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Meredith Cary's book takes the sensible position that unconventionality in fiction is often misunderstood and underappreciated by critics and scholars. Cary argues [End Page 858] that literary judgment—at least among professional readers—is governed by rather inflexible cultural and aesthetic "norms" that are inherently resistant to unconventional characters, values, and life styles. Cary regards this state of affairs with regret because unconventional fiction can frequently enrich our sense of human potentiality and provide fresh solutions to human problems. Ranging from Aphra Behn's Oroonoko (1688) to Barbara Pym's A Few Green Leaves (1980), Cary celebrates fictional unconventionality in various manifestations.
As it happens, virtually all of Cary's authors are women, presumably because in a world historically dominated by men, the fictional creations of women are inherently unconventional. She could have developed the point much more coherently, but implicit in her study is the contention that a great deal of fiction by women has been ignored, undervalued, or, worse, dismissed because it challenges male conventions. This argument is not new, but as long as so many critics and scholars remain unrehabilitated by it, it seems worth making again.
The greatest accomplishment of Different Drummers is its promotion of ignored or forgotten works. Many of Cary's exemplary texts are generally unknown to even sophisticated readers—Frances Hodgson Burnett's A Fair Barbarian (1915) and Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928), for example—and I found myself writing down the titles of novels she persuaded me I should examine. She also succeeds frequently at reminding us not only how "conventionalized" our responses to literature have become but how exciting and rejuvenating unconventionality can be. As a striking example, Cary discusses Sylvia Townsend Warner's Lolly Willowes (1926) as a fascinating reworking of the Faustus theme. In this novel a woman sells her soul to the devil to escape traditional female roles. Free from mortal man's oppression, Warner's heroine ultimately determines that her Faustian bargain has been worth the cost.
Despite its virtues, however, Different Drummers is a flawed and unsatisfactory work. Cary's method is to describe in great detail various examples of unconventionality in her selected works, and this becomes quite tedious. More troubling is the study's lack of scholarly and critical apparatus. Cary is prone to startlingly facile and ingenuous assertions. She describes Defoe's Robinson Crusoe as "routinely preferred by literary historians as the 'first' novel," apparently unaware that the origins and formation of the novel remain hotly disputed issues with no "routine" solutions at all. In her chapter "Ethnic Alternatives," Cary makes some ludicrous assertions about American ethnicity. Example: " . . . American ethnics are normally included in the general population rather than being thought of as a distant and exotic race."
Which brings us finally to the matter of style. As the above quotation shows, Cary's writing is often clumsy, sloppy (does she really want to suggest that ethnic Americans all belong to a single race?), or impenetrable.
In sum, Different Drummers is most useful as a kind of annotated bibliography.
Vernessa C. White's unusual study argues that because of certain similarities of political and social circumstances, the writing of selected contemporary Afro-Americans and East Germans can be studied together fruitfully. White claims that "the racial structure of American society is very similar to, or even replication [sic] of, the European system of social stratification." A striking assertion, but, like others in the book, it is presented without adequate elaboration. White goes on to compare the work of two Afro-American writers, Toni Morrison and [End Page 859] Alice Walker, with that of two East Germans, Guenter De Bruyn and Hermann Kant. Why these writers were chosen and not some others is not explained. White calls these writers "revolutionaries" and goes on to say that they share three qualities:
First, each author champions the cause of social...