In Special Delivery: Epistolary Modes in Modern Fiction Linda Kauffman continues her interest in letters. Her first book Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre and Epistolary Fictions (Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1986) explored the genre of the love letter including those of Ovid, Abelard and Héloise, Clarissa, and others. In this work, she focuses more narrowly on the modern and postmodern periods, and uses the epistolary form to explore some of the problematics in contemporary feminist theory.
In Part One, entitled "Producing Women," Kauffman considers works by male writers: Viktor Shklovsky's Zoo, or Letters Not about Love (1928), Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita (1955), Roland Barthes' A Lover's Discourse: Fragments (1978), Jacques Derrida's The Post Card: From Socrates to Freud and Beyond (1980). In Part Two, she turns to female authors: Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook (1962), Alice Walker's The Color Purple (1982), and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1986). In the introduction, Kauffman emphasizes that she has picked texts that are widely diverse and is not going to create a theory of continuity and similarity to link these texts, as she did in her earlier book. Rather she will look at "the distinctive treatment of seven major motifs:" representation, individualism, the ideology of romantic love, alternate paradigms to the "universality" of the oedipal myth, generic disruption and defamiliarization, dialogism, decentering the subject.
This decision on Kauffman's part has its merits and demerits. Positively, refusing a critical "take" or a generic definition allows Kauffman to do what she does best—to take each work on its own ground and masterfully engage in close readings. Kauffman is the kind of writer it is a pleasure to read in an era in which writing about literature has often become a mere excuse for mechanical analysis. Kauffman's work is sensitive and intelligent, playing out the strands of contradiction in these epistolary-inspired works, bringing in contemporary critical insights with a subtle hand, and when appropriate working the history and biography of the writer into the analysis without shattering the integument of the work itself. Kauffman has an abiding respect for the integrity of each writer's work, but is never shy about adding to the resonance of the text by subjecting it to postmodern scrutiny.
However, the decision to treat each text as a separate entity, in a sense, produces a strange cumulative effect. The reader is grateful for the individual readings by a critic with brilliant insights but keenly feels the lack of a central thesis. Of course, one could argue that such systematizing is a relic of positivist prejudices, but the work itself is not against system; it engages in systems—using Bakhtin quite centrally, as well as Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari, and Foucault, among others—but systems remain [End Page 442] pluralized. While Kauffman does end up saying "Epistolarity is a destabilized and destabilizing category in both twentieth-century fiction and critical theory . . . the subject of profound deformation and experimentation," that insight does not seem to be enough of a summation to such a series of well-done analyses and critical observation.
One of the best essays in the book is on Lolita . There have not been enough serious feminist readings of that text, mainly because the work is so obviously sexist that female critics have done little more than condemn the obvious. But Kauffman takes the work on its own ground. Particularly, she has a great time with some really horrible male critics who write howlers like "The central question the reader ought to ask of himself is whether he feels pity for the girl." However, Kauffman does seem to get caught in an impossible task: her conflicting desire to bring Humbert and Lolita before the tribunal and her desire to read the text in a postmodern mode that attacks the possibility of considering them "subjects." She wants to engage in a "dismantling [of] the representational fallacy" but later says that the problem of conventional criticism is that it "invariably elide[s] Lolita...