Judith Fetterley in The Resisting Reader has characterized feminist criticism as "a political act whose aim is not simply to interpret the world but to change it by changing the consciousness of those who read and their relationship to what they read." Alien to Femininity is a classic example of feminist criticism as Fetterley understands it. Barr's central argument is that feminist speculative fiction, under [End Page 257] which rubric she includes "feminist utopias, science fiction, fantasy, and sword and sorcery," "can provide women with the insight, motivation, knowledge—and power—to change the world." I have two objections to her argument. In order for feminist speculative fiction to change the world, it must capture a broad audience of both male and female readers. If it fails to do so, it speaks only to believers. Books of limited interest and even more limited literary merit, such as The Swordswoman and The Golden Naginata, are a case in point. Barr's argument that such books are worthy of attention because they "constitute a challenging, feminist encroachment upon a formerly male-dominated limited popular literary form" is not convincing. Her point is political, not aesthetic. And that is my second objection to Barr's argument.
Barr's desire to unite feminist criticism and speculative fiction is problematic. All too often the genre seems to bring out the worst in feminist criticism—inspiring undisciplined, hysterically ideological, and intellectually compromised readings. Barr's explicit acknowledgment that her valuation of these texts is political rather than aesthetic preserves her intellectual integrity and contributes to making Alien to Femininity an exception to the general trend (her critical apparatus is also notably superior). For example, her claim that The Swordswoman is "improved by its implicit feminism" and "its feminist stance is its most important characteristic" is defensible in a way that a claim for the aesthetic or literary value of the book would not be. However, her argument that this book is capable of "convey[ing] new insights to readers of popular literature who are unacquainted with feminist theory" is only valid if the text doesn't put them to sleep before it converts them to feminism.
Because Barr does conflate politics and aesthetics, her enthusiasm for her cause sometimes betrays her into specious judgments that undermine her credibility as a literary critic: "The female authors who create fully human, autonomous, nurturing swordswomen are also better than misogynistic male sword and sorcery writers who create female victims and sex objects." I disagree. These authors may be better people, but they are most assuredly not better writers. The Swordswoman may have a clear moral advantage over Slave Girl of Gor, but the artistic merit of the two books is, in my opinion, indistinguishable.
Barr and I seem to be on the same side of opposite arguments. She extols mediocre literature in the hope that even mediocrity will spread the word and image of feminism. I deplore mediocrity because I believe that such mediocrity, and critical notice of it, works counter to feminist goals. Feminist novels cannot afford to be third-rate; feminist critics cannot afford to be shrill, or ridiculous, or bad. When a man writes sloppy, illogical, or myopically ideological criticism, no one uses his stupidity to dismiss male critics in general. Women do not yet have that privilege.
Patricia Warrick's critical approach is personal rather than ideological, and if the book is read as she herself suggests in the conclusion of Mind in Motion "as a song about the valor of Philip K. Dick," it is a success. As a critical study of Dick's fiction, however, Mind in Motion leaves much to be desired. In the first place it is not the close study of Dick's fiction that Warrick clearly might have written, a study that I think his work deserves. Secondly, the book fails to place Dick's novels within the context of the appropriate literary tradition...