Although jacket assessments often prove unreliable even for the best books, the one for Jennifer Breen's In Her Own Write startles the reader with an insulting claim. It asserts "Jennifer Breen's readable account tells you all you have ever wanted to know about women's fiction this century." It is particularly amazing that Breen was supposedly able to accomplish this feat in a mere 125 pages of text. Unfortunately, Breen's own introduction does little to counterbalance the boastful flap; rather it further undermines the reader's confidence in this study. In the first few pages the author reveals an uncertainty of voice that reflects an equal uncertainty of goals, methods, and audience and that seriously mars the entire project.
Breen specifies her promising objective as "to discover subversive meanings in underrated women's novels by reading this fiction in the light of theories about patriarchy, the unconscious, and gaps and silences in texts." This use of critical jargon implies that her analysis will utilize recent critical theory, but Breen quickly assures the perhaps theory-leery reader "I am not ditching the old tried and trousered methods of literary criticism such as analysing characterisation." [End Page 364] "Trousered" seems an especially inappropriate word choice for describing feminist methods of interpreting literature. At a later point in her analysis, Breen further undercuts her credibility as a feminist critic by demanding that "the writings of our 'sisters' [be] subjected to similar standards of appraisal to those used in 'patriarchal' writing and research."
As unclear as her methods and goals are—presented in a voice wavering between colloquialisms and critical vocabulary, simplistic declarations, and complex theoretical concepts—is Breen's focus on her audience. Whereas Breen's awkward and patronizing definitions of terms such as "world-view" seem to pitch this study to the nonacademic reader, her invoking of Cixous, Beauvoir, and Lacan presuppose a theory-initiate. This overall unevenness and lack of focus of the introduction is, unfortunately, a fair preview of the entire study.
The book is divided into eight chapters addressing topics such as fiction and the feminine, sexuality and marriage, alternatives to marriage, and women and their careers. These are important subjects raised in feminist criticism, but Breen's attempts to cover a century's worth of women's writing produce at best a disappointingly sketchy analysis. The breadth that could have been a strength turns out to be the book's most profound weakness. In chapter after chapter, Breen rushes from novel to novel with no regard to novelists' differing national origins or time periods. In Chapter Two, for example, Breen "analyzes" thirteen authors in sixteen pages. Not only do the interpretations lack depth and awareness of the authors' particular situatedness, they also are often only haphazardly related to one another and tenuously linked to the chapter's focus. Breen also neglects to show that most of the issues she addresses have already been well researched by other scholars, an omission which becomes especially apparent in her discussion of female artist figures in Chapter Three.
Overall then, Breen's study has not proven to be a reader's guide to twentieth-century women's fiction. Although she stresses that reading is, particularly for women, a political act, hurrying from book to book with a feminist measuring, stick does not necessarily empower readers to think and read more critically about women's issues.
Like Breen, Nancy Walker also focuses her book, Feminist Alternatives, on contemporary women novelists and their attempts at empowerment through fiction writing. Walker suggests that women are oppressed by male fictions that lock them into the powerless romance or marriage plot. Contemporary women novelists thus deliberately set out to write against the grain of such formative patriarchal fictions, hoping to subvert the norms provided in the "Book of Old Plots" and to present feminist alternatives. Walker singles...