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Most readers will immediately recognize Mickey Pearlman and Katherine Usher Henderson's new title. A Voice of One's Own, as a conscious allusion to Virginia Woolf's original masterpiece. They will quite naturally assume the book to be a sympathetic look at women in literature. And to a certain extent, their assumption will be justified. But while Woolf's work was a subtle, erudite study of the conditions which allow women to write. A Voice of One's Own: Conversations With America's Writing Women is an giddy, superficial look at the lifestyles and publications of women writers.
Pearlman and Henderson first published their collection of interviews with contemporary women writers in hardcover in 1990 under the title of INTERVIEW: Talks With America's Writing Women. The former title was far more appropriate than the present one. The interviews lack the depth to be called conversations, and besides the authors' frequent asides about tape recording troubles they had, this book has little to do with voices.
The title is a heavy-handed exploitation of the considerable popular interest in women and American writing. The interest itself is entirely merited; as Pearlman and Henderson posit, "[t]he sheer numbers of women writing today and the high quality of poetry, drama and fiction by those women are the by-products of the second women's movement and the social, political and psychological changes it has wrought." While their argument that women dominate the modern literary scene in America is plausible and promising, their presentation of it is woefully amateurish.
A Voice of One's Own reads like a sorority yearbook. Admittedly, the sorority is a distinguished one. Pearlman and Henderson had the good fortune to interview such luminaries as Amy Tan. Gloria Naylor, Joyce Carol Oates, Gail Godwin, Mona Simpson, Alice McDermott, M.F.K. Fischer and Louise Erdrich. They interviewed 28 women in all, striving, they explained, for a generational, regional and ethnic cross-section. Reading this book, however, we do not get the sense of the writers' differences. Pearlman and Henderson work entirely too hard to draw connections between the writers, and even harder to draw connections between themselves and the women.
The formatting of the interviews is painfully homogeonized and formulaic. Each woman claims a chapter, at the head of which, in true yearbook style, is a photograph of the writer. At the end is a comprehensive list of the writer's publications, akin to the roster of a good sorority member's extra curricular activities. And each interview closes with a saccharine epilogue on the value of each woman writer to American letters.
The writers themselves are intelligent, articulate women, but the interviewers' blatant fawning frequently makes the interviews seem trivial and stilly. Many of the women are interviewed in their homes or in cozy little cafes near their homes and Pearlman and Henderson spare no words communicating the picayune domestic details of their surroundings. Their voyeuristic glee at seeing Godwin's indoor pool or overhearing one of Fischer's personal telephone conversations is embarrassing. Italics and exclamation points abound. The opening paragraph of Pearlman's interview with Erdrich is only one salient sample:
My interview with Louise Erdrich took place while she was trying to hold onto her "wonderful, healthy" active eight-month-old baby (ten and a half pounds at birth!) in Cornish New Hampshire, and I was trying, in New Jersey, to hold onto my $1.99 rubber dart gun gadget from Radio Shack that allows you to both tape and talk to someone on the telephone [emphasis hers].
Pearlman and Henderson constantly underrate our imaginations in this way--they seem to think that if we are not privy to the minutest detail of the mechanics of each interview, our dull-witted curiosity will be such that we cannot concentrate on the interviews themselves.
The authors pay such close attention to domestic detail because, they explain, they are interested in the environments in which women write. But their chronicles frequently sound like "Lifestyles of the Middle-Class and Literary." As they write of these women in the introduction, "they have created pockets of order and beauty in the places where they write, but they have done this with time and thought and taste rather than with money." What should be a series of thoughtful interviews exploring the intellectual aims and achievements of women writers degenerates into a series of gross personality caricatures. Pearlman and Henderson fall prey to the very trap of identity politics they themselves denounce in critical treatment of women writers' works. It is all very nice and good that Tan Bakes cookies for Henderson, but is it particularly germane?
The interviews are short--they range from 5 to 12 pages (including pictures and bibliography). The authors abandoned the classic question and answer format for a genre they call the "mini-essay." The organization is unfortunate-after authors finally set the scene, there is precious little space for the women writers to speak meaningfully of their work. The brief interviews are never long enough to answer the questions they raise. In addition, Pearlman and Henderson spend unnecessary time summarizing the writers' works, sometimes with lengthy quotes from the writer themselves.
As interviewers, Pearlman and Henderson are far too obtrusive in pursuing their own academic agenda. They rather presumptuously ask the writers to concur with their theories, theories often extraneous to the writers' works. Pearlman and Henderson also obscure the writers' views by floating quotes into the text and tagging them with "we agreed," never revealing who originally set the statement forth. Their Gilliganesque emphasis on connectedness is at best distracting, and at worst, dishonest. Pearlman dedicates sections of her mini-essays to explicating her own theories on space in women's literature. Interviewing Erdrich on her rich fictions of Native American families on the Western Plains, Pearlman slights the more complex and promising theories of history and race for the patterns of opened and closed space which she herself detects.
Poor proofreading further mars the interviews. Quotes are closed irregularly; it is often impossible to tell when the writers have finished speaking. In the mini-essay on Carol Maso, Pearlman maintains that the spirit of Kierkegaard must have jinxed her interview, because, as she rather ironically writes, she is "absolutely sure that he died in 1955." Kierkegaard died in 1855.
These textual complaints might seem petty, but they are indicative of the overall sloppiness which taints A Voice of One's Own. The book is a chatty, slipshod survey of contemporary writing women, and its academic claims are bankrupt. Failed promise makes A Voice of One's Own absolutely infuriating. Pearlman and Henderson spent precious time talking with these accomplished women and produced mostly pap.
To be fair, there are many gems of wisdom amidst the rubble. Novelist McDermott speaks poignantly of the expectations of women writers who are also mothers, and writer Marge Piercy speaks of the writer's responsibilities to public life. Satirist Alison Lurie has an intelligent and balanced view of the price of feminist separatism, and novelist Anne Lamott draws surprising connections between women's literature and culture and therapy. And nanogenarian poet Janet Lewis has fabulous insights into women's history. As she says, "the funny thing about women is that there have always been startling and tremendous women all along, regardless of what the culture thought."
Startling and tremendous women alone save this book. Pearlman and Henderson's touchy-feely treatment of them and their work, their careless use of therapeutic terms like "passive-aggressive," their forced, hollow intimacy with these women--all are hugely regressive and condescending. The authors seem unable to conceive of these women as true thinkers and artists, and instead approach their writing as though it were therapy for the women writers and, indeed, for all women. Pearlman and Henderson see the writers largely as domestic creatures, concerned primarily with matters of heart and hearth. They have broadened their definition of the domestic sphere to include the publishing houses and the university halls, but it is ultimately a sphere of containment.
A couple of times in A Voice of One's Own, the women writers allude to a marvelous anthology of essays by women writers called The Writer on Her Work, edited by Janet Sternburg. The references serve as a painful reminder of all this book could have been, if these women had been allowed to speak plainly, without someone grasping at their hands, or nodding in emphatic assent, or smiling encouragingly. The nobility of this project behind A Voice of One's Own only makes its execution sadder.
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