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Extending feminist literary criticism beyond the study of the effect of masculine bias on women, Peter Schwenger's Phallic Critiques examines literature produced by the School of Virility in order to study the effects of masculine biases on the men who possess them. According to Schwenger, rather than being a backlash against feminist criticism, his book is instead a logical extension of it. His intent is to study the interface of sexuality and literary style; he asserts masculinity as an arbitrary role and examines the benefits and the costs that accrue to those who embrace it. His explicit assumption is that studying the effects of masculine bias on males will "teach us something of value, something about both men and women alike."
His thesis is essentially that modern man is distinguished from his forefathers by the fact that masculinity can no longer be assumed but instead must be a self-conscious assertion, and that this new self-consciousness has created an "anxiety of authorship" quite as debilitating as the anxiety attributed to women writers of the past. Taking as a starting point Virginia Woolf's observation that consciousness of sex inhibits writing, he looks at the contradictions that emerge from a group of novels, seeing in them indications or manifestations of the contractions within the masculine role itself.
All of the authors in Schwenger's study, if not obsessed with the concept of manhood, devote at least one book to the study of it and, according to Schwenger, work out on paper "their responses to the adjustment called for by their historical situation." At the same time, the authors aspire to live what they perceive as the ideal masculine role; in other words, they "write their manhood." But ultimately, Schwenger shows, "fully to write one's manhood would be to write one's death," and in so showing, he elaborates the destructiveness inherent in the cult of masculinity celebrated by his authors.
Of the eight chapters, five are devoted to studies of single authors: Mailer, Hemingway, Yukio Mishima, Robert Kroetsch, and Alfred Jarry. The other three are thematic explorations, one devoted to the representation of the penis in art, another to the exploration of initiation rites, and the third to the relationship between truth, masculinity, and death. Authors included in these chapters are D. H. Lawrence, Philip Roth, Alberto Moravia, William Gass, Joyce, Faulkner, Hemingway, Mailer, James Dickey, Robert F. Jones, Michel Leiris, and, his one surprising and inexplicable departure from his strictly masculine perspective, Doris Lessing.
The organization of the book is somewhat problematic; it is too obviously a compilation of essays written at various times for various purposes, and, although the essays often comment upon and expand on each other, overall unity is missing. The four-page Afterword does little to draw the chapters together [End Page 467] into a satisfying whole. More troublesome, however, is Schwenger's attempt to define a characteristically masculine style of writing. Though acknowledging that questions of style cannot be discussed outside of a consideration of content, ultimately, he abandons matters of style altogether and concentrates entirely on subject matter. He accepts too readily easy conclusions about style such as males rely heavily on slang and obscenity; they often "bite off" their sentences into fragments; they shun "literariness" of language; and they eschew "soft" words, such as "lovely," or "delightful." Although he ostensibly takes up Annette Kolodney's challenge that "if we insist on discovering something we can clearly label as a 'feminine mode' then we are honor-bound, also, to delineate its counterpart, the 'masculine mode,' " Schwenger has as little luck as those who have searched through women's writing for a distinctive style. We are left, finally, with the conclusion still that the difference is one of choice of subject matter and authorial stance toward that subject matter.
Despite these problems, the book is an important one. Although he promises more than he gives...