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Book Group Discussion: The Female Man [Aug. 6th, 2006|10:53 am]
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[coalescent]
I.

I'll be honest: I've been putting this off. For far too long.

II.

The primary reason I have been putting off writing this post is nerves, or, if you want to be less euphemistic, fear. The Female Man is not a book that can be read or discussed in neutral terms. That's partly because of the book itself, what it says and how it says, but partly because it has a Reputation. At times, it seems almost to be a shibboleth: reading it is like sitting an exam.

Which makes it quite hard to stand up and say "hey, I didn't think it was all that." Particularly if you are, as I am, a white middle-class male, and therefore not the book's target audience. If I criticise (for example) the character of Janet (as I am going to do), or the style (as I am also going to do), how many people are going to dismiss my criticisms with a disappointed, "well, what can you expect?"

(That's not the scary thing, of course. The scary thing is that they might be right.)

III.

The secondary reason I have been putting this off is that I couldn't find a way into the book. I have been reading around (that in itself says something in the book's favour, surely). So I have read Sarah Lefanu on Russ, Gwyneth Jones on Russ, L. Timmel Duchamp on Russ, and found things to agree and disagree with in each of them. I have read some more of Russ's short fiction. And I eventually wound up reading, for the first time, A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf, which crystallised my way in:
And for the most part, of course, novels do come to grief somewhere. The imagination falters under the enormous strain. The insight is confused; it can no longer distinguish between the true and the false, it has no longer the strength to go on with the vast labour that calls at every moment for the use of so many different faculties. But how would all this be affected by the sex of the novelist, I wondered, looking at Jane Eyre and the others. Would the fact of her sex in any way interfere with the integrity of a woman novelist--that integrity which I take to be the backbone of the writer? Now, in the passages I have quoted from Jane Eyre, it is clear that anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Bronte the novelist. She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience--she had been made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander free over the world. Her imagination swerved from indignation and we feel it swerve.

[...]

But how impossible it must have been for [women writers] not to budge either to the right or to the left. What genius, what integrity it must have required in face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it, and Emily Bronte. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their caps. They wrote as women write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonishments of the eternal pedagogue--write this, think that.
I might take the first paragraph above as sarcastic, except for the second paragraph: I take Woolf's admiration of Austen and Emily Bronte for finding and holding fast to their unique voices to be genuine, so I also take her dismay at anger's distorting effect in Jane Eyre to be genuine.

I feel much the same way about anger. It is, pretty much by definition, a destructive emotion. When I am angry, I think less clearly, and I write more hastily. Yet The Female Man is a book I have seen lauded, plenty of times, as "wonderfully angry", or similar, a sentiment which, to me, is purely oxymoronic. I do not trust my judgement when I'm angry, so it's far from clear to me why I should trust what someone else appears to have written in the heat of anger.

This is not to say that anger is never legitimate; as Woolf points out, it can be entirely legitimate. But it should not, I think, be given free rein. Woolf herself is clearly angry about the treatment of women's writing, but in A Room of One's Own that anger is--brilliantly--channelled into her own unique, passionate voice. Anger is the reaction; passion is the action.

The Female Man is written as though actively resisting the perpetual admonishments of an eternal pedagogue. It argues; it hectors; it denounces; it lectures. It wants, I think, to inspire action, but there seems to me to be little inspirational in it, little passion; only a constant anger. And ironically, in her resistance, Joanna Russ turns away from her story. It gets tiring.

IV.

Here is what it says on the back cover of the copy I read:
Reality Times 3


Joanna's world is recognizable--very like our own. Jeannine's world is much the same--except Hitler never took power, World War II never happened, and the Great Depression continues. Janet's world is something else again. In her world wars are fought, children are born, countries are governed and wildernesses conquered ... and she is the only kind of man there is.

