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  • (En)gendering Metafiction:Doris Lessing's Rehearsals for The Golden Notebook

Metafiction—fiction that is in some overt way about fiction—is one of the few literary genres that has managed to provoke and sustain controversy throughout its history.1 Not merely individual works of metafiction, but metafiction itself is regularly stigmatized or applauded as "subversive," to the point where subversion might be called its defining feature. But the subversion presumed to be inherent in the form is equivocal, on one hand implying an undermining of authority cogenial to, if not identical with, political radicalism, and on the other hand suggesting a preoccupation with formal features of the text that would seem to subsume politics to a sort of latter-day aestheticism. For example, in a recent review article addressing the overlapping concerns of metafiction and feminism, Linda Hutcheon characterizes metafiction by its "subversion of the stability of point of view" and aligns this "subversion" with the disintegration of the bourgeois, patriarchal subject ("Subject" 80). But because the books that she chooses to illustrate this point are all by men, her argument tends to suggest that feminism is so purely a product of literary language that it is restricted to the domain of representation. To be sure, her subject is precisely "the relation of noncoincidence between [End Page 481] the discursive construct of 'woman' and the historical subjects called 'women,' " but the "historical subjects called 'women' " with whom she in fact deals are discursive constructs produced by male authors (83).

If Hutcheon's attempt to bring metafiction and feminism together is part of a long tradition of attempts to politicize experimental writing, to give the adjective "subversive" more than formalist significance, it is also part of a more recent tendency among feminist theorists to look for a critical practice that will evade essentializing appeals to "female experience" as if such experience transcended the shaping and informing of culture and language. Metafiction seems an important kind of writing for this project because in its more radical manifestations it is not only fiction about fiction but fiction that makes the whole notion of "about" problematic, so that the relations between frame and embedded stories—between dominant and subordinate, container and contained—become slippery, unstable, even liable to reverse themselves. Clearly these same relations between dominant and subordinate, container and contained, are essential to the construction of gender categories as well as to the construction of coherent traditional narratives, inasmuch as the conventionally masculine subsumes and circumscribes the conventionally feminine. Because feminism has a political stake in the undoing of hierarchy and containment, writing commonly described in terms of its subversive newness, as avant-garde or postmodern writing, can also be described in terms of its subversive political implications, as feminist or "feminine" writing.2 One ironic consequence, however, is that the "feminine" and indeed the feminism thus derived has no necessary connection with women and certainly not with women as points of origin, as authors. The most poignant illustration of the irony might be in the early work of Hélène Cixous, in which the two great "feminine writers" are Jean Genet and James Joyce.3

Feminist critics who are interested both in writing by women and in new kinds of writing are thus confronted with a notion of metafiction that seems to have everything to do with feminism and nothing to do with women. Justifications have even been advanced for this apparent phenomenon: women have "too much to say" to fool around with structural niceties; they write about things, they don't just write. Of course, this claim assumes what experimental writers are most concerned to dispute: that there is something like a "natural" mode of writing that [End Page 482] does not involve stylistic choices in the way that experimental writing does, a "writing about" in which language is transparent in the service of subject matter. And paradoxically, it tends to turn women into the great upholders of tradition, and particularly of traditional notions of hegemony, even when their political orientation is feminist. The notion that women write "straight" whereas men engage in stylistic and structural innovation has tended to make "women's writing" synonymous with...

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