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Are Girls Necessary? Lesbian Writing and Modern Histories has a brilliant title, one brilliant premise, and at least one brilliant reading. If its second premise and some of its readings fall short of this standard, it nevertheless takes lesbian criticism in insightful and provocative directions. Lapses in clarity, inconsistencies, and occasional gaps in evidence frustrate the reader because the book promises so much and so often delivers.
Are Girls Necessary? takes its brilliant title from a passage in Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, when “the spirit of the age” wonders whether the Egyptian girls Orlando writes about really need to be included. Discovering that Orlando is married, the spirit lets the girls stand. Julie Abraham uses this passage to suggest what she calls the “‘failures’ of interpretation” that allow girls—lesbian writing and writers—to stand as long as they are “neutralized,” hedged, contained, or misdefined by [End Page 1064] heterosexist assumptions—like Orlando itself, which has only recently been read as a lesbian text even though its subject is Woolf’s lover.
Focusing on Willa Cather, Mary Renault, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf—modernist writers born too soon for post-Stonewall affirmation—Abraham analyzes the “subtle but discernible traces of . . . writers’ literary positions,” confining herself to the texts themselves rather than to these writers’ lives or their cultural milieus. Deliberately rejecting the possibility of defining “lesbian writer,” Abraham finesses the question of what constitutes “lesbian writing” by concentrating on the work of what we might call “known lesbians,” writers who have been persuasively claimed for a lesbian canon (while I have my own doubts about the totalizing category of “lesbian identity,” I will follow Abraham’s usage throughout this review).
The book’s brilliant premise is that the lesbian novel has come to stand for all lesbian writing, narrowing attention to the treatment of lesbian relationships and obscuring other textual manifestations of lesbianism. Held in the thrall of heterosexual plotting, these novels present a limited, derivative version of lesbianism. Noting that gap between the number of lesbian novels and the number of lesbian writers, Abraham argues that the valorizing of the lesbian novel amounts to a silencing of lesbian writers, a refusal to count their work as lesbian unless it recounts the all too familiar erotic plot.
Abraham’s second premise is equally promising, although it is worked out much less clearly: lesbian writers turned to history as an alternative to heterosexual plotting. This discussion invokes several different definitions of history, each with its own implications for the lesbian writer, but Abraham does not systematically distinguish among them. History is sometimes the past, and sometimes the stories of political and military life that dominate old-style textbooks; sometimes it appears in quotation marks, sometimes not; in some forms it enables lesbian writing; in others, it excludes lesbians. Different definitions move on- and offstage without warning or explanation, creating confusion and sometimes apparent contradiction (on one page, “history offered a structural refuge from the heterosexual imperative”; on the next, “Unfortunately, history did not offer any substantial solution to the limits imposed by the heterosexual plot on the narrative representation of lesbian”). [End Page 1065]
One senses that Abraham has not fully come to terms with this complex category. Why should “History as a subject [free] an author from the necessity of establishing personal relationships among her characters or of focusing on a single protagonist”? Cather’s Nebraska novels, offered as examples, certainly do establish personal relationships among the characters and often do focus on a single protagonist, as the title My Antonía suggests; they are populated by other compelling characters, of course, but what novel is not? In her eagerness to escape the claustrophobia of the love story, Abraham seems to have temporarily adopted a simplistic public/private polarity and to have overlooked Cather’s interweaving of broad historical change and human ties, romantic and otherwise.
The turn to history works best for novels that foreground the relationship between lesbian writers and the writing of history. In her brilliant reading of Woolf’s Between...