Starting points for reading Russ

I think I’ve now read nearly all of Joanna Russ’s published fiction. A couple of people who haven’t read her work have recently asked me for recommendations for starting points, so here’s an attempt to provide some. As with my Delany-starting-points post from last year, I’m dividing this into categories, depending on what you’re interested in.

Most of Russ’s novels are now available as ebooks, as is her best-known nonfiction book. Her short fiction, alas, is not yet available in ebook form, and is mostly out of print; but most of it can be fairly easily acquired in used copies on Amazon or eBay.

Content warning: All of Russ’s work can be oblique and painful. It can be hard to read both in the sense that it’s not always clear what’s going on if you don’t pay close attention, and in the sense that it can result in emotional distress. There’s lots of difficult stuff in her books, including portrayals of sexism and misogyny and other bad behavior by men, dubious-consent sex, sexual violence and threats thereof, sexualizing of girls, arguably Islamophobia, and more.

Also worth noting: Given Russ’s own queerness, there’s a disappointing lack of queer female characters in most of her work. Quite a few heterosexual couples, and a few straight women who are interested in a gay man, and a few stories featuring some lesbian subtext, but not many women who are overtly interested in/involved with other women. I mention this primarily to set your expectations, so you won’t expect the women to end up as couples in most of her work.

In case you're in a hurry, I'll start by saying that the short version of my recommendation is: Start with the short-story collection The Adventures of Alyx.

I feel like I should add a disclaimer: A lot of Russ’s work is specifically about being a (white) woman in the US in the 1960s and 1970s. I am not part of the core audience for much of her work, and so my opinions about what makes a good starting point may be even less widely applicable than is usually the case when anyone makes recommendations.

Short stories

I’m a short-story fan, so of course I’m going to recommend starting with Russ’s short fiction.

Some specific suggestions:

The Adventures of Alyx
This collects all of Russ’s fiction about her character Alyx (except for one short story): four novelettes and a short novel. Three of the novelettes are sword-and-sorcery, which doesn’t normally do much for me, but I like the first two of these quite a bit. And then there’s the novel, Picnic on Paradise, which suddenly yanks Alyx out of her home milieu and into the far future, where she has to help a group of more or less helpless future people survive an inhospitable trek through a snowy wilderness. And then there’s the last of the novelettes, which is a sort of a sequel to Picnic on Paradise. I highly recommend this collection as a starting point.
“When It Changed”
Probably Russ’s best known short story. Introduces Whileaway, a planet populated entirely by women; one of the best of the subgenre of fiction about single-sex societies. I assume that the PDF versions available online are illicit, so I’m not linking to them. But it’s been reprinted many times in paper books, and a couple of times in ebooks. It’s also included at the end of the new ebook of The Female Man (see below).
The Hidden Side of the Moon
One of a few collections of Russ’s short fiction (not all of which is sf). A mixed bag; some of the stories are just jokes, but some of them are excellent. I especially recommend “Life in a Furniture Store,” “Visiting Day,” “Daddy’s Girl,” “The Autobiography of My Mother,” and most especially “The Little Dirty Girl.”

Her other main collection, The Zanzibar Cat, is also worth reading but also a mixed bag; it wouldn’t be a bad starting point, but I would say the items above would be better. Also, Zanzibar Cat was published in two different editions with different contents, so you need both versions to see all of the stories collected under that title.

I’ll say more about her other arguably-a-short-fiction-collection book, Extra(ordinary) People, below.

Novels

Depending on how you count, Russ wrote four to seven novels. Five of them are now available as ebooks.

