- Feminist Narrative Ethics by Katherine Saunders Nash
Readers often feel that reading has made them better people and the recent ethical turn in literary criticism has renewed interest in the ethical possibilities of reading. Feminist Narrative Ethics takes up this question from another angle: what makes a narrative feminist? A central concern of this book is “how one may persuade without coercion” (93), a question Katherine Saunders Nash pursues through analysis of four writers: E. M. Forster, Dorothy Sayers, Virginia Woolf, and John Cowper Powys. Of these, as Nash notes, only Woolf has a reputation as a feminist. And yet, in texts by each, Nash discovers a narrative method designed to encourage readers toward sympathy with feminism.
Nash’s key terms are promising: distance, fair play, persuasion, and attention. These words suggest new possibilities for feminist readings. Feminist theory has not, for example, been particularly interested in distance, but Nash shows how Forster’s ironic narrators consistently raise questions in a manner that recommends readers see a feminist perspective. She explores fair play through a discussion of Dorothy Sayers’s extension of the Lord Peter Wimsey series to include the love-interest Harriet Vane. The chapter on persuasion emphasizes Woolf’s transformation of the novel-essay of The Pargiters into the more conventional and less explicitly feminist The Years (1937). This is well-worn ground in Woolf studies, but Nash’s emphasis on silence adds a new dimension. Finally, she shows how even the anti-feminist A Glastonbury Romance (1932) can be understood as feminist in its construction of an implied reader who is a feminine receptor, attending to the text rather than penetrating it. [End Page 520]
As the plain key terms signal, this book relies heavily on Wayne Booth’s work. While Booth was a rhetorical theorist of the very first rank, some of the fine points under dispute here (e.g., is Phelan’s redefinition of the implied author useful?) detract from the book’s larger questions. Nash is at her best when she emphasizes how her novels express “a shifting, challenging, yet reliable perspective” (36). Engagement with more recent work in affect theory, such as Molly Hite’s article on the flatness of the unsympathetic characters in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), could only deepen and extend the power of observations Nash makes here. Early on, Nash rejects reader response theory, but some historical attention to the reception of these novels could enhance this study considerably. Did early readers and reviewers perceive what Nash perceives?
Overall, the book suffers from an uneven sense of what does and does not need explanation. Technical terms—parallax, focalization, intradiagetic—are introduced without gloss and contextual matters lack sufficient explanation. Given Nash’s expertise in Powys (the subject of her dissertation), surely she could offer the reader a brief plot summary of the seldom-read A Glastonbury Romance and some broader sense of Powys’s reputation. This chapter opens with the information that Powys testified at the obscenity trial for Joyce’s Ulysses (1922), but no indication as to why the court might have called him. At the same time, Nash spends ten pages carefully establishing the fact that Peter Brooks’s 1984 Reading for the Plot is phallocentric, hardly news to those of us who have been resisting Brooks’s phallogocentrism since the 1990s. A sharper editorial eye might have caught the repetition of a chapter summary verbatim from page 15 some eight pages later.
Nash’s book contributes to a longstanding conversation on the ethics of reading. Unfortunately, like Paul Armstrong’s Play and the Politics of Reading (2005), which Nash cites here, this book’s vision of ethics is too white, too straight, and too untroubled by truly vexing ethical dilemmas to really move the conversation forward. Early in the book, Nash dismisses D. H. Lawrence because his books, while containing feminist moments, tend to “come to a stunningly misogynist conclusion” (5). Perhaps, however, Lawrence’s ideological failures have something to teach us about tensions between class and sex. Perhaps, too, engagement with theorists...