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"It is this simultaneous breaking with both literary and social conventions which constitutes the radicalism" of experimental women writers, announce Gillian Hanscombe and Virginia L. Smyers, echoing Virginia Woolf's famous formulation in A Room of One's Own of the new fiction by "Mary Carmichael." Breaking the Sequence gestures in its title back to Woolf as feminist criticism's best known articulator of the conflation of women's writing and modernity: "Mary is tampering with the expected sequence. First she broke the sentence; now she has broken the sequence." Woolf invited us to connect the dramatic changes in the material conditions of women's lives with their disruptions of literary convention, indeed, with modernity itself. Writing for Their Lives addresses primarily the experimental lives of modernist women writers, whereas Breaking the Sequence examines the experimental styles of three generations of twentieth-century women writers. Together, they interrogate the historical and literary scripts of oppositional practices buried in that cliché of our generation: "alternative lifestyles."
The achievement of both books is their naming of an experimental women's tradition in twentieth-century literature. Theoretical and historical delineations of the avant-garde have constituted it in overwhelmingly male terms. The particular irony of this androcentric formulation, as Marianne DeKoven points out in Breaking the Sequence, is that male experimentalism has involved the appropriation of the feminine for the disruption of logocentrism. The project of both books begins in the feminist critique of existing scholarship on the avant-garde that has rendered women's experimental writing invisible or unreadable. Implicitly, they (like Toril Moi in Sexual/Textual Politics) also critique feminist criticism for being so focused on the realist tradition and radical content that women's formalist experimentalism has been marginalized within feminist revisionist histories. Both books call for greater attention to formalism, although in practice Hanscombe and Smyers emphasize the radical "forms" of the women's material lives where Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs have oriented their discussion of (and selection of articles about) experimental discourse to poststructuralist concepts of "gynesis" (Alice Jardine), l'écriture féminine (Hélène Cixous), parler femme and feminine "mimicry" (Luce Irigaray), and the "semiotic" (Julia Kristeva).
To correct these distortions and erasures in avant-garde and feminist literary histories, both books engage in the by-now familiar practices of gynocriticism: [End Page 864] the recovery of lost or misread writings by experimental women writers, the delineation of difference (from men) and the difference women make, and the affirmation of an ongoing tradition. And like far too much gynocriticism, both books ignore the differences among women. The experimental tradition the books identify is lily white. Breaking the Sequence does not include a single essay on a woman of color (the introduction only briefly mentions Toni Morrison). Writing for Their Lives ignores the experimental lives and works of women active in the Harlem Renaissance. The concept of "experimental" in both books needs expansion and transformation so that the invisible but no less radical and subversive experimentations of women of color can become visible. (Why does this still need to be said?)
Like Shari Benstock's Women of the Left Bank, Writing for Their Lives focuses particularly on a group of women in the first half of the century whose lives and writings were richly interwoven. Hanscombe and Smyers call this group of Anglo-American women "the other Bloomsbury"—not so respectable as Woolf's Bloomsbury, often indeed quite bohemian. Hanscombe and Symers provide outlines (sometimes with valuable archival material) for the lives and major achievements of these women, some well-known, others still waiting to be discovered: Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, H.D., Bryher, Amy Lowell, Dorothy Richardson, Mary Butts, Mina Loy, Djuna Barnes, Dora Marsden (founder of The New Freewoman), Harriet Shaw Weaver (editor of The Egoist), Harriet Monroe (editor of Poetry), Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap (editors of...