The Female Man
A Startling New Science Fiction Novel By
Joanna Russ


"The most sensational and, paradoxically, the truest novel about the war of the sexes since Philip Wylie's The Disappearance." -- Fritz Leiber, Hugo and Nebula Award Winner

"A wonderfully inventive novel, this interplanetary exploration of Feminist inner space, this sophisticated playful fantasy book which is, of course, all about reality." -- Phyllis Chseler, Author of Women and Madness

"A visionary novel about a society where women can do all we now fantasize in closets and kitchens and beds ... Intricate, witty, furious, savage." -- Marge Piercy, Author of Small Changes
I had to come back and write this section last, because what actually happens in the book is the least interesting thing about it. In brief: a trio of characters start moving between three worlds, none of them ours, and are eventually pulled into a fourth world, which is also not ours, by a fourth character.

The characters and the worlds are: Janet, who comes from Whileaway, an all-female utopia; Jeannine, who comes from the alternate history described above, in which progress towards equality of the sexes has been retarded relative to our world; Joanna, who comes from a world in which every adult is given a book of rules explaining how men and women behave, and live by them; and the fourth character, Jael, who comes from a dystopia in which the war of the sexes has become literal. Janet and Jeannine's worlds seem to be presented as plausible; Joanna and Jael's worlds seem to be presented as satiric exaggerations.

Jael is responsible for gathering the Js (as diverse representatives of the same genotype), with the intent of asking them if her people can use their worlds as bases in the ongoing war. Along the way we get tours of each world framed in terms of their sexual politics, which of course reflect on our sexual politics in ways that are (for me) alternately enlightening, subtle, baffling, laughable, profound. The greatest strength of The Female Man is that it is a book that makes you argue with everything it says.

There are first-person and third-person sections; each character gets an opportunity to narrate; and Joanna Russ-the-author interjects at various points. It is, in form, content and execution, not the sort of thing you would expect from the lurid first-edition cover or the excitable description above.

V.

The Female Man is divided into nine parts, each of which is divided into a number of sections, numbered with roman numerals. Most of the time, but not always, successive sections are narrated by different characters. Sometimes this is fun and interesting. Sometimes it's not. This is the start of part two:
I.

Who am I?

I know who I am, but what's my brand name?

Me with a new face, a puffy mask. Laid over the old one in strips of plastic, a blond Hallowe'en ghoul on top of the S.S. uniform. I was skinny as a beanpole underneath except for the hands, which were similarly treated, and that very impressive face. I did this once in my line of business, which I'll go into later, and scared the idealistic children who lived downstairs. Their delicate skins red with offended horror. Their clear young voices raised in song (at three in in the morning). I'm not Jeannine. I'm not Janet. I'm not Joanna.

I don't do this often (say I, the ghoul) but it's great elevator technique, holding your forefinger to the back of somebody's neck while passing the fourth floor, knowing he'll never find out that you're not all there.

(Sorry. But watch out.)

You'll meet me later.


II.

As I have said before, I (not the one above, please) had an experience on the seventh of February last, nineteen-sixty-nine. (p. 19)
... at which point it's a bit hard not to throw the book across the room in exasperation at being treated as a half-wit. Seriously: section I is in italics, and explicitly tells us (a) that it's not being narrated by any of the characters we've met so far and (b) that the narrator is leaving for now, although she'll be back later. Section II is not in italics, and we're not expecting the same narrator, but just to make sure the point is hammered home--it's not characterisation, it's only there to make sure that we don't misunderstand how the book is going to work--Russ has this character tell us that she's not the same narrator as above. Well, no shit, says the reader.

It's not exactly a move that gains the reader's trust. Which is a shame, because quite a lot of the time there's nothing like such explicit hand-holding; narrators come and go with charming indifference to anything resembling a logical progression, to the point where in several sections it's impossible to actually work out who "I" is. (Which, yes, implies that a lot of the time the characters don't have particularly well-differentiated voices; but given that they are all variations on the same character, I think that's forgiveable.) But every so often the authorial hand comes back down again, making sure that we get it (there's an entire section devoted to pre-empting the criticisms that reviews of the book will use), squashing anything resembling life out of the story. The revelation that the Js are the same, for instance, is prefaced with: "Alice-Jael Reasoner told us what you have no doubt guessed long, long ago" (p.159). Pointing out that you've been witholding information for no good reason doesn't make it any less a cheap narrative trick.

VI.

I'm actually not convinced there are any characters in this book. At more than one point, I felt like I was reading an idiot plot, but I think it's fairer to say that all the characters just props for argument. That's fine, in itself; even the fact that it's a thoroughly rigged argument is fine; the problem is that the presentation of the rigged argument, as noted above, is frequently clumsy. And that draws attention to the deficiencies of the characters.