My recommendations for starting points:

Picnic on Paradise
This short novel is included in The Adventures of Alyx (see above), as well as being published as a standalone book. I think it would make a fine starting point, but I also think that reading at least a couple of the Alyx short stories before this gives a little more depth, a little more of a sense of who the character is. I would say this is probably the most accessible of Russ’s novels.
The Two of Them
This may be my favorite novel that I’ve read in the past couple years. It might not be ideal as a starting point, because it draws on some background established in Picnic on Paradise, so I would recommend starting with the Alyx stories and then reading Picnic and then The Two of Them. But I think it would also work fine on its own, without your having read the earlier works. …I should add that reviews I’ve read of this book don’t praise it nearly as highly as I do; it’s clearly not to everyone’s taste.
The Female Man
A groundbreaking and influential masterpiece. Closely connected to “When It Changed,” though not exactly a sequel as such; still, I would recommend reading the story before the novel. The usual description of The Female Man is that it’s about four women who are alternate-universe versions of each other, from very different milieus, but I feel like that description doesn’t do justice to the nuance and anger and brilliance of the book.

I’m less fond of Russ’s other two best-known novels, And Chaos Died and We Who Are About To… Both are interesting, but I feel like they don’t work as well as the above-listed books, and are less accessible to newcomers to Russ’s work.

Russ also wrote a Middle Grade novel called Kittatinny: A Tale of Magic, which I haven’t read yet. And apparently she considered her book Extra(ordinary) People to be a novel; I consider it to be a collection of unrelated short stories tied together very loosely with a framing device, but I feel like it’s worth considering the author’s wishes in deciding what to label a given work. Whether or not it’s a novel, I like Extra(ordinary) People, but I wouldn’t particularly recommend it as a starting point. But worth noting that the opening novella, “Souls,” won Russ her only Hugo award.

Nonfiction

Russ was a prolific writer of reviews and essays. I haven’t read much of her nonfiction, but I think probably the best starting point for her nonfiction is her justly-acclaimed book How to Suppress Women’s Writing. Which I haven’t finished reading yet (I find nonfiction slow going in general), but the parts I’ve read are excellent.

4 Responses to “Starting points for reading Russ”

  1. Robin A Reid

    Great post! I’ve been lurking/reading a while, but I’ve been a Russ fan since 1968 or so, so had to comment.

    Re: Given Russ’s own queerness, there’s a disappointing lack of queer female characters in most of her work.

    She was born in 1937 and I’m fairly sure (from reading her essays although I am not calling the specifics to mind–shall have to do some re-reading) did not even realize she was queer until well into adulthood.

    She wrote a realistic novella about an English professor’s first lesbian love affair: I read this as a fairly thinly veiled autobiographical novella, On Strike Against God. Link goes to Brit Mandelo’s review of the novella at Tor.

    As someone born nearly 20 years after Russ who didn’t even realize same-sex love was possible until I stumbled on “When It Changed” in Ellison’s anthology, I absolutely adore On Strike, and find all of Russ’s female characters eminently relatable and, yes, queer in a way very specific to the first half or so of the twentieth century in America, a queer that involves a good deal of anger.

    Looking forward to more posts about Russ!

    reply
    • Jed

      Welcome, and thank you for the comments! Good points.

      Somehow it hadn’t occurred to me before that I should read On Strike Against God. Have now ordered a copy.

      It’s probably unfair of me to want more overtly queer women in her work. But by her late twenties/early thirties (in the late 1960s), she was writing stories in which I think some of the women are intentionally queer but that’s shown only obliquely (I’m thinking especially of “Life in a Furniture Store,” “Visiting,” and “Visiting Day”), whereas she wrote a couple of overtly queer male characters around the same time. And I feel like in her short fiction, all of the sex scenes (of which, to be fair, there aren’t many) are between a woman and a man (well, okay, I guess there’s an implicit F/F scene in “Nobody’s Home”), and in a few of her stories, a straight woman falls for a gay man.

      None of which is inherently bad; it just (a) left me disappointed, because I had set my expectations wrong, and (b) left me sad that she might have felt unable to write overtly about her own experience.

      But I may have entirely the wrong impression due to not yet having read On Strike. Will rectify that soon.

      reply

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