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  • Women Writers and the Restive Text: Feminism, Experimental Writing and Hypertext
  • Barbara Page

It was while reading my way into a number of recent fictions composed in hypertext that I began to think back on a tendency of women’s writing which aims not only at changing the themes of fiction but at altering the formal structure of the text itsel f. In a useful collection of essays about twentieth-century women writers, called Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, Ellen Friedman and Miriam Fuchs trace a line of authors who subvert what they see as patriarchal assumptio ns governing traditional modes of narrative, beginning with Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Richardson, and Virginia Woolf, and leading to such contemporaries as Christine Brooke-Rose, Eva Figes, and Kathy Acker. They write:

Although the woman in the text may be the particular woman writer, in the case of twentieth-century women experimental writers, the woman in the text is also an effect of the textual practice of breaking patriarchal fictional forms; the radical forms — nonlinear, nonhierarchical, and decentering — are, in themselves, a way of writing the feminine.


Among contemporary writers, women are by no means alone in pursuing nonlinear, antihierarchical and decentered writing, but many women who affiliate themselves with this tendency write against norms of “realist” narrative from a consciousness stirred by f eminist discourses of resistance, especially those informed by poststructuralist and psychoanalytic theory. The claim of Friedman and Fuchs cited above is itself radical, namely that such women writers can produce themselves — as new beings or as ones p reviously unspoken — through self-conscious acts of writing against received tradition. A number of the contemporary writers I discuss in this essay make a direct address within the fictive text to feminist theory, rather more as a flag flown than as a definitive discursive marker, in recognition of themselves as engaged with other women in the discursive branch of women’s struggle against oppression.1 For some writers of this tendency, hypertext would see m to provide a means by which to explore new possibilities for writing, notwithstanding an aversion among many women to computer technologies and programs thought to be products of masculinist habits of mind. My argument is not that the print authors I d iscuss here would be better served by the hypertext medium, but that their writing is in many respects hypertextual in principle and bears relation to discourses of many women writers now working in hypertext.

These women writers, as a rule, take for granted that language itself and much of canonical literature encode hierarchies of value that denigrate and subordinate women, and therefore they incorporate into their work a strategically critical or opposit ional posture, as well as a search for alternative forms of composition. They do not accept the notion, however, that language is hopelessly inimical or alien to their interests, and so move beyond the call for some future reform of language to an interv ention — exuberant or wary — in present discourses. I focus in particular on writers whose rethinking of gender construction enters into both the themes and the gestural repertoire of their compositions, and who undertake to redesign the very topograp hy of prose. At the most literal level of the text — that of words as graphic objects — all of these writers are leery of the smooth, spooling lines of type that define the fictive space of conventional print texts and delimit the path of the reader. Like other postmodernist writers, they move on from modernist methods of collage to constructions articulating alternatives to linear prose. The notion, for example, of textuality as weaving (a restoration of the root meaning of “text”) and of the constr uction of knowledge as a web that has figured prominently in the development of hypertext has also been important in feminist theory, though for rather different purposes.2 Like other postmodernist writers, also, many of these women experimentalists are strikingly self-reflexive, and write about their texts in the text. One important difference, though, concerns the self-conscious will among these writers not simply to reimagine writing as wea ving but rather to take apart the fabric of inherited textual forms and...

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