How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.
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May 6, 2013

How to Suppress Women's Writing, Joanna Russ

How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Joanna Russ

As I mentioned on Friday, some of my weekend reading was devoted to filling a large gap in my reading, Joanna Russ’s How to Suppress Women’s Writing.

Two things struck me as I read this book.

First: this is a magnificent accounting of how writing by women is suppressed using a variety of different techniques–many of Russ’s ideas seem to have permeated feminist discourse in general, so there wasn’t a whole lot that was new to me. So that’s good. Less good is that this year marks the 30th anniversary of its publications and why aren’t we making a big deal of this?

Second: wow, things really haven’t changed much, have they? I was struck by this as I read Russ’s account of Samuel R. Delany’s 1961 revelation about the difference between the pockets in men’s and women’s clothing.  Kyle Cassidy wrote about pockets just last week.

It is 2013 and we are still talking about pockets.  (I direct everyone’s attention to this nifty post about historical pockets.)

How to Suppress Women’s Writing is such an illuminating text–Russ very clearly lays out exactly how women’s writing is discounted and uses many examples. I was a bit worried that this book was going to be full of complicated academic jargon, but it’s not. It’s very readable and I really like the voice used throughout.  It’s conversational but authoritative without being patronizing–which is a difficult thing to pull off, in my opinion. (I might have a thing about being patronized.)

One thing that is central to this book is the idea of writing on the edges and in the margins: “Get out of the ‘major’ genres and into the ‘minor’ ones. Stay on the periphery of culture” (100). As I read this part, I could help but think of the romance genre and how, despite it being such a major player in terms of making money in publishing, it is very much on the edge of culture and how, to so many, there’s something inherently trivial and amusing about it.  Just throwing that out there.

I am so glad that I decided to pick up this book, so very glad. It is such an important piece of criticism and, I think, one of it’s main strengths is the fact that it helped me to clarify my own thinking–I can see going back to this book several more times, possibly with a highlighter or two.

She didn’t write it.
She wrote it, but she shouldn’t have.
She wrote it, but look what she wrote about.
She wrote it, but “she” isn’t really an artist and “it” isn’t really serious, of the right genre–i.e., really art.
She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it.
She wrote it, but it’s only interesting/included in the canon for one, limited reason.
She wrote it, but there are very few of her. (76)

Indeed. Let me end this review with another quotation:

Well, as in cells and sprouts, growth occurs only at the edges of something. From the peripheries, as Klein says. But even to see the peripheries, it seems, you have to be on them, or by an act of re-vision, place yourself there. Refining and strengthening the judgments you already have will get you nowhere. You must break set. It’s either that or remain at the center. The dead, dead center. (132)

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2 Comments

  1. jessica

    I’ve only read bits of this one: must read more, and more carefully.

    But whenever anyone says feminists have no sense of humor, this is exhibit A to the contrary.

  2. Selki

    Oh yeah, I remember that Delany bit.

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