Another highlight of the weekend was the set of plenary addresses arranged to honor the 25th anniversary of the journal, Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, featuring Susan Staves, Maram Epstein, and Carla Mulford. Though all three talks were good, I thought that Staves’s talk would provide some interesting matter for further discussion here.
Staves did a very nice job in her talk distinguishing between the history of women’s writing and the history of the female novelist in her plea for further research on women’s writing in non-fictional genres. This talk was clearly a spinoff of the long-term work she has done in feminist literary history, not just in her own studies, but in her powerful overview of the field, A Literary History of Women’s Writing in Britain, 1660-1789 (Cambridge, 2007).
What I found most interesting about Staves’s talk was her claim that it was women’s non-fiction, not fiction, that contained the least ideologically determined representations of women. The female characters in the novels will resemble the characters in the conduct books, but the products of feminine experience found in diaries, memoirs, essays, histories, etc., will necessarily contain more complicated representations, and more realistic examples of how women worked within and against contemporary codes of conduct and decorum. [this is all from memory, but I think I’m doing justice to SS’s points here]
This seems plausible to me, insofar as I’ve always wondered about how resolve the tensions between the prescriptive, conduct book images of femininity and the related though not identical images offered in both the novel and social history. Bringing the non-fictional genres of women’s writing to bear upon this question seems like a good way to approach this problem.
But to do this, we need to start taking not-quite-literary genres like the periodical essay or the familiar letter much more seriously than we have in the past, and stop isolating the novel from other, concurrent genres. Any sign that we might follow Susan Staves’s excellent advice?