Biography 27.3 (2004) 620-622
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When I agreed to review The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing, I expected a book that was largely Annie Ray's diary, edited and introduced at length by literary scholar Jennifer Sinor. Instead I was surprised and delighted by this compelling montage of memoir, scholarly argument, and, of course, the diary of Sinor's great-great-great-aunt Annie Ray, who, with her husband, an itinerant blacksmith, homesteaded in the Dakotas in the late nineteenth century. Sinor's book surprises because it defies traditional genres, and in doing so, questions how notions of genre and literary value determine our readings, especially of "ordinary" texts such as diaries by "ordinary" women like Annie Ray. And the book delights by exhibiting the processes of feminist recovery of a writing self in the best sense—that is, Sinor's prose and her editing are consistently self-reflexive, situated, and keenly aware of the cultural work that such recovery performs and entails.
Since the late 1970s, feminist scholars of American literature have been engaged in the work of recovering women writers whose works have been "lost"—lost through the shifting aesthetic values of male-dominated publishing practices and the processes of canonization, or because these writings were never intended for publication. The recovery of women writers forces a reconsideration not only of lost authors now found, but of entire literary historical periods, or in the case of Sinor's work, literary genres and our assumptions about what counts as writing worth reading.
Sinor's central question is this: What makes certain writing "ordinary"? Her responses focus on what is at stake in asking this question in the first place, and her answers are vital to a consideration of the kinds of writing we value and recover. She charts her course in wonderful metaphors and set pieces from her own life as a military child; in lists or excerpts from her own notebooks and letters to family members; in excerpts, brief and extended, from Annie's diary, sometimes paired with her own reflections and sometimes not; and in prose that draws on rhetorical and autobiographical theory and her own poststructuralist feminism. Above all, like Annie's diary, Sinor's book defies a single narrative or argument, and instead asks us to revise our perceptions of the diary and "ordinary" writing.
Sinor begins with a photograph of Annie and family, circa 1928. Annie's gaze is directed outside the frame, "refusing to stop at the edges" (xi), and becomes a metaphor for all that her great-great-great-niece and editor cannot capture, explain, narrate, or uncover. For Sinor, "extraordinary" writing is often directed toward occasions, has a beginning, middle, and end, and is meant to be saved. "Ordinary" writing is that which is consumed or used, [End Page 620] trading story for dailiness and routine. Ordinary writing is process- rather than product-driven, writing "in the days rather than of the days" (95). While it includes lists, notes in margins, and doodles, it is defined less by what it is than by what it does. Sinor does not miss the gendered relationship of this distinction to the nature of American men's and women's lives:
women have historically and primarily experienced time as measured rather than occasioned. . . . The repetition found in sewing, baking, cleaning, mending, the repetition found in menstruating, birthing, dying, the repetition of letter writing and letter reading, the repetition of waiting, waiting, waiting—in fact the general measuredness of women's bodies, tasks, and days assures both their skill and promise at translating the experience of "time in" to the page.
Since ordinary writing "should not have survived" (9), we are faced with the challenge of how to read it, and Sinor's book takes us through the process of learning to do just this, challenging us to resist certainty, closure, and story...