It is a common paradox in feminist criticism and theory today that, while the very term "woman" is under interrogation, studies of women writers and female subjectivity continue to proliferate. Gerardine Meaney in (Un)Like Subjects: Women, Theory, Fiction and Lorna Sage in Women in the House of Fiction: Post- War Women Novelists both bring together a range of women writers in order to investigate the issues that underlie women's fiction and female subjectivity. As such, these volumes act as case studies for examining the usefulness of work that synthesizes writings of women from a variety of social positions.
In (Un)Like Subjects Meaney analyzes the "common ground" of contemporary theory and fiction by women to explore a "new form of feminine subjectivity" based on a dynamic, unstable relationship between mother and daughter. Her complex and often theoretically dense study uncovers this ground by moving back and forth between the work of female fiction writers and psychoanalytic theorists; she focuses on texts by Hélène Cixous, Luce lrigaray, Doris Lessing, Julia Kristeva, Muriel Spark, and Angela Carter—and positions them in relation to other canonical women writers, such as Emily Brontü and George Eliot, as well as a variety of male thinkers, including Freud, Engels, and Rousseau.
It is in the way Meaney attempts to conjoin varied fiction and theory, rather than in her thesis, that this study is most provocative. She wants to avoid "the application of ready-made theory to docile novels," using theory to illuminate novels and vice versa. Theory, thus, becomes a form of fiction; fiction, a form of theory. That theory gives no greater or lesser insight into feminine subjectivity than a novel is a potentially important concept for [End Page 432] women. Like any resisting readers, women can contest, even disregard, the paradigms of Freud and Lacan; they need no longer feel mired in them.
However, while suggesting this promising methodology, Meaney does not fully carry out her radical intent. More often than not, it is theory that is quoted as a gloss on fiction. So, for instance, even when asserting Spark's creation of a full, feminine speaking subject, Meaney turns to Kristeva's concepts of the abject and the sublime to make sense of Spark. Certainly, Meaney's work is valuable in elucidating thorny theoretical essays: her reading of Kristeva's "Stabat Mater," for example, illuminates a mother and daughter in the text as alike, yet different, the eponymous "(un)like subjects." But, finally, psychoanalytic theory appears as an explanatory discourse privileged over fiction, holding feminine subjects in roles of mothers and daughters.
The concentration on psychoanalysis may also be the basis of this book's complicated relationship to history. Meaney claims to be integrating historical and theoretical analyses but, in fact, elides the specificity of the writers' historical and social positions (especially notable when Eliot, Brontü, Kristeva, and Carter are all discussed in a few pages). Meaney may be responding to this criticism when she invokes Kristeva's essay "Women's Time," which indicates that history, having silenced and sacrificed women, needs to be redefined in nonlinear ways. But, Meaney, herself, highlights Kristeva's point that a subject cannot exist wholly outside the symbolic order, the linguistic form associated with linear temporality. Meaney's writing subjects seem fully outside of history—an impossibility according to her own reading of Kristeva. Again, Meaney's analysis of complex theory is highly useful, but her employment is somewhat disappointing.
Lorna Sage, too, grapples with issues of time and place in her study, Women in the House of Fiction. Sage talks about the historical specificity of women's writing; the "house of fiction" is a reminder that writing comes from a place, shaped by historical forces. Sage includes a dizzying array of writers: her study begins with Beauvoir and spans British, American, Australian, Irish, Canadian, and French writers, including Doris Lessing, Christina Stead, Tillie Olsen, Edna...