Elizabeth Meese (1943–) from “Sexual Politics and Critical Judgment,” in Gregory S. Jay and David L. Miller, Eds., After Strange Texts (1985)
How the critical community establishes literary reputation is at the heart of the problem for women writers and feminist critics. The complexity of the problem reveals itself easily in the questions it encompasses: What is great literature? How do we know when a book is a “classic”? What works comprise the literary canon and what principles inform the selection of texts? Who decides and by what means? The answers to these questions are, in theory, kept somewhat fluid. Obviously, certain writers like Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Milton enjoy permanence, but then there are numerous others whose reputations remain in a state of flux, waxing and waning in accord with the prevailing interests of the critical moment. In “Literature as an Institution: The View from 1980,” Leslie Fiedler cynically observes: “We all know in our hearts that literature is effectively what we teach in departments of English; or conversely, what we teach in departments of English is literature. Within that closed definitional circle, we perform the rituals by which we cast out unworthy pretenders from our ranks and induct true initiates, guardians of the standards by which all song and story ought presumably to be judged.”1 The effects of this kind of exclusion are transparent: it places literature almost entirely in the service of white, male elite culture. The significance of works by writers outside of the mainstream is effectively diminished; as Tillie Olsen explains, “The rule is simple: whenever anyone of that sex, and/or class, and/or color, generally denied enabling circumstances, comes to recognized individual achievement, it is not by virtue of special capacity, courage, determination, will (common qualities), but because of chancy luck, combining with those qualities.”2
KeywordsFeminist Criticism Woman Writer Great Literature Sexual Politics Critical Community
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- 2.Tillie Olsen, “One Out of Twelve: Writers Who Are Women in Our Century”, Silences (New York: Seymour Lawrence, 1978), pp. 22–46Google Scholar
- 3.Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class? The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1980), pp. 10–11.Google Scholar
- 5.Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1938), p. 61.Google Scholar
- 9.Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1929), p. 77.Google Scholar