Carol Shields and the Writer-Critic by Brenda Beckman-Long (review)
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Reviewed by
Brenda Beckman-Long. Carol Shields and the Writer-Critic. University of Toronto Press. xii, 164. $29.95.

Brenda Beckman-Long's monograph, Carol Shields and the Writer-Critic, constitutes a welcome addition to scholarship on this popular author, whose writing has attracted innumerable critical articles, as well as several collections of essays, but only one other monograph thus far. A revised doctoral dissertation, this well-researched, perceptive study demonstrates the strengths of that genre, including a command of literary theory and critical studies of Shields's writing, plus a clear thesis that pursues the trajectory of Shields's feminist project through the six novels that feature women writers: Small Ceremonies, The Box Garden, Swann, The Republic of Love, The Stone Diaries, and Unless.

Beckman-Long urges reappraisals of Shields, whose work is sometimes dismissed as "women's writing" or "domestic fiction," but whose oeuvre demonstrates a "feminist project," Beckman-Long's most frequently repeated phrase. Her introduction, "Shields as Writer-Critic: Autobiography and the Politics of Self-Representation," focuses on Shields as both a writer and critic who employs fiction to critique conventional literary structures that neglect women. Appropriately, she cites several of Shields's numerous essays and includes references to numerous critical studies of Shields's work, while engaging with critical theories, arguing Shields's "resistance to Philippe Lejeune's idea of the autobiographical pact, Michel Foucault's [End Page 173] understanding of the death of the author, and Jean Baudrillard's notion of simulation."

The first chapter, "The Problem of the Genre: The Autobiographical Pact in Small Ceremonies and The Box Garden," addresses these sister novels, republished as Duet, demonstrating how they resist Philippe Lejeune's "autobiographical pact." She organizes her discussion of Small Ceremonies logically as a series of embedded texts or mises en abyme: first John Spalding's unpublished autobiographical novel, next Judith Gill's unpublished novel The Magic Rocking Horse, then Furlong Eberhardt's published novel Graven Images, and then Gill's biography of Susanna Moodie, about whom Shields wrote a Master's thesis at the University of Ottawa that was subsequently published as Susanna Moodie: Voice and Vision (1976). Poet Charleen Forrest's gendered confession in The Box Garden, including her travel journal, presents "a feminine 'metaphysic of survival,"' Beckman-Long argues, "valorizing women's autobiographical production and inscribing intersubjectivity," when combined with the sister novel.

The second chapter, "The Problem of the Author: Absence and the Epitaph of Victim in Swann" focuses on Foucault's question, "What is an author?" and on the relationship between murdered fictional poet Mary Swann and murdered actual poet Pat Lowther. Beckman-Long concludes, "The author construction in the discourse of critics is satirized, even as Foucault's discourse is parodied, but the woman writer is valorized" in Swann, Shields's "parody of biographical and autobiographical modes."

The third chapter, "The Problem of the Body: Romance as Metaphysical Ruin in The Republic of Love," argues that heroine Fay McLeod, researching mermaids as gender stereotypes, favours romantic models that are exposed as "metaphysical ruin" as Shields parodies popular romance fiction to "subvert cultural discourses of desire and individualism" and democratize love. Beckman-Long argues that the ultimate target of Shields's parody is Baudrillard's discourse of hyperrealism.

The fourth chapter, "The Problem of the Subject: The Stone Diaries as an Apocryphal Journal" addresses Shields's meta-autobiographical "casse-tete," whose complex narrative technique has puzzled critics. Beckman-Long deduces from the novel's epigraph that protagonist Daisy Goodwill Flett's granddaughter is the narrator, whereas Shields affirms in various interviews and essays that Daisy herself is thinking her story in this valorization of an ordinary woman.

The fifth chapter, "The Problem of the Subject of Feminism: Unless as Meta-Autobiography," addresses the relation between life-writing and fiction, autobiography and metafiction, in a novel that employs a (possibly) Muslim woman's self-immolation to critique feminism as historical construct as Shields bridges second-wave and third-wave feminisms in a post-9/11 context. [End Page 174]

The conclusion surveys the critical reception of Shields's novels and concludes that her oeuvre represents "a sustained feminist critique of literary history and critical theory...


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