The political, social, medical, and personal struggle for women’s equality has had many heroines in the practical world, but its ventures in the intellectual sphere have had uneven results. Of these the clearest successes seem to be in the fields of history and sociology, where newly retrieved information about women’s lives, interesting in itself, also has explanatory power. Explorations in my own subject, literary criticism, have seemed to me more dubious. It is not from any lack of sympathy for the practical and legal goals of the women’s movement that I have often felt disquiet in reading what used to be called “feminist criticism” or “feminist literary theory,” and is now sometimes called “feminist cultural analysis.” A number of new books in this vein, both good and bad, suggest some of the pitfalls and possible benefits of this work. I shall also look at a book diametrically opposed to feminist positions, but unsuccessful in its own counterclaims.

The feminist literary criticism that appeared in the Sixties and Seventies was frequently naive. It spent most of its energy describing how women were represented in literary works by both men and women writers. The male writers came off badly. Feminist literary critics wrote about literary characters as if they were real people (though sophisticated ideas about narrative since Aristotle would have suggested otherwise) and they predictably found women characters treated less sympathetically by men than they would like. They also wrote as though authors had a public duty to be ideologically correct on sex, race, and class (correctness being defined in contemporary terms), and could be criticized and patronized when they were not. This early school of feminist thought is still in full cry, and Milton remains the chief sinner among the poets, and Dickens perhaps the worst offender among nineteenth-century novelists. It is common, for instance, for feminists to refer to Milton’s “misogyny,” although in fact Milton was far ahead of his time in the respect, both spiritual and intellectual, he showed for woman as a moral agent (as in his treatment of Eve).

It did not seem to occur to feminists who complained about Dickens’s or Hardy’s or Lawrence’s fictional women to deplore the stiff, idealized, antagonistic, or calumniatory portraits of men by female novelists from Jane Austen to, say, Fay Weldon. What might twentieth-century men think of Mr. Darcy, Mr. Rochester, Casaubon, or Ladislaw as portraits of marriageable members of their sex? In truth, both men and women novelists give fictional embodiment to their own sexual fantasies when they sketch the opposite sex, and both tend to be more believable when portraying their own sex. “Masculinists” (were there any) would have a lot to complain about if they looked into the taxonomy of the male sex as depicted by women novelists, starting perhaps with Mrs. Stowe’s Simon Legree and Uncle Tom, and ending with Mary Gordon’s fathers and priests.

Early feminist critics also (vainly) attempted to prove that there was a special female way of writing or “women’s language.” For a while, this investigation drew theoretically on Erik Erikson’s model of female “inner space,” and we heard a lot about nests, sanctuaries, and wombs as images recurring in writing by women. More recently, this romantic view of women’s writing has appeared in France, where attention is paid less to matter than to manner; we are told that women’s writing should avoid the law-giving patriarchal manner by being “writerly,” disruptive, playful, subversive, or avant-garde; or we are urged to direct our attention to a maternal preverbal “semiotic” realm, the chora, which is, so to speak, the id of language before the superego of the symbolic puts its repressive (and therefore masculine) stamp upon it.

The recommendation of “writerly prose” came originally by way of Barthes. “Readerly” texts, offering no disruptive obstacles, are thought to be in collusion with the (ideological) status quo, which is taken to be based on masculine dominance. Of course, it ought to be self-evident that the disturbance quotient of any book cannot be simply equated with its stylistic quirks. Jane Austen is at least as disturbing as Virginia Woolf, yet perhaps no pages are more “readerly” than Austen’s, which were immediately accessible to her readers, ranging from her sister to the Prince Regent.

A recent theorist of feminist aesthetics, Rita Felski, has given up on both crude feminist socialist realism (which treats fictional creations as though they were real people) and the theory of écriture feminine. This leaves her with very little to hang on to that can be called feminist aesthetics. Nevertheless, her arguments against the mistaken formulations of her predecessors may help to refine feminist theory. Felski’s formulations are, generally speaking, Marxist ones, but she is prevented from taking a position based entirely on the ideological treatment of male and female characters by her reading of Adorno (that huge stumbling block in the way of socialist realist thinking). Because Adorno’s fundamental aesthetic medium was music, he faced squarely the definition of art as a syntactic system of formal relations. This is the definition of what all the arts (including the verbal arts of prose and poetry) have in common, what distinguishes them from exposition. Adorno recognized that about all you could say concerning the systems of relations set in motion by genuine artists was that they weren’t ready-made reproductions of social reality—these are the specialty of propaganda and advertising. To Adorno, art represents a “negative” oppositional sphere to the capitalist processing of all social information into commodity status.


Felski is not satisfied to have art be seen as a private negation of the commodities that are brokered to a wider public. She wants women’s art to reside in the “public sphere” (she borrows the phrase from Habermas), to be part of a public discourse in opposition to the status quo. This is to insist on the possibility of a common discourse perceived as expressing the interests of an entire community rather than isolated, “private,” persons. Felski is impatient with feminist theorists who scrutinize a novel or a poem in isolation, examining its themes for ideological correctness, or its surface for a disruptive style. She is more interested (predictably, but also sanely) in the conditions in which literature by women is produced, distributed, and read. How do women get to make and publish whatever they do, and what purposes do their works serve for women readers?

