- Encyclopedia of Women's Autobiography
In a 1999 article entitled "On Reviewing and Being Reviewed" in the journal History Today, David Cannadine advises that it is desirable for the reviewer to do four things: "read the book; place the book; describe the book; judge the book." The reason for offering this advice is that, according to Cannadine, many reviewers of books take the opportunity of "venting their feelings and parading their prejudices," and the result is not so much a review as "an intellectual or (more usually) emotional spasm." Hoping to avoid such an emotional spasm, I will use Professor Cannadine's advice as a broad framework for this review of Greenwood's Encyclopedia of Women's Autobiography, edited by Victoria Boynton (English, SUNY at Cortland) and Jo Malin (project director, School of Education and Human Development, SUNY at Binghamton).
First of all, read the book. Well, in this case two books. The Encyclopedia is in two volumes, each of just over 300 pages. The editors are to be congratulated on setting an average length of entry that is long enough to be engaging, but not so long as to deter any but the specialist. However, should we think in terms of "reading" an encyclopedia? This is, after all, chiefly a work of reference, and the editors themselves acknowledge that their goal was to provide a starting point for research. Users of this encyclopedia are likely to be looking specifically for a particular kind of information to place the object of their interest within life writing and theoretically informed feminist discussion. As well as entries on authors, there are several entries on life writing genres, key words, and feminist theory, such as "Letters," "Survivor Narrative," "Alterity," "Identity," "Voice," and "Patriarchy." In fact, one of the Encyclopedia's strengths is to deal with autobiography as method—the theoretical and methodological questions that cross academic disciplinary boundaries. It is not, perhaps, for the general reader but for the life writing scholar, of whom there are increasing numbers.
The tone of the entries is by and large fresh, self-reflexive, and political in the broadest sense of the word (that is, being about the way we understand our relationship to the material world). At times the balance is not quite right, with the positioning becoming a distraction, as if the contributor had only [End Page 338] recently discovered theory! For example, when there is such little material included about Arab women's writing, it seems unfortunate that two columns of introductory material on the "Middle East" should be devoted to Edward Said, Georges Gusdorf, and Shari Benstock. The intrusion of theory as a separate category was annoying when I was more than ready to accept its insights as an integral part of the analysis.
The second task in the Cannadine school of reviewing is to place the book. The editors do that themselves, beginning by quoting Sidonie Smith's "seminal" 1987 text, A Poetics of Women's Autobiography. They place their own book within a "ferment of activity" around feminist theory and autobiography, and credit Smith with facilitating much of that ferment. This is, however, the only positioning of the editorial task that they do, and I would have liked more explanation about potentially controversial decisions (why no Jewish autobiography section, for example).
The theoretical positions of the entries differ, and I was drawn most to those with expertise and experience outside the mainstream of white feminism. Violet A. Dutcher, for example, in her excellent entry on "Autoethnography," clearly understands the difference between writing as "I" and "we," something I wished all other contributors had also taken on board. To write, for example, that Middle Eastern women's writings in English and French "speak to us directly" (using the "we" voice) is to distance some readers of the Encyclopedia, as if none of the reading "we" were from the Middle East. The Encyclopedia is to be commended, of course, for even envisaging "minority" positions. A wide choice of geographical areas seems to...