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For Patricia Waugh and Rita Felski, feminine or feminist fiction is most interestingly framed as the positively valorized half of a positive-negative dyad. Waugh's negative term is postmodernism; Felski's is a prescriptive experimental feminist aesthetic. Both critics carefully complicate the picture by giving the enemy its due, but hostility toward the negative term is nonetheless pervasive in both texts, a consistent backdrop for the analysis of the virtues of feminine (Waugh) or feminist (Felski) fiction. Feminine and feminist fiction are complex and diverse; "the postmodern" and "feminist aesthetics" are static and monolithic. For Patricia Waugh, the dyad is also gendered: her negative term, "the postmodern," is defined as predominantly masculine. Derek Longhurst's anthology, despite the evenhandedness implied by its title, is predominantly masculine, both in the genres of popular culture it pays the most attention to, and in the concerns of most of its contributors, with a few notable exceptions.
Patricia Waugh argues that women writers have not been able to afford the decentering and dispersal of the subject that characterize male postmodernism, because in patriarchy women have never attained a stable, self-consistent subjectivity to decenter or disperse: "During the 1960s, as Vonnegut waves a fond goodbye to character in fiction, women writers are beginning, for the first time in history, to construct . . . a sense of unified selfhood, a rational, coherent, effective identity." At the same time, Waugh argues, because women writers have never been guilty of the excesses of centered, dominant (white bourgeois male Enlightenment) egotism to which the postmodern decentering is a reaction and corrective, they have an inherent affinity with postmodernism and post structuralism in constructing identity "through impersonal and social relations of power (rather than as sense of identity as the reflection of an inner 'essence')." Despite this affinity, it is the split between postmodern male self-destruction and feminist self-construction that most concerns Waugh: "it is the central argument of this book, therefore, that despite common concerns the postmodern deconstruction of subjectivity is as problematic for women as the liberal construction of self."
After this clear, cogent, if somewhat familiar introductory theoretical positioning, Waugh's opening chapter, "Postmodernism and Feminism," degenerates into simplistic literary stereotype: both modernism and postmodernism are together reduced to "an aesthetics of impersonality" that women writers "have not felt comfortable with." The straw-man villain of modernist and postmodernist "separation" (ego-formation by means of differentiation from the mother/other) is then knocked down by the feminist object-relations heroine of "self in relationship." Waugh argues that twentieth-century women writers have always worked outside the male-defined traditions of modernism and postmodernism, and not only should be spared censure by their standards but also should be praised for eluding them.
The rest of the book argues for object relations theory as the appropriate theoretical framework for a proper understanding of twentieth-century women's [End Page 810] fiction, with Nancy Chodorow as heroine, and many villains. The long discussion of Virginia Woolf Waugh uses to launch her paradigm in the literary realm is remarkable for its innocence of the complexities and vast substance both of Woolf's work and of feminist work on her. The closing sections on postwar and contemporary women writers are much better, and one feels that this is what Waugh really knows and cares most about. Her textual analyses here are much more lively, sure, and informative. Still, her fairly monotone polemic intention is uppermost throughout. The writers she chooses (Margaret Drabble, Anita Brookner, Sylvia Plath, Anne Tyler, Grace Paley, Margaret Atwood, Fay Weldon, Doris Lessing, Joanna Russ, Marge Piercy, Alice Walker, Angela Carter, Ann Fairbairns, Muriel Spark—a very original and compelling group) all represent, through a variety of formal means, the feminist "knowledge of the fundamental construction of human subjectivity through relationship."
Beyond Feminist Aesthetics is a...