The only thing wrong with all this, from my point of view, is calling it “aesthetics,” when it should properly be called the sociology of literature. Marxist theory, with its apparently inevitable bias against art produced by and for an educated group, is unable to deal with the question of aesthetic power except by counting heads: if a lot of people have liked something, then it has “aesthetic power,” and its “reception” deserves to be studied. A more sophisticated Marxism attempts to see richness and complexity of representation as a criterion of aesthetic power, but this theory collapses when faced with works of art that are less concerned with representation (as the word is normally understood) than with something else—that syntax of internal relations I have mentioned above, for instance, or volatility of tone, or play of color. Adorno, biting the bullet, thought that the artist who developed a new technique should be considered the most progressive artist, since new techniques widen the possibilities of articulation within a given medium. But I have not seen many Marxist literary critics following his lead.

Felski sees, quite correctly, that much recent writing by women has been confessional—she mentions books by Kate Millett, Marilyn French, and Ann Oakley—and she wants to preserve this (essentially realist) writing from the argument of some feminists that realism (in its acceptance of fictional illusion and its non-“writerly” quality) is a sign of complicity with the ideological status quo. Felski admits that even the more adventurous forms of feminist confession, such as Kate Millett’s Flying, show “a conspicuous lack of interest in irony, indeterminacy, and linguistic play.” Felski then makes the intelligent point that irony need not be found only in the surface of a work; irony is found in the infinitely extendable nature of writing itself with respect to its material. Writing is

an endless chain of signifiers…. This lack of identity between the text and the life, experience and its representation, is of course a central problem of autobiography, and, in a broader sense, of literature itself.

Though the self, as Felski sees it, is always a social construction, she reminds us that we do part of the constructing:

Oppositional identities are often asserted only painfully and with difficulty and serve to articulate experiences of alienation, exclusion, and suffering in people’s lives. The fact that they are socially constructed does not mean that they are any less “real,” or that their political function can be reduced to one of complicity with ruling ideologies.

Here, however, she seems to be confusing the actual self constructed in life with the fictional self articulated in confessional memoirs or novels.

Often, as in the passage I have just quoted, Felski is more certain about what she dislikes in previous literary criticism (in this passage, French feminist dismissal of realist writing by women) than about a new direction she hopes to point to. She is ambivalent about what has come to be called “the autonomy of the work of art”—that is, its independence of any social ideology, its aims beyond the limited one of representation. She repeats the old accusation—that emphasis on the autonomy of the work of art “has helped to encourage a mystification of art as a quasi-transcendental sphere…perpetuating the myth of the great artist as solitary genius.” Does she mean that there are no great artists? Or that they were not geniuses? Or that they were great geniuses but not solitary? Or what? Simply to say that Beethoven came out of the German musical tradition and was supported by patrons (“the historical and ideological determinants affecting the production of art and the dissemination of aesthetic values”) does not mean that he was not also a great artist and a solitary genius. The absence of female Beethovens may perhaps be explained by the absence of instruction and patronage for women, but instruction and patronage alone do not explain why one instructed and supported artist turns out to be Beethoven and another does not.


The “myth of the great artist as solitary genius” has enough truth in it to survive. To suspect the existence of many mute inglorious Miltons, male and female, should not lead to the conclusion that instruction and patronage play anything but a subordinate part in the creation of great art. Even given a wage, a teacher, a study, and a publishing house, the genius still does the work all alone. To note the uniqueness and unpredictability of great art is not to “mystify” it.

Felski adds that there is something to be said for acknowledging the autonomy of art:

The formal complexity of the text is perceived to serve a potentially critical function by distancing and defamiliarizing the ideological frameworks within which it operates.

To which I can only say, “Whither away, Delight?” But then, socialist criticism has never been strong on delight, while art is. And in attempting to bridge high and low culture (saying that works of both kinds can be useful in her “oppositional public sphere”) Felski evades a more central issue: Can a work’s instrumental value be used as an aesthetic criterion at all? (By instrumental value I mean the good—political, moral, religious—that it does; in this view, the banal Catholic holy card is as efficacious as a Piero della Francesca.) Felski backs away from an absolutely instrumental feminist valuation—“a position that taken to its logical conclusion would rate The Women’s Room [by Marilyn French] as a better work of art than the writing of Kafka.” But she assumes that bad works can be important during the time that they generate political excitement:

[Some] examples of feminist fiction that served an important purpose at the time of publication by articulating women’s discovery of their oppression may appear aesthetically naive or excessively didactic at a historical distance [italics mine].

