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How to Suppress Women's Writing

She didn't write it.
She wrote it, but she shouldn't have.
She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.
She wrote it, but it isn't really art.
She wrote it, but she had help.
She wrote it, but she's an anomaly.

How to Suppress Women's Writing was my second foray into the work of Joanna Russ, a feminist sci-fi author from the 1970s and 80s. About a year ago I read The Female Man (and I could have sworn I wrote about it, but now I can't find that post), which was eye-opening, not so much in terms of what feminism is fighting today, but a reminder of what it was fighting forty years ago. Feminism has made such strides that the attitudes voiced by various patriarchal characters -- about female inferiority, the subordinate nature of women, that whole "woman's place is in the kitchen" idea -- are these days so ludicrously atavistic that they don't even sound real. They sound like arguments of strawman sexism, propped up by their opponents so they can be eviscerated with ease, but not something that any real person could possibly believe, except for the most embarrassing of throwbacks. Right? Right?

Well... not anymore, perhaps. Which means that to a young'un like me who never lived through the bad old days, books like The Female Man are an invaluable reminder that not-so-long-ago those weren't the opinions of uneducated fringe elements -- that was mainstream. That sexism really was that overt.

And of course, sexism isn't gone now, it's just had to become more genteel. And that's what Russ treats on in How to Suppress Women's Writing: the ways in which mainstream society systematically marginalizes women's creative output. If you've already suspected as much, read it and be confirmed and be angry. If you're skeptical, read it and be convinced and be angry.

Russ is fucking brilliant. Hers is the best kind of academic writing, because it has important ideas but it's lucid, clearly organized, and actualfax entertaining. I love me some turgid academia on occasion, but to read someone who is intelligent, pissed off, and wielding a scathing sense of humor is a joy.

The following passages are by no means the highlights, only the ones that hit my idiosyncratic fancy.

**

Quoting Ellen Moers, a literary historian:

"If men could see us as we really are, they would be a little amazed; but the cleverest, the acutest men are often under an illusion about women: they do not read them in a true light: they misapprehend them."

That, right there, encapsulates what I find so tiresome about authors like Patrick Rothfuss and Brent Weeks. My hand to god, it's like they've never met a woman before! Or if they did, they never learned anything about her, because how else could they persist in their utter inability to see women as something other than stereotypes? The only explanation I can come up with is that they think they already know, so they see what they expect to see, rather than what is.

(I worry about this too, of course -- I worry that what I think I know of other people is wrong, that I'm only seeing my projection of them. Nor am I exactly comforted by the knowledge that if I am doing this, it's an equal-opportunity sin, not one I apply only to women. There's an exchange between two characters of mine that sums it up:

"I don't understand women."
"Then you're one up on me. I don't understand people.")

Anyway, Joanna Russ calls this "bad faith."

Ignorance is not bad faith. But persistence in ignorance is surely bad faith, from "I'm too tired and don't want to think about it," to "This is interfering with my view of the world so I don't want to think about it," to "This is interfering with my view of the world, which is the only possible and all-inclusive one, so I don't need to think about it." [emphasis mine]

Here is a little chronicle of a male journey out of bad faith, or rather, its beginnings. Samuel Delany writes of one of the early days of his marriage in 1961:

...suddenly the door burst open and Marilyn, dripping wet, came in and plopped down some shopping bundles. "Here." I handed her a pair of my jeans since they were the nearest things to hand and in the middle of the growing puddle on the kitchen floor, Marilyn undressed, toweled herself off, and slipped into my pants (we both wore size twenty-eight then!). She zipped them up and slid her hands into the pockets.

"What's the matter?" I asked.

She'd suddenly got the strangest expression. "The pockets...!" she exclaimed. "They're so big!"

Then she showed me the pockets in the pair of girls' jeans she'd bought a few weeks ago, and the pockets in her overcoat. And in her skirts. None of them was large enough to accommodate a pack of cigarettes. The idea that pockets in men's clothes were functional had never occurred to her. The idea that pockets in women's clothing were basically decorative had never occurred to me. We began to talk, and before long we realized that, although we had gone to the same high school, had seen each other daily for four years, had shared thousands of intimate conversations... we had been raised in two totally different cultures.

Women's clothes, by the way, still do not have functional pockets.

Russ wrote that twenty years after Delany. And the first time I cross-dressed, twenty years after Russ, I had the same damn revelation.*

* It was for my high school's cross-dressing beauty pageant. I've done it a few times since then too (fascinating stuff! topic for another time) but it's not something I make a hobby of.

**

An ongoing thing I ponder is how we go about constructing our gender identities -- how we "learn" to be male, or "learn" to be female. A substantial part can be attributed to our direct role models, of course: parents, teachers, peers. However, I'm tempted to believe that an equal, or even possibly a larger part of it comes from the media. What do movies, TV, books, magazines, song lyrics, etc tell us about what a man is? Or what a woman is? What messages are being streamed into our subconscious, long before we're even old enough to know what a subconscious is?

