- Are Girls Necessary? Lesbian Writing and Modern Histories, and: On Joanna Russ, and: Virginia Woolf: An MFS Reader
Since the 1990s boom of scholarship rediscovering lesbian authors and themes in literature, scholars have been searching for a history of lesbian literature. Such a task is not easy, since sexual identity, as Michel Foucault and others inform us, did not exist as we know it before the nineteenth century. Some scholars see the task as either futile or harmful, as searches for a lesbian literary history risk applying twenty-first-century Western sexual politics onto other times and places, or they fear that focusing specifically on the figure of the lesbian can lead to further entrenchment of the gay/straight binary and thus oversimplify the myriad of desires people feel, while risking further marginalization of queer authors. Uncovering a history, though, is a political act that connects people and their struggles to a past. The question is, how has the project of lesbian literary history been going? The three books under review here all tackle this history in notably different ways: One finds lesbian history in authors' techniques, one does not seem to want to find it at all, and one finds it in an author's form. Together, these three books show a field continually redefining itself.
When the first edition of Are Girls Necessary? was published by Routledge in 1996, Julie Abraham was writing amid the first big flush of publications about lesbian literature. Twelve years later, the University of Minnesota Press has reprinted Abraham's study, which gives us a moment to examine what has and has not changed in lesbian literary studies since its original publication. Like many of her colleagues in the field in the mid-1990s, Abraham was searching for a clearer idea of what we mean when we say "lesbian literature." Does this mean literary art by lesbian authors? Does it mean literature about romance between women? Abraham feels that it is more than either of these. Her study seeks to find a lesbian literary history not within the romantic content of a novel nor [End Page 257] the sexuality of the characters nor the author, but within the very structure of the novels themselves. By doing so, Abraham helped carve a space for scholars to talk about queer sexuality outside of the authors' own lives and helped pave a way to think about the possibility of a lesbian literary history.
Through analyses of works by authors like Willa Cather, Mary Renault, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf, Abraham traces how lesbian writing repeatedly resists the plot of heterosexual romance that was de rigueur for women's novels at the beginning of the twentieth century. To circumvent the heterosexual romance plot that writes the lesbian as deviant, these modernist authors turned "to the discourse of 'history,' to merge the personal and the public as a way of constructing narratives beyond the heterosexual limits of literary 'reality'" (29). For example, in Nightwood and her other fiction, Barnes rewrites the historical narrative to include outcasts—lesbians, gay men, circus performers—and "records a lesbian desire for and fear of other women that is inextricable from desire for and fear of representation" (xxi). In Woolf's Between the Acts, this turn toward history allows the author to examine the contradiction between Miss La Trobe's sexuality and the historical content of her writing. More conservative authors like Cather and Renault found a place for the narrative of heterosexual romance through their male characters.
The conflating of male and female experience that this last move involves, though, is where her argument has taken the most flack. Nearly all the reviewers of the 1996 edition of Are Girls Necessary? felt uneasy that, for...