Is she implying that, as new converts, we like the holy cards and then we graduate to the paintings? But surely it is the function of a feminist literary critic, as of any other literary critic, not to overlook aesthetic naiveté or excessive didacticism (or other aesthetic embarrassments) whether the work is new or not. These are crippling deficiencies in a work of art. What good artist has been aesthetically naive or excessively didactic? It is not only “at a historical distance” that a reader who is a feminist critic should not be swept up in ideological approval of third-rate work. It is always and everywhere.

Felski’s conception of art ends up where political criticism usually ends up—valuing a naive and didactic “articulation of oppression” because it has awakened certain members of an oppressed class. It seems of no use to tell such critics that propaganda is not valuable except as you value propaganda. If you value art, you cannot value propaganda as art. The “aesthetically naive” and the “excessively didactic” are corrupt when their naiveté and didacticism have an ideological purpose. And corruption cannot serve an “important purpose,” at least not any important purpose one would call aesthetic. A political function, of course, is something else.

The female writer, the female audience—Felski writes as if both these concepts stood for clearly identifiable entities, without questioning them. But as social constructs they are as open to questioning as any other social construct. Some artists testify that the act of creation obliterates consciousness of one’s gender. Recently, a (female) interviewer asked Natalia Ginzburg whether her friendship with Elsa Morante “was different from her friendship with…other writers because they were both women”:

She looks impatient. “Of course not. A writer is a writer. You care about writing. It isn’t men or women. I find these feminists very annoying, putting together these anthologies of women writers. As if there were a difference. You sit down, you write, you are not a woman, or an Italian. You are a writer.”

The interviewer, misunderstanding the response, asks impertinently whether Ginzburg thinks of herself as a Jew. Ginzburg replies, “You never lose your sense of connection with those who died in the camps.”1 This is not a reply about writing. Of course Ginzburg is a Jew, a woman, an Italian; but at the moment of writing one is, according to her, if not simply the “site being traversed by words” which Barthes postulated, certainly not a calculus of ethnic or sexual or nationalist sentiments.


Any writer knows that the word “woman” probably has as many meanings as it has users, once you get past the fact of biological difference. The word “woman” seems to mean, for many feminists, “person oppressed by a male power system.” But this definition can be widened beyond women, since the poor and other marginal people can also be said to be oppressed by that system (if indeed it is possible to ascribe agency to a system at all, and if you accept the idea that maleness is a quality of the system).

Many people have found it difficult to understand why those women who support freeing the oppressed do not turn their attention to the larger world of the oppressed, rather than to themselves alone. This has always been the source of tension between socialism, with its concept of class oppression, and feminism, with its concept of gender oppression. The splitting of discontented socialist women from socialist groups where they felt themselves sidelined by the men of the movement is retold in some of the essays in Hansen and Philipson’s collection, Women, Class, and the Feminist Imagination. Soon enough, the socialist feminists were at war with both the radical (often lesbian) feminists, and equally with the liberal middle-class (often academic) feminists, a still-unsolved tragicomic conflict rich in human implication.

It is a relief to pass from the literary unease of Felski’s book to straight political history, to read about the founding of unions and women’s organizations, the struggle for reproductive rights, and so on. With the collapse of Eastern bloc communism, socialists have been retheorizing with a vengeance. The most utopian hope in Women is that socialist feminism can “direct Marxist theorizing toward questions of feeling, consciousness, and an appreciation of emotional life,” the very psychological questions that are the concerns of literature. Such a hope seems unlikely to be realized by neo-Marxist literary critics.

The “postfeminist” results of feminist demands for reform described in some of the essays collected in Women make sad reading, especially if one thinks of Felski’s wish for better conditions in the production and reception of women’s art. Very little “shared parenting” really goes on; wage-earning mothers feel increasing pressure to find time for their children and their work; black teen-age women are often single parents; the promises and premises of the women’s movement are largely empty, or at best transient, for women who are not middle-class. These socialist essays, while concentrating on women, still see them subsumed in the class of the poor or the overworked. They do not make gender an overriding concept, as feminist literary criticism has done.

Feminism’s own self-criticism is represented not only in Hansen’s socialist reader but in another new collection, Feminism/Postmodernism, edited by Linda Nicholson. Again and again in this book some of the simplistic concepts of the “second wave” feminism of the Sixties are scrutinized, from the concept “woman” itself (by Judith Butler of Johns Hopkins University) to the concept of “community” (by Iris Marion Young of Worcester Polytechnic Institute). This attempt to refine feminist concepts is more than welcome. The sheer diversity among women, and the insufficiency of any one definition of them (whether psychoanalytic, sociological, or political) has often led the women’s movement to react purely strategically, and to adopt a set of narrowly political definitions of women (such as “those oppressed by men”) which have alienated those women who think of themselves differently. Similarly, the utopian and “touchy-feely” use of the word “community” (deriving from the intimacy of small groups meeting for discussion or living together) can give an outsider the creeps.

