American Literature Joanna Russ
by
Paul March-Russell
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199827251-0192

Introduction

Joanna Russ was one of the most influential figures within postwar women’s science fiction. As a writer, she incorporated modernist techniques, such as collage, so as to defamiliarize generic science fiction scenarios, for example, the first contact narrative, time travel, and alternate history, and to question their ideological bases. As a critic, she was instrumental in propounding science fiction as a genre that estranges its readership but which, until the Women’s movement of the 1960s, had tended to assume that the reader was exclusively white, male, and heterosexual. Lastly, as a feminist, she united both her creative and critical practices in an attempt to deflect this male gaze, and to open up the possibilities of alternate forms of social and sexual identity. Russ was born in the Bronx, New York City, on February 22, 1937. Her parents were both schoolteachers, from whom she gained a love of reading. She studied English at Cornell University, where she was taught by Vladimir Nabokov. Russ then studied playwriting at Yale University, where she discovered the work of Bertolt Brecht. She published her first science fiction story, “Nor Custom Stale,” in 1959. After teaching at the University of Boulder, Russ returned to Cornell as a tutor in 1968. During the next twelve months, Russ would join the first-ever women’s group at Cornell, publish her first novella, Picnic on Paradise, leave her husband, come out as a lesbian, and begin work on her masterpiece, The Female Man (cited under Novels). During the early 1970s, Russ became, alongside her close friend and fellow author, Samuel R. Delany, one of the most important critical voices in science fiction. In 1977, she became an associate professor at the University of Washington, Seattle, where, six years later, she published her most influential work of literary criticism, How to Suppress Women’s Writing (cited under Nonfiction). Russ won several awards including the Nebula Award in 1972 for “When It Changed,” the Hugo Award in 1983 for “Souls,” and the Pilgrim Award for science fiction criticism in 1988. Her literary output diminished after the early 1980s; Russ’s final short story, “Invasion,” was published in 1996. Plagued by chronic back problems, Russ retired from academia to concentrate upon her critical writings. On April 29, 2011, following a series of strokes, Russ died in Tucson, Arizona.

General Overview

There are several short introductions to Russ’s fiction, which first-time readers of her work may find helpful in obtaining an overall sense of her themes and approaches. Barbour 2009, Clute 2018, Garland 1981, Holt 1982, and Mohr 2009 each offers useful biographical and bibliographical overviews of Russ’s work and her contribution to the science fiction genre. Hacker 1977 and Moore 2012 present personal and critical reflections on Russ’s fiction and its political commitment, in particular, its legacy for readers and writers. Sleight 2009 offers a rare overview of Russ’s short stories, which, as he argues, is one of the most important bodies of short fiction in the science fiction genre. Mendlesohn 2009 remains the only edited collection of essays devoted to Russ’s work.

  • Barbour, Douglas. “Joanna Russ (1937–).” In Fifty Key Figures in Science Fiction. Edited by Mark Bould, Andrew M. Butler, Adam Roberts, and Sherryl Vint, 190–195. New York: Routledge, 2009.

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    A thorough and up-to-date account of the major themes in Russ’s fiction and her place within the genre, written by one of her earliest advocates in the field of academic criticism.

  • Clute, John. “Joanna Russ.” In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. Edited by John Clute and David Langford, 2018.

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    As with the rest of the Encyclopedia, the essential starting point for all new readers of Russ. A regularly updated entry, covering all aspects of her work, by one of science fiction’s most-knowledgeable and astute critics.

  • Garland, Barbara. “Joanna Russ.” In Twentieth-Century American Science Fiction Writers, Part 2: M–Z. Edited by David Cowart, 88–93. Detroit: Gale, 1981.

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    A solid overview of Russ’s writing up until the start of the 1980s.

  • Hacker, Marilyn. “Science Fiction and Feminism: The Work of Joanna Russ.” Chrysalis 4 (1977): 67–79.

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    An important early study of Russ’s fiction and its political commitment, written by Samuel R. Delany’s then wife and coeditor of Chrysalis, the poet Marilyn Hacker.

  • Holt, M. J. “Joanna Russ.” In Science Fiction Writers. Edited by E. F. Bleiler, 483–490. New York: Scribner, 1982.

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    Like Garland 1981, a solid and useful account of Russ’s fiction up until the early 1980s.

  • Mendlesohn, Farah, ed. On Joanna Russ. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009.

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    Shortlisted for the 2010 Hugo Award for the best science fiction or fantasy in the “best related book” category, this is a comprehensive collection of essays dealing with all aspects of Russ’s work, written by many of the leading scholars within the science fiction field. Mendlesohn’s introduction is particularly useful on why we should read Russ despite, or because of, her formal and political complexities.

  • Mohr, Dunja M. “Joanna Russ (1937–).” In Women in Science Fiction and Fantasy. Vol. 2. Edited by Robin A. Reid, 268–270. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2009.

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    Like Barbour 2009, a more recent account of Russ’s work with particular emphasis upon her place within women’s and feminist science fiction and fantasy.

  • Moore, Nancy J. “Thinking about Joanna Russ.” In The Wiscon Chronicles. Vol. 6, Futures of Feminism and Fandom. Edited by Alexis Lothian, 198–203. Seattle, WA: Aqueduct Press, 2012.

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    An important reflection upon Russ’s legacy, written shortly after her death, and delivered as part of Wiscon, the annual convention devoted to women’s science fiction and fantasy, an event almost unimaginable without Russ’s earlier artistic and critical intervention.

  • Sleight, Graham. “Extraordinary People: Joanna Russ’s Short Fiction.” In On Joanna Russ. Edited by Farah Mendlesohn, 197–209. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009.

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    A very useful overview of Russ’s short fiction which emphasizes how the short story form permits Russ to explore uncomfortable narrative solutions to real-world political problems, while also attesting to the strengths and weaknesses of her characters within these situations.

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