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Joanna Russ

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Joanna Russ

Joanna Russ
Born Joanna Russ
(1937-02-22)February 22, 1937
The Bronx, New York, US
Died April 29, 2011(2011-04-29) (aged 74)
Tucson, Arizona, US
Occupation Academic, feminist, fiction writer
Language English
Nationality American
Alma mater Cornell University
Genre Science fiction, fantasy
Subject Feminist literary criticism
Notable works When It Changed, The Female Man, How to Suppress Women's Writing, To Write Like a Woman
Notable awards Hugo Award, Nebula Award, two James Tiptree, Jr. Awards, Locus Award, Gaylactic Spectrum Award, Pilgrim Award, Florence Howe award of the women's caucus of the MLA

Joanna Russ (February 22, 1937 – April 29, 2011) was an American writer, academic and feminist. She is the author of a number of works of science fiction, fantasy and feminist literary criticism such as How to Suppress Women's Writing, as well as a contemporary novel, On Strike Against God, and one children's book, Kittatinny. She is best known for The Female Man, a novel combining utopian fiction and satire.


  • Background 1
  • Science fiction and other writing 2
  • Reputation and legacy 3
  • Criticism 4
  • Health problems 5
  • Selected works 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8


Joanna Russ was born in The Bronx, New York City[1] to Evarett I. and Bertha (née Zinner) Russ, both teachers. She began creating works of fiction at a very early age. Over the following years she filled countless notebooks with stories, poems, comics and illustrations, often hand-binding the material with thread.[2]

As a senior in high school, Russ was selected as one of the top ten Westinghouse Science Talent Search Winners.[3] She graduated from Cornell University, where she studied with Vladimir Nabokov[4] in 1957, and received her MFA from the Yale Drama School in 1960. After teaching at several universities, including Cornell, she became a full professor at the University of Washington.[5]

Science fiction and other writing

Russ came to be noticed in the science fiction world in the late 1960s,[6] in particular for her award-nominated novel Picnic on Paradise.[7] At the time, SF was a field dominated by male authors, writing for a predominantly male audience, but women were starting to enter the field in larger numbers.[6] Russ, an out lesbian,[8] was one of the most outspoken authors to challenge male dominance of the field, and is generally regarded as one of the leading feminist science fiction scholars and writers.[6] She was also one of the first major science fiction writers to take slash fiction and its cultural and literary implications seriously.[9] Over the course of her life, she published over fifty short stories.

Along with her work as a writer of prose fiction, Russ was also a playwright, essayist, and author of nonfiction works, generally literary criticism and feminist theory, including the essay collection Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts; How to Suppress Women's Writing; and the book-length study of modern feminism, What Are We Fighting For?. Her essays and articles have been published in Women's Studies Quarterly, Signs, Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies, Science Fiction Studies, and College English. Russ was a self-described socialist feminist, expressing particular admiration for the work and theories of Clara Fraser and her Freedom Socialist Party.[10] Both fiction and nonfiction, for Russ, were modes of engaging theory with the real world; in particular, The Female Man can be read as a theoretical or narrative text.

Russ's writing is characterized by anger interspersed with humor and irony. James Tiptree Jr, in a letter to her, wrote, "Do you imagine that anyone with half a functional neuron can read your work and not have his fingers smoked by the bitter, multi-layered anger in it? It smells and smoulders like a volcano buried so long and deadly it is just beginning to wonder if it can explode."[5] In a letter to Susan Koppelman, Russ asks of a young feminist critic "where is her anger?" and adds "I think from now on, I will not trust anyone who isn't angry."[11]

For nearly 15 years she was an influential (if intermittent) review columnist for The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction.[12] Though by then she was no longer an active member of science fiction fandom, she was interviewed by phone during Wiscon (the feminist science fiction convention in Madison, Wisconsin) in 2006 by her friend and member of the same cohort, Samuel R. Delany.[13]

Her first SF story was "Nor Custom Stale" in F&SF (1959). Notable short works include Hugo winner and Nebula Award finalist "Souls" (1982), Nebula Award and Tiptree Award winner "When It Changed" (1972), Nebula Award finalists "The Second Inquisition" (1970), "Poor Man, Beggar Man" (1971), "The Extraordinary Voyages of Amélie Bertrand" (1979), and "The Mystery of the Young Gentlemen" (1982).[14] Her fiction has been nominated for nine Nebula and three Hugo Awards, and her genre-related scholarly work was recognized with a Pilgrim Award in 1988.[7] Her story "The Autobiography of My Mother" was one of the 1977 O. Henry Prize stories.[15]

