I never met Joanna Russ, and with her death on April 29, I’ll never get the chance. But I have read a lot of her work. And even though I agree with what Lucius Shepard said on Facebook — I, too, “wish she were still alive” — the good thing about writers is that their work can live on after them. Fortunately, a lot of Russ’s work is still in print, and some of the out-of-print books can be found used, so if you haven’t read her yet, now’s as good a time as any to start.
The Female Man is a masterpiece. It came out in 1975, at a time when women’s anger had boiled over. I still believe it is by and away the best feminist novel of any genre from that period. At the time, I was hungry for serious books by women, but most of the feminist fiction was unsatisfying. Looking back, I think it was because the authors were angry — angry, I might add, with very good reason — and couldn’t find a way to discipline that anger into effective work. I’m sure I couldn’t have done it either, but Russ could. The Female Man is a profoundly angry book, but it works.
But it wasn’t just a great book of its time, or even one of the all time great feminist books; it’s a great book, period — highly creative in form, beautifully written, challenging. In his Facebook post, Shephard called it a “gamechanger” for him, and another male writer, Michail Velichansky, told me he read it when he was 17 and it made him a feminist.
I am particularly fond of Russ’s stories and novels about Alyx, but my all time favorite of her work is the short story “When It Changed,” which won the Nebula in 1972. I’ve been haunted by it for 30 years. It’s in the collection The Zanzibar Cat, which is apparently out of print, but can be found used if you look around.
Russ’s nonfiction is as compelling as her fiction. How to Suppress Women’s Writing remains in print and is a fine place to start. Somewhere around this house I have a copy of Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts, which includes a wonderful essay on Kirk/Spock slash.
And while I was googling Russ so I could write this appreciation, I came across her glorious review of A Boy and His Dog — the movie, not the story — published in 1975. It’s a devastating critique and an accurate one, and an excellent place to start if you haven’t read Russ’s nonfiction.
The Fantastic Fiction resource out of the UK has a decent bibliography of Russ’s work that will give readers some idea of how to find it.
Timmi Duchamp, who knew Russ, has posted a more personal remembrance over on Ambling Along the Aqueduct.