by Gwyneth Jones
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Pub Date 30 Aug 2019 | Archive Date 07 Oct 2019
"Gwyneth Jones's study of Russ's life and work is important reading for anyone interested in feminism, science fiction, or terrific writing. With insight and warmth, she reveals Russ to us as a brilliant, impossible person and as a groundbreaking, uncompromising writer."--Julie Phillips, author of James Tiptree, Jr.: The Double Life of Alice B. Sheldon
"Jones’s concise, thorough survey successfully traces the tensions and confluences between Russ’s various fields of work. Her positions as genre writer, academic, and feminist are in flux, in conversation; by creating illustrative juxtapositions within a chronological framework as well as integrating analysis with biographical detail, Jones offers insight and clarity into the difficulties that drove Russ’s career trajectory and eventual retirement from the SF field."--Brit Mandelo, author of We Wuz Pushed: On Joanna Russ and Radical Truth-Telling
Average rating from 7 members
I am a feminist science fiction scholar and have nothing but an utmost respect and admiration for Joanna Russ. I've dogeared my copies of How To Suppress Women's Writing and To Write Like a Woman. But I haven't yet gotten around to reading her fiction and didn't know that much of her biography.
This book was absolutely fantastic! I swallowed it in two days and I really couldn't put it down. Written with wit worthy of Joanna herself, the book is so insightful and well-constructed. The language is intelligent yet not overly academic. I will definitely be getting a physical copy just so I can underline certain passages.
It was especially interesting to learn about Russ's literary criticism and her relationship with other female sci-fi writers. The author doesn't idealize her and is very honest of the analysis of her personal shortcomings. As a fan of Ursula K. Le Guin, it is really interesting to trace these two contemporary women's journeys toward feminism. I would like to read more comparative analysis specifically about these two.
Thank you so much for this book, it was truly a pleasure to read. Long live Joanna Russ!
Gwyneth Jones' book about Joanna Russ - one of the greatest contemporary science fiction writers discussing one of the greatest science fiction writers of the previous generation - is lucid and concise. And it is actually quite rich, even though it is relatively short. Jones goes through all of Russ' published writing, including not only her science fiction novels and stories, but also her non-genre fiction, and her non-fictional prose as well, including everything from major essays to ephemeral book reviews. Jones cuts to the chase, with no wasted prose; but she is deeply insightful about everything she discusses. I appreciated the discussions equally of the Russ books I have read recently, of those I read a much longer time ago (Jones made me want to read them again), and of the essays and short stories that I have never previously read. The emphasis is on Russ' published texts, with only a minimal amount of biography - though Jones speculates interestingly on how Russ' life (as somebody who grew up at a time of extreme misogyny, and had to struggle as part of the second wave feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s) is inscribed in her fiction, and also about how a lot of her fiction can be read as a working through of her love/hate relationship with science fiction itself (she read sf from the age of 12, and wrote sf as an adult, because it offered her visions of imaginative freedom and possibility; she encountered and suffered from the extreme sexism and misogyny that was engrained in the sf community, and much of the sf writing, of her time). All in all, this is a great book that taught me a lot about a writer I already loved and whose works I already knew at least in part.
I requested and received a copy of this book for honest review, thanks to Netgalley, the publisher and author.
Coming in I knew a little about Russ as an individual and author, having an interest in her instrumental role in shaping the course of the SF genre in the 70s, but this was a whole wealth of information new to me. This manages to be academic (heavily footnoted) without being at all dry, are takes off running at a breakneck speed moving mostly chronologically through Russ' life.
Taking a mix of biography and bibliography, we open to her childhood and family life along with major events in the world that formed her worldview, then we move away from a primarily biographical approach to mix with summaries and literary analysis of her works. The analysis provided gives a depth of detail, history, and contextual information, providing a rich picture of her professional life-cycle.
Beyond her personal life and work, Russ was outspoken as a feminist, was an advocate reshaping the SF genre. We hear of her involvement in writing and forums voicing those often unforgiving opinions about representation of women, while also highlighting the erasure of women's voices. She was also quite a critic, launching into heralded works for their problem elements, but also taking a fair bit of her own criticism - there is a fascinating range of sniping between reviewers, critics, and authors as growing pains conflicted the genre. The New Wave SF and the feminist movement in the 70s came together in her. I found particularly fascinating the accounts of the Khatru Symposium, an open discussion on the topic held between what we would now consider titans of the genre. These topic also made clear the importance of intersectional feminism, Russ was at the same time enabled to explore her womanhood and sexuality in unique ways within the medium of speculative fiction, yet excluded or seen as pulling away from the main focus for parts of her identity or perspective from otherwise forward thinkers.
I found this to be a valuable and informative read, particularly knowing that 60 years on some of the same arguments against progress, diversity, and representation in SF that Russ was resisting are still echoing in our ears.
This academic biography, written by Gwyneth Jones, is one of the latest in the University of Illinois' Masters of Modern Science Fiction series on the works of prominent science fiction and fantasy writers - and the first of the series I've actually read. That means I don't have much to compare the particular style to, but I enjoyed the largely chronological deep dive into Russ' works, encompassing novels, short fiction and her extensive review work, much of which was unknown to me. In doing so, Jones charts - sympathetically but with an eye to contradictions and tensions within Russ' identity - her journey within science fiction, from a talented but not challenging fiction writer and a reviewer more likely to judge her female peers harshly while offering men a free pass for much worse books, to the explicitly feminist writing and stances which readers are more likely to associate with her today.
The focus here is very much on Russ' work and the highlights for me were reading the deep critiques of Russ' novels, particularly The Female Man and We Who Are About To (a work I tackled during Feminist Futures last year). Jones's reading of The Female Man, in particular, was interesting in the way it presented a radically different lens than the one I had read the novel in, taking the different aspects of the Joanna personality as a reading of identity across time rather than dimensions. It's a reading which brings Russ into conflict with her own identity as an SFF writer and Jones doesn't hold back from the implications of that reading, tracing it throughout the rest of her work and noting where the seeds come in at earlier points. If, like me, you don't often approach literature from a strongly academic lens, some of this will probably be well in the realms of "well I'd never thought of it like that", but it never comes across as particularly prescriptive or inherently dismissive to other readings, so I was able to enjoy the different ways of thinking about the texts rather than feeling put in my place by them, as is always the risk with more academic takes.
What I was missing from this - and, again, I'm not sure if this is me asking this book to be something it's not - was a greater elaboration of Russ 'relationships with others in the genre. There were some interesting gems of interaction here, notably the roundtable on "Women in Science Fiction" which took place over a period of years with other participants including Suzy Charnas, Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Vonda N. McIntyre, James Tiptree Jr and brought together by fanzine editor Jeffrey D. Smith, which gets a lot of attention - and which I'd love to learn more about! However, given the breadth of written correspondence which most writers were engaged in at the time, the lack of focus on how Russ was being received by her contemporaries - beyond those who were clearly afraid of what she represented, and its impact on her work - was an area I wish could have been incorporated more in the text.
All in all this is an interesting experience, if sometimes a little routine - collections of short stories are looked at together, followed by review periods, followed by the novels, in a chronological march that doesn't leave a lot of room for novelty. But despite the limitations of coverage and perhaps of the form, this is one to look out for, especially fans of Russ' work who want to read a more academic perspective on her writings, and I hope this is a contender for next year's Best Related Work Hugo.
I have never read any work by [author:Joanna Russ|52310]. I was intimidated, I guess, reading all those reviews, and also scared that I would end up disliking them. (She was the inspiration of many of my favorite authors, including Kameron Hurley.)
I picked this up because I was curious. I thought I might repeat my so-called 'Le Guin experience' (I read her non fiction work first before (re)reading her fiction and ended up worshiping her) with Russ.
Did it work? I think so. I don't mind having been spoiled of many endings of her works in this book - which also discussed some at considerable length. I will still pick and choose though.
Gwyneth Jones did an admirable job in weaving all the threads of Joanna's works, from essays, reviews, shorts and novels, as well as her relationship with other authors, male and female (which was fascinating! reviews and ripostes!), and of course her own life journey. Recommended book for Russ fans and fledgling feminist who happen to love SF like yours truly.
This is a very interesting, thought provoking read. Gwyneth Jones examined and explored Joanna Russ's longtime work as an academic and as a critic, and her well known position in society as a feminist. She provoked outrage during her life time in male dominated society, opening living her life as a lesbian, and writing in the science fiction genre, a genre hugely dominated by men. It allowed her to express the fantastical, which she did so well. She was revolutionary at the time, a trail blazer, all of which is explored and documented in detail in Jones' book. It's a very comprehensive read, one I very much enjoyed.