Certainly none of them are convincing as people. Janet, we are told, researches the world she finds herself in; but because the plot requires her to instigate various conflicts, to demonstrate things about the world, she routinely shows no evidence of having learned anything from her research, or at the very least no inclination towards applying her knowledge. We understand the world she finds herself in far more quickly than she does, on the basis of far less information--we only have access to what Russ lets us know.

Joanna is often cast as the observer, and is (inevitably) sometimes conflated with the author; less time is given to developing her internal life than that of any of the others, and she remains something of a cipher to the end. Jeannine--who we are told has the potential to be the most intelligent of the Js--is for most of the book a laughable caricature of repression:
Jump up, wash the table, pick up the salt that falls on the rug and brush it up with the whisk-broom. Is that all? No, mend Cal's clothes and her own. Oh, let them be. She has to pack and make her lunch and Cal's (although he's not going with her). That means things coming out of the icebox again and mopping the table again--leaving footprints on the linoleum again. Well, it doesn't matter. Wash the knife and the plate. Done. She decides to go get the sewing box to do his clothes, then changes her mind. Instead she picks up the murder mystery. Cal will say, "You didn't sew my clothes." She goes to get the sewing box out of the back of the closet, stepping over her valises, boxes of stuff, the ironing board, her winter coat and winter clothes. (pp 106-7)
This goes on for several pages without becoming noticeably more nuanced; Jeannine's ultimate development towards feminist consciousness seems equally hamfisted. The Female Man is not a long book, but it tends to say what it has to say several times, to make sure you've heard.

Jael is the most interesting of the Js. This is partly because by the time she comes on-stage all the setup is starting to pay off--the last three parts of the book are noticeably more complex and interesting than anything that comes before them; part seven, in which we actually find out what being the female man means, is very well done--and partly because, despite the absurd absolutism of her world, she herself retains a hint of independence. We are not told what to think of her as comprehensively as we are told what to think of the other three.

VII.

The Female Man is sometimes extremely funny.
This book is written in blood.

Is it written entirely in blood?

No, some of it is written in tears.

Are the blood and the tears all mine?

Yes, they have been in the past. But the future is a different matter. As the bear swore in Pogo after having endured a pot shoved on her head, being turned upside down while still in the pot, a discussion about her edibility, the lawnmowering of her behind, and a fistful of ground pepper in her snoot, she then swore a mighty oath on the ashes of her mothers (i.e., her forebears) grimly but quietly while the apples from the shaken tree above her dropped bang thud on her head:

OH, SOMEBODY ASIDES ME IS GONNA RUE THIS HERE PARTICULAR DAY. (p.95)
It is sometimes extremely evocative:
Waking up in a Vermont autumn morning, inside the glass cab, while all around us the maples and sugar maples wheel slowly out of the fog. Only this part of the world can produce such colour. We whispered at a walking pace through wet fires. (p.184)
The inconstancy of tone throughout the book is surely deliberate. I'm not sure that makes it any more effective.

VIII.

Does The Female Man need to be science fiction?

I started wondering about this about half-way through the book. This view is not untypical, as far as I can tell:
As a work at once of art and propaganda, this book is comparable to some of the later novels of H.G. Wells (albeit Russ's style is much different from Wells's), and its publication was greeted in much the same way. That is, reviewers tended to treat it simply as propaganda and then (having regretted its lack of art) go on to find its message reasonable or unreasonable. But the time-travel, time-track concept is worked out here better than in any other SF novel I know, and the characters and settings are very vividly realized. In sum, it is a superior SF novel, though perhaps too demanding in an emotional sense ever to be popular even with those expressing the currently fashionable opinions on women's liberation.
The Female Man takes place in a quantum existence. Every decision creates a new worldline; traveling back in time is possible, but as soon as you're there your presence diverts that past towards a different future. It's more accurate, therefore, to refer to what happens to Janet, Jeannine and Joanne, as they move across the worldlines, as "probability traveling". So far so standard (although admittedly, it may not have been when it was written). What interests me about this, though, is how it affects the presentation of Whileaway, and how we perceive it.

