A Challenge to Take Our Work Seriously

By Susanna J. Sturgis for WOMEN = BOOKS

Posted on February1, 2010


In April 1980, as a barely fledged feminist book reviewer, I reviewed a very bad Naiad Press science fiction novel for off our backs. My review relied heavily on extensive description of the plot, the first resort of novice and insecure reviewers.

Reading between the lines, one might surmise that the reviewer wasn't entirely happy with the book. "Likeable but very frustrating," she writes. "It almost seems as though the novelist completed her preliminary sketches, then was distracted and went on to something else." But one would be forgiven for inferring that the reviewer thought the book was worth reading, which she most certainly did not.

Joanna Russ reviewed the same novel in Sinister Wisdom 12 (Winter 1980), then still co-edited by its founders, Catherine Nicholson and Harriet Desmoines (Ellenberger)—who, by the way, took the journal's name from a phrase in Russ's The Female Man. Russ pulled no punches. She pronounced it "a heartbreaking non-book" and added that it "was written out of sheer starvation, published ditto (unless we're to believe that Naiad is simply being opportunistic), and will be read for no other reason, if it's read at all.”

With excruciating precision she performed her autopsy, exposing flaws in the book's science, plot, characterization, and use of language. In the process she exposed the chasm between what I thought of the book and what I had written about it.

Russ's review set off a heated discussion that went on for several issues of Sinister Wisdom. In SW 13 (Spring 1980), Naiad co-publisher Barbara Grier defended the press and its decision to publish the book. In SW 14 (Summer 1980), three writers responded to the original review.

One of those writers was me. After agreeing that Russ's review was accurate in every respect, I wrote that it was also "overkill on a grand scale." Then I tried to synthesize what Russ had done and what I hadn't done in our respective reviews. The writing of mine, I said, had "prompted some hard, overdue thinking about feminist criticism and my weaknesses as a feminist critic. What became especially obvious was that, somewhere along the way, I had lost the ability to write, 'This is a bad book.'"

I was feeling my way toward an ethic of reviewing that told the truth but eschewed the razzle-dazzle that showed off the reviewer's skill while humiliating the author of the reviewed work. Today I'm as proud of that response as I am embarrassed by my original review.

In SW 17 (Summer 1981), the first issue edited by the journal's new editors, Adrienne Rich and Michelle Cliff, Marge Piercy expanded the discussion to emphasize the importance of honest reviewing. "If we cannot tell the truth as we see it, if we cannot be honest in women's publications for our own audiences, when do we tell the truth? Never? Then let's cash it all in now."

Joanna Russ's "Power and Helplessness in the Women's Movement" was published in Sinister Wisdom 18 (Fall 1981). This is an earlier draft of the powerhouse essay of the same name that appears in Russ's 1985 essay collection Magic Mommas, Trembling Sisters, Puritans & Perverts. The "Feminine Imperative," Russ suggests, offers women two alternatives. "If you've been forbidden the use of your own power for your own self, you can give up your power or you can give up your self."

Magic Mommas do the latter: they're superwomen who never falter, never fail, and never, ever have needs of their own. Trembling Sisters can have needs and express feelings; what they can't do is be effective.

The essay's roots in the Sinister Wisdom exchange, explicit in the earlier draft, remain in the final book version, where Russ notes "the [Magic Momma]'s passionately angry disappointment when Unknown Woman A's work proves to be terrible, and the [Trembling Sister]'s conviction that the only way most women can ever have the pleasures of public success is for the few of us who have (in some magically mysterious way) gained access to the public world of culture and action to tell lies about the achievements of the others."

The dynamic Russ identified isn't limited to the women's movement, or even to women. A glance at the U.S. political scene reveals hundreds of thousands of Trembling Sisters and Brothers who expect Candidate X, Y, or Z to save them and the country, too, but when Candidate X, Y, or Z proves mortal—as any candidate who gets elected inevitably will—they are trashed as roundly as any Magic Momma or Poppa for falling short of our extravagant expectations.

"Power and Helplessness in the Women's Movement" has been a touchstone for me since it first appeared—and it was inspired by a discussion about book reviewing. I'm pleased to have been part of the compost from which it grew.


Russ’s original review, which sparked the Sinister Wisdom exchange, is reprinted in The Country You Have Never Seen: Essays and Reviews (Liverpool University Press, 2007), 181–185.


Susanna J. Sturgis has been writing about fantasy and science fiction for a long time, but her first novel, The Mud of the Place, is set on real-time Martha's Vineyard. Her website, www.susannajsturgis.com, features a bloggery, reprints of her feminist essays, and lots of horse and dog pictures. She's currently trying to make sense of her life in a personal/political memoir, To Be Rather Than to Seem. She makes her living as a freelance editor and copyeditor.

Read Susanna Sturgis’s review of On Joanna Russ in the January/February 2010 issue of WRB.


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