Someone who could hardly have been less like me in background and politics and yet, I've read and enjoyed many of her books and short fiction-- Joanna Russ was a brilliant writer. She passed away at the end of April, aged 74, either too early (74 is not that old!) or, given that she suffered serious, chronic back problems and had a Do Not Resuscitate order on file for nearly as long, too lingeringly.
The boys used to describe her as "strident;" I read it more as annoyed impatience, sometimes even with the less-clear thinkers on her own side.* (Though she would have poked fun at simplifying things down to merely two "sides"). Russ, a self-described "lesbian socialist," saw all of humanity very clearly, their individual strengths and their flaws, and was fair boggled that others did not. Her characters were generally competent, sometimes introspective, and perhaps more aware of civilization's ridiculousness than is comfortable. (At one point, the abbess of a convent besieged by Viking raiders, the leader of whom demands the gates be thrown open, complaining they have have been "long at sea without release" acidly comments how sad it must be that an entire crew should have lost the use of their hands...).
As an essayist, at least from what I have read, Russ was incisive, clear; if you disagreed with her (and many did), you had not the least doubt over the points of disagreement.
Perhaps that's why I enjoy her work. In a world of muddled thinkers, she saw to the heart of things. Not unemotional but always rational.
(On reflection, in her afterwords and forwards, Russ has more than a little of what I enjoy about Vidal and Buckley: she treats the language as the precise tool it can be and ought to be, and uses the right word, assuming if you don't know it, you'll have the mother-wit to look it up. --And if you can't keep up? Tsk, any of them would say, and move on.)
* "Every role in life has its advantages and disadvantages, of course; a fiery feminist student here at Cornell recently told an audience that a man who acquires a wife acquires a "lifelong slave" (fierce look) while the audience justifiably giggled and I wondered how I'd ever been inveigled into speaking on a program with such a lackwit." From the Afterword to When It Changed.
YANKEE RADIO TOOL KIT, #106
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