Before The Female Man there was "When It Changed." In that story, Whileaway is another planet, cut off from the part of human civilization that still has both sexes. It is therefore possible for men to stumble across Whileaway, and they do, resulting in a tragedy reminiscent of Tiptree's "Houston, Houston, Do You Read?" except that the loss of utopia is only delayed, not prevented. It is a brilliant, gut-punching story. Gwyneth Jones seems to prefer it to The Female Man:
Naturally the party of spacemen--seen only through the women's eyes--comes off badly in this account. But on the other hand the women of Whileaway are not unreasonably idealised. Their society is no more idyllic than the average well-heeled American wilderness community in fiction--pioneer independence, love and respect for the wild, good country folks, haven't had a murder here in years, don't have to lock our doors around here. These women are "the whole of humanity"--an important concept that Lefanu raises elsewhere. They have the full range of human vices and virtues intact. By the time we meet Whileaway again in The Female Man, it has been got at. Its inhabitants have become female characters in a feminist science fiction, their vices and virtues bowdlerised and engineered precisely to fit the current demands of sexual politics. [...] "When it Changed" is feminist fiction. The Female Man is feminist satire. [...] And feminist satire, for the female sf reader, is as disappointing as it is invigorating. There is a sense of loss, a sense of another world denied. Changing story into satire defines yet another area where women work, while men play. (Deconstructing the Starships, pp125-6).
There is clearly something to this. See my thoughts on characters and some of the worlds above; the book is umpteen times longer than the short story, and has to provide more detail about the worlds it includes, but feels in the end somewhat flatter.

But I also think the relocation of Whileaway from our future to a parallel universe is important. We are told: "Whileaway, you may gather, is in the future. But not our future" (p.7). We can't get there from here. It is properly utopian, in the sense of being unattainable, and that makes it harder to wish for than the version in the short story. A similar distance affects Jael's world. The only impact the worlds have on each other comes after the book's final page. Would The Female Man read any differently if it was presented as a dream, rather than as science fiction? I'm not sure it would, which suggests to me it doesn't take full advantage of its chosen idiom.

IX.

Perhaps my central problem, though, from which all the above flows, is this: the book was published in America 1975, and I'm reading it in the UK in 2006. That's a big enough distance in time and space to literally make it hard for me to know where the satire stops, above and beyond the usual instabilities of science fiction. Take this:
It's very upsetting to think that women make up only one-tenth of society, but it's true. For example:
My doctor is male.
My lawyer is male.
My tax-accountant is male.
The grocery-store-owner (on the corner) is male.
The janitor in my apartment building is male.
The president of my bank is male.
The manager of the neighbourhood supermarket is male.
My landlord is male.
Most taxi-drivers are male.
All cops are male.
All firemen are male.
The designers of my car are male.
The factory workers who made the car are male.
The dealer I bought it from is male.
Almost all my colleagues are male.
My employer is male.
The Army is male.
The Navy is male.
The government is (mostly) male. (pp203-4)
Reading this, I think: My doctor is a woman. My dentist is a woman. My optician is a woman. The MD of my company is a woman. Almost all my colleagues are women--and I work in a technical, scientific job. One of the three firemen who turned up after the false alarm at work last week was a woman. There are six flats in the building I live in; three of them are owned by women. I have no idea what the gender of the manager of my local supermarket is, but I wouldn't want to assume it was a man.

This is not to say that everything is a-ok now (clearly it's not), but simply that I cannot tell whether this list was true when Joanna Russ wrote it, or whether she was exaggerating for effect. Similarly, when Russ tells us that "Now in the opera scenario that governs our lives, Janet would have gone to a party and at that party she would have met a man and there would have been something about that man" (p.30), and proceeds to relate a sequence of events which, when portrayed as a certainty, seem downright archaic--is she being serious? Or parodic? And when Janet first arrives, she is interviewed on tv. The interviewer is slow on the uptake, and shows a complete lack of professionalism. Nobody in the book comments, but we can feel Joanna Russ breathing down our necks, saying see! See how absurd this is! And the problem is, though I can conceive of a similar interview taking place today, I can't conceive of it going uncriticised--so yet again, I don't know where the satire stops.

