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How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ

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How To Suppress… doesn’t appear to have a blurb, but then, arguably, it doesn’t need one at this stage. Possibly Russ’ most famous work, and if not behind only Female Man in renown, this pamphlet (less than 150 pages, excluding footnotes and index) is an angry takedown of the idea of the canon, or more accurately, an attack on the processes that go into curating the canon.

How To Suppress… goes through a series of different strategies for discrediting women’s writing or for persuading women not to write; Russ lays each out and details numerous examples in practice, once we get past what she says is the impracticable stage of “Prohibition”. Russ is not here particularly interested in editorial decisions, although those come up from time to time, but rather the way a social climate is created in which women’s writing is largely dismissed or devalued, and in which women see writing as an inappropriate-to-themselves action. At each stage, Russ explains and dismantles not only particular examples of each strategy, but also looks at their impact on women (and on literary criticism), their relevance in other fields (especially art), and where they come from in societal terms.

How To Suppress… is both a powerfully angry, and a very witty, book. Russ by turns shows her outrage and her amusement at the double-standards, hypocrisy and ridiculousness of (largely male) literary critics who define “acceptable”, “valuable”, “important” and “relevant” literature. That her primary strategy for this is to simply quote the critics themselves rather highlights their flaws. She also raises the ridiculousness of many of the attitudes that are applied to female writers by critics, emphasising that they are not applied to men and also that they’re not about the work, but about categories the critics apply. This model of argument is particularly striking when one considers how many of these belittlements Russ must have suffered as a female science fiction writer, on every side; rather than lashing out, How To Suppress… carefully assembles a complex, coherent, readable and witty response to every diminishment of the importance of literature.

How To Suppress… also shows off the breadth of material Russ has looked at in preparation for it. Each chapter is heavily footnoted, ending up with 12 pages of references with little if any commentary, and the variety of sources discussed for her comments is broad; on multiple occasions she admits having to pull back from rephrasing too much what another person (woman) has said (eg 74-5, Jane Marcus’ & Berenice Carroll’s essays on Virginia Woolf), but is more than willing to quote full paragraphs where it is useful (indeed, her afterword is almost entirely quotes). And it is far from simply female commentators or foolish male critics she quotes; fellow science fiction writer & SFWA member Samuel Delany is mentioned five times in various contexts, for instance.

If there is one place How To Suppress… falls down, it is on its (admittedly acknowledged) focus on the suppression of middle-class women. Russ, on a number of occasions, notes that the same strategies can be applied to working class writers, non-AngloAmerican writers, authors of colour, queer authors; but she never really expands these discussions to actually look at how they are applied to those groups. The Afterword somewhat redresses this, simply by demonstrating the breadth and beauty of African American (female) writing, but Russ herself acknowledges that this is indeed a flaw in her work.

How To Suppress Women’s Writing was written in 1978. It was revised 5 years later in 1983. Russ hoped it would change the literary and critical landscape. How To Suppress Women’s Writing, however, remains incredibly relevant, as we continue to apply all the strategies discussed in it to what Russ calls “minority writing”, conciously or unconciously. This book should be given to every critic, reviewer, blogger, editor, educator… out there, now.


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