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Worlds Within Women is a good example of feminist criticism at its worst. Thelma Shinn's style is obfuscatory, relying heavily on a combination of some of the least attractive buzz words of feminist, psychological, and myth criticism and undigested snippets of quotations. The following passage is typical:
It [science fiction] also has value as a literary genre which can offer a surface of alternative possibilities subject to validation, however. Its Janus-faced relationship to the science of its surface and the fiction of its message can be seen in Frye's further discussion of literature as "an area of verbal imitation midway between events and ideas. . . ."
The pastiche of buzz words, quotations from other critics (many of dubious reputation—or none at all) and from the books under discussion are frequently decontextualized and incoherent. Moreover, it is often difficult to tell whether Shinn is quoting from a science fiction novel or a "literary" critic, a difficulty that should indicate both the level of much of the criticism cited and the scholarly attention to citation. The confusion between fiction and criticism is only intensified by the fact that Shinn's personal philosophy is at times indistinguishable from either one. For example, when Shinn writes that "rebirth can take place within this journey as well, within the time of our lives, and the effects of that [End Page 768] rebirth can enable us to be agents of change" and "can even help us to initiate changes in our society that will reinstate the values of the Goddess," it is hard to know what we are reading—a science fiction novel, a sermon, or a critical argument.
One might suspect that such an approach would skew readings of specific novels. It does. According to Shinn, one of the "primary accomplishments" of Ursula Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is the reinstatement of "communication, community, and life fitted to its environment as central values for human behavior." Shinn's insight into Doris Lessing's mythmaking is that "isolation can lead to sterility." This book is an embarrassment not only to feminists but also to scholars engaged in myth criticism and/or the study of science fiction.
In her introduction, Shinn claims that Radiant Daughters "approaches the human condition in its social context through the fictional American women of contemporary writers because in them I have discovered the key to who we are and where we are going." As in Worlds Within Women, however, lack of coherence, not only in the overall argument but also within individual paragraphs, is a major problem. Her argument is quite supple, often twisting itself in circles. This logical incoherence is aided and abetted by her habitual failure to identify quotations and the frequent incongruity of quotations apparently from the primary texts. The inappropriateness of the quotations is exacerbated by problems with transitions—they are usually incomplete, inaccurate, or nonexistent. Radiant Daughters is happily less jargon-ridden than Worlds Within Women but unfortunately just as devoid of content.
Unlike Shinn, Charlotte Spivack has a clear and occasionally elegant prose style. It is too bad that she wastes it on elaborate plot summaries of novels that would not sustain close critical analysis. Her campaign to "challenge the politics of exclusion that has kept works of fantasy, particularly those written by contemporary women, in the dark or, worse, the playroom" in Merlin's Daughters is not well served by her choice of texts. Her arguments are riddled with unsupportable and even contradictory assertions because her unqualified admiration for her subject leaves her prey to serious lapses in critical judgment. Perhaps foremost among these lapses is her determination to...