To Write Like a Woman brings together 14 essays by Joanna Russ which span 20 years of her feminist and science fiction criticism. Two general introductions, one by Sarah LeFanu and one by the author herself, and introductory comments to each article as well as sequence and grouping provide a frame which traces her own development as a critic and places each essay within a certain moment in the history of feminist (science fiction) criticism. The title of the collection highlights two related themes which run through all of these essays, namely the relationship between writing and women’s experience of material reality and the precarious position of women writers. The two main sections of the book group the essays according to their respective objects of criticism. Part one focuses on criticism of work by male writers and the masculinist tradition in science fiction and fantasy; part two contains work on women writers and the conditions under which women write. The articles show both transformations and continuities in Russ’s career as a feminist literary and cultural critic and make use of various textual forms ranging from scholarly essay to review article and personal letter.
Part one, in such classic essays as “Towards an Aesthetic of Science Fiction” (1975) and “Speculations: The Subjunctivity of Science Fiction” (1973), expounds the specificities of the genre of science fiction and argues for the necessity to formulate a critical language which [End Page 919] is able to account for these specificities. With reference to Darko Suvin, Russ relates science fiction to the didacticism, concreteness, and simplicity of medieval art, criticizing psychologizing, “intrapersonal” interpretations of characters and plot. In a similar vein, “On the Fascination of Horror Stories, Including Lovecraft’s” (1980) argues that horror fiction is not concerned with a particular individual’s psychology but with “a common psychology of experience.” Her analysis of misogynist fiction in “Amor Vincent Foeminam: The Battle of the Sexes in Science Fiction” (1980) criticizes its perception of conflict between the sexes as private and manageable via solutions based on the individual’s biology. The utopian texts explored in “Recent Feminist Utopias,” on the other hand, represent such conflict as class antagonism and seek economic, social, and political solutions.
In part two, Russ confronts writing by women, the female literary tradition, and feminist scholarship. The much-cited early essay “What Can a Heroine Do? or Why Women Can’t Write” (1972) explores the ways in which female characters are confined to certain plot patterns and excluded from stories which make them simultaneously active and heroic. While part one emphasized the critique of the masculinist literary tradition, part two demands from women writers the development of means with which to represent that which is unrepresentable in patriarchal terms. These essays include criticism of writing by women for women, as in “Somebody is Trying to Kill Me and I Think It’s My Husband: The Modern Gothic” (1973), of science fiction’s mythical mother Mary Shelley, as well as of feminist psychoanalytic criticism. Russ charges both Shelley and psychoanalysis with a lack of sense for people’s real experience and material existence. The only essay which represents her contribution to lesbian studies in this collection, “To Write ‘Like a Woman’: Transformations of Identity in the Work of Willa Cather” (1987), in which she analyzes Cather’s use of masquerade to represent the lesbian experience within a heterosexual frame, also supplied the supremely ironic and ambiguous title for the book.
Making use of her dual position as a writer of fiction and of literary and cultural criticism, Joanna Russ in this collection continually crosses borders between textual types and negotiates fields of tension. In recent years, both feminist criticism and science fiction scholarship have moved towards more specialized discourses, barring access to outsiders to the field. To Write Like a Woman participates in another [End Page 920] trend in academic writing: making scholarly work accessible for nonacademic readers, mediating as it does between the discourses of literature, academic criticism, and everyday life. The collection also demonstrates her consistent...