restricted access Literature After Feminism (review)
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Reviewed by
Rita Felski. Literature After Feminism. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2003. 169 pp.

The final, simple line of Rita Felski's book pretty much sums up her main argument: "Literature after feminism is an expanded field, not a diminished one" (169). Few of us in English departments, no matter what our specific investment in feminist criticism, would be surprised at this claim; yet Felski is not writing to us, or not exactly. As she says early on, "one of my goals in this book is to talk to readers who may have taken one or more literature classes in college and want to find out how feminism has changed the way people talk about books" (21). Part of this effort involves her response to several of the more public intellectual attacks on feminism leveled by conservative literary critics who argue that feminist criticism is little more than political and ideological critique. Another part is to enter the fray within feminist criticism itself, surveying different critical perspectives and practices, tracing their development over the past several decades, and offering sometimes pointed opinions about its successes and shortcomings.

An introduction sets the stage by calling for a "double vision": "Against those conservative critics and feminist scholars who believe we have to choose between politics and art, society and literature, I argue that any decent critic cannot help but pay attention to both. Double vision means holding art and society together in the mind's eye" (22). Yet this double vision, in the best parts of Felski's book, is more multiple than double, more fluid and intersecting than binary. At heart, Felski is arguing that the best feminist criticism engages literature as a complex field that is full of surprises and risks and that often works to unsettle us rather than confirm messages and interpretations. In subsequent chapters on Readers, Authors, Plots, and Values, she assesses the varied ways in which feminist critics have engaged and altered the formal aspects of a text. Literary value is still embedded in aesthetic response, even as the formal aspects of reading and plotting may have changed.

In some sense, this seems an unlikely message to be delivered by a critic firmly entrenched in cultural studies, devoting much of her attention to nonliterary texts and sociological perspectives. As Felski says of herself, "I may look like a highly implausible candidate for the job of defending the literary value of feminist scholarship" (20). For my part, I find it a relief to hear such social critics returning to questions of aesthetics and literary value given their primary emphasis on cultural messages rather than nuanced modes of reading. Indeed, of the four chapters, I found those on Readers and Values the most successful. In surveying feminist theories of reading, for example, the shortcomings of certain schools of feminist thought are [End Page 785] acknowledged but also effectively contextualized in the history of feminist thought. Then several recent theories about reading are detailed in order to show how feminist practices of reading have "given way to much more supple and nuanced descriptions of what is going on when we pour over the pages of a book" (56). In some contrast, I found the chapters on Authors and Plots distracting because Felski's complaints about certain modes of feminist criticism seemed more testy. There is the "remarkable popularity" of Judith Butler's work, which is somewhat haughtily read as part of a "contemporary mantra of linguistic subversion" (79). The fluidity and fragmentation of identity are rendered as part of a "sexy masquerade" in Hélène Cixous (74-75) but later are heartily endorsed as part of the mestiza consciousness of Gloria Anzaldúa (87-88). Further, one might question, as I do, the literary value of "the lesbian picaresque," or wonder why there is hardly any mention of feminism and psychoanalysis in Felski's comments on the "mother-daughter plot."

The final chapter on Values returns to the tone of the initial chapter on Readers, and I left my own reading of Felski with the sense that these two chapters set the best tone for her work here. While matters of evaluation are inescapable, "thanks...