In her brisk essay against a too-ready acceptance by feminists of this concept of “community,” Iris Marion Young speaks for everyone who prefers the relative anonymity of big cities to the lack of privacy and freedom in face-to-face communities. “If we take seriously the way many people live their lives today, it appears that people enjoy cities, that is, places where strangers are thrown together.” Young points out the horrors of small-town life for ” ‘independent’ women or socialists or gay men and lesbians,” to whom “the city has often offered a welcome anonymity and some measure of freedom.” And she hints, too, at the ugly tendencies that may spring from the small “community”—racism, ethnic or gender chauvinism, and class prejudice. Anyone brought up in a tightly knit religious or ethnic community or who has had experience of an intense political group knows the xenophobia that is endemic to homogeneity. Young’s repudiation of the false pastoral of “community” is a necessary questioning of the historical idealization of its value in America, from Brook Farm on.

In their questioning of separatism some women critics are repudiating the privileged status of gender itself. Christine Di Stefano (University of Washington) writes,

For some writers, gender is no more and perhaps not even as basic as poverty, class, ethnicity, race, sexual identity, and age, in the lives of women who feel less divided from men as a group than, for example, from white or bourgeois or Anglo or heterosexual men and women.

According to Feminism/Postmodernism, the “essentialism” of a notion of “woman” that transcends history and culture is currently perplexing the women’s movement. Claims that there are universal models of “the reproduction of mothering” (as in the work of Nancy Chodorow) or that women in general have “a different voice” (as Carol Gilligan has put it) can be and have been plausibly accused of drawing wide conclusions about “women” from samples drawn from a single culture or social class or historical moment. The revisionist critics in Nicholson’s collection can be seen as taking part in one of the perpetual outbreaks of nominalist skepticism against Aristotelian universalism. The “sect of one” is the logical reduction of the nominalist position, while the party line is the logical end of the universalist position. The most cheering thing, finally, about all political movements is their unsuppressible tendency to splinter, as their broad original manifestoes are more and more rigorously scrutinized.


The trouble lies not in feminist theory, which seems to be questioning itself rather energetically, nor in the exploration of women’s past, which is proceeding with both instructive and entertaining findings. Rather, as I have said, the trouble lies in the actual practice of literary and cultural criticism. Before getting to my critical examples, I want to mention briefly two typical exhumations of literary evidence, one disappointing, the other distinctly exhilarating. The collection of excerpts from seventeenth-century women writers by Katharina Wilson and the late Frank Warnke offers little of interest to the modern English-speaking reader. These are not uninteresting women, but the excerpts are short, the headnotes are long, and the translations of poetry are ludicrous. Some instances:

What a gush of hyperbata!
A poor lackey am I….
O might I now sing beautifully of your beauty!
O noble demi-goddess!
Fecund Pan himself plays about so dearly with
The nymphs, as is his rogue-like wont, as long as
All are favorably inclined.

Next to such hideous lines, the only moderately talented Aphra Behn seems positively elegant:

Till now I curst my Sex and Education,
And more the scanted Customs of the Nation,
Permitting not the Female Sex to tread
The Mightly Paths of Learned Heroes Dead:
The Godlike Virgil and Great Homer’s Muse
Like Divine Mysteries are con- ceal’d from us….

It is hard to imagine a literature course based even in part on this collection of feeble writings, mostly in translation. Some of them of are of evident biographical or historical interest, but none has any literary distinction.

On the other hand, Roger Lonsdale’s collection of eighteenth-century women poets is a pleasure to leaf through. Aside from a gratuitous comment (seemingly borrowed from the English critic John Barrell’s Politics, Language and Poetry) disparaging Wordsworth’s attitude toward his sister in “Tintern Abbey,” the collection is ably introduced and splendidly chosen. If one discovers no major talents in it (nor does Lonsdale claim that there are any), the book provides much evidence (especially by comparison with the volume of seventeenth-century poetry) of the rise in the number of literate and literary women in England between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. The women were of course largely self-educated, and most of them had fathers with large libraries (as, later, did Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf); they were tutored or sent to school, were sponsored into print by male clergymen, teachers, relatives, or fellow writers, and were financially supported either by husbands, families, or subscribers to their books. Lonsdale has passed over the unreadable epics, plays, and novels composed by his authors in favor of their lyrics—evidence of how leaden the weight of cultural topicality can be, and of the superior survival value of the less topical lyric.

The light verse of the women tends to be better than their “serious” verse, the domestic verse better than the public verse. One comes across a good deal of reflection on the lot of women, all sociologically interesting, and some revealing sidelights on women as oppressors of children and servants. There is at least one nice specimen of woman-as-bigot, Mary Alcock’s criticism of Catholic Ireland: “How blest would be Iërne’s isle, / Were bigotry and all its guile / Chased as a cloud away.” Social satire and self-irony (typical properties, feminist criticism reminds us, of marginal people) are present in varieties ranging from the mordant to the mocking. Elizabeth Moody, told she would find love if she would burn her books “and cultivate the culinary arts,” does so in verse, consigning Petrarch and Tasso to the flames:

Goddess of Culinary Art,
Now take possession of my heart!
Teach me more winning arts to try,
To salt the ham, to mix the pie….

