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Reviewed by:
Elaine Neil Orr. Subject to Negotiation: Reading Feminist Criticism and American Women’s Fictions. Charlottesville: UP of Virginia, 1997. xvii + 252 pp.

Elaine Neil Orr might concur with a description of her critical exploration of “negotiation” as bricolage. Drawing on an eclectic mix of feminist (and other) theorists to establish common ground—for example, Elizabeth Meese and Gayatri Spivak, Catherine MacKinnon, and Sara Ruddick—Orr endeavors to embrace both theory and practice: negotiation stands for both a poetics of feminist reading and a politics of feminist action. The best method for bridging differences among feminists is, as she proposes, a kind of “shuttle diplomacy” between margins and center, white and black, and numerous other binaries that too often construct arguments in oppositional terms.

Arguing that “third-stage feminism” needs an interpretive model that is roomy and “impure” enough to encompass both consensus and disagreement, Orr employs the term “negotiation” to promote a critical approach as well as a process of “working between authorities, histories, and disciplines, where sides are not equal but neither are they simply opposed. Instead, a subject makes use of conflicting and imperfect cultural fields through simultaneous acts of discrimination and new conjunction.” Occasionally, the key term is invoked rather awkwardly, as when Orr echoes the phrase from Lillian Robinson’s groundbreaking essay, “treason our text,” with the grammatically jarring expression, “negotiation our text.”

Establishing a number of fertile contexts for negotiation, including elements of her own personal biography as a woman raised in Nigeria by American parents and a feminist academic in midcareer, Orr [End Page 410] offers readings of Wharton’s House of Mirth, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Welty’s The Optimist’s Daughter, Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time to demonstrate the authors’ (and their female characters’) relations to both dominant and subordinate cultural discourses. “Go-between” characters such as Wharton’s Lily Bart and plots that shuttle between realistic and utopian spaces such as Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time function as examples of negotiating fictions.

Some of Orr’s readings are more persuasive than others. Proposing that, in House of Mirth, “friendship is [Wharton’s] objective correlative for gender arrangements in which one would be allowed to retain some ties to the status quo while experimenting with new femininities, new masculinities,” Orr interestingly argues that Lily Bart (and Wharton herself) mediates the dominant social expectations of her era regarding relationships established according to “sexual and monetary arrangements.” She reads the novel’s frequent “threshold” and “doorway” scenes as liminal spaces in which Lily symbolically occupies a “negotiating” position between the restrictive options of “separation or subversion.”

The chapter on Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is also illuminating. Focusing on Phoeby—the friend to whom Janie Crawford retrospectively tells her story and through whom the reader hears it—Orr highlights her pivotal negotiating role in the text. Moreover, Phoeby’s position may be understood as a model for fruitful negotiation across racial and gender differences within feminist criticism. Yet I question whether Phoeby’s “mulatto rice” can bear the weight of meaning Orr assigns it as “a complex and contradictory sign of negotiated relations among multicolored audiences, physical and spiritual demands, history and opportunity.”

Similarly, in her discussion of The Optimist’s Daughter, Orr asks us to regard Laurel McKelva Hand as bisexual, less in the literal than the symbolic sense: as a mediator who actively negotiates the complementary legacies (patriarchal, matriarchal) of her dead parents. Orr reads Welty not only as a feminist—“Laurel is the character of Welty’s feminist writing [representing] . . . a feminist relation between the author, her text, and her reader”—but as a practitioner of l’écriture feminine. I am not convinced by such assertions as “The image of the absent key [to Laurel’s mother’s desk] . . . [prepares] the reader for the extended [End Page 411] metaphor of door as vulva, desk as womb. . . . Here the daughter reads the sexual/textual body of her mother, touching—by analogy—her own female organ.”

A problem of a different order weakens the chapter on Morrison’s Song of Solomon. While...

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pp. 410-412
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