I don't know how to read this book.

The ending, of course, is famous for addressing this problem. Here it is:
Go, little book, trot through Texas and Vermont and Alaska and Maryland and Washington and Florida and Canada and England and France; bob a curtsey at the shrines of Friedan, Millet, Greer, Firestone, and all the rest [...] Do not complain when at last you become quaint and old-fashioned, when you grow as outworn as the crinolines of a generation ago and are classed with Spicy Western Stories, Elsie Dingmore, and The Son of the Sheik; do not mutter angrily to yourself when young persons read you to hrooch and hrch and guffaw, wondering what the dickens you were all about. Do not get glum when you are no longer understood, little book. Do not curse your fate. Do not reach up from readers' laps and punch the readers' noses.

Rejoice, little book!

For on that day, we will be free. (pp. 213-4)
It's a neat little spot-turn, particularly because it returns you from the book to the world on Russ' terms, not yours. It's just a shame it's not true. Clearly, for many people, The Female Man was and is a revelatory book; but without devaluing that experience, I think we can say that times change, and that we are, perhaps, rapidly approaching the point where a lot of people will not be able to fully understand it without recourse to sources external to the text. Like me, such readers may find the politics oddly monochrome, and the rants bemusingly obvious (as in, "who on earth is ever going to espouse the kind of idiotic philosophy that this book rails against, and expect to be taken seriously?").

But the catch is, the reasons for The Female Man are not gone; excellent books like Gwyneth Jones's Life address their contemporary, more subtle, harder to satirise incarnations. There is work still to be done: and in that context, the ending could even be downright dangerous, because it gives the people who didn't get the book license to dismiss it. And for all that it seems to me severely flawed, I think that would be a mistake. Because if the times have changed, at least in the literary world (and the science fiction world) those changes may well be in part because of this book; and thinking about that is a useful thing to do.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: veggiesu
2006-08-06 12:28 pm (UTC)
Interesting review - thanks :-)

Having not read the book, I can't comment on much you've said, but I can offer a perspective on this:
I cannot tell whether this list was true when Joanna Russ wrote it, or whether she was exaggerating for effect.

Most of her list would have been true, or at the very least, true for most people at that time. A few exceptions:

My doctor is male

*Most* doctors would have been male, but it wouldn't have been quite the de facto standard of twenty years previously. Female doctors wouldn't have been unusual by the early seventies, although they would have been in the minority.

All cops are male.
The Army is male.
The Navy is male.


Factually incorrect, although it might well have been perceived as truth - the police forces, army and navy would have been (and still are) overwhelmingly male. Female police officers and military personnel would have been *relatively* rare, so Russ's statement would have been perceived as true (or close enough) by most people at the time

All firemen are male.

One could argue that all firemen are obviously male :-p But female firefighters have been around for a while, although it appears that that they have only been employed as professionals in the US since the early seventies. So again, the perception would have been accurate, if the facts were (ever so slightly) exaggerated.

Of course, the early seventies were a time of huge change regarding women in the workforce, especially in the US. So the situation would have been changing even between writing and publication.

I would say, though, that any contemporary reader would have recognised the truth in Russ's list; and whilst they may personally have known one or two exceptions, I doubt they would have considered that list to be an exaggeration.

Hope that helps a bit with the perspective thing? Hopefully people with a better recollection of those times will be able to add more context for you.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-08-06 02:12 pm (UTC)
Thanks. I think the problem is that while knew the list would have been more true than it is now, I had no sense of how much more. On the writing/publication thing--I believe The Female Man existed in a more-or-less complete form for several years before it found a publisher, so it may be more accurate to think of it as an early-Seventies book (or even late-Sixties) than a mid-Seventies one.
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[User Picture]From: applez
2006-08-06 05:08 pm (UTC)
Actually, I wouldn't be surprised if the federal government kept statistics to track progress of sex-equalization in the workplace. I know there was a lot of positive employment policies put in place in the federal government starting in the 70s.

Also, another thing to consider were the numbers of programs that segregated the sexes/minorities that were eventually merged. All the "Women's Auxilliary Corps" parts of the military and transport that were merged into the same Army, Navy, Coast Guard... This was also particularly true of the Post Office and other government functions.

