[(review date 2 July 1988) In the following review of No Man's Land: The War of the Words, Abraham objects to Gubar and Gilbert's attempts to validate women's literature by placing it in the mainstream of twentieth-century critical categories.]
Feminist literary criticism can still be a marginal enterprise in an intellectual universe that also contains William Bennett, Allan Bloom and Gertrude Himmelfarb. But in the almost twenty years since Kate Millett's Sexual Politics helped to inaugurate the field, feminist criticism has also prospered: It now has its own establishment, its own mainstream and margins.
One of the key works in the process of consolidation was Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar's 1979 study, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. They synthesized a decade of feminist analyses and applied the result to the recognized nineteenth-century stars--Jane Austen, the Brontës, George Eliot and Emily Dickinson--while also rewriting Harold Bloom's account of literary history as a fatherson contest to incorporate struggles between fathers and daughters. This established their penchant for the large formulation, their position within the feminist critical establishment and their role as purveyors of feminist critical assumptions beyond its ranks. All these elements were confirmed by their editorship of the 1985 Norton Anthology of Literature by Women, itself a major commercial sign of the impact of feminist criticism on the teaching of literature in the United States.
Gilbert and Gubar present their latest effort, The War of the Words, as the theoretical introduction to a three-volume successor to the Madwoman, titled No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth-Century. This work will be completed by two volumes of close textual readings, one due later this year and the other in 1989. Their subtitle, with its implication that there is such a character as "the woman writer," indicates in advance that they still aspire to the definitive statement on a grand scale, to the repeat achievement of a critical if not a popular blockbuster.
While mainstream critics of twentieth-century literature are still responding to the challenge of feminist criticism by adding Virginia Woolf but talking about E. M. Forster, in The War of the Words Gilbert and Gubar have brought forward a host of women writers who don't even make it to the footnotes of The Pound Era. They have produced an eminently readable study just when academic criticism is courting the abstruse in order to reassure itself of its own significance. They talk about novels, stories, poems and plays instead of other critics and critical works. They use "minor" and shorter works to make major points, marshaling their sources in bulk--there are no revolutionary theories based on one novel by Balzac, or Great Expectations and a Conrad novella. And they frequently bypass the conventional designations of period and style that often, for example, inhibit serious discussions of the realists writing when modernism was in flower.
But, in order perhaps to insure accessibility, they have chosen to tell us a...