American Book Review

In Focus: Everything Begins With a Yes: Innovative Fiction by International Women

Christina Milletti

In 2002, the American Book Review published its first special issue devoted to “Innovative Women Writing Fiction” (23.5). At the time, guest editor Stacey Gottlieb called attention to the paradoxical spirit of the assignment: she not only wondered, for instance, how the relationship between gender, writing, and innovation could be measured, but also “whether such gender-specific roundups were even needed anymore.” Now, seven years down the road, little has changed. The strategies for approaching innovative writing by women have settled (“stalled” might be a less tactful word) into two camps: those who propose the feminine is revealed in experimental works through specific stylistic devices—i.e., a fluidity of prose, the nonlinearity of narrative elements, a decentered or nonhierarchical plot structure—and those who are more hesitant to connect gender with writing techne. In short, the same body of questions remains core to the task at hand again. The focus of this special issue—“Innovative Fiction by International Women”—gives us a chance to once again revisit the problem that women innovative writers pose to readers.

First, let me note the obvious: that, among writers and critics alike, there remains an ongoing discomfort with the question of “difference”—to be more precise, the relation of “gender” to “genre.” How, after all, do we “classify” women’s fiction? Is it a sub-division of the greater rubric “fiction”? A “literary subculture,” as Nancy K. Miller unhappily remarks, given the “statistical majority” of women? Is women’s fiction, a “minor” literature, a “political” literature, a literature “of its own”? What is its object? Representation, for instance? Readership? Resistance? (Is an objective as such necessary?) And who writes it? Is women’s fiction written by women, or is it a literature about women? Is it a feminist literature? (If so, whose feminism?) Does it represent a “tradition”? (If so, whose tradition?) Finally, what do we mean by women’s innovative fiction anyway? Innovative…compared to what?

"There remains an ongoing discomfort with the question of ‘difference’—to be more precise, the relation of ‘gender’ to ‘genre.’"

Evidently, the effort to showcase women’s fiction isn’t as simple an exercise as it first appears. Why does defining these terms precisely matter? What crucial factors hang in the balance?

In the preface of Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction (1989)—one of the very few multi-author texts that examines at length both the nature of the experimental work and its authors—editors Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs try to answer some of these questions. As they note, their book originated, on the one hand, against the conventional belief that the writing of women is fundamentally realist and experiential—that women’s interests have been historically focused on “representation” not “innovation”—and, on the other, towards an understanding of narrative experimentation by women as an inherently feminist gesture, a political act. For Friedman and Fuchs, women’s experiments are always already feminist ones, and they list a variety of narrative innovations that women writers have deployed in order to resist “dominant” fictional structures—a patriarchal literary environment traditionally characterized by “plot linearity…a single authoritative storyteller, well-motivated characters interacting in recognizable social patterns; the crucial conflict…the movement to closure.” The end result is “an alternate fictional space, a space in which the feminine, marginalized in traditional fiction and patriarchal culture, can be expressed.” They conclude that women take narrative risks, in other words, to resist a system of power revealed by conventional fiction elements in order to highlight the role of the feminine which historically has been repressed.

Judith Butler, however, questions a central piece of this formulation. “If one ‘is’ a woman,” she reflects, “that is surely not all one is….” Moreover, as she goes on, if gender “intersects with racial, class, ethnic, sexual, regional modalities of discursively constituted identities,” in what ways can women productively achieve representation through a system of power that has already limited the idea of the “feminine” and of “women” from the outset? Certainly, the consequences for the historical production of women’s texts are evident. As Susan Howe reminds us, for instance, even so-called “recognized” women writers are still often neglected; “Emily Dickinson and Gertrude Stein,” after all, “are clearly among the most innovative precursors of modernist poetry and prose, yet to this day canonical criticism from Harold Bloom to Hugh Kenner persists in dropping their names and ignoring their work.”

It would appear, in short, that even when we hope to showcase the work of women, how the idea of the feminine is used and deployed (even with optimistic intentions) is itself at issue. I’d therefore like to propose the following: that we begin to create forums in which the idea of the “feminine” is also at stake—not merely designated as a simple condition of inclusion. That we begin to question who, exactly, “we” is: how are “we” a “collective” body of women writers? What conditions connect us? What circumstances keep us isolated from one another? How can we speak together, if not strictly, as one? After all, do all innovative women writers agree on the wealth of meanings the term “woman” or “innovative” invokes?