It took some time for these policies to filter into the private work sector.

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[User Picture]From: veggiesu
2006-08-06 11:11 pm (UTC)
I think the gist of it is, during the writing of the book (and pretty much around the time it was published) most readers would have identified with that list. Some *may* have had a female doctor, but not many. Most would have been able to agree with the list in it's entirety.

Sorry, didn't want to co-opt discussion of your review into a discussion of how right or wrong the list was. I just thought it might be interesting for you to get some context.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-08-06 11:27 pm (UTC)
No, it's fine. It occurs to me that I could have made it work by effectively reading that section as a fifth imaginary world, by accepting it as worldbuilding for "the seventies". But that would have been, I think, reading it against the intent with which it was written.
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[User Picture]From: wild_irises
2006-08-06 02:30 pm (UTC)
As someone who was around then (born in 1951), I'd say it was perceptually true, although not literally true.

Hell, Chip Delany's aunt Bessie was a dentist twenty years before that. I knew female doctors because my father was a public health doctor and we knew a lot of doctors. But you could live your whole life, even in a big city, without ever seeing one, let alone being treated by one.

I don't remember the first time I saw a female doctor in a professional context (as in laid eyes on, rather than as in was treated by). I still remember the only time I was on a plane with a female pilot. I certainly didn't know there were women firefighters, or women in the police force, in that period. I remember when the prison guard force was opened up to allow women, and it was sometime in the early 70s.

Remember, also, that that list is written as "Your doctor is ..." Certainly, it would have been 100% true for me, and I was in a liberal household in a university town until I was 14 and in a suburb of New York City after that.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-08-06 10:01 pm (UTC)
Thanks. As veggiesu noted, there are still plenty of categories on that list that are male dominated--although, in a way, that just added to my confusion--and I'm well aware that my experience is not universal.
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[User Picture]From: white_hart
2006-08-06 02:30 pm (UTC)
I read The Female Man while I was at university. 1994, probably. I remember almost nothing about it, in comparison to a lot of other feminist writing from the same period that I read at the same time and which made a deep and lasting impression on me, so I suspect that I wasn't terribly impressed.

In many ways, I think that reading the feminist writing of the early Seventies can be counterproductive today. As you say, a lot has changed. It's all to easy to read The Female Man or The Women's Room and say see, this isn't how things are now, the battle's been won, when of course it hasn't. (I think Marge Piercy's novels stand up better, perhaps because they're less overtly political - if you want a picture of what the time was like you could do worse than read Small Changes, although I don't think it would be your kind of thing at all.) We're kind of back to Woolf and anger - these novels were written to make a point, and that traps them in their time, they can never truely become classics because they don't tap into a universal of human existence.
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[User Picture]From: susansugarspun
2006-08-06 02:49 pm (UTC)
I would suggest Braided Lives instead of Small Changes, actually--I think it's a better book, and while it's less focused on the gender dynamics, I think it actually showcases them more powerfully.
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[User Picture]From: white_hart
2006-08-06 04:46 pm (UTC)
Oh, I would absolutely agree that Braided Lives is by far the better book, but it's looking back to the 50s, so from that perspective I thought that Small Changes would give coalescent a better idea of the historical background to The Female Man.

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[User Picture]From: susansugarspun
2006-08-06 05:23 pm (UTC)
Aha! I understand now. (But I think I'm actually incapable of passing up any reasonable chance to suggest that people read Braided Lives.)
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[User Picture]From: white_hart
2006-08-06 05:39 pm (UTC)
I can't blame you for that, as it's a book that had a huge influence on me!
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-08-06 09:59 pm (UTC)
Marge Piercy is clearly fairly high up on the list of Writers I Should Investigate, so I'll bear both your recommendations in mind--thanks.
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[User Picture]From: white_hart
2006-08-07 06:14 am (UTC)
OTOH, you should read Woman On The Edge Of Time first.
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[User Picture]From: susansugarspun
2006-08-08 03:40 am (UTC)
Seconded! Although both of them are on the short list of
"books that more or less changed my life." Have I ever mentioned that I'm an unabashed Marge Piercy fangirl?
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-08-06 09:58 pm (UTC)
these novels were written to make a point, and that traps them in their time, they can never truely become classics because they don't tap into a universal of human existence.

