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This item is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

Letters from Sarah Maguire, Laura (Riding) Jackson, J M Cohen
DEAR MICHAEL FREEMAN I am returning the copy of The New Feminist Criticism edited by Elaine Showalter as I find that I am unable to review this book for PN Review. I should like to stress that I am very sorry to have to let you down in this way and that I regret any inconvenience this will cause you.

I gathered that you were interested in having the book reviewed by a feminist, or someone sympathetic to and familiar with feminist issues, as a means of broadening the ideological perspective of contributors to PNR. Indeed, this was the reason that prompted me to agree to review the work in the first place: as a gesture towards rectifying the shocking lack of attention displayed by your journal to feminist issues. However, having given the matter a considerable amount of thought it seemed to me that, in order to write a sympathetic (yet critical) review of Showalter's book, I would be faced with two choices: either to write such a sympathetic account and ignore the ideological context of PNR in which it would appear, or to write a review which explicitly challenged such a context.

The first option struck me as being, at best, a morally dubious enterprise. In a journal such as yours which marginalizes feminism to the point of non-existence, a feminist article which failed to address this issue could only reinforce this marginalization. In not challenging the anti-feminism of PNR I felt I should merely contribute to its exacerbation through permitting a semblance of pluralistic tolerance. If PNR can be credited with a modicum of feminist input covertly introduced, then the broader issues of its longstanding refusal to engage with feminism may be safely ignored. Indeed, this process seems to be in operation already: PNR has carried feminist articles very occasionally, yet the issue concerned with critical theory, PNR 48, was notable in its avoidance of feminist theory. Not only was feminism ignored by your contributors, beyond its mention in the same breath as Marxism-deconstruction-psychoanalysis (for which, of course, I cannot hold the editors of PNR directly responsible), but there is no mention of feminist texts in Nicolas Tredell's otherwise comprehensive bibliography. Now whilst Marxist, post-structuralist and psychoanalytic theories hardly receive sympathetic attention in the columns of PNR, they do receive attention. Feminism, it would seem, is even beyond the pale of attack. In this PNR's attitude is curiously similar to Queen Victoria's response to the spectre of lesbianism - something unspeakable, impossible, non-existent. But not to be prosecuted is, in the long term, to suffer the more terrible fate of silence. The pages of PNR thus elegantly demonstrate Julia Kristeva's famous dictum, 'la femme, ce n'est jamais ça'.

What is strange about this avoidance is that, if Nicolas Tredell and Michael Schmidt's greatest concern about the activities of the so-called 'new orthodoxy' is its imputed use of literary criticism 'to gratify, in fantasy, revolutionary desires', then, out of all the varieties of critical theory, it is surely feminism which is most dangerous. Psychoanalysis and deconstruction are hardly the stuff of which barricades are built (at least those we are more familiar with) and the Marxist content of a dissertation can seem rather remote from the struggles of the closed shop. Feminist literary criticism, however, cannot be separated from the activities of its political movement, largely because the first task of the emergent women's movement in the 1960s was to challenge the 'distinctive area' of politics itself with its slogan 'the personal is political'. Thus feminist literary criticism, rather than being 'an outlet for political frustrations', is an explicitly political act which feminists regard as essential as say, providing accommodation for battered wives or living at Greenham Common; some feminists even do all of these things. But perhaps the editors of PNR don't realize exactly what is going on in universities today: women students demanding the re-ordering of the canon to include neglected women writers; discussions of the wide variety of feminist criticism - and lectures, seminars and tutorials organized around this issue; even final examination papers devoted exclusively to 'women and writing'. But this sort of disturbing academic attention goes hand-in-hand with concern about sexual harassment of students, attempts to discover why women students tend not to achieve their potential in examinations, pressure towards more female staff at all levels and the demand for adequate lighting on campuses at night. Feminist literary criticism is not something which stays politely in the classroom or the text-book. It may interpret the world but its explicit aim is to change it.