The servant whose rest on the grass is disturbed by her small charge takes her revenge:

But, ere the infant reached the play- ful leaf,
She pulled him back—His eyes o’erflowed with grief;
He checked his tears—Her fiercer passions strove,
She looked a vulture cowering o’er a dove!
“I’ll teach you, brat!”

Feminism’s unacknowledged problem, visible from its inception, has been its ascription of special virtue to women. In its most sentimental form, feminism assumes that men, as a class, are base and women are moral; in its angry version, that men are oppressors and women the oppressed. This is to ignore what some cooler feminist minds have suspected, that the possession of power, rather than whether one is a woman or a man, is what determines the act of oppression. Nina Auerbach lately quoted Florence Nightingale: “I am sick with indignation at what wives and mothers will do, the most egregious selfishness. And people call it all maternal or conjugal affection and think it pretty to say so.”2 Some maternal cruelty may be explained on the grounds that the oppressed will oppress, but a structural analysis of that sort ignores the contribution of temperament: there are choleric, sadistic, indifferent, and cold women just as there are such men. The home is an almost wholly unsupervised theater of operations; and the oppressions carried out by schoolmasters and prison guards are not incomparable with those carried out on some children by their mothers during those long days when they are alone together.

That the violent physical abuse of children comes more frequently from men does not make any less reprehensible the character-destroying behavior—harshness, hatred, silence, and neglect—of some mothers. The abuse of power by both sexes, and the deficient moral behavior of both men and women to each other and to children, is the truth concealed by feminism; and feminism cannot represent itself as a movement with a redemptive purpose unless it acknowledges its own sentimentalizing of women. Feminism must bring itself to see women as victimizers as well as victims, as persons who are bigoted against men just as men are bigoted against them, as people oppressive to children in the way men can be oppressive to women or to children. To the extent that truth is preferable to cant, a de-idealizing of women is necessary for the women’s movement. This in no way precludes protest of ill-treatment of women. But idealizing women falsifies one’s tone toward them.

No matter how unintended, this falsity of tone pervades Carolyn Heilbrun’s 1981 essay, “Women, Men, Theories, and Literature,” included in her recent collection of essays, Hamlet’s Mother. The essay ends with giddy praise of two courses Heilbrun and her colleague Nancy Miller gave together:

In the (to me, at least) extraordinary dialogue that took place in the seminars between Miller and me and between us and our students, the dazzling Riffaterrian skills [of Miller] and the Trillingesque moral choices [on Heilbrun’s part] illuminated one another. Each of us…became literally, and literarily, inspired to new and exciting work. Our excitement was increased by the knowledge that the economy of male domination, when deconstructed, when submitted to post-structuralist decodings by the most dazzling practitioners [presumably the dazzling Miller], reveals woman as the vital key…. We are dropping a bomb into the stable world of literary masterpieces.

Earlier, Heilbrun had said that “language has been a powerful social force, male, that undermines the autonomy of the individual, female.” This may have been heady stuff for the seminar students, but it is not true. Language is certainly a powerful force in the hands of anyone who uses it well, whether Jane Austen or Shakespeare, but it is of itself neither male nor female, and it can as well affirm the autonomy of the female subject (think of Emily Brontë’s “No Coward Soul is Mine”) as deny it.

The description of “feminist teaching,” as Heilbrun gives it, is just another version of the teaching of literature as moral propaganda—a method used earlier by other ideologues, on the right and left, for religious or political ends. Of course, students can be stirred by the univocal moral rhetoric of liberation, but is that what a literature class exists to purvey? What would Jane Austen and George Eliot, those skeptical intelligences, make of the rhetoric used by feminist critics on their behalf?

Nor do Heilbrun’s other essays collected here suggest that her students were being exposed to literary (rather than moral) judgments. I offer as evidence her comparisons of Woolf and Joyce. She makes bizarre remarks: had Leonard Woolf, she says, taken Virginia to a Freudian psychiatrist she would not have written her novels. The view of Woolf offered here depends on dubious statements, e.g., that the “great art of the patriarchy” taught “that anger is inimical to creation.” One wonders what the creators of Lear, Sporus, and Satan might think of this idea.

Heilbrun opens her essay on Woolf and Joyce with Lionel Trilling’s characterization of Joyce as “a man of the century into which he was born.” She comments, “With Victorian patriarchs as with thieves, it takes one to know one.” This was meant, perhaps, to be funny. Heilbrun then quotes Woolf showing diffidence about her powers, and calls Woolf’s sentiment “that female diffidence, that lack of confidence which male writers do not experience.” Has she read Keats’s letters or his preface to Endymion? Wallace Stevens’s journals? Hopkins’s retreat notes? Herbert’s poems?