This raises a whole raft of issues, which I almost went into in the main post, then decided it was long enough.

I'm not entirely convinced there is such a thing as a "universal of human existence." I tend to think that good writers make the experiences they write about universally accessible, which I don't think is the same thing. I have no problem with the idea that relative levels of knowledge about a subject will affect what people get out of a given book, but I believe (I think) that great writing should communicate first.

So I don't have a problem saying that The Female Man is not great writing: as far as I'm concerned, in a sense it shouldn't matter that I don't know what the gender politics of American in 1970 are; a great book should make me understand those politics and make me care about the debates and people involved. (Much as I love it, I doubt Life is going to pass this particular test; sections of it are already quite outdated.)

But I think it's probably an important book. I didn't really keep track of this while reading, but I could suddenly see a lot of the book's descendents in what I've been reading over the past few years--and not all in the obvious places--and that's just from my point of view as an sf reader. From what I gather, it was equally influential in feminist circles. So anyone interested in one or the other or both should read it, certainly.
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[User Picture]From: white_hart
2006-08-07 06:18 am (UTC)
I'd agree it's important - but it's no longer important for the reasons it was written for, it's important because of the influences it had on later writing. And I think in some ways it has to be read with that in mind.

If you want all-female Utopias, Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland predates The Female Man by a good fifty years, and seems to be available online if you're interested.
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[User Picture]From: auroramama
2006-08-06 10:45 pm (UTC)
Some of the stylistic quirks and affectations are common to New Wave SF in general, or even New Wave literature in general. I found them annoying at the time, but no more so in Russ than in the average story in =Again, Dangerous Visions=.

I was just entering my teens in the mid-70s, and I didn't read the book until about 1979. But compare my experience as an idealistic, liberal American female: I fell in love with Whileaway. I loved the idea of borrowing a communal singing bicycle and going wherever I pleased, absolutely fearless on an empty road through empty fields. I wanted to live there so much I picked up some of the customs described in the book. You want affectation? I still laugh with delight at beautiful things. It fit me so well, I've never shaken it.

There's a bit about Whileawayan greeting customs and favorite places that mentions, as an aside, that contrary to the customs of Joanna's culture and time, it isn't the person who got to the cozy bench or spectacular view first who has the morally strong position, but the latecomer, because the person who's already there has already had a chance to enjoy whatever it is. This made so much sense to me that I still follow that rule; I'll give up a seat on the train just because I've had it for ten minutes and the person in front of me hasn't. This isn't because I'm an especially nice person; it's because I wanted to live in a world like that, and these were a few small ways in which I could.

I don't think there's any such thing as "universally accessible", either. Yes, this is something of a philosophic study (as is =We Who Are About To=, which I circled around, fascinated and troubled, for years.) But it's also a love poem to existence. Reread Janet's speech starting with, "Life has to end. What a pity!" She's free to interact directly with the universe, and this is what she experiences. I felt a deep kinship to her, as a romantic teenager, and I'm not the only one.

Did you have difficulty understanding why Jael loved to kill? You don't need politics for that; all you need is to have experienced the violence of projected self-hatred.

I think it's universal enough.


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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-08-06 11:14 pm (UTC)
Some of the stylistic quirks and affectations are common to New Wave SF in general, or even New Wave literature in general. I found them annoying at the time, but no more so in Russ than in the average story in =Again, Dangerous Visions=.

Sure. And to pick a contemporary example, Ali Smith uses lots of the same sorts of tricks. My problem isn't the presence of the tricks, so much as the fact that they don't seem to me to be terribly well-executed in this book.

I fell in love with Whileaway

This is what interests me. Did you not feel a bit put out that Russ explicitly told you it could never be?

I don't fully agree with the argument I quoted by Jones, in that although I think the novel as a whole leans towards satire, and is somewhat diminished by that, Whileaway itself still feels fairly plausible, if heading in the direction of wish-fulfillment. It's obviously not particularly useful to me, given that I have to die for it to become a reality, but if I did get wiped out as part of a male-specific plague, or even if I died as a result of a war between men and women, having the world go on to become Whileaway would be something of a consolation. But being told it was off the probability map jarred.