Reputation and legacy

Her work is widely taught in courses on science fiction and feminism throughout the English speaking world. Russ is the subject of Farah Mendlesohn's book On Joanna Russ and Jeanne Cortiel's Demand My Writing: Joanna Russ, Feminism, Science Fiction.[15] Russ and her work are prominently featured in Sarah LeFanu's Chinks in the World Machine: Feminism and Science Fiction (1988). She was named to the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame in 2013.[7][16]

Her papers are part of the University of Oregon's Special Collections and University Archives.[17]


The late 1960s and 1970s marked the beginnings of feminist SF scholarship—a field of inquiry that was all but created single-handedly by Russ, who contributed many essays on feminism and science fiction that appeared in journals such as College English and Science Fiction Studies.[18] She also contributed 25 reviews to the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, covering more than 100 books of all genres.[19] In their article "Learning the 'Prophet Business': The Merril-Russ Intersection," Newell and Tallentire described Russ as an "intelligent, tough-minded reviewer who routinely tempered harsh criticism with just the sort of faint praise she handed out to Judith Merril", who in turn was the foremost editor and critic in American science fiction in the late 1960s. Russ was also described as a fearless, incisive, and radical person, whose writing was often characterized as acerbic and angry.[20]

Russ was acclaimed as one of science fiction's most revolutionary and accomplished writers. Helen Merrick went so far as to claim that Russ was an inescapable figure in science fiction history. James Tiptree, Jr. once commented on how Russ could be an "absolute delight" one minute, but then she "rushes out and bites my ankles with one sentence".[21] For example, Russ criticized Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 The Left Hand of Darkness, which won both the 1969 Nebula and 1970 Hugo awards for best science fiction novel, arguing that gender discriminations that permeated science fiction by men showed up just as frequently in science fiction by women. According to Russ, Le Guin's novel represented these stereotypes.

However, Russ was well aware of the pressures of writing for a living since she was also an author herself. Russ also felt that science fiction gives something to its readers that cannot be easily acquired anywhere else. She maintained that science should be accurate, and seriousness is a virtue.[19] She insisted on the unique qualities of her chosen genre, maintaining that science fiction shared certain qualities with art and its flexibility compared to other forms writing. Russ was also interested in demonstrating the unique potentials of women science fiction writers.[18] As her career moved into its second decade in the 1980s, she started to worry about reviewing standards. She once said, "The reviewer's hardest task is to define standards."[19]

Russ's reviewing style was characterized by anger. She was attacked by readers because of her harsh reviews of [22]

However, she felt guilty about dire and frank criticism. She apologized for her harsh words on Lloyd Biggle's The Light That Never Was (1972) by saying, "It's narsty to beat up on authors who are probably starving to death on turnip soup (ghoti soup) but critics ought to be honest." [19]

Health problems

In her later life she published little, largely due to chronic back pain and chronic fatigue syndrome.[23]

On April 27, 2011, it was reported that Russ had been admitted to a hospice after suffering a series of strokes. Samuel R. Delany was quoted as saying that Russ was "slipping away" and had long had a "Do Not Resuscitate" order on file.[24] She died early in the morning on April 29, 2011.[14][25]

