Joan Didion, Feminist

From left: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Cynthia Ozick, Joan Didion.

From left: Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Cynthia Ozick, Joan Didion.

In the Times Sunday Book Review, Katie Roiphe (author, journalist, contributer to the Slate Audio Book Club) has written a perceptive review of Elaine Showalter’s new book on women writers in America. Called “A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx,” Roiphe has a deeply nuanced opinion:

Though she refers to “A Jury of Her Peers” as literary history, Showalter is less attentive to artistic merit, to what separates good fiction from bad, than to cultural significance; she is less concerned with the nuances of style or art than with the political ramifications of a book, or the spirited or adventurous behavior of its lady characters. She is not interested in whether the writers she discusses are good, or in the question of how their best writing works, but in whether they are exploring feminist themes. And so she ends up rooting through novels and poems for messages and meanings about women’s position in society, for plots that criticize domesticity or that expound on the narrowness of women’s lives. (She once coined the term “gynocritic” for critics freed “from the linear absolutes of male literary history.”) This exploration of subversive plots and spunky heroines is fruitful from a purely historical point of view, but it doesn’t always feel like literary criticism at its most sophisticated. One thinks of Joan Didion’s line about feminists: “That fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology.”

Read the rest…

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