't think I was the default audience; not only that, the people in these stories who were like me were despicable. Later, I would learn to read Russ a bit better, and come to find her short stories especially to be works of great power and art. I returned to The Female Man in adulthood and found it fascinating and brilliantly conceived and written; still unsettling, too (for good and bad reasons. Russ herself later condemned some of her truly awful portrayals of trans people).

But it wasn't a linear path to enlightenment. In the early days of this blog, I wrote a post about We Who Are About To... that was a perfect example of How To Miss The Point. It's the only post that I remember going back years later and adding a prefatory note to basically denounce myself -- I've written plenty of things here that I later came to think of as questionable, wrongheaded, incomplete, obtuse, or just plain stupid. Anybody who's written as much nonfiction as I have over the years is probably in the same position, if they're honest. We grow and change, we think and rethink, we have bad days. But that post about We Who Are About To... seems to me just so blatantly, utterly wrong that I couldn't let it stand without some correction, especially because I think part of the reason I misread it is that even then -- even now! -- Russ's work is strong enough to really get to me.

I hope I've progressed enough through various experiences and discussions over the last five or six years that I won't make quite as blatant a misreading of Russ's work as I did with that novel, but who knows. In a 2009 post on Russ's extraordinary story "My Dear Emily", I said that I had "a passionate admiration for some [of Russ's] individual short stories and an inability to appreciate many of the novels". I think I was still feeling guilty about the We Who Are About To... post, and I think I overcompensated a bit (I don't find the reasons I gave in the following sentences there convincing now), but it is certainly true that I haven't connected with most of her novels with the same awe and passion as I have for her short fiction, but my most recent re-reading of The Female Man made me think that Joanna Russ is still teaching me how to read her, and how to read the world.

I didn't start reading her nonfiction until five or six years ago, but How to Suppress Women's Writing; To Write Like a Woman; What Are We Fighting For?: Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism; Magic Mamas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts; and The Country You Have Never Seen are all books I've found provocative and fascinating, partly for their individual insights, and partly because of the way they show Russ's mind at work -- she is someone whose ideas kept evolving (which is somewhat different from simply changing), and it's exciting to follow her explorations.

The Country You Have Never Seen, especially, is probably best read in conjunction with Farah Mendlesohn's truly excellent anthology On Joanna Russ, because it's helpful to think about Russ's reviewing within certain contexts (Edward James's essay in Mendlesohn's anthology is very useful for that, as is Diana Newell & Janea Tallentire's essay on Russ and Judith Merril).

I'm just rambling. Really, we should all just spend some time reading Russ right now. Here are some links:

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