Feminist Critics on Feminist Writers
- Edward Eden (Editor) and Dee Goertz (Editor)
Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger, and the Possibilities of Fiction. University of Toronto Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Caroline Rosenthal (Author)
Narrative Deconstruction of Gender in Works by Audrey Thomas, Daphne Marlatt, and Louise Erdrich. Camden House (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Lothar Honnighausen
Who is a feminist critic and who is a feminist writer remain the subject of much debate, but both Caroline Rosenthal’s study of Audrey Thomas, Daphne Marlatt and Louise Erdrich and the essays on Carol Shields, edited by Edward Eden and Dee Goertz, are proof that feminist criticism, diverse though it may be, has clearly established itself as a major approach to literature. Although Marlatt’s feminist commitment is much more intense and radical, Thomas’s, Shields’s and Erdrich’s literary sense of the body—as subject of humorous distortion (Shields and Erdrich) or of ironic wordplay (Thomas)—impacts equally powerfully on the reader.
Drawing on feminist cultural studies theories and offering close readings of Audrey Thomas’s Intertidal Life, Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic, and Louise Erdrich’s tetralogy (Love Medicine, The Bingo Palace, The Beet Queen, and Tracks), Caroline Rosenthal shows how these texts “disrupt linguistic and narrative structures not to unearth a true female identity . . . , but to bring to the surface a multiplicity of women’s identities.”
In studying Thomas’s Intertidal Life and Daphne Marlatt’s Ana Historic, her interest is in the narrative aspects of a self that, like gender itself, is tenuously constituted and volatile. Rosenthal is particularly impressive in her subtle and yet succinct analyses of the language games and parodic uses of intertexts that help Thomas, in Intertidal Life, to reveal suppressed elements in the concepts of motherhood and femininity, and enable Marlatt, in Ana Historic, to destabilize traditional notions of gender by problematizing instead a lesbian identity as the “monstrous other.” Rosenthal forcefully deconstructs female stereotypes by bringing together different works by authors from diverse backgrounds. She not only draws a nuanced picture of the differences between Audrey Thomas’s ironic Bildungsroman and Daphne Marlatt’s lesbian rewriting of the female body, but also juxtaposes these historical metafictions to the very different tetralogy of the Chippewa-German- American Louise Erdrich. In contrast to the postmodern ruptures of Intertidal Life and Ana Historic, Erdrich’s four novels seem smoothly realistic until Rosenthal, focusing on the two trickster figures June and Fleur, reveals how the tetralogy is informed by a narrative tricksterism that, blending ‘reality’ with the implausibility of magic, destabilizes fixed gender-roles and such Native American stereotypes as the “Vanishing Indian.” Despite Rosenthal’s persuasive reasoning, I have some difficulty appreciating June as trickster-figure: in Fleur the author has a much stronger case. In view of the author’s subtle investigations of puns, parodies, and other linguistic and narrative games, one would have expected her to emphasize more strongly the comic side of the novels. But this is an intelligent and lucid book opening new vistas on three major contemporary writers.
The editors of Carol Shields, Narrative Hunger, and the Possibilities of Fiction also reveal in their author—mutatis mutandis—a tendency toward narrative dismantling of the unified self and a peculiar feminist fascination with the body—as well as a postmodernist preoccupation with fictional autobiography, narrative ruptures, intertextual connections, and the irony of metafictional games. This volume contains not only nine scholarly essays on Carol Shields, but also opens with a hitherto unpublished lecture and a sophisticated index, “Narrative Hunger and the Overflowing Cupboard,” by the novelist and concludes with a very competently annotated bibliography by Faye Hammill. Shields gave this lecture in 1996 at her alma mater, Hanover College (Indiana), after she had been awarded an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters. It is not surprising that the editors, Edward Eden and Dee Goertz, and some contributors are faculty members of Hanover College. But there is nothing parochial about this well organized and professional book, offering a wide range of critical views on Shields’s novels from Small Ceremonies (1976) to Larry’s Party (1997).
Shields’s lecture deals with “narrative hunger” as a basic human need, with the many stories lost because their potential writers are discouraged or illiterate, and with the responsibility of the writer to help readers relate their incomplete selves to a bewildering world. It serves as unifying inspiration for the nine essays which, in their various ways, try to show how Shields’s creative work is a series of attempts to address problems articulated or adumbrated in her Hanover College lecture. Edward Eden and Dee Goertz have arranged the essays in two sections “The ‘Precious Oxygen of Permission’: Shields’s Experiments with Narrative Form” and “To ‘Shorten the Distance between What Is Privately Felt and Universally Known’: Reaching beyond the Word.” The latter deals more with thematics such as autobiography and the body in The Stone Diaries (Chiara Briganti), “Deconstructionist Cannibalism” in Swann (Kathy Barbour) and motifs such as the maze in Larry‘s Party (Dee Goertz). The editors have done a fine job arranging the sequence of the essays, for instance, Faye Hammill’s essay on the parodic use of ‘popular romance’ in The Republic of Love is followed by Dianne Osland’s study of the ‘Burden of Romance’ and Jane Eyre (a major intertext in The Stone Diaries), preparing in turn for the discussion of the problem of fiction/fact— novel/biography/fictional autobiography in Wendy Roy’s “Autobiography as Critical Practice in The Stone Diaries” and Melissa Pope Eden’s paper on Carol Shields’s biography of Jane Austen. The cross references go beyond polite acknowledgement, to reflect the intense discussion that must have taken place among the contributors. This is a multifaceted and well structured book, that makes a substantial contribution to the study of Carol Shields.
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- Native Representation by Deanna Reder
Books reviewed: (Ad)dressing Our Words: Aboriginal Perspectives on Aboriginal Literature by Armand Garnet Ruffo, Anti-Indianism in Modern America: A Voice from Tatekeya's Earth by Elizabeth Cook-Lynn, and Native American Representations: First Encounters, Distorted Images, and Literary Appropriations by Gretchen M. Bataille
MLA: Honnighausen, Lothar. Feminist Critics on Feminist Writers. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #182 (Autumn 2004), Black Writing in Canada. (pg. 171 - 173)
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