Men and Feminism in Modern Literature 
by Declan Kiberd.
Macmillan, 250 pp., £13.95, September 1985, 0 333 38353 2
Show More
Women Writing about Men 
by Jane Miller.
Virago, 256 pp., £10.95, January 1986, 0 86068 473 3
Show More
Phallic Critiques: Masculinity and 20th-century Literature 
by Peter Schwenger.
Routledge, 172 pp., £29.50, September 1985, 0 7102 0164 8
Show More
Show More

One of the more useful side-effects of the widely-publicised troubles at the International PEN Congress held this January in New York may ironically have been the new timeliness which Norman Mailer’s outbursts bestowed on feminist consideration of masculinity, misogyny and writing. Mailer, president of PEN and chief organiser and fundraiser for the huge writers’ conference, shed his new persona as serene literary statesman when he was confronted with an angry protest from women PEN members about the under-representation of women on the programme (16 out of 117 panelists). ‘There are countries in the world,’ he retorted, ‘where there are no good women writers.’ Furthermore, he told a large audience, ‘there are not that many women, like Susan Sontag, who are intellectuals first, poets and novelists second.’ Since ‘more men ... are deeply interested in intellectual matters than women,’ he concluded, to have invited more women simply for the sake of fairness would have meant ‘lowering the level of discussion’, risking ‘mediocrity’.

In the aftermath of the PEN debacle, lamenting that he would pay for his remarks ‘for years with lousy reviews’, Mailer explained that he had actually meant that in some countries women writers were exploited and kept down. Although it stretches one’s credulity to see Mailer as a feminist, merely to label him a sexist no longer seems like an adequate explanation of his persistent – and perhaps paradigmatic – contempt for women writers. Indeed, his attitude appears to be an extreme manifestation of the way that many late 20th-century male writers define themselves as artists through a sexual dialectic, create explicitly masculine modes of speaking and writing, and contend with feminism, female precursors, and male and female rivals. As we move through the post-feminist period of gender redefinition that always seems to accompany the end of a century, we need a much more complex analysis of the ways that male sexuality and writing intersect. We need studies of the representation of masculinity to put alongside those of the representation of femininity.

Such studies should fall within the scope of feminist criticism, which has developed the most sophisticated theories and methods for the literary analysis of gender. For the past decade, however, the major energies of Anglo-American feminist criticism have been directed towards the rediscovery and re-examination of women’s writing. Feminist critics have believed that there were more important discoveries to be made in the exploration of the neglected history, traditions and psychodynamics of female creativity than in repeated exposés of misogyny in the male canon. While women’s relationship to literature has emerged as enticingly problematic, the male relationship to literature is still regarded as straightforward, unself-conscious or natural. Even when male literary theorists (such as Wayne Booth, Robert Scholes and Terry Eagleton) have taken an interest in feminist criticism, they have seen problems of sexual difference as women’s problems, addressing – to use Jonathan Culler’s terms – the issue of ‘reading as a woman’ but assuming that ‘reading as a man’ requires no attention. As a result, much male feminist criticism has inadvertently reproduced patriarchal attitudes to women, appropriating or challenging the strategies of feminist discourse rather than questioning its own.

Declan Kiberd’s Men and Feminism in Modern Literature is a workmanlike study which nonetheless displays many of the contradictions of male feminist criticism. Deploring the way that Mailer’s ‘eloquent cry of protest’ against feminism in The Prisoner of Sex was received as merely a personal explosion of anger, Kiberd sets out to provide ‘a considered intellectual response’ to feminism that will ask how it affects men. In Kiberd’s view, the answers to this question were anticipated at the turn of the century by six great male writers: Strindberg, Ibsen, Hardy, Yeats, Lawrence and Joyce. In fact, he argues, recent women authors of ‘feminist tracts’, despite their denunciations and misunderstandings of the Modernists, have merely popularised their ideas about the relations between the sexes. According to Kiberd, Strindberg was not a misogynist, but rather a visionary struggling with his resistance to the womanly, and thus artistic, side of himself. Hardy, despite his ‘near total sympathy with women and the women’s movement’, had to ‘shout stop’ in Jude the Obscure to ‘a tendency which was going too far’: the blurring of gender lines by neurotic New Women. Yeats, while some might quibble with his idealisation of women as unthinking muses, was ‘dynamically traditional’ in his efforts to preserve the essence of femininity. All were sexual radicals and prophets.