The second option, to write a review which directly challenged the ideology of PNR seemed both impossible, in the space of 1,500 words supposedly devoted to a rich and complex book comprising a broad variety of feminist positions, and beyond my intellectual capacities. I confess to cowardice. If PNR does wish to address feminist issues perhaps the most effective way would be for Nicolas Tredell to write one of his legendary articles. I, for one, would be fascinated to know the reasons for his avoidance of feminist texts in the bibliography of PNR 48. I await the indictment with interest.
Sarah Maguire

SIR: It is interesting of find myself referred to, in a review-article published in your issue number 49 (the parentheses removed from the 'Riding' part of the name I have used authorially since the early 1940s) 'as having criticised this journal for not being selective enough'. I have, indeed, communicated, as one friendly to PN Review, my disheartenment over the poems-presentations abounding in it, issue on issue. But I did not intend to be understood as criticizing Editor and Staff for not being 'selective enough'. I regard the poetic production of the present period as exemplifying how a point was reached that it stopped short in itself of what was linguistically envisioned in it. Poetry now, as written, which is as masculinist or feminist attitudinizing in the role of a private self or of some spectacularly public interest, not only opposes itself to itself: it blocks the trail of hope and fulfilment that was built with its aspiring theatricalities. It has been bent against its direction of human expectancy to stop the human short in itself with faded flourishes of last and last word sent resounding back upon a stasis of the human, a stasis neither glad, bad, mad, sad - just stasis.

And the making and circulating of all this static poem-production does not stop. It is self-perpetuating, a spell upon itself who would dare meddle with? - what if, the stasis stopped, the stoppage broken off, language took hold of human speaking hostage thus to this din of protective saying something?

I have friends who are poets. Sometimes they send me poems of theirs. I would rather respond by commenting on poetry than, specifically, on the poems, and I do so as I feel equal to the general attempt. I quote what I wrote to a friend who had sent me two poems, with a variant of one, a little before my writing of this letter.

My 'position' about poetry becomes intensifiedly same with my sense of a Crisis, in human being and being, of language-loyalty to the human being and being. Poetry I regard as no longer on the side of the essential language-aim - there are no more sides, but only the unmet necessity, the poetic argument about the necessity language gathers in for meeting has been superseded by the actuality of necessity - which throws its light on the superfluous mere anticipatory, promissory, character of poetry, especially now, when there is no forward-looking impetus left in the human vision, the human vision now staring into itself with closed eyes, bent on seeing, not a necessitous next, only a fictitious self-repetitive all-immediate.

I do not, then, complain of what is presented in PN Review of poems as not having been subjected to enough selectivity. I feel as I have described here about the entire poem-production and poems-presentation record of this period. I do not expect anyone to 'agree' with me. I understand the predicament of those who refer something to nothing. But when the make-up of a something preferred to nothing is extensively nothing, a preference for nothing may leave the door open for the advent of the excluded necessary.

With assurance that I applaud PN Review for being especially concerned with poetry, which presaged what could be hoped for from our having language to hope with, I am
Laura (Riding) Jackson
Florida, USA


Sir: When I came to read the English Tripos, Part I, in 1923, I. A. Richards and Mansfield Forbes stood where your 'new orthodox' stand today. They applied outside method to the study of literature. Richards used close scientific analysis, a scientific technique which taught us to read more attentively, and led incidentally to Empson's explorations of ambiguity and, in Spain, to Dámaso Alonso's analyses of Góngora. Manny used psychoanalysis, myth and any other insights that occurred to him. And the traditionalists went on about 'the idea of tragedy'. The Cambridge school was split then and it has been ever since. Richards and Forbes were only attacked in private; the war against Leavis was conducted in academic journals; the MacCabe controversy spilled into the common Press. And now, with your conspiracy theory, you are inviting non-academic interference which may affect the teaching of literature in general.

We are living, in Walter Benjamin's phrase, 'unter der Regierung des Hausknechts'. And the Hausknechte are only too anxious to cut the teaching of Arts subjects in the Universities. By suggesting that English faculties are in the hands of crypto-Marxists you are playing into the hands of people who can see no value in Arts teaching in their monetarist terms. And potential students may be put off reading English if they think that teaching will be biased in sectarian or crypto-political ways.

As I see it, civilized values are on the defensive, and I believe that your 'new orthodox' opponents are on our side. What threatens is the trivialisation of literary teaching exemplified in David Lodge's Small World and by the new 'trahison des clercs' evident in such writers as Kingsley Amis. The Hausknechte make good use of them to show that culture's only a racket.
Pangbourne, Berkshire

[This is an edited version of a much longer letter.]

This item is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this item to
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