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H. Porter Abbott's study of diary fiction (distinct from the genre of the diary novel) is at once tremendously focused and curiously unsatisfying. In the opening chapters of Diary Fiction: Writing as Action, Abbott carefully outlines two major categories of function: the general functions of the diary strategy (mimetic, thematic, and temporal) and, the primary concern, the special reflexive function. This reflexive quality, defined as the "reciprocal participating role of the text in the tale of its fictive author," is crucial because it provides the critical context for the individual readings of the main body of the text (Chapters Three-Eight). Although the first half of the book suffers from fragmentation, the text gathers momentum, and the later essays are more cohesive and interconnected. In the final two chapters the reflexive quality of diary fiction, unique in its capacity to have a direct influence on the development of the narrative, is further extended to assess the impact on the developing writer (Bellow and Beckett).
The most pressing problem with this book is that the various chapters never really come together with any degree of satisfaction. All but two chapters have appeared elsewhere in one form or another, so perhaps it is not surprising that the text reads like a collection of loosely affiliated essays, each lucid and enlightening yet stubbornly isolated and, indeed, even precariously disparate at times. Let me give some examples of how this refusal to cohere disturbs the efficacy of the text. First, although certain (representative?) texts must have been subjected to some sort of criteria for inclusion, the author neglects to reveal the set of determinant factors involved. For some inexplicable reason, minimal effort has been taken to ensure that the reader understands why particular texts are integral to the overall strategy. This absence of any explicit explanation for individual choices is especially ironic in light of the fact that the author includes a useful bibliography of diary fiction. The reader can only conclude that good reasons must have governed the selection because the chosen texts were drawn from a much larger group of possibilities.
A second problem concerns the order of presentation of the individual case studies. Whether the arrangement is random or purposeful, the reader might usefully be informed because it is not, I think, self-evident. Why, for instance, is Lessing situated somewhere dead center in the text before Sartre, Bellow, and Beckett? Is it only for the sake of a neat transition or to establish a convenient juxtaposition of the themes of madness and salvation? One further problem stems from an overabundance of conclusions and summaries. Although such a format might be unavoidable in a collection of essays, unnecessary repetition disrupts any continuity or fluidity of thought.
If these structural flaws and omissions can be overlooked, the book can be recommended, because this special perspective is extremely useful. For example, the focus on diary fiction provides a most illuminating approach to Lessing's complex [End Page 866] novel The Golden Notebook. Abbott argues convincingly that the correct approach is via the notebooks, which are "more honest and more interesting." Abbott locates Lessing's brilliance in the interspersing of the notebooks within the novella, Free Women, and the latter is thus relegated to a subsidiary position. The correct starting point is established, and the subsequent analysis is most effective. Throughout, Abbott's insights are sharp and his arguments intelligent; however, the work as a whole is not well thought out and is, quite frankly, poorly organized.
By contrast, the shape and scope of the whole is of prime importance in Rachel Blau DuPlessis' Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers. DuPlessis sets out to demonstrate the ways in which twentieth-century women writers have undertaken...