French Women Novelists: Defining a Female Style (review)
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Reviews333 topics as sex and power relations between the genders, these binarisms prove to ground much modern thinking. Her analysis debunks a number of myths about homosexuality and provides the prospect of escaping a number of impasses in gay theory, such as the debate between essentialists and constructivists. Sedgwick begins her literary analysis with two works written in 1891, at the time when medical and legal notions of "homosexuality" were crystallizing: Melville's Billy Budd and Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray. In Billy Budd, she neatly oudines the differences between the "real" homosexual in the text, John Claggart, and the homosociality best incorporated by Claggart's double, Captain Vere. Her reading of Wilde, almost outshone by the many fascinating aperçues of male-male desire in Nietzsche which fill out the chapter, brilliantly breaks down a number of clichéd dichotomies. Sedgwick then moves on to James's tale, "Beast in the Jungle," which shows, among other things, the destructive effects which the closeting of homosexuality can have on women. And finally, Sedgwick's inquiries into Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu apdy conclude her book by demonstrating once again the importance of the "open secret" of the closet, that much discussed, analyzed, condemned, and medicinalized space for the "love that dare not speak its name," to modern politics, philosophy, religion, and society. The observation that one-sentence summaries cannot do justice to chapterlength readings of literary works is particularly true of the chapters in Epistemology oftL· Closet, because Sedgwick writes much more personally and expansively in this study than in Between Men. This subjective style with its personal opinions and anecdotes is presumably part of her project, an attempt to break out of an academic discourse which has long refused to discuss the oppressive systems grounding it. Readers who still hanker for expository prose without digressions might on occasion be frustrated with this book, as will readers whose politics differ from Sedgwick's. Nonetheless, it is probably precisely those readers who could learn the most from Epistemology oftL· Closet, which reestablishes Sedgwick's position as one of the most important thinkers in American gay studies. Whitman CollegeRobert Tobin French Women Novelists: Defining a Female Style, by Adele King; xii & 221 pp. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1989, $35.00. Adele King begins French Women Novelists: Defining a Female Style by saying "the distinction self/other is at the basis of human thought" and "the distinction 334Philosophy and Literature man/woman ... is the most fundamental of all dichotomies." Although she puts this essentialist assertion in a conditional sentence, the tentativeness of the grammar is more rhetorical than conceptual. King's goal is to merge French theories about sexual difference with Anglo-American feminist reading practices to define a "female style," tested through readings of Colette, Sarraute, Yourcenar, Duras, and Wittig. King reiterates much of the decade-old transadantic dialogue about women and writing, characterizing the French as theorists concerned with repression and psychic structures and the Anglo-Americans as empiricists concerned with oppression and social structures. Like many before her, she privileges French theory and overlooks important theory embedded in Anglo-American readings. Her focus on sexual difference rather than gender differences blinds her to the cultural specificity of the texts she reads. A better understanding of AngloAmerican feminism would have allowed her to analyze gender as culturally constructed, part of a complex matrix intersecting with race, ethnicity, and class. Using the term "Anglo-Saxon" rather than "Anglo-American," she leaves out African-American literary critics altogether. The statement about the distinctions of self/other and man/woman is emblematic of the book—a summary of French theory hedged (grammatically or parenthetically) by reservations inspired by American reading practice. In the first chapter, King reviews French, English, and American theories of sexual difference following Simone de Beauvoir's Le deuxième sexe in 1949. She shows, largely through quoting others, the dangers of either denying or asserting the primacy of sexual difference. The second chapter, on theories of language, concludes that French theories about écritureféminine are about women 's writing as it should be while Anglo-Saxon critics "examine the actual work of women writers...