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[personal profile] nymeth posting in [community profile] ladybusiness
White cover with the same text in the quote that follows in red and black font
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, or 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 cannon for one limited reason.
She wrote it, but there are very few of her.

I should start by warning you that this post will be quotes heavy: How to Suppress Women’s Writing is so great that I just want to cite the whole thing at anyone who’ll listen. First published in 1983, the book remains disappointingly relevant. As Rohan Maitzen points out at Novel Readings, some of the details have changed – for example, Virginia Woolf and Villette have gained the kind of solid canonical weight they didn’t yet have in the early 1980s – but the patterns of suppression Russ identifies are still the same. This is saddening (if not surprising) in a book over three decades old.

The cover of How to Suppress Women’s Writing captures its heart perfectly: much like the image above, Russ provides a smart and witty analysis of all the variations of “she wrote it BUT” people fling at women’s creative work, and which intentionally or not erase and belittle it. She lists eight interconnected forms of suppression (bad faith, denial of agency, pollution of agency, the double standard of content, false categorisation, isolation, anomalousness, and lack of models), all of which were familiar as soon as Russ elaborated on them. I felt jolt after jolt of recognition as I read this book, which was both comforting and not. Comforting: this problem has been named, which is an important step towards defeating it. Not: all these years later, here we are still. I haven’t been in spaces where women’s writing is discussed in depth for all that long, and already I’ve seen all the issues feminist critics identified over thirty years ago. It all goes way back, and all we can do is hope that the circles these conversations move in are slowly becoming more and more encompassing.

In the introduction to How to Suppress Women’s Writing, Russ explains how the sort of equality that is merely nominal – that is, which gives women and minority writers the freedom to be creative but undermines them at every turn – results in self-fulfilling prophecies:
In a nominally egalitarian society the ideal situation (socially speaking) is one in which the members of the “wrong” group have the freedom to engage in literature (or equally significant activities) and yet do not do so, thus proving that they can’t. But alas, give them the least real freedom and they will do it. The trick thus becomes to make the freedom as nominal a freedom as possible and then—since some of the so-and-so’s will do it anyway—develop various strategies for ignoring, condemning or belittling the artistic works that result. If properly done, these strategies result in a social situation in which the “wrong” people are (supposedly) free to commit literature, art, or whatever, but very few do, and those who do (it seems) do it badly, so we can all go home to lunch.

The social barriers that prevent women’s writing from ever being given the same consideration as men’s are seen as “proof” that women are just not up to the job, creating a situation where they simply can’t win.

But who exactly, one might wonder, is doing this? Well, cultural conditioning is a powerful thing, and the only truthful answer is all of us. And as we’ve said time and again here at Lady Business, “if one link in the chain doesn’t help out we are all lost”. The following quote is long but I found it worth including in its entirety, especially because of the point Russ makes about how even though one could draw a distinction between sins of omission and commission, such a distinction is not the point – and to dwell on it at the expense of conversations about solutions is to act in bad faith:
But talk about sexism or racism must distinguish between the sins of commission of the real, active misogynist or bigot and the vague, half-conscious sins of omission of the decent, ordinary, even good-hearted people, which sins the context of institutionalised sexism and racism makes all too easy.
I hesitate to mention this social dimension of sexism, racism, and class since it can be so easily used as an escape hatch by those too tired, too annoyed, too harried or too comfortable to want to change. But it is true that although people are responsible for their actions, they are not responsible for social context in which they must act or the social resources available to them. All of us must perforce accept large chunks of our culture readymade; there is not enough energy and time to do otherwise. Even so, the results of such nonthought can be appalling. At the level of high culture with which this book is concerned, active bigotry is probably fairly rare. It is also hardly ever necessary, since the social context is so far from neutral. To act in a way that is both sexist and racist, to maintain one’s class privilege, it is only necessary to act in the customary ordinary usual, even polite manner.
Nonetheless I doubt that any of us who does so is totally without the knowledge that something is wrong. To slide into decisions without allowing oneself to realize that one’s making any, to feel dimly that one is enjoying advantages without trying to become clearly aware of what these advantages are (and who hasn’t got them), to accept mystifications because they’re customary and comfortable, cooking one’s mental books to congratulate oneself on traditional behavior as if it were actively moral behavior, to know that one doesn’t know, to prefer not to know, to defend one’s status as already knowing with half-sincere, half-selfish passion as “objectivity”—this great, fuzzy area of human ingenuity is what Jean Paul Sartre calls bad faith.

