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Saturday, December 31st, 2011 11:25 am
It's very good, and very readable too, I've had real trouble concentrating on non fiction (or anything much) for the last few years but found this fairly easy to get into.

Russ makes SOME attempt at intersectionality, but there are some glaring omissions. She's also almost entirely focussed on American/British English Literature, apart from one or two examples. But regardless I think the silencing techniques she talks about are pretty universal and this book would be useful to anyone thinking about how marginalised group voices are suppressed.

The cover contains a summary of her argument:
“She didn’t write it. But if it’s clear she did the deed… She wrote it, bit she shouldn’t have. (It’s political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. (“Jane Eyre. Poor dear. That’s all she ever…”) She wrote it, but she isn’t really an artist, and it isn’t really art. (It’s a thriller, a romance, a children’s book. It’s sci fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Brontë. Her own “masculine side”.) She wrote it, but she’s an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard’s help…) She wrote it BUT…”


This is just my thoughts as I've gone along slightly edited for clarity. Not all of them come directly from the book.

There's a narrow set of topics marginalised people are allowed to talk about and behaviours we're allowed to exhibit. Anything that doesn't fit that mould is ignored, eg the anger and antiestablishment opinions of Martin Luther King, Helen Keller. Russ talks about how female poets are forced into neat restricting boxes or ignored: "spinster" though they had many lovers, "prim" though they write lesbian erotica, "hysterical" though they write logically etc. And wherever possible they are defined by the men in their lives: sister, wife, mother etc.

She talks about the fact that women who wish to write or otherwise behave "mannishly" are pathologised, but there's no mention of people with actual mental illness and the way their POVs are excluded, or the hurdles other disabled people face. She occasionally mentions the way gay men and lesbian women are dismissed for or erased for transgressing gender norms etc, but does not explicitly include lgbt people in her gender/race/class triptych of marginalised groups.

Things women like are seen as lesser: romance novels etc. Same topics become worthwhile when written by men. Being associated with women lessens the prestige of a genre. This is one reason I have been challenging myself to read and write these genres rather than dismissing them (there's nothing wrong with not enjoying them, it's the outright dismissal of the possibility of it being worthwhile that is sexist)

Virginia Woolf…writes…"All these good novels…were written by women without more experience of life than could enter the house of a respectable clergyman." But she does not go on to say…that the women confined to the houses of respectable clergymen knew not less than their brothers and fathers, but other


Women's writing about women's experiences are rejected as unrealistic and/or uninteresting by male gatekeepers. A writer is only "influental" if they influence later male writers.

In the other direction, anything by a woman is categorised as "women's writing". Wuthering Heights only started being interpreted as a romance once people knew a woman had written it, at which point they started criticising it for not being a very good romance. All the political work Virginia Woolf wrote that combined feminism with anti-fascism and calls for women and workers to unite against the establishment have been belittled and ignored.

Something I've seen mentioned before: Poetry anthologies of the "best" poems of all time mostly consist of the same white men as each other, plus 6% female poets. But not the same female poets. Also, these few women who are considered worthy of attention are presented as weird outliers, not heirs to a legacy of women influencing and supporting each other.

"Flaws" in women's personal lives are treated like relevant criticisms of their writing. And if a work is somehow enjoyable despite these "flaws" then it's implied that the writer didn't know what they were doing, they just hit the zeitgeist or knew what to do "intuitively" etc (eg enjoying "primitive" art while still believing that REAL artists go to art school in the Western tradition)

Defences: Write in a genre noone cares about. Only write for other women and don't worry about men's opinion. These both very much apply to fanfic and romance.

It's not a simple matter of adding some extra female writers and the canon otherwise remaining unchanged. Once we, as a culture, start valuing and understanding the female POV, all the works which clearly have no understanding of it suddenly look a lot less well written and insightful.

May refuse to play the elitist game of being deliberately obtuse to look deep, no longer needing to be translated by critics or people with fancy degrees in literature.

What is frightening about black art or women's art or Chicano art - and so on - is that it calls into question the very idea of objectivity and absolute standards. "This is a good novel." Good for what? Good for whom? … This does not mean the assignment of values must be arbitrary or self serving (like my students, whose defence of their poetry is "I felt it") It does mean that for a linear hierarchy of good and bad it is necessary to substitute a multitude of centres of value


Every now and then Russ reminds me that she's a scifi writer.

There used to be an…erroneous idea that the sun revolved around the earth. This has been replaced by an… equally erroneous idea that the earth goes around the sun. In fact the earth and moon rotate around a common centre, and… if at this point you ask what does the motion of the earth look like from the centre of the universe…the only answer is: that it doesn't. Because there isn't.


Writers trying to express the reality of being female, black, working class etc create works which crack and strain against the accepted forms, because these forms where not designed to capture the reality they are trying to express, in fact they dismiss and repress it as unspeakable. "Women write in the vernacular" (not always true, but often) Again: fanfic! And of course science fiction, fantasy, crime novels, romances etc.

Authors are dismissed for being "regionalists" rather than speaking to the "universal human experience", yet how is writing only about black people, or only about women, or only about small towns in Nebraska, any less "universal" than the lives of rich white men in New York?

In the afterword Russ talks about being accused of racism and homophobia, feeling defensive, and reading a classic book by a Black author. Which she did not enjoy! Proving that it really wasn't very good! But then she read some more, and suddenly saw what she'd been missing before.
Saturday, December 31st, 2011 03:05 pm (UTC)
The book was published in 1983, so, yes, definitely lacks intersectionality--although I agree with your point that the marginalizing rhetorics are not gender specific. Later, much later, Russ dealt with conflicts in the feminist movement in What Are We Fighting For: Sex, Race, Class, and the Future of Feminism

I still hope to teach a seminar on Russ' work someday (her fiction, her feminist theory, and her criticism).