Kiberd offers little information on the interaction between these writers and the feminist political activism of their countries and eras; his claims about Hardy, for example, might have to be considerably modified if he looked in detail at Hardy’s reaction to women’s suffrage, let alone his relationships with his two wives. Instead he describes their relationship to feminism as personal and psychological, not tracing their attitudes towards women’s education, work, role in the family, or creativity, but rather analysing their representations of ‘the relationship between a masterful woman and a passive man’. Kiberd equates this scenario – the New Woman as ‘predator, rebel and neurotic’, dominating a ‘self-doubting New Man, whose very passivity makes his heroism problematic’ – with the male response to feminism, and the creation of a male protagonist who is both ‘passive and exemplary’ is his touchstone of male sexual vision.

When he is considering role-reversal simply as a theme in Fin-de-Siècle literature, Kiberd is clear and helpful; he is most interesting when he is discussing Leopold Bloom’s masochistic sexual fantasies in Ulysses. But to define male writers’ anxiety-ridden fantasies of impotence or even their pleasurable fantasies of submission as the product of feminism, rather than as the projection of their own psyches, seems perverse. Kiberd’s terminology repeatedly contradicts his declarations of a belief in sexual equality; the New Man who tangles with feminists is always described as ‘passive’ or ‘timid’ rather than strong, open-minded, adventurous, sensitive or secure.

In fact, for Kiberd ‘feminism’ appears to mean something like ‘female dominance’, and thus, despite his support for equal pay, and his care to call women ‘Ms’, he seems strikingly ambivalent about the women’s movement. Overall, the book is engaged in a critical quarrel with the ‘militant’ feminists (another favourite epithet) who have found Modernism misogynistic, although, since Kiberd’s citations of recent feminist literary scholarship are few, this boils down to disagreements with Kate Millett. Moreover, Kiberd’s social views are deeply conservative, expressed in odd asides about the troubling sexual anarchy of the present age, where male impotence ‘may arise as a consequence of the uncompromising demands of a whole generation of hard-edged feminists’; where mutual masturbation (we are repeatedly told) is now the foremost form of sexual pleasure for young marrieds; and where motherhood is devalued although ‘most women who have tried to reconcile motherhood with another career’ find themselves undergoing ‘heart-rending conflicts’.

Kiberd suggests that instead of feminism we need androgyny, the full expression and acceptance in each of us of both our masculine and feminine sides. Who could quarrel with such a utopian agenda? But how is it to be achieved when men apparently react to even mild feminist programmes with anxiety, anger and shock? Kiberd’s Jungian view of androgyny reproduces every familiar stereotype of gender, allocating the traits of aggression, reason and power to the masculine side, and intuition, playfulness, imagination and nurturance to the feminine. His own anima is kept well out of view here; impersonal and authoritative, his critical voice suggests that androgyny belongs in the home.

While Kiberd’s Men and Feminism is traditionally controlled in its style and structure, Jane Miller’s Women Writing about Men is very much in the subjective tradition of feminist criticism that begins with Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. Her book is less about male characters in women’s novels than about the experience of female marginality: women’s simultaneous exclusion and inclusion from men’s stories, adventures, genres and literary institutions. In a sense, all women’s writing is writing about men, since women have both internalised and resisted the authority and power which men represent.

Kiberd and Miller offer significant contrasts in virtually every aspect of their respective books. While Kiberd calls for androgyny, Miller is scornful of the cheap compliments of the androgyny school that credit ‘the feminine’ or the anima with creative power in men, while denigrating the creativity of women. Indeed, in Miller’s view, androgyny has very different meanings for women and for men. For women, ‘androgyny’ can be compared to bilingualism; it is the internalisation of male voices, male values and male culture. Literary women are the victims of a ‘learned androgyny’ which has made them become impostors, liars, ‘outsiders masquerading as insiders’. The very language women use to think about themselves must be borrowed from men. In order to create an authentic art, therefore, women must unlearn androgyny, must recover confidence in the specificity of their own perceptions and experiences. For women, feminist consciousness is a stage beyond a false androgyny.