Heilbrun continues, “But however modern Joyce’s technique, his art was profoundly conservative” (as though to invent a radical new style were not to invent a radical new way of seeing). “The old cosmology” was all Joyce had to offer by way of substance, and he was therefore no threat to the established order:

Academics could exercise upon him all their ingenuity and talent without having their central conventions or perceptions disturbed. As one critic [S.L. Goldberg, in 1961], admiring Ulysses but tired of all these technical interpretations, was to write: “He has nothing especially new to say about social or ethical or religious values; in many ways he seems old-fashioned.”

Heilbrun adds, “In 1977, Philippe Sollers wrote that ‘Not enough attention has been given to the fact that throughout his life Joyce wrote with money provided by women.’ ” (No mention is made of the fact that Virginia Woolf wrote with money partly provided by Leonard.) The essay closes with Woolf “raiding the inarticulate” because she has found new things to say, while “Joyce, in the same years, wanted a new way to say the same things, being no longer disposed to say them in the old way.” If this is what a conversion to feminism does to the truth of Joyce’s subversive anti-imperial reimagining of the English novel, then such conversions are, for literary criticism, lamentable.


Animus is not new in literary criticism, and perhaps it is natural for converts to be enthusiasts, both for and against. Yet the vulgarity of some of the recent literary criticism by feminists seems to me a new ingredient in critical writing. Perhaps it is meant as a sign of populist credentials (“We’re not mandarins, we tell jokes and make low puns.”) The prose style of the team of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, in their two-volume No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (a third volume is to come) is the most serious obstacle to taking them seriously as writers on literature.

Consider the following deplorable passage, which begins with one of the all-purpose adjectival phrases the authors frequently use to cram information into a sentence, and which concludes with a repellent pun that directs us to a footnote:

In practice, moreover, as the masterful mistress of a Paris salon comparable to the ones hostessed by such other literary Amazons as Edith Wharton and Natalie Barney, Stein set the scene and directed the action of just the (male) modernist experimentation that was to create the “twentieth century” as we know it…. From Freud’s point of view, the “masculinity complex” could be carried no further. The father had been turned into a fat-her.

The appalled reader, turning to footnote 32, will read, “We are grateful to Molly Gubar for calling this linguistic possibility to our attention at the age of six.” It is not hard to imagine what feminists would make of this remark about Gertrude Stein had it been made by a man. If “to hostess” is a new talk-show verb, I hope it has a short life. Moreover, to call Edith Wharton a “literary Amazon” is to forget that refinement, delicacy, and sorrow accompanied her energy and satiric force. And to pick up Shakespeare’s bewildered but urbane self-defense from his angelic boy—“A woman’s face…/ Hast thou, the master-mistress of my passion”—and apply it to Stein “hostessing” her salon is to make a pointless and distracting allusion (a persistent and annoying tactic in the overstuffed sentences of No Man’s Land).

Fat-her is not alone. “Da, ma, dada, mama,…one wonders whether even Derrida would like to be a Derri-ma”; “The sapphistries of artists were perquisites of aristocracy” (the pun seems to be borrowed from a book called Sapphistry by one Pat Califia). Because Rojack, the hero of Mailer’s An American Dream, “sodomizes a German maid who has the suggestive name of Ruta,” Gilbert and Gubar pursue the matter further, saying, “Moreover, when this Ruta-rooter does find [another woman],” etc.

These few sentences from No Man’s Land reveal on a small scale what the current two volumes demonstrate on a large one: Gilbert and Gubar have no clear idea what literary history can do, what it should do, how it should be written. This is a subject that has been commented on a good deal lately, by Hayden White and Geoffrey Hartman, among others. The amateurishness and slapdash quality of the literary history in No Man’s Land is evident particularly in its lack of proportion. Literary historians of a century’s writing by women in England and America cannot, without losing narrative momentum, insert mini-books on particular writers: forty pages on Kate Chopin, forty-five on Edith Wharton, forty-five on Willa Cather, twenty on Gertrude Stein. These leisurely and often boring chapter-long discussions on single writers sit ill with the attempt to gobble up entire eras in a single indigestible paragraph:

The plot of sensual battle is of course as old as literature itself. From the legendary Lilith, who resists Adam’s (and God’s) wish to control both her body and her language, to the rebellious women of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata and the mythical Amazons,…women have often been depicted as militants…. A long poem by the fourth-century Greek poet Quintus Smyrnaeus gives a characteristic account of the defeat of the Amazon Penthesilea…. Again, in Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberata (1580) the Christian hero Tancred unknowingly fights and kills Clorinda, an Islamic woman whom he loves.