One of my favourite chapters was the one about “the Double Standard of Content”, which Russ explains succinctly in the paragraph below (I did warn you this was going to be heavy on quotes):
The Double Standard of Content is perhaps the fundamental weapon in the armory and in a sense the most innocent, for men and women, whites and people of color do have very different experiences of life and one would expect such differences to be reflected in their art. I wish to emphasize here that I am not talking (vis-à-vis sex) about the relatively small area of biology—about this kind of difference in experience, men are often curious and genuinely interested—but about socially-enforced differences. The trick in the double standard of content is to label one set of experiences as more valuable and important than the other. Thus we have added to She didn’t write it and She did but she shouldn’t have, a third piece of denigration: She did, but look what she wrote about.

I think this process is one of the most insidious, for exactly the same reasons why Russ calls it the most innocent. It latches onto what appears to be an innocent piece of common knowledge and twists it into something damaging. I’ve seen it in action again and again: take, for example, the “we gravitate to what interests us” arguments we saw here at LB in response to Coverage of Women on SFF blogs; or this comment at Biblibio about women’s writing. Even when one set of experiences is not overtly labelled as more valuable and important than the other, this logic always seems to lead to erasure. “It’s not that ‘women’s subjects’ are inferior”, people say again and again, “it’s just that they don’t interest me.” Therefore they don’t get read or reviewed, and the wielder of this argument can “go home to lunch” believing all they did was express a baggage-free personal preference.

There are multiple sides to this problem: one is the assumption that the kinds of experiences that predominantly affect women because of how the world is socially organised are specific and niche, whereas the ones that predominantly affect men are universal. Then there’s the apparent genuine belief that a casual profession of absolute disinterest in the former experiences is a harmless and neutral thing, as if preferences were developed in a vacuum rather than in a world that’s saturated with harmful biases (and back we are to bad faith). Also relevant here is something Roxane Gay notes in Bad Feminist: a strict segregation between male and female experiences that exclusively relegates to the latter “the topics of marriage, suburban existence, and parenthood” presupposes that all women “act alone in these endeavors, wedding themselves, immaculately conceiving children, and the like”. Lastly, perhaps most harmfully, and certainly most revealing of the double standard, there’s the assumption that ‘women’s writing’ is narrow rather than immensely broad, as if there weren’t as many ways to go through life as a woman, and as many sets of experiences, as there are individual women.

Yes, our current social arrangements mean that gender will affect how you experience the world, but what makes something ‘women’s writing’ is in the eye of the beholder. Women, like men and non-binary people, write about far more than gendered experiences, and are furthermore perfectly capable of imaginative and emphatic leaps – which means that their writing contains the full range of possible humanity, much like men’s is acknowledged to do. Whatever your interests are, you’d better believe there will be a book by a woman to suit them. Yet people persist in reducing this variation and rich complexity to something limited, homogeneous, and therefore easily dismissible. Russ does of course acknowledge this: she points out that “the actual content of works can be distorted according to whether the author is believed to be of one sex or the other” and gives the example of Wuthering Heights, which was treated very differently by critics once Emily Brontë’s gender and identity became known.

Here’s another bit that gave me an instant jolt of recognition:
Novelist Samuel Delany has argued that outside of specifically social situations (like cocktail parties), Americans are trained to “see” a group in which men predominate to the extent of 65 percent to 75 percent as half male and half female. In business and on the street, groups in which women actually number 50 percent tend to be seen as being more than 50 percent female. It is not impossible that some similar, unconscious mechanism controls the number of female writers which looks “proper” or “enough” to anthologists and editors. (I am reminded of the folk wisdom of female academics, one of whom whispered to me before a meeting at which we were the only women present, “Don’t sit next to me or they’ll say we’re taking over.”)

We’ve been talking about this for years: equality is seen as “dominance”, and it doesn’t take much at all for people to think women are “taking over”.

One last point: I loved Russ’ takedown of the “intuition” argument, a form of denial of agency which is as patronising as it is common:
This odd idea, once applied to the native wood-notes wild of a barbarous Shakespeare (the assumption that artists-of-the-wrong-group create intuitively, not intelligently), crops up all over the place. Louis Untermeyer says that Christina Rossetti’s verse “defies analysis,” an idea he may have picked up from Sir Walter Raleigh (the early twentieth-century one) who is quoted anent Rossetti thus: ‘You cannot lecture on really pure poetry any more than you can talk about the ingredients of pure water—it is adulterated, methylated, sanded poetry that makes the best lectures. The only thing that Christina makes me want to do is cry, not lecture.” This kind of romanticizing is a form of the denial of agency, and in conjunction with distinctions of race, class, and sex can be extremely mischievous. The idea that any art is achieved “intuitively” is a dehumanization of the brains, effort, and the traditions of the artist, and a classification of said artist as subhuman. It is those supposed incapable of intelligence, training, or connection with a tradition who are described as working by instinct or intuition.

