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Judi Roller. The Politics of the Feminist Novel. Westport: Greenwood, 1986. 206 pp. pb. $12.95.
Robert Boyers. Atrocity and Amnesia: The Political Novel since 1945. New York: Oxford UP, 1985. 259 pp. $24.95.

Of these two critical studies, Robert Boyers' comes from the more prestigious press and in the more expensive package. Yet for all of Oxford's fancy wrapping and Boyers' trendy title (which often has little direct connection to his main discussion), it is Greenwood's Judi Roller who impresses with her energy and critical appetite. Boyers, with a full arsenal of complicated literary arguments against the latest Yale and Paris critical fashions, frequently seems tired and meandering. Ms. Roller, however, writing from her women's group in Dayton, Ohio, connects with a dynamic critical system, feminism, and produces a series of important insights.

Ms. Roller attempts to define the feminist novel and to read twentieth-century women's fiction in terms of her definition. For her, the feminist novel contains "The Awakening," where the central female character becomes aware of society's subordination of women; the conflict between obeisance to male "Authority" and assertion of female "Autobiography"; "Portrayals of Slavery and Freedom"; and "Fragmentation versus Unity" in the heroine's life, which the author translates into "The Shattered Novel." Roller's chapters center on these themes, and within her long and detailed analyses of specific novels she often writes extremely well. She is especially astute in showing how Teresa in Judith Rossner's Looking for Mr. Goodbar, "having accepted and internalized all of society's rules for and attitudes toward women . . . has been completely cut off from other women" and inexorably moves toward her horrible, isolated fate.

Probably Ms. Roller should have used an inductive rather than a deductive approach. Instead of setting up her wide definition of the feminist novel and implying that it applies to every book in the field, she should have begun by examining a wide sample of fictions and, from her readings of those, reached a more modest and defensible definition of her genre. Her deductive method leads her to major problems of omission: she chooses to test her thesis in a lengthy analysis of Mary McCarthy's The Company She Keeps, but she ignores, without explanation, The Group and McCarthy's other potentially feminist novels. Roller writes well about Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook but pays little attention to Lessing's other apparently feminist novels. The reader wonders about the omissions: does the critic exclude them because of lack of space or because they do not fit her preordained definition? The omitted novels rattle around this book like the Madwoman in the Attic of Gubar and Gilbert's study, ever-present echoes that mar an otherwise excellent work.

The ghosts in Robert Boyers' book on the political novel are the Yale and Paris critics and, looming over all, Irving Howe. Boyers' first chapter, "Toward a Reading of Political Novels," is a defense of the political novel against a supposed deconstructionist attack. The political novel, however, has a life of its own, and most of Boyers' major texts—fictions like Solzhenitsyn's The First Circle and Graham Greene's The Quiet American—have long found large numbers of readers who know nothing and care less about the latest lit-crit fashions from New Haven, Paris, or Podunk. This is the justification for studying the political novel, and [End Page 696] Boyers' defense seems by turns odd, cranky, and too hermetic to George Steiner's literary circle and not open enough to the very texts he is praising.

After disposing of the deconstructionists, Boyers turns on Irving Howe, whose classic Politics and the Novel (1957) the younger critic finds hopelessly out-of-date: "No theory of the political novel that installs Orwell or Koestler as a representative figure is likely to know what to make of The Tin Drum or Autumn of the Patriarch." And for Boyers, Animal Farm and 1984 (published in 1945 and 1949 respectively) are no longer relevant to a discussion of the political novel since 1945, and the critic, in Minitrue style, drops them from history (maybe this is the "Atrocity...


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