Like Kiberd, Miller presents a number of readings of literary texts: but their styles are strikingly different. His style is impersonal, confident and conclusive; hers is self-conscious, tentative and open-ended. Miller understands feminist criticism as a process as well as a set of ideas; it is not simply a mode of analysis which may be appropriated by men but a perspective on literature that comes out of the experience of marginality, negativity and exclusion, and that must begin with one’s own life. Thus Miller incorporates her autobiography into the critical text, opening it up to tell the story of her evolution from an ‘androgynous’ to a ‘feminist’ reader. The organisation of the book, she tells us, reflects her development from the ‘pre-political’ and anxious wife and mother deciphering the mixed messages in the classics of Austen, Eliot and Bronte, to the teacher and critic of modern women’s literature ‘less guarded ... and covert in my plans to develop a feminist theory of reading and writing’. And even in this book, passages of lucid and original critical interpretation are interrupted by confessions of her own uncertainty: ‘As I write this I am anxious and even ashamed. Anxious still that men ... will disapprove.’ While Kiberd’s assertive tone seems to be his male defence against the unmanning risks of writing about feminism, Miller’s confessions are her female defence against entering the patriarchal world of criticism. ‘Women who write,’ she notes, ‘possess a powerful instrument of resistance, a double-edged sword, which they have felt as dangerous and have sometimes kept sheathed.’

It’s important, however, to see both of these styles as strategies modelled on critical traditions, rather than as expressions of innate sexual difference. Miller tells us that she became a feminist by reading Dorothy Richardson, and her allegiances lie primarily with the female Modernists who resisted the pressure to categorise, compartmentalise or summarise the fluidity of experience. A few scenes of self-revelation are also standard, almost formulaic, in contemporary feminist criticism, as are admissions of the anxiety of authorship. For my taste, Miller protests too much. She is a shrewd and sophisticated critic, very well read in both feminist and critical theory, who nonetheless never quite comes to terms with the question of female ‘bilingualism’ that is crucial to her argument. Bilingualism must only be a metaphor, since there is no genderlect or women’s language that corresponds to Breton or Welsh. But while Miller acknowledges the complexities of her analogy between women and bilingual immigrants, she never provides the solid analysis she promises.

Yet as she moves away from the familiar territory of the 19th-century novel to confront the often hostile representation of men in the works of such writers as Richardson, Rebecca West, Alexandra Kollontai, Christina Stead, Jean Rhys, Doris Lessing, Toni Morrison and Alice Walker, Miller’s deliberately unsystematic readings have an impressive cumulative power. By the end of the book, as she discusses the work of black and working-class writers, women who have been so excluded from the culture’s concept of the heroine that they have paradoxically been free to tell their own stories, Miller herself drops some of the protective devices of female subjectivity, and presents a critique of marginalisation in language that is clear and sharp.

Peter Schwenger’s study of masculinity and 20th-century literature both offers some brilliant hypotheses about the sexual and textual politics of such writers as Hemingway, Mailer, Mishima, Dickey and Roth, and provides a theoretical context within which we can understand the development of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ critical styles of reservation or revelation. In the 20th century, he argues, writing and the cultivated use of language have been viewed as activities so perilously close to the effeminate that some male writers have felt an urgent need to establish their virility through a variety of strategies, often involving the denigration of women. For Hemingway, this meant the development of a masculine aesthetic of severe reserve, since men become womanised by opening themselves up to feelings, to language, to each other. Thus Hemingway’s heroes distrust talking; words can only falsify emotions, and destroy a cherished male sense of integrity about experience. For Mailer and others, the threat of feminisation led to a masculine mode of writing – tough, curt, slangy, obscene – that could absolve itself from the self-conscious, and therefore unmanly, refinement of art. In an early Mailer story called ‘The Language of Men’ (1951), for example, a lonely soldier becomes a creative and conscientious army cook. But although ‘he baked like a housewife satisfying her young husband,’ the cook still finds himself excluded by the men in his company. By sulking and burning the coffee, the cook finally coerces his mates into a grudging acceptance, but he knows that they will ‘never consider him a friend’. While he is ‘no longer so worried about becoming a man’, he wonders ‘if he would ever learn the language of men’.

Schwenger reads this story as an allegory of Mailer’s anxieties about writing as a feminine craft, in which verbal perfection and the desire to please risk effeminacy. Worried that his first-person narrators were ‘over-delicate’, Mailer rewrote the first version of The Deer Park, deciding ‘which of two close words was more female or more forward’. With each rejection of the ‘female’ word, he noted, ‘the style of the work lost its polish, became rough, and I can say real, because there was an abrupt and muscular body back of the voice now.’

As he separates the male ‘intellectuals’ from the crowd of female poets and novelists at the PEN Congress, Mailer is still reassuring himself that his creative self is not feminine and vulnerable, but virile, muscular and abrupt. Miller, one suspects, would not have been surprised by Mailer or the men of PEN who supported his stand, since, as she has noticed, ‘we are still invited in only when men decide they cannot do without us.’ If the PEN Congress had any message for the world, it was surely that the day of androgyny is not at hand.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences