Monday, November 16, 2009

Links for a Monday

---For those interested in the WFC steampunk panel, Frederic S. Durbin has just reported on it at length. This bit rather leaped out at me:
The panel said that steampunk is much like the Society of (for?) Creative Anachronism (SCA) in that it tries to recreate an era as it should have been, not as it actually turned out.
---Over at, Laura Miller reviews Ben Yagoda's Memoir: A History. According to Miller, Yagoda not only looks at the history of the memoir, but also claims that the memoir is replacing fiction. (Yes, once again, the novel is dead!) Here is Miller's own view of the matter:
It's precisely when we are conscious of fictional characters as the invention of a literary author that they seem inert and fixed -- solipsistic -- to many readers, who usually don't feel entitled to quibble with the exalted creator about his choices. By contrast, the characters and events in memoirs are often, like real people and events, the subjects of energetic controversy, which makes them seem more alive. Who was to blame for the author's divorce? Was he justified in his rejection of 12-step programs? Was her mother bipolar, and how might her life have been different if she had been medicated? People who have read the same memoir can talk about this stuff for hours. The real world, after all, is available for an infinite range of interpretations, while we tend to see the products of the literary novelist's imagination as admitting only a few, and most of those are likely to be detached and aesthetic rather than moral and immediate.

Both of these notions are illusions, of course. It's not the made-up aspect of literary fiction that makes it seem marmoreal and remote -- otherwise, millions of people wouldn't be discussing the entirely fictional characters on "Lost" or "Mad Men" around the water cooler or in online forums. Children and adults would not have massed in bookstores at midnight to buy the latest Harry Potter installment. Those fictions -- TV shows and children's books -- have, like the memoir, not yet acquired the official status of Art. As long as they remain at least a little disreputable, they are our size, and lovable. But make the memoir respectable, clear it of all the charges against it -- of vulgarity and commercialism and calling too much attention to itself, as well as of fraud -- and chances are that sooner or later we'll get bored of it, too.
---At the SF Site, Paul Kincaid reviews On Joanna Russ. Although his review agrees with mine on some points (particularly my wish that the book had spent some time looking at Russ's influence on the field), overall, our reviews have sharply different takes on the book. Big surprise, hunh? (My review for Strange Horizons ran on August 3, 2009; it's here.)

After reading the first part of the book, Kincaid comes away thinking that Russ "was prickly, difficult, not an easy person to like, which perhaps explains the intensity of the reaction against her from some sections of the sf community [i.e., rather than her feminist advocacy]"-- and actually somewhat diffident in her feminism:
The three succeeding essays, by Lisa Yaszek, Helen Merrick, and Newell and Tallentire, examine Russ in relation to the burgeoning feminist movement in science fiction. These three all stress her importance in the movement, her implacable advocacy, but all three also tell tales of her attacking other women writers who might be her rivals, including a devastating demolition of Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, and a rather cruel rivalry with Judith Merrill, whose place she would occasionally take as a reviewer at F&SF. From the three, therefore, we get a sense of her turning against "the girls." Alongside this, we should note also that Delany, in his essay, points out how much of the violence in her stories is by women directed at women.

This makes for an interesting parallax view: the radical trailblazer in the experimental fiction that marked the upsurge of feminist sf who was also a devotee and advocate of the most conservative forms of the genre; the leading feminist advocate who went out of her way to dismiss the writing of other women in the genre. It suggests that Russ was prickly, difficult, not an easy person to like, which perhaps explains the intensity of the reaction against her from some sections of the sf community. It also suggests someone caught at a particular moment in history, dragged in one direction by her instincts and in another by her beliefs. This divided nature goes some way towards contextualising the intense power of key works like The Female Man (1975).
Rather than seeing the pre-feminist Russ as in conflict with the Fully Feminist Russ, I, naturally, read an historically-anchored story of personal change, and as I noted in my review, that story of personal change struck me as visible in some of the essays that appeared in the second part of the book. But perhaps I read such a story because the story of such a change is common for women of Russ's (as well as my own) generation. I think we might even say that the story of a full personal conversion that changes one's relations with the world in every way imaginable functions as a trope for many feminists: which would explain why, once the trope was invoked, I had no trouble reading a story of change and personal development rather than a core personality at odds with the times. If Kincaid is actually not familiar with the story of the Click! complete with consciousness-raising (a political praxis Russ sets great store by), it probably went right over his head. I also think that Kincaid might not have picked up on some of the feminist theory Newell and Tallentire draw on their absolutely crucial discussion of the social psychology of rivalry among women battling for the single place in the male clubhouse. Horizontal violence (as activist Flo Kennedy once named it) usually has more to do with social and political dynamics than inherent nastiness in one's personality.

Also striking, for me, was Kincaid's reading one of the key themes of the book in what I can only call a really peculiar way, which I suspect, again may simply be because he has little familiarity with the feminist trope of anger:
Some [of the authors of the essays in the book], perhaps taking their cue from Russ herself, seem to sanitise this by talking about anger, but in fact anger almost always manifests itself in violence.
I think there are a legion of feminists (especially those hailing from consciousness-raising days) who would be astonished to hear that "anger" is a euphemism for violence. (Well no, to be honest, they wouldn't be astonished: this would simply be yet another example of someone Who Just Doesn't Get It.) It might also be worth noting that Pat Wheeler's essay in the volume talks explicitly about the relation of Russ's feminist anger to the violence in Russ's work.

