restricted access No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Volume 1: The War of the Words, and: Women Reading Women's Writing (review)
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Reviewed by
Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. Volume 1: The War of the Words. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988. 320 pp. No price given.
Sue Roe, ed. Women Reading Women's Writing. New York: St. Martin's, 1988. 304 pp. $32.50.

The publicity sheet accompanying the review copy of No Man's Land quotes Joyce Carol Oates, Carolyn Heilbrun, Elaine Showalter, and J. Hillis Miller in fulsome praise of Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's sequel to The Madwoman in the Attic. Oates calls No Man's Land "fast, funny, profound in its theoretical assertions, and deliriously irreverent in its asides." Heilbrun finds it "exciting and groundbreaking." Showalter extols the "ambitious range, scholarly passion, and intellectual panache" of the authors. Miller (the token male?) credits Gilbert and Gubar with rewriting "the history of modernism." These comments have, of course, been taken out of context, selected from, we must assume, longer, more detailed prepublication reviews, and we must grant the possibility that these prestigious critics might have tempered their praise at some point in a longer assessment of the work. That said, I must beg to differ with these worthies.

Not that I disagree entirely. I too find No Man's Land "fast" and "funny"; but "fast and loose" more accurately describes the book's theoretical assertions. In fact, my major objection to this book is that it lacks a solid theoretical basis; it leaves too many assumptions unexamined, too many terms undefined. The omnipresent puns and self-conscious word play are precious and intrusive, contributing neither insight into the texts engaged nor a healthy sense of ironic balance to the argument. The range is certainly "ambitious," but there is no depth of perception or analysis to match. On one level Miller's assertion that Gilbert and Gubar "rewrite the history of modernism" is entirely accurate; how accurately they rewrite it is another question altogether.

A quick look at Chapter Five, "Sexual Linguistics: Women's Sentence, Men's Sentencing," will help to bring some of my objections into focus. This chapter attempts "to integrate the divergent forces of power, language, and meaning" by examining the "relationship between sexual difference and the symbolic contract in an effort to trace the permutations of the modern battle over language and secondarily to place recent ideas about sexual linguistics in a larger historical context." ("Symbolic contract" is Julia Kristeva's term. According to Kristeva, "Sexual difference . . . is translated by and translates a difference in the relationship [End Page 747] of subjects to the symbolic contract which is the social contract. . . .") Precisely what this shadowy, pseudolinguistic relationship might actually signify is unclear, unless Gilbert and Gubar's assertion that "from Fielding's Mrs. Slipslop to Sheridan's Mrs. Malaprop, such verbose creatures dramatize the idea that the more pretensions women have to learning the less they know" might be considered a concrete example. The problem is that the same "linguistic anatomy" might just as well be applied to a number of male characters. Such an application in no way denies the possibility of an undercurrent of misogyny in these female characterizations; it does, however, call into question the validity of Gilbert and Gubar's rather one-sided theories of sexual linguistics. The more serious problem for me is that buried under the puns, the jargon, and the theoretical deadwood are two excellent critics who are wasting their time being shop-front feminists. Simplifying and politicizing intellectual and literary history is not rewriting it. And simplification often fails to confront the most damaging, because least obvious, dangers of patriarchy. They can do better—and have.

Women Reading Women's Writing, on the other hand, embodies a "discreet dissatisfaction widi the whole notion of 'feminist theory.'" In her Introduction to this "collection of new criticism by women," Sue Roe points out that "feminism is not, in or of itself, a system or methodology" and argues that "there is an important distinction to be made, always, between a literary text as expressive of social, historical or political issues, and any other kind of documentation" of these issues. The individual essays...