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Reviewed by:
  • Michael Thurston
Constance Coiner. Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSueur. New York: Oxford UP, 1995. xii + 282 pp.

Constance Coiner's Better Red: The Writing and Resistance of Tillie Olsen and Meridel LeSueur is a much-needed book. While the reportage, poetry, and fiction of these two vitally important women writers on the Left has received scattered critical attention in the last decade or so, sustained study has gone largely undone. Consociating Olsen's and LeSueur's biographies, the context of the American literary Left in which both women wrote (and against which they often struggled), and the most important writings of each, Coiner makes an important contribution to the current reexamination of American literary culture during the 1930s. And yet, the argument that shapes both Coiner's textual analyses and her book as a whole hobbles that reexamination. In her insistence on a limiting critical method, Coiner relapses into all too familiar superficial attacks on the Communist Party of the United States and the literary Left associated with it.

Coiner elaborates a Bakhtinian method for reading Olsen and LeSueur and through her readings shows how the writing and resistance of her title involve the vexed creation of collectively voiced literary forms. Each writer, in this account, spends the early part of her career replicating the antithetical representation and monological rhetoric of proletarian reportage. The Communist Party and its critics, especially Michael Gold and Granville Hicks, are made indirectly responsible for this; the sexism and literary polemics of each are trotted out in the first two chapters as a backdrop for the work of Olsen and LeSueur. The Party's aesthetic and sexual diktats, though, spur both writers to leave such work behind and experiment with plots and forms more suitable for exploring the specific costs capitalism exacts from women. In their experiments, Olsen and LeSueur both supersede antithesis; both incorporate other voices and perspectives into their narratives, thereby becoming better feminists and stronger writers. Coiner's approach yields some wonderful results. Her reading of Olsen's Yonnondio is the best I've seen, as Coiner teases out the novel's simultaneous deployment and subversion of tropes common in proletarian realism. Coiner's attention to the narrative interpolations, four [End Page 844] estranging and didactic interruptions of the novel's coherence, is especially rewarding. The passages explicitly theorize novelistic practice and its political valences and Coiner quite effectively analyzes them in relation to the literary climate on the Left and to Olsen's growing divergence from its dominant trends.

Too often, though, Bakhtin is wielded clumsily. Where his deft use helps us to see how the narrative strategies of each writer interpellate a collective readership and offer a multivoiced response to the exigencies of the moment, his less subtle implementation impoverishes our understanding not only of individual texts but of how texts do cultural work. In her discussion of LeSueur's The Girl, for example, Coiner bristles at the triumphant ending and reads the moment as LeSueur's backslide into proletcult polemic. Coiner's method and her overly strict terms for evaluating a text's success deprive her of a way to read the novel's ending as engaged with its historical moment, with a specific audience's agenda, with all the things that matter when a writer intervenes in the hegemonic struggle of her time. There are more ways to elicit a collective response or to evoke a collective perception than the cultivation of heteroglossia, and Coiner's analyses need to acknowledge this.

The mechanical character of some readings is also evident in the book's structure. In preliminary chapters we are given overviews of the 30s literary Left and of the role and representation of women in the Party. Coiner then treats the authors one by one, moving from biography to readings of reportage, to discussions of poems and fiction. Each set of chapters also moves from monologic rhetoric to forms that challenge it so that, by the second Olsen chapter, I felt I had heard this story already. Coiner's argument would have been better served by a more complex organization, one that allowed her to combine the contextual...

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