[(review date Spring-Summer 1995) In the following review of Reasonable Creatures , Rhodenbaugh considers Pollitt's feminist rhetoric, claiming that Pollitt favors the rights of women over the needs of children.]
Katha Pollitt's Reasonable Creatures: Essays on Women and Feminism is not a book of essays, but a collection of opinion pieces. Its nineteen inclusions, thirteen of which first appeared in The Nation, with the balance in The New York Times or The New Yorker, read like op-ed takes on issues such as abortion, surrogate motherhood, rape and menopause, particularly as those issues have come to the forefront in recent news stories, court cases, books and articles.
Pollitt is not the first commentator and will not be the last to collect editorials and call them essays: that's neither here nor there. Nor is topicality necessarily a limitation. A current topic may be the provocation for an essay, but not constitute the bounds of what is explored or discovered. Temporality is at issue, though, for these commentaries mean to win arguments on specific contemporary questions. Had I read them in daily newspapers or weekly magazines--the contexts in which they were first published--they would have served for interrupting the flux of information and helping me make meaning of news. That's the nature of opinion pieces: they contribute to the stream of ideas and perspectives out of which we come to at least qualified or provisional understandings. I enjoy and value them, but almost never save them to re-read, just as I relish Mark Shields' weekly political commentary on the MacNeil-Lehrer Newshour on public television, but have never heard anything so memorable as to cause me to order a videotape of the program.
From essays, I want more. I want language I can savor, insights which leap the bounds of their purported topics, all in all a reading experience to which I'd want to return. I want, in short, some measure of timelessness.
The only one of these commentaries to which I'd return is “Why We Read: Canon to the Right of Me . . . ,” where Pollitt eschews all extremes in the debate over literary canon, and points out the irony of the debate itself, given that we are less and less a nation of readers, and that the canon war treats literature as a medicinal, good primarily for forming whatever character any given advocate prefers. It's a commonsensical piece of writing, and an interesting one, and it seems no accident that it also happens to be the only one in this book where she's not writing from any ism. I hear in “Why We Read” the poet who wrote Antarctic Traveller, I wish I'd heard her more often.
For the reader for whom the distinction between essay and opinion piece is less important, a second broad reaction to Reasonable Creatures may be to ask, what is it to be a feminist? As I understand the term, it is to be not only committed to equity for women, but also to analyze events,...