- Reviewed by
Elliot propounds a fascinating and challenging thesis that argues realist feminist fiction allegorically charts a lack of progress, a stasis of revolutionary potential, through its narrative temporality. Following 9/11, Elliott suggests, feminist fiction has lost its allegorical impact as the vector of national progress within the American imagination, but it served as the vehicle for this symbolic function from the 1970s through to the 1990s. It is a thesis she does little to substantiate. At the very least I would have looked for sales figures, or number of weeks in the bestsellers lists, for the nine novels she has chosen to develop her argument. While the logic of choosing Marilyn French’s The Women’s Room, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club as popular texts may seem obvious, could one argue the same mammoth consumption for Marge Piercy’s Vida or Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, however important they are as texts and however vaunted by a feminist readership? To make the shift to the wider cultural impact of being an allegory for or of a country’s imagination would need both to address the issue of how widely they were read and how indicative they were since nine texts across three decades seems a thin claim for such a status. My main quibble is with the lack of any attempt to justify the selection of texts, leading to a question of teleological self-selection. (Given nine different texts, could one have argued the opposite?) Nor, given its focus on temporality, is there any reason given for its choice of realist texts when, as it briefly notes, feminist speculative fiction and avant-garde (magical realist?) fiction does more complex and radical narrativization of time (and may well have proved more popular).
Matters of justification aside, Elliott’s study is a sophisticated, intelligent theorizing of (some) feminist fictions’ trajectory, and its focus on temporality allows for innovatory readings of well-criticized novels. Elliott is an intelligence to be reckoned with, and I would urge anyone interested in feminist fiction, in fiction’s articulation of [End Page 636] postmodern exhaustion, and in narrative temporality to engage with her thesis for their own combination of illumination and exasperation, each as productive as the other. This book is never boring.
Popular Feminist Fiction is divided into three sections; “Temporal Politics,” “Feminism as Static Time,” and “Feminism as Futurity.” “Temporal Politics” opens the argument that the idea of a failure of 1960s radicalism and Fukuyama’s “the end of history” has “forged the operation of static time in the twentieth century social imaginary” (26), which Elliott explains as a “state in which the world outlasts the human capacity to transform it” (22). This view of the postmodern world and literature owes much to Frederic Jameson, as becomes clear in the final chapter. Jameson argued that postmodernism was incapable of progressive, revolutionary change and that postmodern literature was a blank parody, unable to comment on or represent a radical challenge to the ascendancy of global capitalism. Linda Hutcheon famously questioned this view, looking to feminist and postcolonial metafictions for their political critique. Elliott now argues that, despite their overt claims for political change, feminist realist authors from the 1970s to the 1990s demonstrate exactly the stasis that Jameson predicated, and their inability to depict a future reinforces the experience that postmodernism is incapable of change.
The next section, “Feminism as Static Time,” examines The Women’s Room, Vida, The Stepford Wives, Rubyfruit Jungle, and Fear of Flying. The two women’s liberation novels, The Women’s Room and Vida, strive to argue for feminist change while escaping the narrative totalization and closure feminism has critiqued in conventional romance. Vida, the political revolutionary on the run, has a ghostly half-existence.
Given that Vida embodies the narrative of historical transformation itself, her phantom existence can be understood to metaphorize the post-1960s experience of politics after history: she is the ghost of historical destiny past, haunting a present that has...