Joanna Russ was furious: Rejections were coming back for one of her novels, often with explanations that the publishers had already published a “feminist” novel that year or that they were tired of what they perceived of as novels that were a long line of feminist complaints. An academic, writer and critic, Russ is a notable example of an author who actively pushed the boundaries of the science fiction genre, continually questioning the underlying assumptions of how gender is perceived, examined and portrayed in literature. Her stories, published more than 50 years ago, highlight issues that still arise today, making her an excellent representative example to examine today.
Russ was born on February 22nd, 1937, in the Bronx, New York. Her parents, Evarett I. and Bertha Russ, were both teachers, both of whom served as inspirational figures for her: Her father built his own reflecting telescope, while her mother wrote on the side before giving birth to her daughter. Their intellect likely aided her jump through school: She skipped three grades in elementary school and got into high school when she was 12. It was when she entered high school that she first discovered science fiction, reading everything from sci-fi magazines to horror fiction. Her interest in science fiction went hand in hand with her own interests in science, and by all accounts she excelled in her studies. At the age of 16, she was one of the top 10 finalists in the 1953 Westinghouse Science Talent Search, a science competition sponsored by the Westinghouse Electric Corporation and the Society for Science & Public.
Russ graduated from high school and was accepted to Cornell University, where she studied under Russian author Vladimir Nabokov. She began writing, but found that she had a difficult time in the male-dominated literary environment. It was then that she began to pay attention to the differences in reaction to what her male counterparts were writing in comparison to her own topics. While she was happy with her education in English, regular literature bored her, and she found that her imagination outstripped what she could accomplish in realistic settings.
After graduating from Cornell in 1957, she entered Yale University's School of Drama, where she would eventually earn her MFA in 1960. It was here that she began to write science fiction stories. "The second [sci-fi] story I wrote I liked enough to send to The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction...They bought it and sent me, I think, $50." The story, “Nor Custom Stale,” appeared in the September issue. In 1962, she was briefly married to Alberet Amateau, only to divorce in 1963. Her second story, “My Dear Emily,” was picked up by the same magazine in the July 1962 issue.
Her stories began to appear more regularly throughout the early 1960s, mostly all in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction: “There Is Another Shore, You Know, Upon the Other Side” appeared in September 1963, “Wilderness Year” in December 1964 and “Come Closer” (Magazine of Horror) in August 1965. In 1966, Damon Knight invited Russ to the Milford Writer's Workshop in Pennsylvania, and picked up her story “This Night, at My Fire” for his own anthology, A Pocket Full of Stars in the same year. She became a notable critic in science fiction circles, contributing hundreds of reviews in magazines onward. As a critic, Russ was astute and pulled few punches: in the July 1970 issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, for example, she harshly picks apart works by Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey, Poul Anderson and Brian Aldiss.
Her early stories largely feature her character Alyx, a time traveling mercenary, and are described by the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction as a series of stories where "much of the initial impact of the sequence lies in its use of Alyx in situations where she acts as a fully responsible agent, vigorously engaged in the circumstances surrounding her, but without any finger-pointing on the author's part to the effect that one should only pretend not to notice that she is not a man." Russ was highly critical of the portrayal of women in fiction. Samuel R. Delany notes on this relationship in his work The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Essays on Science Fiction: “The hero of Russ’s sword-and-sorcery tales is, of course, a woman. But it is important to emphasize that this woman’s traditional archetype is not one which women set up for their own admiration, or to organize their own world goals around….We must make it clear that such an archetype does not even broach any of the questions the Women’s Movement asks…[rather], she asks them: ‘What do we need; and how do we go about getting it for ourselves?’ ”
In another notable essay from Russ, "What Can A Heroine Do? or Why Women Can't Write,” she notes that "[women] exist only in relation to the [male] protagonist. Moreover, look at them carefully and you will see depictions of the social roles women are supposed to play and often do play, but they are the public roles and not the private women; at their worse, they are gorgeous, cloudcuckooland fantasies about what men want, hate or fear." According to Brit Mandelo, author of We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-telling, Russ worked to inject a sense of hard truth into her writing, themes that largely ran against what was conventionally used in genre stories. Mandelo goes on to note that “Russ devoted her considerable intellect and skill as a writer to unearthing vital, necessary truths.” In many ways, she looked under the hood of what made science fiction tick, and began to question the underlying social structure which informed its creation. This level of questioning is vital in any examination of social issues: especially for a genre which is intractable from social issues. The newly found attention and focus on nontraditional science-fiction tropes, such as the “softer” sciences and social issues allowed for Russ to openly explore the genre with new eyes.
