Thursday, October 11, 2012

Joanna Russ and Genre: Reading Wolfe and James on Joanna Russ

     The first two essays in the collection of essays On Joanna Russ, edited by Farah Mendlesohn, are written by more traditional science fiction critics, Gary K. Wolfe and Edward James. Each of these text aims to focus on Russ' intense intertextual engagement with the genre, effectively arguing that Russ' work was deeply invested in the literary tradition of science fiction and fantasy writing, and didn't simply appropriate the genres for political purposes. Wolf polemically notes at the begin of his essay, "My apologies for beginning such a litany of bibliographical detail, but it's crucial to the intent of this essay, which is in part to reclaim and recognize Russ's identity as a science fiction writer--not simply a writer who used science fiction towards other ends--and to establish the extent to which Russ's work was deeply connected to the mainstream dialogue of genre SF prior to and concurrent with her most famous "breakout" works, the Nebula-winning "When It Changed" in 1972 and the now-classic The Female Man in 1975." ( Wolfe 4) Wolfe wants to break out of a number of feminist readings of Russ, that both erase the linkages that her work has with the dominant structures of the genre, as well as the tendency to read those texts instrumentally, that is to read it for its political aims, rather than engaging in the formal structures of the text. We'll return to some of the flaws contained in those assumptions, which in some sense reproduce the form/content divide, but let's begin by exploring what the essays contribute to our understanding of Russ' work. Gary Wolfe's essay, 'Alyx among the Genres' closely reads the Alyx stories for their dense engagement with 'a wide spectrum of science fiction and fantasy traditions." (Wolfe 5) Wolfe then offers a detailed analysis of the stories, showing deliberate intertextual references to Fritz Leiber, Robert E. Howard, C.L. Moore, Isaac Asimov, Poul Anderson, and others. For Wolfe, this work needs to be read not simply as prequel to the serious work of later novels, but as a serious commitment to the form and history of the genre, per se.

     Edward James continues this argument through his reading of the history of Russ's review of science fiction novels, written for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction between the years 1966 and 1980. James is also concerned with linking Russ to the subcultural and generic norms of the science fiction community, noting, "What can the reader of Russ's science fiction learn from a study of her reviews of science fiction novels? First, that she is in many ways a very old-fashioned reader of science fiction. That she should write in praise, in her very last review, in 1979, of “as-if speculation which produces medical and technological advances,” swhows that she is a true daughter of Gernsback and Campbell, and apparently far removed from the reaction against the Old Guard by the New Wave. She enjoys schlock; she admits the importance of entertainment; she extols the value of scientific accuracy.” (James 30) For James, Russ is a faithful science fiction traditionalist, only demanding a revision in the genre to conform to her radical feminist critiques of the genres sexism, a claim that James implicitly endorses, as well. James is certainly correct in perceiving both a love of the genre in Russ’s writing, along with a willingness to celebrate a number of generic traditions that were challenged by the New Wave. Indeed, not only Russ’s reviews show this intense interest in the history of the genre, but her writing does as well, as shown in Wolfe’s intervention. But James doesn’t take into account the generic limitations contained in the format that Russ was writing in, the book review. When one begins to read the critical essays produced by Russ in the same era, we begin to see a greater demand for formal experimentation, one that links her work to the New Wave in a manner that James attempts to deny, which both refuses to recognize a critical engagement with the New Wave with the older traditions of science fiction, and the ways that both Russ and the New Wave are engaged in a substantial formal rewriting of those traditions.

      To return to the issue of form and content, brought up earlier in the essay, both Wolfe and James contribute useful material to the understanding of Joanna Russ as a science fiction author, as an author that both contributes to the generic form of science fiction, but also as an author who can only be understood through a critical engagement with that genre.  However, they don't allow that Russ's engagement with the form of the genre might be driven by a feminist politic, not from an instrumental perspective, but from the perspective of a politics of form, what Darko Suvin might call a 'social formalism.'  In this sense, Wolfe and James produce a mirror image of the critic who attempts to extract a political critique from the science fictional form, one that is designed to popularize and make accessible the radical feminist politics of her time.  Both perspectives erase the ability for literature to produce their own theoretical structures through a formal engagement, one built on a substantial engagement with the history as well as the radical possibilities contained in the science fictional form.  Russ points to radically alternative understanding of the social symbolic, one that escapes the psychoanalytical framework that dominated radical and cultural feminism.  We need a social formalist approach to engage with that work.

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