An open letter

Dear Joanna

– do you mind if you call you Joanna? I’m not going to pretend like I know you from your writing, but Ms Russ feels rather distant and Professor Russ is rather intimidating. I do kinda get the feeling, from your work, that should I meet you in a social setting, after I recovered from my awkward fangirl-induced silence and/or hysteria, you would be Joanna. Thus –

Dear Joanna

I’m 31. That means all of your novels were written before I was born. Much of your short fiction was, too, and almost all of your reviews. (Happily you’ve kept writing essays and the like, so I’ve got heaps still to read – not that I’m even through your fiction yet.) Despite being an historian myself, and one obsessed by the ancient and medieval worlds at that, there is a small part of me that is still somewhat amazed that work from before my birth can have an impact on me. Although I quite like Ancient Greek tragedy, for example, medieval literature rarely affects me on a visceral level; it’s too foreign; I mostly like the ancient tragedies because they’ve become so wrapped up in Western European culture.

The point is, your fiction does affect me. I’m only a child of the ’70s by the grace of three months, and I grew up in Australia, so I don’t really understand the anti-feminist rhetoric that so clearly affected The Female Man, for example. I sometimes get made fun of for identifying as a feminist, which is insulting and horrible and all those sorts of things, but it’s never turned actively nasty, actively hostile – which I know is a blessing. Reading The Female Man, especially the section where you anticipate reviewers’ reactions? Well. It was like a punch to the guts to realise that you expected that sort of reaction. And it makes me admire you fiercely for being willing to put your work out there and endure that sort of reaction because you believed in your work, and in what you were saying.

(All of this may make me sound naive and innocent. I’m not, really. It’s just that my understanding of second-wave feminists’ experiences¬†has often been a bit academic, I guess. Hostile critical reviews, especially when they’ve already been actively anticipated and lampooned, are not academic.)

The first of your work that I read was “When it Changed,” and I had the advantage of reading it without already knowing the reality of life on Whileaway. When I gave a copy of that story and The Female Man to a friend of mine entering law school (she has a Masters in Philosophy as well, don’t worry), I had to scribble out the intro to “When it Changed” because it revealed who the narrator was, which is of course most of the fun. Since then, I’ve read one of your Alyx stories, The Two of Them, “Souls” (which I was overwhelmingly excited to see as a double with a Tiptree story!), and To Write like a Woman. I really enjoyed that collection of your non-fiction, by the way, and I’m dead keen to get the others. You have such an incisive mind, and such a delightful turn of phrase. I especially enjoyed your essays on “What can a Heroine do? or why Women can’t Write,” and “Somebody’s Trying to Kill me and I think it’s My Husband: the Modern Gothic.” You maintain an inspiring balance between humour, and compassion, and cutting criticism that makes your work wonderful to read. So, thank you for that. You have indeed inspired me.

My one issue I wanted to mention is your early dismissal of stories you said you were set in “galactic suburbia.” Admittedly I only know about this from Lisa Yaszek’s book of that same name. I quite enjoy the (well-written) stories set there, and I’m wondering whether you have changed your mind since your discussion of them. If you haven’t, that’s fine… I guess I wonder if, with distance between then and now, things have changed. And at the heart of that wonder is the question of whether you think things actually have changed enough for it to be worth changing your mind. This is getting convoluted; let me explain my (now admittedly naive) thought process. I am presuming that part of your dismissal stemmed from the idea that those stories weren’t feminist enough, and that female authors ought to be writing more challenging, more overtly feminist, work. Maybe I’m wrong; maybe you just didn’t like them. Fair enough. But if my assumption has any truth, do you now think that there can be a place for more domestically-oriented texts? Hmm… it may well be that I am just digging myself in deeper now, and this is making me sound totally unreconstructed.

The reality is, this is fanmail. I love your work. I love that you write/wrote fiction and non-fiction, that you are an academic who is passionate about science fiction, that you are a passionate feminist, and – what spins me out – that you have been those things for so long (sorry, I don’t mean to imply that I think you are old…). You are an inspiration to me.

With deep regards and immense gratitude

Alex

2 responses

  1. Aww, this is lovely, Alex! I really enjoyed reading it. Also HOORAY I just finished To Write Like a Woman! I also loved the Gothic essay best, though many of them were excellent.

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