What we may very well discover is that women’s innovative fictions are not founded in gender—so much as in the critique of gender.

The fiction of Clarice Lispector offers a case in point in her attention to characters who seem completely bereft of gendered identities or gendering characteristics. In The Hour of the Star (1977), for instance, Lispector strips the protagonist, Macabea, of all feminine characteristics until she becomes “scarcely a woman.” Yet even as Lispector goes to great lengths to reduce her character—to make Macabea ever more useless and naïve until she is (spoiler alert) fatally struck by a yellow Mercedes—the prose remains excessive and rich, almost elated. In this “text on poverty that is not poor,” as Hélène Cixous reflects, the narrator’s initial meditation—that “Everything begins with a yes”—is followed by an ongoing affirmative (generous) response to language in which the reader becomes entwined within a complex narration whose boundaries (between reader and writer, character, narrator and story) are unusually minimized, challenged by the very language that both brings them together and sets them apart. The Hour of the Star is, quite pointedly, about how stories—even poor ones like Macabea’s—come into being, how they evolve, how their language impacts the reader. In this respect, Lispector’s narrator is very direct: “Is it possible that actions exceed words?” he asks, demanding the reader pursue not only Macabea’s storyline, but also the play of language that arises as a means to negotiate the questions the text presents. The Hour of the Star is, on one level, the story of a humble (and humbled) girl. Yet it is also a narrative that investigates how (as Butler might say) girls are “girled”—how the question of gender comes into being—by the language that represents them. Words, to answer the narrator’s question, are indeed actions, and it is in the relation between word and act that, in Lispector’s fictions (as in those by many other innovative fictions by women), a challenge to gender—as well as a critique of gender’s operations—arises. The book reviews that follow each pursue this theme in their own distinct ways: how do women innovative writers use language, they ask, to examine the role of language itself within this tangle of thorns?

Each piece in this international issue—weighted toward writers from the US but also representing France, Poland, England, and New Zealand—examines the conditions of innovation designed by a cache of significant writers who showcase unusual aesthetic approaches to narrative in their work. They are bound by an innovative poetics that act out, push the limits of our expectation of narrative forms. Lydia Davis’s minimalist idiom of consciousness. Rikki Ducornet’s maximally-styled “cabinets of curiosity.” Christine Montalbetti’s implosive genre gamesmanship. Bhanu Kapil’s hybridized narrative texts and bodies. Mary Caponegro’s intent language of domestic phenomena. Lynne Tillman’s collaborative pagings. Magdalena Tulli’s altering interiorities. Janet Frame’s narrative of social recoil and dis-ease. They have each sentenced themselves to rethinking how fiction can be shaped and, more, how that shape changes the reader’s sense of order. How language can disrupt and enhance our perceptions through the words that are our worlds.

This is, finally, in no way a comprehensive issue. All of the selected books (nearly without exception, published in 2009) were chosen in order to give breadth and range to this topic: to give a broad portrait of the types of innovation women work with (no one form of experimentation is showcased here); to highlight the conditions under which women continue to write; and to offer possible intersections of very different kinds of projects (minimal, maximal, collaborative, representational, cross-genre, metafictional). Most importantly, there are far too many notable absences in the conversation. A special issue on contemporary innovative women writers should not go to press, for instance, without addressing the work of Christine Brooke-Rose, Kathryn Davis, Renee Gladman, Shelley Jackson, Cris Mazza, Carole Maso, Amanda Michalopoulou, Marie Redonnet, Mercè Rodoreda, Lydie Salvayre, Joanna Scott, and Diane Williams (the list goes on). New writers on the field also deserve attention: Danielle Dutton, Kellie Wells, Jessica Anthony, Lily Hoang—not to mention each of the reviewers themselves, experimental writers all, who generously gave their time to this issue.

One thing is certain: it’s an impossible task to accomplish in one introductory essay and eight reviews. But the reviewers of the following fine books have given us an excellent place to start.

Christina Milletti is an assistant professor at the University of Buffalo, SUNY. Her work has appeared in The Cincinnati Review, Best New American Voices, and The Chicago Review, among others. She is the author of The Religious and Other Fictions.

Cover page for Volume 38, Issue 1
Volume 38, Issue 1

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Volume 37, Issue 6

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Volume 37, Issue 5

Cover page for Volume 37, Issue 4
Volume 37, Issue 4


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