Selected works


  1. ^ Russ and Salmonson 1989, p. 236
  2. ^ "PCL MS-7: Joanna Russ Collection". Browne Popular Culture Library. Retrieved March 20, 2011. 
  3. ^ "Joanna Russ". NNDB. Retrieved March 15, 2013. 
  4. ^ Delany 2005, p. vi.
  5. ^ a b "Guide to the Joanna Russ Papers, 1968–1989". Northwest Digital Archives. Retrieved March 20, 2011. 
  6. ^ a b c Bacon-Smith 2000, p. 95.
  7. ^ a b c "Joanna Russ". Science Fiction Awards Database ( Mark R. Kelly and the Locus Science Fiction Foundation. Retrieved September 11, 2013.
  8. ^ Griffin 2002, p. 172.
  9. ^ Francis, Conseula and Piepmeier, Alison (March 31, 2011). "Interview: Joanna Russ". Journal of Popular Romance Studies (1.2). Retrieved March 15, 2013. 
  10. ^ "Revolution, She Wrote: Introduction" (PDF). Retrieved March 15, 2013. 
  11. ^ Russ 1995, p. 175.
  12. ^ Mendlesohn 2009, p. 19.
  13. ^ "The Legendary Joanna Russ Interviewed by Samuel R. Delany". Broadsheet. February 2007. Retrieved March 15, 2013. 
  14. ^ a b "Joanna Russ (1937–2011)". Locus Online News.  
  15. ^ a b "In Memoriam: Joanna Russ (1937–2011)". Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. April 29, 2011.
  16. ^ "Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame: EMP welcomes five major players". [June 2013].
     "Joanna Russ: Prolific author and academic with an eye on female identity". EMP Museum ( Retrieved September 11, 2013.
  17. ^
  18. ^ a b Yaszek, Lisa. "A History of One's Own: Joanna Russ and the Creation of a Feminist SF Tradition". On Joanna Russ. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. 31–47.
  19. ^ a b c d James, Edward. "Russ on Writing Science Fiction and Reviewing It". On Joanna Russ. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. 19–30.
  20. ^ Freedman, Carl Howard. Critical Theory and Science Fiction. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 2000. Print.
  21. ^ Merrick, Helen. "The Female "Atlas" of Science Fiction? Russ, Feminism and the SF Community". On Joanna Russ. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. 48–63.
  22. ^ James, Edward. "Russ on Writing Science Fiction and Reviewing It". On Joanna Russ. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2009. 19-30.
  23. ^ "Reviews: Joanna Russ". Feminist Science Fiction, Fantasy & Utopia. Retrieved September 25, 2006. 
  24. ^ Silver, Steven H. (April 27, 2011). "Joanna Russ in Hospice". SF Site.
  25. ^ Fox, Margalit (May 7, 2011). "Joanna Russ, Who Drew Women to Sci-Fi, Dies at 74". The New York Times. Retrieved May 23, 2011. 
  • Bacon-Smith, Camille. Science Fiction Culture. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000. ISBN 0-8122-1530-3.
  • Barr, Marleen S. et al., eds. "Determinate Politics of Indeterminacy: Reading Joanna Russ's Recent Work in Light of Her Early Short Fiction" in Future Females, the Next Generation: New Voices and Velocities in Feminist Science Fiction Criticism. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000. pp. 219–36. ISBN 0-8476-9126-8.
  • Cortiel, Jeanne. Demand My Writing: Joanna Russ/Feminism/Science Fiction. Science Fiction Texts and Studies. Liverpool, UK: Liverpool University Press, 1999. ISBN 0-85323-614-3.
  • Delany, Samuel R. "Orders of Chaos: The Science Fiction of Joanna Russ." Women Worldwalkers: New Dimensions of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Ed. Jane B. Weedman. Lubbock: Texas Tech P, 1985. 95–123.
  • Delany, Samuel R. "Introduction." Joanna Russ. We Who Are About To. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2005. v–xv. ISBN 0-8195-6759-0.
  • Griffin, Gabriele. Who's Who in Lesbian and Gay Writing. Routledge, 2002. ISBN 0-415-15984-9.
  • Hacker, Marilyn. "Science Fiction and Feminism: The Work of Joanna Russ." Chrysalis 4 (1977): 67–79.
  • Holt, Marilyn J. "Joanna Russ, 1937." in Science Fiction Writers: Critical Studies of the Major Authors from the Early Nineteenth Century to the Present Day. Ed. Everett Franklin Bleiler. New York: Scribner's, 1982. 483–90.
  • Law, Richard G. "Joanna Russ and The "Literature of Exhaustion"." Extrapolation 25 (1984): 146–56.
  • Malmgren, Carl. "Meta-Sf: The Examples of Dick, Le Guin, and Russ." Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy 43.1 (2002): 22.
  • Mendlesohn, Farah. On Joanna Russ. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2009. ISBN 0-8195-6901-1.
  • Russ, Joanna. To Write Like a Woman: Essays in Feminism and Science Fiction. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1995. ISBN 978-0-253-20983-2
  • Russ, Joanna and Jessica Amanda Salmonson (ed). "The Dirty Little Girl" in What Did Miss Darrington See?: An Anthology of Feminist Supernatural Fiction. Feminist Press, 1989. ISBN 1-55861-006-5.
  • Scanlon, Jennifer. "Joanna Russ" in Significant Contemporary Feminists: A Biocritical Sourcebook. New York, Westport, CT, and London: Greenwood, 1999. ISBN 0-313-30125-5.

External links

  • Guide to the Joanna Russ papers at the University of Oregon
  • Joanna Russ obituary at NY Times
  • BBC Radio 4 Programme Cat Women of the Moon
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