I’ve been reading the same two books for about five months now, largely due to changing non-reading habits. I used to read a lot, and usually late at night, but my schedule kept me from reading as much as was my usual. In October, when I was busily ruining my hands every night trying to finish my chain mail shirt for Halloween, I’d go to bed without reading because my wrists were on fire and I couldn’t comfortably hold a book most nights. In November, I was struggling to write 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo while heading out of town to a convention and juggling other things as well, and basically went to bed when I couldn’t write anymore because my eyes were unfocused, which isn’t optimal for reading either. December was just a bit of a lazy month. I got some reading done but still couldn’t finish the books. Then this year came along with my not-clearly-thought-out decision to write a million words in 366 days, and I was back to writing until I was mostly blind.
But I finished a book this week! About damn time. The book I just finished was How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ (still to be finished from five months ago is A Dance With Dragons by George R.R. Martin). I’d first heard about Russ’ book when I saw a review of it by Brit Mandelo on Tor.com. There were other positive opinions in the comments section, and so I added it to my next book order.
This is not a book about writing well, or the writing process, or even the writer’s life (mostly), but it is a very detailed look at how the art of one group of people can be sidelined without explicitly being sidelined, or, in ways above and beyond simply and obviously casting it to the side. It’s a history of marginalization, or rather the patterns which marginalize, done by naming the many methods behind it. It’s an identification of the reasoning used to keep a particular circle closed, or open just enough so that the people within the circle can feel good about how wondrously open they are being.
Some of the methods seem largely relegated to history, such as flat-out denying that a woman wrote something in the first place – that if she wrote at all it was with the help of a brother, lover, or husband. People these days may legitimately question that someone wrote something based on the quality of what that person has previously written, but I don’t recall seeing a recent example of hearing that, say, J.K. Rowling couldn’t have written Harry Potter without the help of a man. Or at least, I would hope that it’s true for current writers. I’m not familiar enough with current literary academic controversies to know if the writing of women of decades and centuries past is still in the process of being reattributed. I suppose it probably is in some circles because the Mary Shelleys of the world aren’t around to defend themselves. Mind you, I suppose it doesn’t matter whether the person is alive or dead, since any form of it is a continuation of the pattern Russ defines.
Some ways are definitely still being used, though they aren’t restricted to works by women. I don’t feel confident in my abilities to properly analyze them, but these methods sadly seem to outnumber the abandoned ones. In many ways this makes the book at once a very humbling thing to read (in a good way), and a very rage-inducing thing to read (also in a good way), by exposing the struggles of a group of people who have had to work harder not only to gain recognition, but also working under the impression of starting from zero despite the existence of a history of their art, and the insidious ways in which the machine (a machine which seems to be self-replicating) is still working against them, and exposing the way in which a person (I can’t exclude myself here) might still be, without meaning to or wanting to, a cog in the machine which continues to grind those people down. Even Russ admits in the afterword that she was guilty of the same. The realization of it is a strange feeling indeed.
Having pointed to he initial review as the thing that brought this book to my attention in the first place, I now defer to it again. Go and read Brit’s first review linked again here, and the second one here (written later after a second read-through). She’s a much more insightful reviewer than I could hope to be and covers in wonderful detail some points which never would have occurred to me.
This is one of the most useful books I’ve ever read. Very highly recommended reading and definitely one I will reread myself, preferably at a time when I can do so in sittings that don’t span five months.