Here is poet Erica Jong, describing her literary education:

Being a woman means, unfortunately, believing a lot of male definitions... I had learned what an orgasm was from D.H. Lawrence, disguised as Lady Chatterley. I learned from Dostoevski that women have no religious feeling. I learned from Swift and Pope that they have too much religious feeling (and therefore can never be quite rational). I learned from Faulkner that they are earth-mothers and at one with the moon and the tide and the crops. I learned from Freud that they have deficient superegos and are forever "incomplete."

That stopped me dead. I found myself having an epiphany (the embarrassed kind, that sounds a lot like "DURR") about something that I'd possessed all the pieces of, but had never put together before.

We develop our identities from the media. Media has, historically, been overwhelmingly male-dominated.

So how fucked up is it that women are learning how to be female from men?

**

Russ expands on that theme in a later chapter on aesthetics (which was probably my favorite) and goes on to say:

A mode of understanding life which wilfully ignores so much can do so only at the peril of thoroughly distorting the rest. A mode of understanding literature which can ignore the private lives of half the human race is not "incomplete"; it is distorted through and through. Feminist criticism began by pointing out the simplest of these distortions, that is, that the female characters of even our greatest realistic "classics" by male writers are often not individualized portraits of possible women, but creations of fear and desire. [emphasis mine]

According to Lillian Robinson, "The problem is whether the author, in showing what goes on in a heroine's mind, is showing us anything like the mind of an actual human female."

And as a perfect example of this:

The beautiful woman who knows beyond a doubt that she is beautiful exists aplenty in male novelists' imaginations; I have yet to find her in women's books or women's memoirs or in life.

BAM. Dickens: 0. Joanna Russ: the internets.

(Guy Gavriel Kay, incidentally, gets my lifetime award for Dude Who Is The Best At Writing Women. Without resorting to stereotypes, he somehow manages to capture the subtle differences (that do exist!) between male and female psyches. His women have opinions, they have agency, and they feel recognizably feminine without coming off as cliched. /end shameless rec)

**

Some scattered quotes on genre fiction, sci-fi/fantasy in particular:

When science fiction first entered academia, the mistakes made about it by critics were grotesque. They continue to be, from time to time. This was due not only to a lack of scientific background, but also to a lack of any knowledge of the field's history and conventions (including lack of the knowledge that it had a history and conventions).

To read the visionary's blazes of illumination as faulty structure, fantasy as if it were failed realism, to read subversion as it were nothing but its surface, is automatically to condemn minority writing, among which is the writing of women. When critics deal with a different English, there is also the ploy of reading the difference as if it were failure.

Minority art, vernacular art, is marginal art. But only on the margins does growth occur.

**

In discussing the controversial literature that gets called "experimental" by critics, Russ contrasts James Baldwin (favorably) with Joyce and Nabokov:

We have been trained to regard certain kinds of art (especially the violent, the arcane, and the assaultive) as "experimental." But there's all the difference in the world between studying oxidation and producing loud noises with gunpowder.

That sounds a lot like the trend for ~GRITTY REALISM~ going on in fantasy recently. I think George RR Martin started it, but now it's cropping up all over the place, and it seems like every author thinks the way to stand out from the crowd is to outdo the crowd in amping up the horrors. (Richard K. Morgan and Brent Weeks, I AM LOOKING AT YOU.)

But they miss the emotional center by a fucking mile. Yes, the reader looks at it and goes, "Damn, that's hardcore!" but what then? What else do you take away from those books? That rape/child abuse/random sadism is bad?

Dare I say, fucking DUH?

Those are serious issues, but the treatments they've been getting lately have been sensationalist to the point of self-aggrandizing. The authors I admire who have really done the subject justice know that when it comes to the psychological morass of abuse, less is so much more.

**

This is a letter that Russ got from Sonya Dorman, a fellow sci-fi writer. It dates from 1970, but I love it because it sounds like something that could have been written yesterday:

I just received, in the same mail as your letter, a fan postcard saying that he liked Bye Bye Banana Bird, and that Heinlein couldn't have done it better.

Godddamn it. HEINLEIN COULDN'T HAVE DONE IT AT ALL.
[sic] ♥ ♥

**

Closing with the cover art from another of Russ's novels. I haven't read this one, but from what I've gathered, it's a mindfuck.


Bad ass.


So what do you all think? Anyone who's read it before? Or who read these passages and came away with different insights than I did? I live to learn.

