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While it is, of course, Gilbert and Gubar’s prerogative to choose their own literary feminist pantheon, some of their exclusions are a bit hard to fathom: How, for instance, can one cite the revolutionary inquiries into female desire of figures like Erica Jong without ever mentioning Mary McCarthy’s trailblazing writing on women and sex and one-night stands and birth control? The book covers a vast amount of territory, and the authors rarely get into the intense, rigorous textual analysis that gave “The Madwoman in the Attic” its charisma and enduring power. One craves more attention to some of the writers they skim over quickly, like Chris Kraus and Eileen Myles.
I find myself wondering why “Still Mad” lacks the fire and focus of its famous predecessor. Is it possible that feminist readings have lost some of their urgency in our slightly more equal world? Do writers like Alison Bechdel or Claudia Rankine or Maggie Nelson or Anne Carson call out to be read as feminists, rather than the radiant, idiosyncratic talents they are? If we milk their writing for political interpretation, do their imaginative worlds end up reduced, flattened to a more pedestrian message? Are we really gaining much insight with observations like, “Alison struggles to come to terms with the traditional wife and mother who serves the needs of autocratic men”?
In a critique of early feminist criticism, Didion wrote, “That fiction has certain irreducible ambiguities seemed never to occur to these women, nor should it have, for fiction is in most ways hostile to ideology.” The same is true of more ambitious and literary nonfiction and poetry. In the attempt to corral these vast nuanced projects into political readings, their aspirations are often collapsed, simplified.
Of course, the critical landscape has also altered enormously since the early stirrings of feminist literary criticism. What was once radical is now familiar, overwrought, predictable. In some sense, the obviousness of “Still Mad”’s feminist readings is, perversely, a testament to its authors’ achievement. They, along with other pioneering literary critics like Kate Millett and Julia Kristeva, transformed the field of popular literary interpretation. Their own innovation and boldness have made their subsequent work less necessary, less exciting.
Because many of the contemporary writers they explore are consciously and explicitly grappling with feminist themes, we may not need critics to exhume them in the way Gilbert and Gubar did so creatively with novelists like Charlotte Brontë and Jane Austen. In “The Madwoman in the Attic,” the critics juxtaposed a quote from Simone de Beauvoir with something Emma said in Austen’s classic to fruitfully illuminate the struggle of Austen’s characters to accept their feminine roles. But the political messages and motivations are hardly buried in the work of writers like Margaret Atwood, Adrienne Rich and Maggie Nelson, and so the labor of uncovering them requires less imaginative and intellectual bravura.
Though “Still Mad” may not feel as profound, intellectually sinewy or fiercely focused as “The Madwoman in the Attic,” it remains an excellent resource for anyone seeking a spirited guide through the past few decades of feminist history. One can feel the sensibilities of these two pioneering scholars — humane, fair, impassioned, well intentioned — hovering over the page.