The inclusiveness desired by the historian, and made possible by “research assistants” such as those amply thanked by Gilbert and Gubar in their preface, might excuse these summary paragraphs, were it not that the writing in the “leisurely” chapters is just as unreadable. Gilbert and Gubar are addicted to plot summary (issuing in a literary boredom second only to hearing dreams retold); but they are peculiarly incoherent when they summarize, having themselves no gift for narrative. I apologize for presenting the following paragraph about Willa Cather’s My Antonia in full (wholly representative, down to its characteristic pun on “invalid”), but only by a long excerpt can the punishing quality of this long (775-page) and garbled literary history be fully appreciated:

If artistry in Black Hawk finds suitable expression in the primitive music of the black pianist Blind d’Arnault, Dumas’s play appears to represent the more refined culture of Lincoln. Yet, in spite of Jim’s racist description of his character, Blind d’Arnault draws forth an intense voice from the “mouth” of the piano that belies “the note of docile subservience” in a performer who “would never consent to be led” (184,183), while Dumas’s play records a heterosexual thralldom shown to be literally sickening, for Marguerite, over whom Jim and Lena weep, is a quite different “hired girl” than [sic] those in Black Hawk. The scenes of Camille—Armand’s love of the consumptive courtesan, his father’s intervention, his jealousy of her other lovers, and his remorse at her death—cause Jim to congratulate himself on his and Lena’s maturity: “Lena was at least a woman, and I was a man” (275). But Marguerite’s consumption nevertheless reinforces Cather’s argument that the woman who functions like currency will be consumed in the exchange between men. Predictably, therefore, Jim heeds his tutor’s advice about the disease of desire (“You won’t recover yourself while you are playing about with this handsome Norwegian” [289]) and extricates himself from Lena by going with Gaston Cleric to the same bastion of male solidarity that fascinated Henry James in The Bostonians, Harvard University. Understandably, too, Lena, refusing the part of the in-valid invalid, eventually settles down in San Francisco with Tiny Soderball, who lost three toes in the Alaskan wilderness but emerged with a fortune from a gold mine deeded to her by a man who lost his life.

Imagine reading this half page two thousand times, and you can take the measure of the thousand pages that Gilbert and Gubar will soon have published.

Gilbert and Gubar necessarily come up against the well-documented fact that woman writers of talent tend to dislike second-rate work. Perhaps because every serious writer is afraid of slipping back into the easier word, the sentimental rendition, the cliché of convention, there is a strong reaction to that fear; many writers are vehement in their attacks on forms of literary corruption. But instead of seeing the repudiation of trash as a mark of literary integrity, Gilbert and Gubar invariably interpret it in their authors as “scorn,” “contempt,” “disdain,” “hostility,” or distrust toward other women. With respect to Willa Cather, they say, “Cather’s critical statements raise interesting questions about the concept of female misogyny, for the intensity of her hostility implies that—as the old saying goes—it takes one to know one.” They quote her (apparently just) criticism of Elizabeth Cady Stanton who, with an editorial committee, produced the “Women’s Bible.” Cather remarks on

the temerity of these estimable ladies who, without scholarship, without linguistic attainments, without theological training, not even able to read the Bible in the original tongues, set themselves upon a task which has baffled the ripest scholarship.

To find this reasonable criticism repudiated by Gilbert and Gubar as misogyny is to confirm one’s sense that truth-telling is endangered by the feminist imperative that “sisterhood” should make women “supportive” of the work of other women, no matter how shoddily done. Preferring psychological “supportiveness” or strategic political solidarity to truth, competence, and literary honesty is something that writers like Cather or Wharton cannot accede to without being false to themselves. Gilbert and Gubar’s easy acceptance of banal and inept work puts them in a different category from Cather or Wharton.

I suppose the low point of Gilbert and Gubar’s warmhearted tolerance toward the banal and the inept comes in their earnestly interested remarks about Sharon Olds’s typically pornographic poem, “Outside the Operating Room of the Sex-Change Doctor”:

[The poem] expresses a deep uneasiness with gender metamorphosis…. Lying on a silver tray, the “chopped-off sexes” of a doctor’s formerly male patients articulate Olds’s sense of the various implications of sexchange surgery: “One says I am a weapon thrown down“; another says, “I am a caul removed from his eyes. Now he can see“; but the last “is unhappy. He lies there weeping in terrible grief, crying out, Father, Father!

Edith Wharton had a phrase for this sort of thing—“dull twaddle.” But Gilbert and Gubar exhibit the depressing refusal of judgment, or incapacity for judgment, that marks most political criticism when it trains its glance on its own partisans. Feminist critics have disparaged male historians for their “exclusions”; it is possible to blame feminist literary historians for their inclusions, and for their own misogyny toward women writers who recognize twaddle as twaddle and are not afraid to say so (Wharton, incidentally, used the phrase about The Well of Loneliness).

Certainly any book on women’s writing in the twentieth century should deal with the historical developments that interest Gilbert and Gubar—the rise of substantial numbers of women writers and the consequent representation of the sex war from both sides; a conspicuous literary lesbian subculture; the expansion of opportunities for women by women’s suffrage and female work during World War I. But Gilbert and Gubar describe all this so chaotically, so vulgarly, and with so little sense of proportion, that these two volumes must seem, even to feminists, “aesthetically naive and excessively didactic” (to return to Felski’s categories). We still lack a critical history of women’s literary work in the twentieth century that is historically informed and has a plausible theory of art as well as an unsentimental view of women.