Comments

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
gehayi
Dec. 6th, 2011 11:43 am (UTC)
That sounds a lot like the trend for ~GRITTY REALISM~ going on in fantasy recently. I think George RR Martin started it, but now it's cropping up all over the place, and it seems like every author thinks the way to stand out from the crowd is to outdo the crowd in amping up the horrors. (Richard K. Morgan and Brent Weeks, I AM LOOKING AT YOU.)

But they miss the emotional center by a fucking mile. Yes, the reader looks at it and goes, "Damn, that's hardcore!" but what then? What else do you take away from those books? That rape/child abuse/random sadism is bad?

Dare I say, fucking DUH?


I think that I know why this worked in A Game of Thrones and hasn't worked in any book in the Song of Ice and Fire series since.

See, in the first book, Martin showed us a good man--more moral than practical, and surrounded by intrigue and secrets and people who could out-Machiavelli Machiavelli. Ned is no good at playing politics or mind games; he's an old-fashioned hero-type. He's brave. He's noble. You can count on him to do the ethical thing, even if it isn't practical. And that's exactly what he does.

And then--SPOILERS--








He gets into a situation where he is trapped. But...he's given a way out. All he has to do--is lie. It's dishonorable in the extreme, but it may save the life of his oldest daughter, who's effectively a royal hostage.

So he does it, thinking that he's buying life and freedom for his wife and children, even as he's doing so at the cost of eternal exile from them. And this is a man who loves his family.

And the rug gets pulled out from under us. The king doesn't hold up his end of the bargain. Ned lies, and he dies anyway.

Suddenly, in the middle of the story, the hero is dead. And that is not the way that stories are supposed to work. So this does shock the reader.

But once you've done that, you can't do it again. The audience knows now that this isn't a safe world. They know that anyone can die...and, emotionally, they're pulling back a little.

So Martin, like many other writers, piles on the misery. Rapes, murders, torture, mutilation, baby-eating, often of characters that the reader has never seen before. And he does this believing that this is realism and that the audience will respond to it. He doesn't see that Ned's death shocked people because he was a character the audience had come to care about. If we hadn't cared about Ned--if we hadn't been worried about his family and wanting everything to work out okay for them--his death wouldn't have had nearly the impact that it did. His death mattered because Ned mattered.
rassaku
Dec. 6th, 2011 05:14 pm (UTC)
Huh. I hadn't thought of it that way before.

See, I went into SoIaF cautiously and already emotionally pulled-back, because I'd had ample warning that Shit Will Go Down. Accordingly, when I try to describe it, the best explanation I can offer is that it's a story that you read for the plot not the characters, but with a plot that is intensely shaped by the characters.

His death mattered because Ned mattered.

Ohhh yes, plenty of authors who never make that connection. "I'll have them kill someone! A baby, yeah! For added evil. And then I'll kill a redshirt! That'll show 'em I mean business!"

...Except, no. That's not nearly as risk-taking as authors think it is, because a random baby or a random redshirt or even a character that we're told is very important to the protagonist, but hasn't been developed in their own right (Vaughn, p.246), isn't going to make the same impact.

And this is why I consider Martin to be gritty-fantasy-that-works -- because he went there, he made that leap. You only need to do it once to change the landscape permanently, to convince the reader that, as you said, this world isn't safe anymore. He did it, and that's AWESOME. (As for piling on the horrors in later books, I'll have to take your word for it -- I read them all back-to-back, so what happens in which book is kind of a blur to me.)

However, I have yet to see any of his spiritual successors kill off a character equivalent to Ned. Generically likable side characters don't count; fridging women DEFINITELY doesn't count; I'm talking about a character that the author has actually gotten emotionally invested in. And most people can't do it.

(My opinion on Song of Ice and Fire may also be skewed because I read it first, read it once, and read it years ago. I might find something else if I tried a reread.)
gehayi
Dec. 6th, 2011 06:39 pm (UTC)
a random baby or a random redshirt or even a character that we're told is very important to the protagonist, but hasn't been developed in their own right (Vaughn, p.246), isn't going to make the same impact.

It really isn't. And that shouldn't be surprising; we do tend to grieve more for those we love, or at least those we know, than we do for strangers. The death of a redshirt may demonstrate that the main characters are in danger, but it's the main characters we're worried about, not (as the writer of an RPG manual I'm editing put it) "the fourth Marine to the left."

I LOVE the first four books of ASOIAF. Love them to pieces. Martin did an excellent job. And yes, he went there and it was GROUND-BREAKING.

A Dance With Dragons...bad. Very very bad. The book literally does not pick up until page 562. Characterization got gutted (poor Dany), there were so many rapes (both of men and women) that I lost track of them...oh, and let's not forget the baby-eating on the first page.

It didn't feel like the same world. It felt like a bad fanfic of the same world. And that was the worst--because Martin can write so much better than this.
rassaku
Dec. 6th, 2011 07:27 pm (UTC)
Ahhh, okay, that makes sense. I haven't read A Dance With Dragons yet, but I had noticed that critical reaction was... muted.

