How does contemporary fiction portray and define the woman as author, or the woman as artist, when her historical literary narrative has been fraught with fear, ambivalence, and distrust? In Figuring the Woman Author in Contemporary Fiction, Mary Eagleton explores an interesting collection of literary works that present female characters as oral narrators, academic writers, authors of romantic fiction, and [End Page 929] creators of other kinds of art, who frequently find themselves caught between the desire to produce their work and an ambivalence toward the system within which they create. Interested in what these women authors signify, Eagleton approaches the texts with the understanding that theoretical and political movements have both played a role in the development of the character of the woman author in contemporary fiction, but not surprisingly, power structures seem to remain intact. According to Eagleton, a central textual theme in the works she analyzes is the “loss of woman’s authority over her work, in terms of content, form and legal ownership” and how this loss “results not in a dispersal of power . . . but in a redistribution of power which confirms existing hierarchies of gender, class and race” (5). While this may not seem new, Eagleton still provides an intriguing study of how women authors choose to create and portray women authors in their works.
Figures of the academic woman author in contemporary fiction are still torn between the institutionalized conflict between being an intellectual, being feminine, and being a feminist. Can a woman intellectual still be feminine? What does it mean to be an intellectual if you are a woman? Is it simply a mirror of the male representation of intellectualism? What does feminism say about the way women intellectuals should conduct themselves in the academy? These are some of the questions with which academic women authors are confronted in the texts Eagleton investigates.
The characters that are women authors of romantic fiction are inevitably mired in the question of the legitimacy of their work. As their writings are characterized by a sense of longing for romantic love, the desire to have their work deemed valuable rather than as products of the irrational also looms large. The very essence of the language of love seems to be this longing. Eagleton cogently demonstrates how “desire and textuality are intrinsically related,” and, in both cases, the longing remains unfulfilled (12). Without the longing, romantic fiction turns into something else. But as producers of unworthy fiction, the authors also continuously remain gripped by the longing to be acknowledged for their work.
Equally compelling is Eagleton’s discussion of the reluctant author. In posing the question of why a woman author with obvious talent and desire would choose to withdraw or remain hidden within the literary sphere, Eagleton calls on short works by Ursula LeGuin and Jane Gardam to clarify not only the fear of disapproval by a patriarchal readership, but also how women authors who do write may feel trapped into appeasing the male reader and that women’s experiences would not be seen as worthy topics of literary expression. The worst manifestation of this disabling social construction is when the woman author is never able to write about herself at all. But Eagleton [End Page 930] also chooses texts with characters who are attracted to the private world of writing among women, who relish the subterfuge, but she reminds us ultimately that “the secret pleasure becomes disabling and ties us to the constraints,” that it is dangerous to come to enjoy your own imprisonment (152).
But what happens once the woman author finishes her work? Does the work belong to her? Who has access to the cultural production? To delve into these questions, Eagleton analyzes Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” and the character of Dee who wants to claim some quilts made by her mother, Mama, and her sister Maggie. Are Maggie and Mama artists? Eagleton shows how Maggie and Mama could never be seen as artists due to their social/economic class and because of their lack of sophistication in conceptualizing the cultural significance...