On another point, I'm scratching my head: Kincaid complains that the book did not give due attention to the humor in Russ's work. As I recall, many of the book's contributors take appreciative note of it.

I do agree, though, with Kincaid's complaint that "Delany notes that her feminism was informed by Marxism, and there is an awful lot of class conflict running alongside the gender conflict in her work. But this isn't picked up by any of the critics here, not even by Delany." There's nothing new in critics' ignoring class.The sad fact is, few critics are able to discuss the intersectionality of class, race, and gender in the same text, which is what would have been required to treat Russ's feminist-socialist politics. Faced with discussing either her feminist politics or her class politics (which I daresay Russ herself, as a socialist- or materialist-feminist, would say, are not separable), the authors not surprisingly chose to concentrate on the former.

---One last link (this one thanks to the Mumspimus): Crooks and Liars' Teabaggers punk'd by anti-racists who get them to cheer rant against European American immigrants gave me a laugh this morning (which I needed after reading about the implications of the Stupak amendment). They've got a YouTube video of an activist who masqueraded as an anti-immigration nut job and was allowed to give a speech to some cheering anti-immigration fanatics who only gradually realized was a satire-- of them. Here's an excerpt from his speech:
It's no secret that with an invasion of immigrants comes waves of crime. We see them involved in massive theft, in murder, and bringing diseases like smallpox, which is responsible for the death of millions of Americans. These aren't new problems, though -- they have been going on for hundreds of years, and continue to this day.

I say it's time for us to say enough is enough! Are you with me? Are you with me? Let's send these European immigrants back where they came from! I don't care if they are Polish, Irish, English, Italian, or Norwegian! European immigrants are responsible for the most violent and heinous crimes in the history of the world, including genocide and slavery! It's time to restore the sovereignty of people native to this land!

I want more workplace raids, starting with the big banks downtown. There are thousands of illegals working in those buildings, hiding in their offices, and taking Dakota jobs. Let's round them up and ship them out. Then we need to hit them at home where they sleep. I don’t care if we separate families, they should have known better when they came here illegally!

If we aren't able to stand up to these European immigrants, who can we stand up to? We need to send every one of them back home, right now.

Thank you very much, and we'll see you in the streets!

Columbus Go Home! Columbus Go Home! Columbus Go Home!
Not so nice was that some of the middle-aged men in his audience physically attacked him once they caught on to what they were cheering for.


Ide Cyan said...

Your review is here:

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Ide! The archives didn't have a link for it, so I assumed it hadn't been archived.

Nancy Jane Moore said...

I assume Kincaid meant anger in Russ's work almost always manifests itself as violence, not that anger in general almost always manifests as violence. Though the sentence is vague.

Assuming that to be true, I think Kincaid has really missed the point, though perhaps the misunderstanding is in the way people wrote about her anger (I haven't read On Joanna Russ). A discussion of violence in Russ's work -- and there are some very interesting examples -- would be completely separate from a discussion of anger in it. Violence in Russ's work is a storytelling tool; anger permeates everything. Reasonable anger. Justifiable anger. And -- amazingly -- effective and beautifully written anger. I've always thought it was an example of Russ's consummate talent and skill that she could get that anger down on the page without sacrificing the story. So few can do that.

As to the idea that steampunk is recreating an era as it should have been, I know my own assumption is rather different: I see it as retelling the British view of the 19th Century as if some of the ideas held at the time about both science and magic were true. But it's still the 19th Century, with all its misconceptions and prejudices. Perhaps it's that the only steampunk stories that have made much of an impression on me were on the dark side. The costumes are fun, and who doesn't like dirigibles, but it's not a nice world.

Paul Kincaid said...

I did not suggest that Russ was in any way "diffident" in her feminism; quite the contrary, she was aggressive in her feminism.

But the main point I was trying to make in the review was that the book in question provided a lot of interesting essays on Russ as a feminist, but really paid too little attention to Russ as a traditionalist, Russ as a Marxist, Russ as a humorist. These are, to my mind, an inseparable part of what makes Russ the writer she was. Without that more complex picture we may be getting an interesting story, but it is far from the full story.

Timmi Duchamp said...

Thanks, Paul, for dropping by. "Diffident" was a poor word choice (as I knew even as I was typing the word, but I was in too much of a rush to linger long enough to find the right word)-- "ambivalent," I think, would be better.

What I missed from the volume (which doesn't claim to offer a comprehensive view of Russ's work) was a serious consideration of Russ's nonfiction-- beyond, that is, her reviews. (But then I don't understand why Wesleyan hasn't published a collection of all her essays.) I suppose that omission from the volume could be explained by how few science fiction people are familiar with more of her nonfiction than her How to Suppress Women's Writing, her reviews, and What Are We Fighting For?. Her other essays appeared mostly in feminist venues, and her Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans and Perverts was published by the feminist Crossing Press.

Ray Davis said...

I agree on the importance of putting Russ's women-beware-women aspects into feminism's pre- and post-CLICK! narrative context. Isn't that the overarching storyline of The Female Man, with the "I hate women like that, don't you?" dialog a pivotal moment?