BOOK REVIEWS (2013): Josephine Donovan et al.’s (1975) Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory (Updated Second Edition, 1989)

27 November 2013


Going back to earlier texts of feminist literary criticism (from the 1970s) brings back to that practice a breath of fresh air, a revitalizing spirit, and a sword for the knot of Gordian of cooptation that has in many places since happened to that practice.


Last year in 2012, I set myself the task to read at least ten pages per day, and now I’m not sure if I kept up. I have the same task this year, and I’ve added that I will write a book reaction (or reply) for each one that I finish (or give up on, if I stop). These will not be Amazon-type reviews, with synopses, background research done on the author or the book itself, unless that strikes me as necessary or if the book inspired me to provide one when I read it. In general, these amount to assessments of in what ways I found the book helpful somehow.

I may say stupid stuff, poorly informed stuff. There are some in the world who expect everyone to be omniscient and can’t be bothered to engage in a human dialogue toward figuring out how to make the world a better place. To the extent that each reply I offer provides a here’s what I found helpful about this, then it becomes up to us (you, me, us) to correct, refine, trash and start over, this or whatever we see as potentially helpful toward making the world a better place. If you won’t bother to take up your end of that bargain, that signals of course part of the problem that needs a solution.

A Reply To:  Josephine Donovan et al.’s (1975)[1] Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory (Updated Second Edition, 1989)

This book represented, in 1975, the “first major book of feminist critical theory published in the United States,” here adding in its updated second edition, from 1989, a new introductory essay and updated critical bibliography to the original five essays.

If it didn’t seem to need saying, then I wouldn’t emphasize the obvious gap or disparity between the (still-current) populist caricature of the feminist—I won’t repeat the stereotype—and the quality of what, in light of that caricature, might seem like “reasonableness” in the discourse of these essays.  It seems a credit (or irony or both) to feminists that they could have so quickly articulated a new stereotypical image (in Occidental culture) given that a significant early area of feminist research involved stereotypes of women.

One finds in these texts, sometimes in detail, sometimes in kernel, issues that present-day third-wave feminism (when it remains actually feminism) seems sometimes to as if like it only recently discovered the topic. Register’s (1975)[2] “American Feminist Literary Criticism: A Bibliographical Introduction” lucidly outlines many of these points.  And also (or perhaps “but also”) because this text, though comparatively brief, sets out to delineate some of the main lines of a potential future feminist literary criticism, the topics sty generally at a high level of abstraction, which I find a merit of the book, especially in Heilbrun and Stimpson’s (1975)[3] literally dialogic exchange about the characteristics, qualities, or aims of a desirable feminist literary critical practice. Speaking on behalf of the most capacious scope or reach of literature, that touches on the genuinely human condition and does not remain stuck in any mere societal fact (arising out of limited notions of gender), one speaker in the dialogue[4] notes, “There are virtues that come only with strength and power” (66). Contextually, this occurs to distinguish (and in a way defend) the notion of “disinteredness” as far as one’s criticism goes, but this virtue arises only for those critics (historically speaking, the male critics) who had to, or ought to have, exercised such disinteredness when critically appraising literature. From a position not of strength and power, such disinteredness becomes dangerous, if not undesirable—it becomes, by consequence, “submissiveness” (the choice of word is mine, not the authors’). We have here an argument for the necessity of interestedness (or non-disinterestedness) in the service of a criticism that speaks from the margins, or (more precisely) not from the cultural position of strength and power.[5]

What one finds in these essays most consistently missing from more recent feminist criticism (and pseudofeminist criticism, of course) involves its overly committed political consciousness, which in the caricatured version of the case would call it a Marxist analysis.[6]. By “Marxist,” I mean nothing more or necessarily more specific than the critic’s awareness of political economy, in the old sense of the word. I tend to believe, that just as we ought to cut out root and branch the ithyphallic patriarchy of Freud[7] and Lévi-Strauss from intellectual discourse, I expect that Marx must go as well on similar grounds—in order that something more wholesome, like an authentically full-blown feminism (perhaps an ecofeminism)—may replace them. Multiple authors in this collection refer to the need to re-visit and re-appraise the terms of the human condition as they have historically gotten framed through a male-only lens.

Yaeger (1991)[8] begins her afterword to Bauer and McKinstry’s (1991) Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic by noting:

It’s sexy these days to talk about silence. We like to celebrate the unspoken, the unsaid, the unsayable. To cozy up to the abyss, the lacuna, the rupture, the mise en abyme. We are in love with the aporia, the differand, the unknowable, the nonsymbolizable: these phantasms, these negativities, these slim deliriums have become our textual goddesses, our political deities (239).

This does not seem to deliberately echo back to Feminist Literary Criticism, of course, but it seems to connected nonetheless. In Donovan’s (1986)[9] Introduction to the second edition, she notes:

In the negative mode, the feminist critic observes the text’s absences, gaps, and omissions as well as the reified, destructive forms that are inscribed therein: s/he relates the text critically to the ideological context (patriarchy). Here it must be specified that feminist criticism, unlike “vulgar Marxism,” need not see a one-to-one mimetic or cause-effect relationship between ideology and text: often, as Pierre Macherey [1966][10] has pointed out, the text is positioned in contradiction to its ideological context. “A work is established against an ideology as much as it is from an ideology” (xvii)

Donovan, of course, complements this negative mode with a positive mode, and this further illuminates the state of affairs noted by Yaeger—the introduction and Yaeger’ essay were published more or less at the same time—where the overemphasis on gaps and absences has inserted itself unbudgably into critical (or, rather, often anti-critical) discourse. Thus, from Donovan, we might distinguish feminist literary criticism from “vulgar postmodernism” as well, which insists on asserting a none-to-none mimetic or cause-effect relationship between ideology and text. This provides another breath of fresh air moment, where feminism does not yet find itself embattled against a covert (sometimes overt) reactionary array of commentators.