In a lot of ways, Russ embodied the struggles she saw in the stories she read. In 1968, she published her first novel (featuring her character Alyx), Picnic on Paradise, and officially came out as a lesbian. As this was happening, a second wave of feminism arrived, coming just a couple of years after science fiction experienced its own “New Wave” movement, which emphasized a new focus on prose and story types. Thomas Disch connects Russ with this overall movement in his book The Dreams Our Stuff Is Made Of: How Science Fiction Conquered the World: "At one level...the New Wave represented science fiction's coming of age, as it appropriated existing literary techniques of the avant-garde as practiced by those writers one had studied in college....Dozens of us tried to do just that: myself, Norman Spinrad, Joanna Russ, Harlan Ellison, John Sladek, Ursula K. Le Guin, Gene Wolfe. Virtually the entire U.S. Component of the New Wave shared a common missionary goal of wanting to bring some literary couth to a genre we all regarded as exciting but basically déclassé."
However, while Russ can be associated with new literary movements, she was still largely alone in the field, despite the growing presence of fellow female authors. Women have been writing throughout science fiction’s history (as we’ve seen, depending on who you speak with, female authors wrote the seminal works), but were now pushing to expand the definitions of the genre from a body that was largely male-dominated to one that had space for everyone. Disch notes the distinctions that set Russ apart from the other women writing genre fiction at the time: "[The Female Man]'s philosophy is utterly at odds with Le Guin's: while the politically correct Le Guin would like, in effect, to disarm men, Russ wants to empower women....On the whole, Russ's strategy of hypothesizing women who can cope in a 'man's' world, rather than, as Le Guin would have it, remodeling human nature on a maternal template, seems to have carried the day, not only in the real world, where women are being integrated into the armed services, even in combatant roles, but in the virtual reality of science fiction, where the most popular new women writers—CJ Cherryh and Lois McMaster Bujold—have taken their cue from Russ, writing gung-ho Realpolitik space operas that make the author of Gor look like the wimp he was."
While I don't agree with Disch's overly critical look at Le Guin's brand of fiction, it's important to recognize two things: the first being that literary and social movements are complex and that while authors share concerns, their approaches might take on different forms. Secondly, women in science fiction aren't a unified block which universally agrees on how gender roles should be depicted, especially at this point in time.
In 1970, Russ' second novel, And Chaos Died, appeared, earning her nominations for the Nebula and Locus awards. At the same time, Russ began teaching at the collegiate level, first at the Queensborough Community College in New York City, where she started as a lecturer and worked her way up to the rank of Assistant Professor by 1972. In that time, she published another dozen science fiction stories, earning a Nebula nomination for her novelette “Poor Man, Beggar Man,” which appeared in Universe 1, edited by Terry Carr for Ace Books. Another story of hers, “When It Changed”(appearing in Again, Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison), earned her a Nebula win for the best short story, as well as placements on the Hugo and Locus lists. Later that year, she began teaching at her alma mater as an Assistant Professor of English, where she was granted a National Endowment for the Humanities Fellowship in 1974.
In addition to noting the artistic and thematic issues with science fiction, she also noted inequality in the publishing world as well. In 1994, she wrote in a letter that her stance and sexual orientation likely harmed her career: “I’m sure being an open lesbian has not been good for my career. Also doing all sorts of nonfiction feminist writing. I mean, put it together: book reviewer…feminist, lesbian highbrow—I’ve never made more than a $3,500 advance for any novel.” If Russ’ sexual orientation didn’t impact her career, her style of literature was certainly different from much of what was being published. Regardless of whether her publishers viewed her as a risky venture, the impact remained the same: Russ was largely regarded as a critical favorite, although not a popular one. According to Adam Roberts:,“Russ was no best-seller and is perhaps more highly rated by academic critics of the genre than its fans.” Indeed, in the same letter, Russ openly wonders what her career would have been like had she tempered her views.
