Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Reading Joanna Russ's The Country You Have Never Seen

I'm slowly working my way through Joanna Russ's collection of essays and reviews, The Country You Have Never Seen, one or two pieces at a time, usually at bedtime. You've probably heard a bit about this book already-- that it doesn't collect all of her reviews and essays, only an assortment, and that its overriding characteristic is that of sharp, critical clarity, which is both salutary and a pleasure to encounter, even though many (though not all) of the books reviewed have long since been forgotten.

Certainly I appreciate the sharpness of that clarity, which strikes me as singular-- that is to say, it's something I don't find in any current reviews that I can think of. Part of that singularity may be a matter of style, but not all of it. Russ's critical faculties could be fairly characterized as surgical, and her style of rendering judgment unflinchingly straightforward and even plain. But what interests me above all is her care and honesty. Anyone who has read her nonfiction (from her essays to How to Suppress Women's Wrirting to the lengthy What Are We Fighting For?) will know just how devastatingly witty she can be. Though she is often witty in her reviews, she seems mostly to have resisted the temptation to make witticisms at the expense of the authors of awful books. Not that she doesn't make cracks about the books themselves (or the books' editors/publishers). One of my favorite examples (so far) is the ending of her review of Colin Wilson's The Mind Parasites, published by Arkham House, of which she remarks, "Devotees of HPL will be disappointed, however, and so will everybody else; the Outsider's latest is not in the Lovecraft tradition but in the Boy's Life Gee Whiz tradition... It is one of the worst books I have ever read and very enjoyable, but then I did not have to pay for it." She briefly quotes a passage from this gem, then delivers her parting shot:

I have an announcement to make too. It concerns a severe letter to August Derleth (who seems to have suggested this book, possibly out of exasperation), a gallon of kerosene, a match, a certain 222-page home-cooked romance, and a copy of The Shadow Over Innsmouth to relax with afterwards. Howard Phillips, you never looked better.

"It's narsty," she writes, "to beat up on authors who are probably starving to death on turnip soup but critics ought to be honest. Both books are juveniles, though not so labeled, both books are awful, and I wouldn't want any juvenile to read either of them." Though she chooses to be honest with the reader, she never forgets the human being behind the book (who she knows damned well will be reading the review).

Another aspect of her reviews is her care in tracing the progression of individual writers' careers-- downs as well as ups-- making no bones about the fact that authors of good or even brilliant books do on occasion turn in mediocre or poor performances, which she clearly believes does not make them bad writers. I've been fascinated to read her reviews of several books by Kate Wilhem, talking successively about Wilhelm's promise as a writer and then the development of that promise as each new book comes out. Russ's 1971 review of The Abyss particularly piqued my interest, especially given her essays on female characterization in fiction and science fiction that she was writing and publishing around the same time. Here's a chunk of it:

The two novellas that make up Kate Wilhelm's Abyss are flawed, the first ("The Plastic Abyss") because it attempts more than most successes and the second ("Stranger in the House") because of Wilhelm's entirely original set of virtues and defects.

As George Orwell has pointed out, most human "worlds" are not represented in art at all, for to be a member of such a world demands that one not be an artist. Orwell's example is Kipling, who managed somehow to become a full member of colonial Anglo-Indian society and yet keep enough of an antithetical self alive to report well on that same society. Not only to describe but also to embody in oneself a world-view that leaves no room for art takes quite a lot of doing.

This is Russ's elegant way of setting up an analogy to assist people too blinkered by gender ideology to be likely otherwise to grasp the point she goes on to make about what Wilhelm is attempting to do in her work and why accomplishing that end is almost impossibly difficult. (Yes, indeed, Virginia, there's much to be learned about rhetorical tactics from Russ's reviews!)

And so Russ continues:

Kate Wilhelm is an escapee from the feminine mystique. As Shulamith Firestone points out, women and men live in different cultures though neither group knows it-- men consider the male experience to be the only reality, and so do women, who therefore distort and deny their own experience. Until recently we have had of the female experience only versions sentimentalized and distorted in the service of self-glorification and the status quo. Good women artists have generally had atypical experiences; as a friend of mine put it, they've brought themselves up as men, since "man" --in the general view-- was the equivalent of "human."

Russ has a footnote here to remark that she herself and Anne McCaffrey offer examples of women artists who've "brought themselves up as men." It's interesting, though, to note that in the passage above Russ uses the expression "in the general view." I find myself wondering what she meant by that. Did she mean that this view was shared by both men and women? Or that "the general view" is, simply and always, a view shared by most males? Given the context, the ambiguity seems eerily significant.

She continues:

Like Kipling, Kate Wilhelm manages to be both an artist and the voice of an experience that is already defined by its not having a voice. To find a voice one must move out of this culture and yet stay in it; Wilhelm almost does this. "The Plastic Abyss" is the eerie fusion of women's-magazine "reality" and real reality, as if sentimental pictures had suddenly begun to move and speak. There is a tall, glamorous, hard, patronizing husband in "The Plastic Abyss" who is breathtakingly close to the Ideal Husband of bad fiction; there is the Sweet, Ideal, Passive Wife of romance who almost makes it into artistic definition; and there is the magnificently irresponsible playing-around with reality only possible to those who don't have the conventional stake in it and are therefore wise enough not to believe in it. Still, there are vestiges of un-ironic cardboard. The heroine of "Plastic Abyss" says she "should go back to work, back to writing articles, to traveling, prying, learning" although it is perfectly clear from her character that she has never done any of those things; the heroine of "Stranger" has a "fashion" job that is never made real to her or anybody else. There is a stepdaughter in "Plastic" who (we are told) will do better than the heroine, although her situation is in no way different.

Russ continues evaluating the characters and Wilhelm's drawing of them, then notes:

I was struck in both novellas by what seemed to me the unearned adulation given to both women, but I wonder if this simply reflects our not being used to feminine protagonists who are involved in real activity. Most male protagonists in s.f. are glorified (or unrealized) in exactly the same way. It seems to be an occupational hazard.

I recall hearing someone at WisCon complain about Russ's saying in one of her essays written at around the same time as this review (early 1970s) that sf has mostly "images" of women as characters and not real women-- and my sense was that the argument waged against Russ for having made such a claim some thirty years back showed a lot of confusion about what Russ was actually talking about. I think her discussion of Wilhelm's novellas makes it pretty clear. An interesting pair of questions for me now is (1) to what extent this can be said to be true for sf written in the first decade of the twenty-first century (and for which sorts of characters), and (2) whether different sub-genres of sf rely more heavily on images than on fully-realized characterization.


Niall said...

Did she mean that this view was shared by both men and women? Or that "the general view" is, simply and always, a view shared by most males?

For what it's worth, the bit earlier in the paragraph about women distorting and denying their own experience leans me towards thinking she meant the view was shared by both men and women.

Cat Rambo said...

Russ's How to Suppress Women's Writing, along with Dale Spender's Man-made Language, were my primary doorway into feminism. I hadn't known about this collection, which I'm adding to my wishlist -- thank you for posting about it.