Did you have difficulty understanding why Jael loved to kill? You don't need politics for that; all you need is to have experienced the violence of projected self-hatred.

I don't even need that, since I haven't, and I still got it. I think sections seven and eight are, by some way, the most interesting and best-realised in the novel.
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[User Picture]From: auroramama
2006-08-07 01:25 am (UTC)
Remember, I was young and idealistic; I just didn't buy Jael's claim. Maybe *some* Whileaway in probability space was created by Womanland mercenaries paid by Whileawayan leaders, but not mine. Maybe Russ's Whileaway was off the probability map entirely, but that didn't mean they all were. (Anybody who claims to know every possibility is just confused or lying.) This isn't good literary criticism, of course.

There was something else I knew: there is a Russ story with a coed utopia of brilliant, creative, loving people with a planetwide teleport system, and Russ wrote about that story that she just couldn't believe in it, even though she wrote an outcast into it: someone with an ordinary level of intelligence, like Mensa-level, and how she tries to maintain her dignity in a world where she can't participate and is too intelligent to miss condescension, even kindly meant. But for me at that time in my life, a world of brilliant people looked like paradise. College was utopia for me. It's hard to be cynical when you're young and your sweetest dreams have come true. I figured anyone who had lived in Joanna's world, where "Your sex is ineluctably inferior, don't you agree?" was a come-on line, might have trouble believing in a utopia with men in it.

My mother was in a consciousness-raising group in the mid-70s, and no, 1975 looked like that to a lot of American women.

It's interesting that Jael's world is more accessible to you (it may also be better written). Barbara Pym's 1950s are just as jarring to me as Joanna's 1970s. Do they seem as alien to you?

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[User Picture]From: buymeaclue
2006-08-11 12:12 pm (UTC)
But have you read How To Suppress Women's Writing?

ohc'monsomebodyhadto
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[User Picture]From: coffeeandink
2006-09-11 04:47 pm (UTC)

Very belatedly

I feel much the same way about anger. It is, pretty much by definition, a destructive emotion. When I am angry, I think less clearly, and I write more hastily. Yet The Female Man is a book I have seen lauded, plenty of times, as "wonderfully angry", or similar, a sentiment which, to me, is purely oxymoronic. I do not trust my judgement when I'm angry, so it's far from clear to me why I should trust what someone else appears to have written in the heat of anger.

This is not to say that anger is never legitimate; as Woolf points out, it can be entirely legitimate. But it should not, I think, be given free rein. Woolf herself is clearly angry about the treatment of women's writing, but in A Room of One's Own that anger is--brilliantly--channelled into her own unique, passionate voice. Anger is the reaction; passion is the action.


I think that you're missing the political context of anger in general and anger in 1960s US in particular. One of the big changes in US culture was the politicization of anger, the declaration of black revolutionary and feminist movements that black anger and female anger were legitimate reactions to injustice. The way a lot of debates about gender and race were--and continue to be!--set up is that people who support the status quo can be legitimately angry at attempts to upset it, but any anger shown by people arguing against the status quo is assumed to be a weakness, excessive, grounds for throwing out their opinions without listening to them. I did find The Female Man wonderfully angry when I read it in high school (about 1990-1991, I think); more, I found it fiercely exhilirating.
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[User Picture]From: coalescent
2006-09-11 07:04 pm (UTC)

Re: Very belatedly

I think that you're missing the political context of anger in general and anger in 1960s US in particular.

I'm absolutely certain I'm missing that. I guess you could say my problem with the book is that I didn't feel it made the case you just made, it assumed the reader is familiar with it, and possibly even buys into it to some extent. And since I find people who get angry in defence of the status quo at least as pathetic as those who get angry when attacking it, I couldn't find anything to hang on to.

Six weeks after I read it, despite the fact I was taking notes the whole way through and wrote this post when I was done, I don't remember much detail about what happened or how, I only remember the tone. And I don't feel any urge to ever go back to it -- though I do feel the urge to read some more of Russ's fiction, particularly the Collected Stories, if Wesleyan ever get around to publishing it.

P.S. I just discovered that this entry is the ninth entry google hit for "The Female Man", which seems very wrong.
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