Sunday, February 9, 2014

How to Suppress Women's Writing | Review

I have a hard time reviewing nonfiction books most of the time because I feel distinctly not qualified. How to Suppress Women's Writing by Joanna Russ is no exception. In fact, as a clearly feminist text, I find myself even less qualified than usual to discuss it, having very little understanding of what we generally call feminism. Yet I found myself recognizing so much of How to Suppress Women's Writing and grimly understanding where it comes from, so that I'm going to try to write about it anyways.

The core thesis of How to Suppress Women's Writing is not actually included in the book itself, but rather stems from the cover:
She didn't write it. (But if it's clear she did the deed...) She wrote it, but she shouldn't have. (It's political, sexual, masculine, feminist.) She wrote it, but look what she wrote about. (The bedroom, the kitchen, her family. Other women!) She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it. ("Jane Eyre. Poor dear, that's all she ever...") She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist, and it isn't really art. (It's a thriller, a romance, a children's book. Sci fi!) She wrote it, but she had help. (Robert Browning. Branwell Brontë. Her own masculine side.) She wrote it, but she's an anomaly. (Woolf. With Leonard's help...)
She wrote it BUT...
This text - in large, bold letters - graces the cover of How to Suppress Women's Writing. Here is the unofficial outline from which Russ builds her argument, that essentially no matter what women do, they will always be sidelined using one excuse after another. In truth, by the end of the book I couldn't help but feel that this was much less about the suppression of women's writing as it was about the dismissal of existing works, shoving them into obscurity or doggedly refusing to acknowledge their influence on the literary canon.

Russ presents the reality of the late 1970s, early 1980s when it comes to literary feminism and the clear struggles women had in gaining representation and the respect they deserved. This is a darkly determined book in that regard, as Russ presents anecdotes from the then-present alongside anecdotes from times past that show the persistent sexism women writers faced. And while she follows the outline detailed above, she doesn't stick to it 100%, and occasionally a general critique of a sexist society slips in (one anecdote describes a man trying on a woman's pants and being baffled by the lack of pockets).

Russ's criticism of the "modern" suppressing of women's writing is perhaps the most outdated aspect of the book - today, women write in mass amounts, dominating many fields and genres (particularly the growing YA field). Women are not told that writing is a man's business, women are not discouraged from writing in the same way that they were only a few decades ago. In this regard, the literary landscape is much friendlier to women today. Fantastic, right?

Well, the problems begin once you realize just about everything else about the book is still pathetically relevant. Women are still underrepresented in awards shortlists (though the past couple of years have made a jaw-jutted effort to fix that). Women are still underrepresented in the official "canon", where certain male writers get multiple slots and authors like Charlotte Brontë get nothing*. Where women writers are lucky to get one of their books on the list, even if they have multiple that surely deserve a place in the canon (George Eliot!).

There are still well-respected male authors who claim that women just "aren't as good at writing" as men**. There are still professors who refuse to teach women writers for similar made-up reasons***. Still review outlets which overwhelmingly prefer male writers (and reviewers) over female****. Still publishers who consistently translate more books by men than they do books by women*****.

And ultimately, still readers who are subtly taught to read according to gender, who are taught that books by women are less serious, less high-brow, less intelligent and overall less important than books by men.

How do I know that last line is true? Because up until a couple years ago, I thought those things.

The more I read and grow, the more I set aside my teenage prejudices and misunderstandings, the more I'm able to understand that Jane Eyre wasn't just a good, "pleasant" book. It's a good book, period. I'm able to understand that by presenting Jane Austen's books as sweet romances, we're forgetting the clear social commentary that comes alongside it. Middlemarch is simply "the greatest English novel", J. K. Rowling is not merely a "popular" writer but a groundbreaking one, indeed an important writer, and Alice Munro's recent Nobel prize was not won in spite of her small, "home-centered" stories, but rather because of her superbly clean writing and sharp eye.

Big picture, How to Suppress Women's Writing didn't really tell me anything I didn't already know. It's not a groundbreaking book with new feminist ideas (not only because it's more than thirty years old). What it does is organize the many issues with the representation of women in literature, touching on everything from availability (in large part influencing my last post) to sexism in academia (presumably less serious today, but still apparent) to the glossing-over of women's achievements when building and presenting the "canon". The anecdotes and stories build an unpleasantly familiar picture, and I found myself quite unhappy in regards to how much of the book is still entirely relevant today.

Read How to Suppress Women's Writing. Read it, discuss it, see what's changed, see what hasn't. Thirty years down the line and Russ' text is still important, still worth reading. So track it down, check it out, buy it. Read it.

* The first result when searching for the 100 Best Books of All Time
** V. S. Naipaul's sexist rant from a few years ago
*** David Gilmour's sexism and racism
**** VIDA's statistics
***** My own series on Women in Translation

1 comment:

  1. I want to read this, and I'm also sad to read it -- I know how little these objections to women's writing have changed in the years since Russ wrote it. :/


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