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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.4 (2001) 986-994

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What's Contemporary about Contemporary Women's Fiction?

Sally Robinson

Sarah Sceats. Food, Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women's Fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000. 213 pp.

Lucie Armitt. Contemporary Women's Fiction and the Fantastic. New York: St. Martin's, 2000. 257 pp.

The category contemporary women's fiction began appearing in book and article titles with some regularity in the mid-1980s and marked a feminist critical enthusiasm for the idea that women's fiction was somehow different from contemporary or postmodern fiction written by men. Gender became the main topic of discussion, and women's fiction was understood as a genre of feminist discourse according to the many critics who read in women's novels an analogue to the conversations occurring within academia. A substantial proportion of this work has read women's writing as, on the one hand, subversive of the male tradition, and, on the other, as a source of knowledge about female identity. Such work--often influenced by narrative, poststructuralist, and/or psychoanalytical theory--has made the argument that women's writing is different [End Page 986] and that this difference points to social and material realities outside of the text.

Yet, if recent developments in feminist theory have prompted scholars to question the self-evidence of the term women, recent work in cultural studies might also prompt us to question the meaning of contemporary. With the rise of interdisciplinary cultural studies, new historicism, and genealogical criticism (à la Foucault), the kind of questions scholars ask about literary texts has broadened in ways that more fully embrace the concept of the contemporary than those books published in the late eighties and early nineties. Rather than reading fiction as the privileged locus of female subjectivity, for instance, work in contemporary cultural studies has reinvigorated literary studies, making it possible to ask larger questions of literary production in its specific historical and cultural contexts. Sarah Sceats's Food, Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women's Fiction is typical in its use of women's fiction as a barometer of cultural anxieties, while Lucie Armitt's Contemporary Women's Fiction and the Fantastic appears to harken back to the eighties model of using a wide variety of theoretical texts to illuminate fictional ones. Yet both of these books seem oddly out of tune with the contemporary critical and theoretical landscape in that they are both, essentially, thematic studies of women's fiction that utilize close readings to argue that food and fantastic tropes, respectively, generate insights about female identity in women's fiction. While taking on a large number of contemporary social and cultural problematics, these books step back from the social and historical contexts in which the novels they consider were produced and, in so doing, avoid making larger claims about how women's fiction participates in the elaboration of the "contemporary."

Sceats's Food, Consumption and the Body in Contemporary Women's Fiction joins a rapidly growing interdisciplinary inquiry into a topic of compelling contemporary interest. Organized around close readings of individual texts, the book makes few large claims about why food and eating practices are particularly important in women's fiction in the late-twentieth century, or how these novels illuminate larger cultural questions about gender and consumption. Sceats focuses on five contemporary women writers whose work evidences a persistent interest in food, eating practices, and the problematics of female embodiment in commodity or consumer culture. The three main figures here are Doris [End Page 987] Lessing, Angela Carter, and Margaret Atwood; less attention is devoted to Alice Thomas Ellis and Michele Roberts and several other writers are mentioned quite briefly. Sceats offers only a vague explanation of why she has chosen these writers (they're concerned "with contemporary history, society and politics [in its broadest sense], especially women's roles and experience" [3]), but it seems clear that these writers compel her because they have each written multiple novels exhibiting some level of interest in food, consumption, and the female body. Although all of...


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