Perhaps the perspective of an untrodden field gives women literary historians their epic ambitions to cover everything. Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae is an attempt (nonfeminist) at telling the story of the androgyne from ancient Egypt to the fin de siècle; this book bears an enthusiastic comment from Harold Bloom, once Paglia’s dissertation adviser at Yale. Paglia’s tour takes us from Spenser’s Belphoebe and Britomart to Wilde’s Cecily and Gwendolyn, with stops along the way for various writers and painters, and many examples of the beautiful boy syndrome. Paglia’s conception of the androgyne in history is broad enough to produce the present subtitle: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson. This would be a joke if it were not seriously intended.

Paglia’s book raises the question of what counts as evidence in literary argument. The value of evidence has been called into question by the assumption, shared by both Marxist and postmodernist critics, that values are masks for vested interests, and that “taste” and “judgment” are coercive elitist gestures. The asserted relativism of literary value, bolstered by well-worn examples of historically fallible critical taste (actually minor in comparison to the sustained historical agreement on the talent of canonical authors) relieves such critics from the burden of evidence. Their conclusions are simply naked claims for their own interests—made, in Paglia’s case, for seven hundred pages. “My method,” says Paglia, “is a form of sensationalism,” and her argument is that “Judeo-Christianity never did defeat paganism, which still flourishes in art, eroticism, astrology, and pop culture” (on which a second volume is promised). Cruelty (as in Sade) is a running theme through the book: Paglia asserts the necessity of cruelty (an intensified form of Apollonian art-order) to hold back the “chthonian” forces embodied in Nature and “her” surrogate, woman.

When Paglia has a congenial subject, as she does in her chapter on The Importance of Being Earnest, she can be enlightening and entertaining, revealing Wilde’s two impeccably poised heroines as the ultimate representations of personality subsumed entirely into form. But when the subject demands more than appreciation of images and (preferably violent) stories, Paglia fails. She rhapsodizes on the androgynous and impregnable female image (as in Spenser’s “glamorous androgynes”) but she is utterly indifferent to Spenser’s verse. While Spenser is describing sex or rape, he has Paglia’s rapt attention, but as soon as ideas enter the picture she yawns: “Belphoebe…is given to rather dull speeches. Eloquence belongs to evil characters….” Paglia’s emphasis on the theatrical, the visual, and the abstract lets her revel in the Marquis de Sade’s most mechanical arrangements, like his rosary of sexually linked nuns. “A hundred nuns linked by dildos! The style of Busby Berkeley or the Radio City Rockettes,” she exclaims, as Sade “organizes Dionysian experience into Apollonian patterns….”

To Paglia, women writers remain “chthonic,” earthbound, and swamp-like, unable to rise to such inventive Apollonian designs. She reaches the climax of her conceptual invention when she arrives at serial murder:

Serial or sex murder, like fetishism, is a perversion of male intelligence…. It is the asocial equivalent of philosophy, mathematics, and music. There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.

Paglia’s impatience with the sentimentality of feminism blinds her to her own sentimentality toward the masculine, Jack the Ripper and all. Men have, she says, “concentration and projection,” symbolized by their splendid capacity for projectile urination:

Male urination really is a kind of accomplishment, an arc of transcendance [sic]. A woman merely waters the ground she stands on…. To piss is to criticize. John Wayne urinated on the shoes of a grouchy director in full view of cast and crew. This is one genre of self-expression women will never master. A male dog marking every bush on the block is a graffiti artist, leaving his rude signature with each lift of the leg. Women, like female dogs, are earthbound squatters.

The question begging of such a passage (What is transcendent about pissing? How is a dog an artist?) apparently does not bother Paglia; she goes on as if assertion were its own evidence. The most telling clue to Paglia’s mind is her paragraph style: the sentences lack connection and syntactic subordination; they lie on the page like so many mutually repellent atoms, incapable of forming a molecular structure.

Northrop Frye once said that he didn’t believe in any of the ways of dividing up literature under thematic titles—women’s writing, gay writing, black writing, and so on. Literature makes its own verbal universe, and its fundamental organizing structures are not documentary, thematic, or ideological ones. The lifting of the documentary into the symbolic, of the thematic into the syntactic, is the task of art. Disregarding its most fundamental transformations does it poor service. Perhaps that is why books that round up literature behind thematic fences—religion, politics, women, sexual personae—are usually reductive of the genres they treat.

The skittish imagination mocks these attempts to bind it down; language’s fertile misrule mocks such feeble taxonomies. The imp of the perverse, the Muse of the unpredictable next line, laughs, of course, at us all. But while criticism tags her footsteps, it needs to follow her with at least some respect for accuracy and evidence and considered judgment. It needs to understand the reworking of (and disregard for) the documentary that is necessary to literature’s symbolic intent. Criticism might also aim for concepts and language that do not violate the supple aims of imaginative work. More highly evolved feminist criticism may be on the way, but it will have to go beyond its current practitioners’ innocence about how the imagination works, and what it does.

This Issue

May 31, 1990