I draw attention, along with Yeager, to this because the sort of range of absences that she helpfully describes differ materially from the absences Donovan identifies. Donovan specifically identifies the paired twins: non-representation and stereotyping. Only to fret (or celebrate) non-representation, as Yaeger rightly objects to, leaves the absence represented by stereotyping out of the picture—more precisely, it denies stereotyping even has come into play when the representation of an Other or subaltern gets into a text (if at all). A stereotype (of a person of color or a woman, if not both) comes to masquerade(almost instantaneously) as a non-representation of an unknowability, which (for all the pseudo-complexity this seems to involve) merely recapitulates the erasure of persons all over again, but this time under a sort of theoretically complimenting fiction:  nothing can represent you (rather than the old racist/sexist saw: we simply won’t represent you).

This all brings into sharp relief the relationship with so called race-blind or color-blind policies, and no surprise, since the non-representation and stereotyping of women (in cultural productions) obeys the same logic as non-representational and stereotyping of people of color. It makes clear that colorblindness actually involves a form of seeing, not a kind of blindness. As poet-philosopher Aare Aakita puts it, if as yet still incompletely:

i am not white
but days i
try to fit in
side this col
orbox on forms
& blank white
sheets in folks eyes
i grow pale

life is not they
say all black
& white but grades
of shady grey
but say I
see one shade of
black and fifty
shades of white

if I’m not white
I’m what. what
grey shade I? Greek
olive high
pink yellow, beige,
auburn burnt
sage orange, or light

a million wo
men swimming
churn the scarlet
sea foam and
the longer grinds
the more handsome
it becomes

and if we’d search,
could any
pot of ivory
coal at the
zebra rainbow’s
end be seen
or waves only
of white noise?

cannot see
either either
or the green sea
or autumn’s

wolf gray fur, the
dove’s wing, a
fog’s heartbreaking
distance, or
bruised clouds—all these
were lost with
Oz’s techni
color wash?

as our man-made
grays betray
so black & white
aren’t color
less besides, and
still I feel
my vision cloud
ing over


[1] Donovan, J. (1989). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory. 2nd ed. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, pp. i–xxi, 1–90.

[2] Register, C. (1975). American feminist literary criticism: a bibliographical introduction. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 1–28. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[3] Heilbrun, C, & Stimpson, C. (1975). Theories of feministic criticism: a dialogue. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 61–73. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[4] Unless I have missed something, the authors do not indicate how speaker X and speaker Y in the dialogue correlate to Heilbrun and Stimpson.

[5] The idea that certain virtues come only with a precondition has its echo in Wilde’s remark that some temptations take great strength to give into. But outside the domain of witty (and accurate) remarks, virtue that experiences no ordeal does not seem truly to warrant the name. Those who “resist” the temptation to drink who have no strong compulsion may facilely, with Nancy Reagan, say, “Just say no.” Although, just to continue the historical strand of this discourse further, Aristotle did not reckon the brave man (hence also not the virtuous man) the one who overcame his fear (who resisted temptation). The virtuous man—presumably the virtuous human being—deserves the name who never experiences the temptation in the first place. If so, perhaps we have little patience or sympathy for the virtuous being any longer, preferring rather the act of resistance as a sign of valor or moral worthiness instead.

[6] One finds very little card-carrying Marxism here compared to the other collection of feminist essays I read recently (see here). I like Marxist critiques generally, but when one takes them up they become problematic given how the imputation of even a whiff of it tends to get one branded and dismissed out of hand in US culture. Nor do I suggest that this text goes out of its way to avoid references to Marxism: in the introduction (admittedly to the second edition), Donovan specifically cites Solomon’s Marxism and Art, Angela Davis, and Jameson’s Marxism and Form. She references also how one essayist “cites approvingly Marxist critic Georg Lukács’s assertion that ‘every true artist … is instinctively an enemy of [reification]” (xvi). But it remains clear, however helpful a Marxist analysis proves, a feminist analysis remains at least something distinguishable from it, especially in how criticism as “a ‘process of constructing meaning’ (36)* points to ‘the very real radicalism’ of feminist criticism’s rejection of ‘masculinist’ ideology (35)” (xvi, emphasis in original).

*Donovan cites Schumacher’s (1975) essay: Schumacher, D. (1975).  Subjectivities: a theory of critical perspective. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. 29–37. Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky.

[7] And Lacan and their dependents, female-bodied or otherwise.

[8] Yaeger, P. (1991). Afterward. In DM Bauer & SJ McKinstry (eds.). Feminism, Bakhtin, and the dialogic, pp. 239–45. Albany: State University of New York Press.

[9] Donovan, J. (1989). Introduction to the second edition: radical feminist criticism. In J. Donovan (ed.). Feminist literary criticism: explorations in theory (2nd ed.), pp. ix–xxi. Lexington, KY.: University Press of Kentucky.

[10] Macherey, P. (1966). A theory of literary production (trans. Geoffrey Wall). London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


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