In 1975, Frederik Pohl, working for Bantam Books, acquired and published the novel for which she is possibly best known: The Female Man. Russ began writing the novel in 1970 and worked for several years to find a publisher for the book, collecting rejections from all of the major publishers. Eventually, the book earned a Nebula nomination and place 10th in the Locus poll in 1976. (It would go on to win the Retrospective Tiptree prize in 1995.) The novel followed four women each living in parallel worlds. As they cross over to one another's reality, the differences in gender roles are highlighted, challenging their views of their place in the world. In the same year, Russ began teaching at the University of Colorado, where she remained until 1978.
In 1977, Russ published some of her more notable critical works. We Who Are About To... was published in 1977, while How to Suppress Women's Writing was published in 1983. She worked on two last novels: Kittatinny: A Tale of Magic and The Two of Them, both published in 1978. After leaving Colorado, she relocated once again to Seattle, Washington, where she began to teach at the University of Seattle, becoming a full professor of English in 1984. She retired a decade later.
How To Suppress Women's Writing is a sarcastic collection of nonfiction about writing, outlining various ways in which women’s contributions to written works were suppressed, leading to an assumption that women couldn’t write. In it, she noted seven means through which this happened:
- Prohibitions: Prevent women from access to the basic tools for writing.
- Bad Faith: Unconsciously create social systems that ignore or devalue women's writing.
- Denial of Agency: Deny that a woman wrote it.
- Pollution of Agency: Show that their art is immodest, not actually art, or shouldn't have been written about.
- The Double Standard of Content: Claim that one set of experiences is considered more valuable than another.
- False Categorizing: Incorrectly categorize women artists as the wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, or lovers of male artists.
- Isolation: Create a myth of isolated achievement that claims that only one work or short series of poems is considered great.
- Anomalousness: Assert that the woman in question is eccentric or atypical.
- Lack of Models: Reinforce a male author dominance in literary canons in order to cut off women writers' inspiration and role models.
- Responses: Force women to deny their female identity in order to be taken seriously.
- Aesthetics: Popularize aesthetic works that contain demeaning roles and characterizations of women
Health issues in the early 1980s prompted Russ to slow down her writing: Between 1981 and 1987, she wrote a dozen or so stories before taking an almost decade break. In that time, however, she earned a number of awards and nominations. Her novella “Souls,” which appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction January 1982 issue, won her the 1983 Hugo, Locus and SF Chronicle awards, and a nomination for a Nebula. Other stories, such as “The Mystery of the Young Gentleman” (Speculations, edited by Isaac Asimov, April 1982), her collections The Zanzibar Cat, Extra(ordinary) People and The Hidden Side of the Moon, all placed highly on Locus polls during that time. Her final story, “Invasion,” was published in the January 1996 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction.
In February of 2011, Russ suffered from a debilitating stroke. Hospitalized over the next two months, her health worsened, and on April 27, 2011, she was admitted to Hospice care. She passed away two days later. In looking over her career for the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, John Clute notes that "Russ was the least comfortable American [sci-fi] author. Like Samuel R. Delany, she was a thoroughly grounded intellectual, and every word she wrote, fiction or nonfiction, was shaped by thought in action. Despite this—or perhaps because of this—she remained exceptionally persuasive. She told often unpalatable truths in tales that were, as pure story, a joy to read." Indeed, her academic and critical approaches to the genre broke open conventional wisdom and prove to have been innovative means for advancing science fiction into bold new worlds. Her most recent honor came in 2013, when she was named to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame.
Russ remains an important figure in science-fiction circles for her brand of feminism and the work she did to point out the inequality that existed in science-fiction publishing. Currently, as the Internet examines and discusses (or argues) issues such as #GamerGate, Russ’ works act as a means to critically examine literature and make us question our basic assumptions.