How to Suppress Women’s Criticism

On Neil Gaiman, Shirley Jackson, and the importance of not erasing women’s writing

Last week, Ruth Franklin’s new biography of the late Shirley Jackson — Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life — arrived on my doorstep. In my living room, I did a small shoulder-wiggle of excitement, opened the package, admired the cover, and turned the book over. It was only then that I saw the lead blurb at the top of the dust jacket. Written by Neil Gaiman, it reads in part:

“Not just a terrific biography, but a remarkable act of reclamation: if there was ever a great writer of the twentieth century who fell victim to ‘How to Dismiss Women’s Fiction,’ it was Shirley Jackson.”

He’s not wrong. The biography is certainly terrific, and Franklin is clear about her position about Jackson’s rightful place in the literary canon. But if the cadence and structure of the phrase “How to Dismiss Women’s Fiction” is familiar to you, it may be because you’ve heard of Joanna Russ’ book-length essay How to Suppress Women’s Writing. And if not, it’s understandable: a brilliant piece of feminist literary criticism, it is not nearly as famous as it should be. (Though it has a bit more notoriety in SF&F circles, as Russ was an accomplished and decorated science fiction writer and critic.)

And if not, it’s understandable: a brilliant piece of feminist literary criticism, it is not nearly as famous as it should be.

First published in 1983, How to Suppress Women’s Writing is Russ’ darkly funny take on oppression in art, a tongue-in-cheek how-to that examines the ways that women, people of color, and other minority groups have their accomplishments minimized and erased by the bulldozer of dominant culture. She argues that women’s art is often suppressed before conception by “powerful, informal prohibitions,” and if it is created, by “denying the authorship of the work in question… belittlement of the work itself in various ways, isolation of the work from the tradition to which it belongs… assertions that the work indicates the author’s bad character… and simply ignoring the works, the workers, and the whole tradition.” It’s a magnificent, if troubling project — brilliant and interstitial. In a just world would be required reading in all the humanities. (Though I suppose in a just world, it wouldn’t have needed to be written in the first place.)

Sitting there, holding A Rather Haunted Life in my hands, I re-read the Gaiman blurb over and over. I don’t make it a habit of parsing blurbs, but the oblique reference to Russ confused me. It wasn’t quite the right title (and thus couldn’t be looked up), and it didn’t have a citation (and thus couldn’t be referenced), and it wasn’t a self-aware riff (like the title of this essay). I kept returning to it, annoyance growing, trying to figure out how no one had caught this simultaneously subtle and weirdly flagrant error.

I kept returning to it, annoyance growing, trying to figure out how no one had caught this simultaneously subtle and weirdly flagrant error.

Gaiman confirmed on Twitter that he was alluding to Russ’ essay (“Yup”), but then later suggested that he was referring to the “phenomenon,” not the piece itself. And yet the specificity of the phrase — the crystalized description of the phenomenon, so clearly expounded upon in the essay — calls to itself, over and over.

To be clear, I don’t attribute malice to Gaiman’s decision — and Russ probably wouldn’t, either. “At the level of high culture with which this book is concerned,” she writes in the second chapter, “active bigotry is probably fairly rare. It is also hardly ever necessary, since the social context is so far from neutral.”

So what does it mean that a high-profile male writer, in praising an oft-overlooked female writer, used an unsourced, unsearchable reference to another oft-overlooked female writer’s seminal work in the process? For women artists, it is nothing new, though there is something oddly on-the-nose about it — a quote illustrating the very thing it condemns.

So what does it mean that a high-profile male writer, in praising an oft-overlooked female writer, used an unsourced, unsearchable reference to another oft-overlooked female writer’s seminal work in the process?

In a 2011 essay at Tor.com, Brit Mandelo observes that How to Suppress Women’s Writing’s meticulous endnotes and citations have an incredibly important job: “They do the work of remembering.” Mandelo writes:

“One of the things Russ refers to time and time again in How to Suppress Women’s Writing is that the history of women writers — as friends, as colleagues, as individuals, as a group — is written on sand. Each generation feels that they’re the first and the only to want to be a woman writer, that they must do it on their own. Similarly, feminist history is in a state of perpetual erasure. By using extensive citations of real women writers’ works, and real books devoted to women writer’s like Moers’ much-cited Literary Women, Russ is creating a concrete list of the past. Using the references she uses, documenting them so thoroughly, creates a history and a set of possibilities not written in sand; the knowledge that not only were there networks of talented women writing, we can prove it. It’s not new. It’s a history, and the presence of a real history is a boon to young critics and writers. It defeats the pollution of agency, it defeats the myth of the singular individual woman, it creates a sense of continuity and community.”

That might seem like a lot of pressure to put on a blurb, especially because blurbs are an unavoidable part of a professional writer’s life. But Russ is dead. Jackson is dead. And in the thoughtless, uncredited, mangled deployment of that phrase — even in praise — Gaiman broke the chain between the two of them; a prominent, living male artist inserted between Russ’ ideas and Jackson’s reality. It would have been such a little, correct thing to keep that link alive — a gesture whose implications would have far outweighed its size. And yet, like so many tiny, seemingly insignificant cultural gestures — whose collective weight can buoy, or suffocate — it is a symptom of a larger condition.

It would have been such a little, correct thing to keep that link alive — a gesture whose implications would have far outweighed its size.

Every year, it seems like major publishers rediscover underappreciated, dead women writers. Shirley Jackson, Lucia Berlin, Patricia Highsmith, Clarice Lispector, Jane Bowles. There is always a great flurry of attention around these women, a posthumous literary coronation that is equal parts exciting and painful, like discovering at her funeral that a long-ago, seemingly unrequited crush in fact loved you madly. Maybe what we need is more thoughtful vigilance; to help women and people of color and queer folks and working-class artists and so many others find their rightful place in the canon — ideally, while they’re still alive to witness it.

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