Look and behold, here’s a brilliant piece about how this kind of insidious and dehumanising argument was being used in regards to Joanna Newsom only a few years ago.

How to Suppress Women’s Writing reminded me a lot of Tillie Olsen’s Silences — the two would make excellent companion reads, though I’d pay good money to see Olsen and Russ discuss the process of recategorization, which I thought Olsen engaged in to a troubling degree.

Also, I walked away from this book with a burning desire to finally read Villette. Can I make it happen before the end of the year?

One last bit I wanted to share:
Quality can be controlled by denial of agency, pollution of agency, and false categorizing. I believe that the anomalousness of the woman writer—produced by the double standard of content and the writer’s isolation from the female tradition—is the final means of ensuring permanent marginality. In order to have her “belong” fully to English literature, the tradition to which she belongs must also be admitted. Other writers must be admitted along with their tradition, written and unwritten. Speech must be admitted. Canons of excellence and conceptions of excellence must change, perhaps beyond recognition. In short, we have a complete collapse of the original solution to the problem of the “wrong” people creating the “right” values. When this happens, the very idea that some people are “wrong” begins to fade. And that makes it necessary to recognize what has been done to the “wrong” people and why. And that means recognizing one’s own complicity in an appalling situation. It means anger, horror, helplessness, fear for one’s own privilege, a conviction of personal guilt and what for professional intellectuals may be even worse, a conviction of one’s own profound stupidity. It may mean fear of retaliation. It means knowing that they are watching you.


Reviewed at: Novel Readings

(You?)

Date: 2014-08-12 11:16 am (UTC)
kass: Angry Willow is Angry (willow)
From: [personal profile] kass
God, this review is fabulous; thank you for it.

I find myself fascinated by the ways these same insidious arguments are brought to bear both on female-generated fanworks (I'm thinking about vids specifically at this moment -- men do this stuff, it's celebrated as remix; women do this stuff, it's denigrated as unworthy of attention or possibly illegal) and also to a certain extent on women in my professional sphere. GRR ARGH.

Date: 2014-08-12 09:37 pm (UTC)
jesse_the_k: Zoe from Firefly looks fierce with her sawed-off shotgun (Zoe's Gun)
From: [personal profile] jesse_the_k
Excellent review.

As far as female/male percentages, I was horrified, and not the slightest bit amused, when I started going to WisCon. I assumed it would be a female-dominant space; outsiders often ask are there any non-Lesbians there. I must say I was disappointed to see it as 45-45-5 (the smaller percentage were humans of non-obvious gender).

Date: 2014-08-13 01:35 am (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
First of all, I (Biblibio; it wasn't letting me log on...) actually reviewed this incredible book back in February, plus it served as the basis for my essay on women in literature from a couple weeks ago. So... hi!

As for the book: yes. Just yes to everything here. Yes to every review, yes to every reader, yes to every analysis - yes to all of it. This is such an important book, both for what it was and also for what it remains. It's incredible how relevant all of this is today, and incredible how much it's shaped my perspective re: Women in Translation month and everything. (also: yes, you should read Villette)

I don't have many more coherent thoughts (other than vehemently agreeing with the book all over again, and with you regarding its importance), but I will point out that many people who hold problematic views on the matter have managed to change them over time. I've seen a tremendous shift from a few male reviewers as I've written more about the topic, and I think that if everyone had to read How to Suppress Women's Writing we would have far fewer issues with representation in all fields (not just literature, and not just women). I vote to make this required reading.

Date: 2014-08-13 01:44 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] readingtheend.pip.verisignlabs.com
Predictably, I love this post, Ana! My library's copy of How to Suppress Women's Writing has been mis-shelved or something at my library, so I keep not being able to find it. (grrrr) But luckily there are always bloggers to remind me that I need to get my hands on it. I know that Joanna Russ's arguments still remain extreeeeemely relevant today.

Date: 2014-08-17 03:59 am (UTC)
From: [identity profile] theliteraryomnivore.wordpress.com
I've had this review open for a while, trying to figure out what to say, because I love this review. And I adore this book. And for all that love, it makes me sad that we still haven't moved past this in any significant way.

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