How female writers have been squelched How to Suppress Women's Writing, by Joanna Russ. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. 159 pp. $13.95 in hard cover, $7.95 in paperback.
''She didn't write it.'' ''She wrote it, but she shouldn't have.'' ''She wrote it, but she isn't really an artist.''
''She wrote it, but she wrote only one of it.''
''She wrote it, but . . .'' - a pattern of suppression. With great relish, author Joanna Russ sets out in this book to catalog the ways in which the works of women writers have been ignored, belittled, or discarded through the ages.
Methods range from simple to diabolic. It is well known that the Bronte sisters' novels were attributed to their brother; more incredibly, other male critics and scholars claimed that the novels ''wrote themselves.''
Critics who did admit that women had actually managed to write the books were apt to accuse the sisters of ''coarseness.'' Thus they became victims of what Russ calls ''the Catch-22 by which women who were virtuous could not know enough about life to write well, while those who knew enough about life to write well could not be virtuous.''
Women's supposedly ''narrow'' experience has too long been reason enough to dismiss their writing, Russ argues. In control, the author says, has been an ''all-male, all-white club'' which has decreed that one type of experience - its own - is ''more valuable and important than the other. . . . Behind She wrote it, but it's unintelligible lies the premise: What I don't understand doesn't exist.''
Recalling a time when she served as the one woman on a committee of three professors screening candidates for an MA program in creative writing, Russ tells of her inability to explain to her colleagues a woman candidate's funny short story.
It ''ended with the female protagonist lying in bed next to her sleeping husband, wishing she had the courage to hit him over the head with a frying pan.'' The men couldn't understand the story. They said it was about nothing more than ''a failure in human communications.''
Forced into such categories as ''genre'' fiction (Russ herself writes science fiction) and ''regionalism,'' the works of women are limited in anthologies and textbooks to what Russ calculates to be an amazingly constant 7 percent of the contents.
As a result, women writers lack models for their work, and ''each generation of women believes itself to be faced with the burden of doing everything for the first time.''
Nevertheless, Russ points out, women have struggled and succeeded in describing ''the private lives of one-half of humanity.'' And Russ maintains, ''There is much, much more good literature by women in existence than anyone knows.''
Hers is an important book and also a zestful one.