Weekend Miscellany: Feminist Lit Crit, New Age Libraries, Chick Lit

Here are links to some things I’ve found interesting in recent hops, skips, and jumps around the web:

In Dissent, Judith Walzer on the pioneering feminist literary critics of the 1970s:

In the 1970s a number of books were written to reappraise women authors and the literature they produced. For the most part these books focused on nineteenth-century Britain (to a lesser extent on the United States and France) and they clearly “started something.” The work of women writers was taken far more seriously in this criticism than it had been before. Its sources and content were examined with the assumption that they had both literary and cultural value. After these critical works it was no longer possible to claim that women’s literary work was tangential to the “tradition” or marginal or derivative. At the same time, and even more important, it became impossible to maintain that you did not have to pay attention to the gender of an author to understand her work, that you could pretend that she had not had characteristic experiences as a writer and as a woman. It became harder and harder to sustain habitually dismissive and narrow responses. In effect, these critical works created a new field. The field asserted itself on the literary scene, and after that, work in this area grew so rapidly and with such vitality and scope that it seems unfair to focus on only a few books written at the start of this period.

But four books seized my attention—then and now—and seem of major importance. They were published from 1975 to 1979: Patricia Spacks’s The Female Imagination (1975), Ellen Moers’s Literary Women (1976) Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own (1977), and Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar’s The Madwoman in the Attic (1979). Each of them respected the works and lives of women writers without question, describing the ways in which their circumstances affected their creativity and analyzing what they had accomplished. With differing definitions of their subject and different perspectives, they shared a conviction that much of the greatest literature of the nineteenth century—British, American, and French—could not be fully grasped without a consideration of the position of women and women writers in society, their views of the world, and their literary preferences and practices. Literary study had been missing a good deal of fundamental significance. There was more here than most of us—the common reader and the scholar—were seeing and acknowledging. Not only would this new perspective add to and deepen our views of these writers, but it might substantially change our understanding of the periods in which they wrote and of the structure of literature in general.

I’ve long believed myself to be a feminist, but I have never defined myself explicitly as a feminist critic. I also came to literary criticism just too late to appreciate first-hand the novelty and daring of these works. But I have always appreciated their fruits–they are, as Walzer says of The Madwoman in the Attic, “endlessly suggestive,” and I have demonstrated their influence in my own work in various ways and especially by always considering questions and constructions of gender in my reading and teaching. Indeed, perhaps my doing so without considering it a specifically “feminist” move is among the more significant changes in critical attitude they made possible. At the same time, I’ve realized that many students in this “post-feminist” age do not take such considerations for granted the way I do, and some certainly perceive politics or bias when confronted with them. Thus Walzer’s concluding reflections were of special interest to me:

ONE WONDERS if these books that “started something” are read anymore. If we find them basic, even foundational for the understanding of women’s writing and for a way of reading it, do they have any standing today? Sometimes a message has been so fully absorbed into the literary culture that the work of the messengers no longer exists as a separate resource. These books may be the ones that “started something,” but now we may take them for granted. A re-reading, however, can provide more reflections—that there really are perspectives through which we can give an equality of consideration to works by women and by men, that one can take gender seriously instead of pretending that it doesn’t exist, and at the same time that we don’t have to think of gender as a totalistic determinant of artistic achievement. This view in turn may direct us to a new thoughtfulness about how we conceive of what life and history have to do with the work of a writer, whether a woman or a man. What these four critics did was not simply to “start something”—create a new field—but to take a crucial step forward in the practice of criticism. In their work they reestablished the idea that the social environment surrounds us all—writers, too—and that it is different for genders, groups, and individuals. (read the rest here; thanks to Patrick Leary of the VICTORIA listserv for the tip)

In last week’s New York Review of Books, there’s a thought-provoking article by historian Robert Darnton on “The Library in the New Age”:

Each change in the technology has transformed the information landscape, and the speed-up has continued at such a rate as to seem both unstoppable and incomprehensible. In the long view—what French historians call la longue durée—the general picture looks quite clear—or, rather, dizzying. But by aligning the facts in this manner, I have made them lead to an excessively dramatic conclusion. Historians, American as well as French, often play such tricks. By rearranging the evidence, it is possible to arrive at a different picture, one that emphasizes continuity instead of change. The continuity I have in mind has to do with the nature of information itself or, to put it differently, the inherent instability of texts. In place of the long-term view of technological transformations, which underlies the common notion that we have just entered a new era, the information age, I want to argue that every age was an age of information, each in its own way, and that information has always been unstable. . . .

Information has never been stable. That may be a truism, but it bears pondering. It could serve as a corrective to the belief that the speedup in technological change has catapulted us into a new age, in which information has spun completely out of control. I would argue that the new information technology should force us to rethink the notion of information itself. It should not be understood as if it took the form of hard facts or nuggets of reality ready to be quarried out of newspapers, archives, and libraries, but rather as messages that are constantly being reshaped in the process of transmission. Instead of firmly fixed documents, we must deal with multiple, mutable texts. By studying them skeptically on our computer screens, we can learn how to read our daily newspaper more effectively—and even how to appreciate old books. (read the rest here)

Darnton, who calls himself a “Google enthusiast,” intelligently avoids either utopianism or fear-mongering about the possibilities of the digital age for reading and libraries. He concludes with a compelling list of eight reasons for us not to abandon research libraries, including that “the totality of world literature—all the books in all the languages of the world—lies far beyond Google’s capacity to digitize,” “Google will make mistakes” (for an excellent supporting example, see here), and Google “will fail to capture crucial aspects of a book”–including its tactile and material features.

At the Guardian, Joanna Trollope makes a case for “chick-lit.” Appointed a judge for a new prize in “comedy romance,” Trollope describes the judging process as “a revelation”:

The thing is, it’s hard to write good romantic fiction, and it’s much, much harder to write funny good romantic fiction. One of the criteria we judges were given was that if we hadn’t laughed, or been really beguiled by the end of chapter one, we should hurl the book away from us (and yes, a lot of books deserve hurling, but that’s the fault of their quality and not their genre). . . . comedy romance works for readers because the jokes are underpinned by recognisably real people in recognisably real situations – disappointment, frustration, loneliness, anger, sadness and all the grim old daily human carry-on. In fact, without the gravitas, the jokes wouldn’t work. (read the rest here)

I read “chick-lit” myself sometimes, and I completely agree that it’s a genre that’s very hard to do well. So hard, in fact, that I’m not sure I’ve read any books falling squarely into that category that I’d be willing to give any kind of prize to. “Funny” and “beguiling” just don’t seem like very high standards do me: just by themselves, these terms encapsulate the limitations of the genre Trollope seeks to elevate. Most of the time my complaint is that those “recognisably real situations” are rendered too superficially, and with too little historical or other reflection, for them to offer any actual insights into those situations, at least any beyond the platitudinous. I’ve written about some of Trollope’s own books: I think that at her best, she is certainly capable of more than a superficial, beguiling charm.

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