And I don't even think that killing a redshirt demonstrates that the main characters are in danger, because willingness to kill a redshirt does not translate to willingness to kill a protagonist. We're readers -- we know the genre conventions, and we're not likely to forget them even when we're engaged in a story. A writer has to prove that they're willing to GO THERE before we the readers will believe it.

Incidentally, I don't like killing my important characters either, because it just feels like such a waste -- you pour all that character development into them, and then they're gone and you can't do anything more with them? ;_; I prefer the next level down from death: maiming them. Because going hand-in-hand with the idea that protagonists aren't REALLY going to die is the idea that they aren't REALLY going to get hurt either. They're not going to lose an arm, or lose a leg, or live through having their face blown up, or their back broken -- not unless they can get it fixed, or get a prosthetic more badass than the original, or what have you. If protagonists get scarred, it'll be an interesting and sexy scar, not a disfiguring one. Maybe they'll lose a finger, if the author's feeling particularly daring. But nothing that would cause a dramatic change in the protagonist's life, or force them to re-examine their conceptions of their own identity.

Like, say, Jaime Lannister, kickass swordsman, losing his sword arm. That is what I'm talking about. >:)
ww0308
Dec. 12th, 2011 01:54 am (UTC)
"I don't like killing my important characters either, because it just feels like such a waste -- you pour all that character development into them, and then they're gone and you can't do anything more with them?"

Kurt Vonnegut:

"I thought Beatrice Keedsler had joined hands with other old-fashioned storytellers to make people believe that life had leading characters, minor characters, significant details, insignificant details, that it had lessons to be learned, tests to be passed, and a beginning, a middle, and an end.
As I approached my fiftieth birthday, I had become more and more enraged and mystified by the idiot decisions made by my countrymen. And then I had come suddenly to pity them, for I understood how innocent and natural it was for them to behave so abominably, and with such abominable results: They were doing their best to live like people invented in story books. This was the reason Americans shot each other so often: It was a convenient literary device for ending short stories and books.
Why were so many Americans treated by their government as though their lives were as disposable as paper facial tissues? Because that was the way authors customarily treated bit-part players in their madeup tales.
And so on.
Once I understood what was making America such a dangerous, unhappy nation of people who had nothing to do with real life, I resolved to shun storytelling. I would write about life. Every person would be exactly as important as any other. All facts would also be given equal weightiness. Nothing would be left out. Let others bring order to chaos. I would bring chaos to order, instead, which I think I have done.
If all writers would do that, then perhaps citizens not in the literary trades will understand that there is no order in the world around us, that we must adapt ourselves to the requirements of chaos instead.
It is hard to adapt to chaos, but it can be done. I am living proof of that: It can be done."
helen_damnation
Dec. 16th, 2011 11:35 pm (UTC)
A Dance With Dragons...bad. Very very bad. I'm sorry to hear that. I asked for it for Christmas. He did have a lot of trouble with it, though, so maybe it's not that surprising thst it turned out lack-lustre.
surexit
Dec. 7th, 2011 01:05 am (UTC)
[personal profile] deepad said something good about women's writing a while back:

It's one of the perils of women's writings--their obscurity not only hides them from the mainstream male gaze, but also from their own literary descendents. People talk about Jules Verne and Tolkein as forefathers because they have been read since they were published--the lines of influence can be clearly traced. But women have often had to reinvent the literary wheel--each generation having to carve out its own space, and then, perhaps, having the resources to look back and discover; someone was saying similar things back then, too.
rassaku
Dec. 7th, 2011 05:29 am (UTC)
Definitely. Russ has a whole chapter on that subject entitled "Lack of Models." Along the same lines as what Deepad said:

When the memory of one's predecessors is buried, the assumption persists that there were none and each generation of women believes itself to be faced with the burden of doing everything for the first time. And if no one ever did it before, if no woman was ever that socially sacred creature, "a great writer," why do we think we can succeed now? The specter of "If women can, why haven't they?" is as potent today as it was in Margaret Cavendish's time.
surexit
Dec. 7th, 2011 11:43 pm (UTC)
Ugh, yes, if women can, why haven't they? is a massive looming spectre in almost every arena.
ww0308
Dec. 12th, 2011 01:55 am (UTC)
"We develop our identities from the media. Media has, historically, been overwhelmingly male-dominated. So how fucked up is it that women are learning how to be female from men?"

Media has historically been dominated by rich straight white men with axes to grind, no less. The poor learn who they are from the rich. Gays learn who they are from straights. Blacks learn who they are from whites. Women learn who they are from men. Socialists learn who they are from ad-sponsored TV. It's arguably getting better as the internet disrupts these old ways of teaching, and Black rights and women's rights and gay rights continue to advance, but it's still a dirty old world out there.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )