Because of the circumstances under which it was initially recommended to me, I very nearly never read this book. That would have been a shame. And in the end, to be perfectly honest, one of the reasons I read it at all was simply so that I would be able to say that I had. Moreover, I was more than half-minded not to write about it, based on the suspicion that any discussion that followed would rapidly become tiring and unproductive. But not writing about it would be to do the book a disservice, so here I am; and if you've never trusted any other recommendation you've seen of it, please trust mine. Whatever issues I bring up below, bear in mind that if you have any interest in how society discusses and assigns value to writing I would still say this book is worth reading.How to Suppress Women's Writing
is a short book by Joanna Russ, about 150 pages, first published in 1983. It is part historical study, part feminist critique, part literary survey, and part polemic. It takes as its starting point the obvious fact that writing by women is under-represented in popular and literary canons, and then outlines mechanisms by which this is achieved. Occasionally writing by other cultural minorities is also considered. You can read the prologue and the first chapter here
. Laid out baldly, the list of mechanisms looks daft:
- She didn't write it
- She wrote it, but she had help
- She wrote it but she shouldn't have
- She wrote it, but look what she wrote about
- She wrote it but she only wrote one of it
- She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist (but it isn't really art)
- She wrote it, but she's an anomaly
Some of them don't look any less daft in context, but Russ doesn't, for the most part, suggest that these mechanisms are conscious--
In the case of women writers and other 'wrong' groups practicing art, the techniques of containment, belittlement, and sheer denial are sometimes so very illogical (and so very prevalent) that it's hard not to believe there's a conscious conspiracy going on--how could anyone argue so idiotically and not be aware of it? Yet it's equally easy to insist that silliness like that must be a matter of ignorance--how could anyone aware of such idiocy not stop, if for no other reason than sheer embarrassment? And if the theory of conscious conspiracy won't do (with some exceptions, chiefly where money is involved), while the theory of total ignorance won't do either, what's going on? (17)
--rather that they are unconscious, inherent in the established framework of literary study. They propagate when people do not question their context or the context of ideas presented to them. This is a (relentlessly) negative view of humanity, but it does force you to sit up and think about your own complicity in the works that society has wrought.
In general, Russ writes acutely, honestly and entertainingly about these problems. But she can also be extremely frustrating; the most common experience I had while reading How to Suppress Women's Writing
was one of saying "yes, but ..." For instance, immediately after the passage above she continues:
(There is a third theory, in which each supposed case of sexism, racism or class disadvantage becomes a matter of personal enmity here or chance there or some other motive somewhere else. Such a theory is part of the problem, not its explanation. It amounts simply to the denial that there is a problem.) (17-18)
Yes, but ... this is a substantial simplification, and that makes me uneasy. Several times, Russ makes it clear that How to Suppress Women's Writing
is not intended as a definitive statement, that she has had neither the time or the resources to achieve that and encourages others to pick up where she leaves off, which is fair enough; and yet, and yet. Because the thing is, a given case of sexism, racism or class disadvantage does not become
a matter of personal enmity, or chance, or some other motive, it almost certainly is
a matter of personal enmity, or chance, or some other motive. It is both an individual case and
part of a pattern, and while--as Russ correctly points out--to concentrate only on individual details is to miss the forest for the trees, to consider only the forest seems to me equally problematic.
At other points, she undermines excellent insights with less-than-perfect metaphors:
In everybody's present historical situation, there can be, I believe, no single center of value and hence no absolute standards. That does not mean that assignment of values must be arbitrary or self-serving (like my students, whose defense of their poetry is "I felt it"). It does mean that for the linear hierarchy of good and bad it becomes necessary to substitute a multitude of centers of value, each with its own periphery, some closer to each other, some farther apart.
There used to be an odd, popular, and erroneous idea that the sun revolved around the earth.
This has been replaced by an even odder, equally popular, and equally erroneous idea that the earth goes around the sun.
In fact, the moon and the earth revolve around a common center, and this commonly-centred pair revolves with the sun around another common center, except that you must figure in all the solar planets here, so things get complicated. (120-21)
You can see what she's trying to do, and I'm sympathetic to it, but the problem is that as soon as you start thinking about her metaphor in terms of why
, it breaks down. The reason a heliocentric view was (eventually) adopted is that it is more accurate than geocentrism. The reason we have not adopted a more general view of cosmology for our day-to-day lives, although we know that it is true, is because it is not particularly more useful to do so. Heliocentrism is good enough for most purposes, and I don't think that's an implication that Russ wanted there.
My biggest reservation about the book, though, is in what it says about reviewing and criticism, or more accurately in what it leaves me as a reviewer able to say: sometimes, it doesn't seem to leave me very much at all. That is to a certain extent to be expected. This is primarily a piece of political writing, one that draws attention to patterns that anyone thinking about fiction should be aware of; it is probably not intended to be taken as a literal model for criticism. And yet ...
Chapter 7 deals with 'she wrote it, but she only wrote one of it': the idea that, say, Jane Eyre
is the only book by Charlotte Bronte in the literary canon because it's the only book she wrote that's worth reading. I had a number of problems with this. First, it is an argument directed at people who believe that 'the canon' is in some way definitive, whereas I take it to be a starting point. Secondly, it should be obvious that representative cherry-picking is not something that afflicts only women writers. Russ is well aware of this, and so it turns out that the first few pages of the chapter are misdirection before she gets to the real
thrust of her argument:
One might argue--and justly--that many male writers are also represented by only one book or one group of poems. I would answer first that the damage done the women is greater because the women constitute so few of the total in anthologies, classes, curricula, and reading lists at any level of education. Moreover, the real mischief of the myth of the isolated achievement, as it is applied to the "wrong" writers, is that the criteria of selection are in themselves loaded and so often lead to the choice of whatever in the writer's work will reinforce the stereotypical notion of what women can write or should write. (65)
This makes sense; I buy it. It doesn't distill into a soundbite as neat as 'she wrote it, but she only wrote one of it,' however, which is a bit unfortunate for a book that is most often referenced by its soundbites. And what do you do if you believe that the soundbite is true? If you've read most or everything by a writer, but are of the opinion that only one or two of the works are genuinely memorable?
I also had problems working out what Russ actually thinks about "women's writing" as a category. In the above quote she appears to be against the idea that it is a category with unique content. This view comes up at other points as well: one of the variants of "she didn't write it" that she examines is "the man inside her wrote it", deriding the idea that "human or personal complexity is reduced to two sets of characteristics, one male, one female." (22) And yet at other times, she seems quite strongly attached to the idea that there are things only women's writing says, going so far as to argue that men misunderstand women's art, and therefore undervalue it, because they are ignorant of women's experience. This seems slightly contradictory, and leads into another restriction on what I can say:
If women's experience is defined as inferior to, less important than, or "narrower" than men's experience, women's writing is automatically denigrated.
If women's experience is simply not seen, the effect will be the same.
She wrote it but look what she wrote about becomes she wrote it, but it's unintelligible/badly constructed/thin/spasmodic/uninteresting, etc, a statement by no means identical with she wrote it, but I can't understand it (in which case the failure might be with the reader). (48)
There's a variant of the accessibility debate to be had here--is it desireable that a work contain the information necessary to make it comprehensible?--but I'm more than willing to accept that works can be misinterpreted by readers outside their context. But this seems to go further, arguing that because I am a man
I can never be a part of the work's context, and that the only valid criticism of a book that I don't like that is by a woman is "I can't understand it."
This somewhat kneecaps criticism. For instance, I have read two particularly strong science fiction novels by women that were published this year, by Justina Robson and Tricia Sullivan. Can I say that I think the Robson is the more successful? What do you think of my opinion if I further tell you that the Sullivan is the more overtly feminist? How about if I say that a couple of the stories in Holly Phillips' collection In The Palace of Repose
do, in fact, seem to me a little thin? The problem is that although every statement that means "I can't understand this" can be written as a more face-saving "this is badly constructed", not every "this is badly constructed" means "I can't understand this." Because fiction by women is going to be just like fiction by men: flawed. The solution, of course, is to write reviews grounded in specific criticisms that allow the reader to judge for themselves whether the conclusions drawn are valid; but this still requires a certain trust in the reviewer, rather than prejudging their suitability on the basis of gender.
As I said before this long litany of nitpicks, I think How to Suppress Women's Writing
is worth reading. In a weird way, the fact that I've nitpicked is meant as a recommendation; it is such an argumentative book that you want to argue back, which is as good a way as any of testing how well your own positions stand up. The best way to avoid unconscious prejudice is to be conscious, and for the most part Russ does an excellent job of demonstrating how and why her list of suppressive mechanisms work (how relevant they are twenty-two years after the book was published is up to the individual reader to decide; for myself, some of them seem more prevalent than others). What's missing, perhaps, is a sense of the possible. This is a book that says 'this must
be done.' It even ends with a direct challenge: "I've been trying to finish this monster for thirteen ms pages and it won't. Clearly it's not finished. You
finish it." (132) But the book doesn't seem terribly confident that this can ever really be done. I'd like to be a little less pessimistic than that.