After a good start in reading To Write Like a Woman by Joanna Russ, I got distracted by other books and stalled on this one. But I am glad to say I managed to finish it on my holiday vacation before 2012 came to an end.

There are a few really stellar essays in this book like SF and Technology as Mystification, Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction, “What Can a Woman Do? Or Why Women Can’t Write,” and “Somebody’s Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband: The Modern Gothic.” There is also an interesting essay about Willa Cather and another examining The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman as a ghost story. But for the most part I found the essays not all that inspiring.

While Russ is herself a science fiction writer, she is also an academic and the essays are written for a mostly academic audience in a time when SF was trying to establish itself as worthy of study. Most of the essays were written in the 1970s and 80s and come across as a tad bit dated now and then. Russ’s writing is always topnotch and clear and not peppered with academic jargon, but there was something a bit bland. I expected fiery rhetoric and controversy. Perhaps some of the topics at the time were controversial but the intended audience keeps the tone low-key.

The essay I would really have liked to feel dated was “What Can a Woman Do? Or Why Women Can’t Write.” Published in 1971, Russ examines popular plot lines and story arcs that all seem to require men to be the protagonist. She begins the essay by summarizing eight stories but switches gender. For instance,

Two strong women battle for supremacy in the early West.

Or this:

A young man who unwisely puts success in business before his personal fulfillment loses his masculinity and ends up as a neurotic, lonely eunuch.

All eight of them sound pretty absurd or at the least, far-fetched. She goes on to say,

Reversing sexual roles in fiction may make good burlesque or good fantasy, but it is ludicrous in terms of serious literature. Culture is male. Our literary myths are for heroes, not heroines.

While this has changed, it hasn’t changed all that much. Besides Lara Croft and a few others, how many kick-ass women adventurers can you name? Even women superheroes in ensemble casts get the short end of the stick and they are always sexed up. For the most part, Russ asserts, women are only allowed to be protagonists in the “Abused Child” story (think the first part of Jane Eyre, and the “Love Story.” As an alternative, women are also allowed to be protagonists in the “How She Went Mad” story. And because the myths women can inhabit are so limited, that, Russ concludes, is why women can’t write.

The essay isn’t all doom and gloom though because she suggests a few areas women might have luck infiltrating as it were: detective stories, supernatural fiction, and science fiction. Women have made great strides in detective fiction both as writers and protagonists. Science fiction still has its problems, but women are making strides there too. Supernatural fiction, if we lean toward Buffy rather than Edward and Bella, women have improved their lot there as well. In spite of improvements, I wouldn’t say everything is coming up roses. Is there a novel in which a female head of a Fortune 500 company is at the center of the intrigue? Or a female venture capitalist? Or a novel about how the husband gives up his job to stay home with the kids and allow his wife to pursue her high-powered career that doesn’t focus on how cute and unusual it is to have Dad at home changing the diapers? With a large number of people saying they don’t read or only read nonfiction these days, Russ suggests that maybe it has something to do with how the old myths are no longer working for anybody and perhaps it is time to make some new ones.

The essay on the Modern Gothic was a fascinating look at several books in the style of Rebecca none of which I have ever heard of. But Russ ranges across them pulling out similar elements between them — the exotic location with a brooding House, a missing or dead first wife and the unsuspecting second wife, a husband who may or may not love the new wife and may or may not be keeping a secret and who may or may not be a threat. Russ concludes that Modern Gothics are neither love stories nor women-as-victim stories but “adventure stories with passive protagonists.” She makes a good argument for it but I won’t outline it here. I have to leave you something to be curious about should you read the book. And you might want to read it just for the handful off essays I mention. The book is worth it just for those.

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