This book was infuriating in the same way that Invisible Women was infuriating: it highlights the patriarchy, just existing in broad daylight.
Joanna Russ methodically goes through the various reasons, throughout the decades, that women’s (and other marginalised groups) writing is classed as inferior. The genius of women is taken away and ascribed to a man or even that, in the case of Mary Shelly, “was not so much an author in her own right as a transparent medium through which passed the ideas of those around her.” I mean, come on.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters exploring the idea of certain women through time being ‘anomolies’ and that they had no precursors or people who they took inspiration from (or gave to). But of course that’s all nonsense, once you go looking for it. I saw a reflection of my own PhD, which also liked to postulate that there were no women secularists (or very few), but it’s not so hard to find them when you go looking.
I also liked how she pointed out how men just genuinely misinterpreted women as they clearly didn’t (or couldn’t) contemplate the context they were writing in. For example, misinterpreting barren for lacking a husband, when the author was talking about a quarrel with her lesbian lover and the bed being barren. In the chapter on Bad Faith, I particularly loved this paragraph: “…to accept mystifications because they’re customary and comfortable, cooking one’s mental books to congratulate oneself on traditional behaviour as if it were actively moral behaviour…” The book was full of those balloon deflating critiques of critics.
It’s just chapter after chapter, detailing why women’s voices were excluded, with the most ridiculous critics remarks about their writing. It would be fascinating to see an update for 2020, given it was originally published in 1983. I imagine another chapter would include being designated a Mary Sue.
Anyway, I really recommend it, it still feels so very relevant today in science fiction and fantasy writing. It makes me want to continue not reading straight white dudes, because I find everyone else’s stories so much more fulfilling and relevant (and usually without the overt amount of sexual violence).
The epilogue is also full of brilliant insight: “True, the old values are at the centre. But the center is such a dead center.” Which I couldn’t agree more with. I feel less and less compelled to read older science fiction, because it’s of a time and place that wished to exclude so many others. I’d rather give my money and attention to those who can write new futures that have a place for me in them.