Dworkin, Andrea (Contemporary Literary Criticism)
Andrea Dworkin 1946–
American nonfiction writer, novelist, essayist, short story writer, and poet.
The following entry presents an overview of Dworkin's career through 1998. For further information on her life and work, see CLC, Volume 43.
A highly controversial author and activist, Andrea Dworkin is a leading radical feminist and heterodox figure of the contemporary women's movement. Her provocative investigations into the cultural origins of misogyny and sexual violence have generated contentious debate among feminists, academics, politicians, and free speech advocates. A forceful spokesperson against pornography, Dworkin calls attention to the insidious sexual myths that perpetuate the role of women as degraded objects of male gratification and exploitation. Dworkin is best known for her nonfiction analyses Pornography (1981) and Intercourse (1987), as well as several collections of potent essays and speeches and two novels—Ice and Fire (1986) and Mercy (1990)—in which she illustrates the shocking brutality of female subjugation. Alternately revered and reviled for her fire-brand polemics and castigation of mainstream feminists, Dworkin has exerted an important influence on public discourse surrounding the modes, extent, and human cost of male dominated sexuality and female oppression.
Born in Camden, New Jersey, Dworkin was raised in a liberal Jewish home by her father, a guidance counselor, and mother, a secretary. While still in grade school, Dworkin expressed her desire to affect social change as a writer or lawyer. Her early literary interests were shaped by the writings of Arthur Rimbaud and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and later Virginia Woolf, the Brontës, George Eliot, and revolutionary Che Guevara. Politically active by age eighteen, Dworkin was arrested at an antiwar rally in New York City in 1964. While jailed at the Women's House of Detention, she was sexually assaulted during an invasive body search, prompting her to lead a public demonstration upon her release. Dworkin attended Bennington College in Vermont, where she earned a bachelor's degree in 1968 after a one year leave of absence in Greece. Dworkin's writing first appeared in the privately printed volumes Child (1966), a book of poetry produced in Crete, and Morning Hair (1968), which consists of poetry and prose. Disillusioned by American involvement in Vietnam, Dworkin moved to the Netherlands for a five year period after graduating from Bennington. During this time she endured a physically and emotionally abusive marriage to a Dutch man, whom she escaped in 1971 with the help of intervening feminists. Returning to the United States in 1972, Dworkin supported herself as a waitress, receptionist, secretary, salesperson, factory worker, and prostitute while periodically homeless. She was eventually hired as an assistant to poet Muriel Rukeyser while working on her first book, Woman Hating (1974), which she began in Amsterdam. Dworkin was also active in feminist demonstrations and established herself as a powerful speaker at the National Organization for Women's Conference on Sexuality in 1974. Two years later she published Our Blood (1976), a collection of essays and speeches, followed by The New Woman's Broken Heart (1981), a volume of short stories. During the 1980s, Dworkin joined forces with Catharine A. MacKinnon, a law professor at the University of Michigan, to campaign for antipornography legislation. Together they authored an important civil rights ordinance in Minneapolis that recognized pornography as a form of sexual discrimination. The ordinance was passed in 1983 and became a model for similar legislation in other American cities and Canada. Dworkin also appeared before the Attorney General's Commission on Pornography in 1986. Her research and lobbying resulted in Pornography and Pornography and Civil Rights (1988), a collaborative volume with MacKinnon. A frequent lecturer at feminist gatherings and contributor to numerous periodicals, Dworkin also published the book-length studies Right-Wing Women (1983) and Intercourse, the nonfiction collections Letters from a War Zone (1989) and Life and Death (1997), and the novels Ice and Fire and Mercy.
The primary subjects of Dworkin's critical studies and fiction—sexual abuse, pornography, and female subordination—are introduced in her first book, Woman Hating. In this work, Dworkin examines the socialization of gender roles and misogyny through analysis of fairy tales and pornographic writings. Such cultural artifacts, according to Dworkin, represent a continuum through which hierarchical heterosexual relationships are prescribed from childhood through adulthood. Her examination of sources ranging from "Snow White" to Pauline Réage's The Story of O demonstrates that women are consistently portrayed as weak, submissive, and despised, reflected in cultural practices such as foot-binding and witch-burning. These themes are expanded upon in Pornography and Intercourse. In Pornography, Dworkin examines the content, social context, and effects of pornography as a tool of male domination over women. Dismissing claims that pornographic writings and images fall under the protected category of free expression, Dworkin asserts that pornography is an exploitative medium of mass propaganda by which the ideology of male supremacy is transmitted. Drawing attention to the victimization of real women who perform in pornographic films, Dworkin contends that the creation of pornography is inseparable from the degradation of women it falsely portrays as fantasy; thus the production of pornography embodies its harmful effect. In Intercourse, Dworkin discusses the physical act of heterosexual intercourse as the quintessential manifestation of male hegemony and female inequality. According to Dworkin, male penetration during copulation signifies possession of the woman, rendering impossible the notion of female liberation or selfhood, as she is compelled to submit to male desire as occupation. Incorporating analysis of religious and legal strictures governing female sexuality and texts by Leo Tolstoy, Kobo Abe, James Baldwin, Tennessee Williams, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Gustave Flaubert, Dworkin maintains that—for women—the manipulative, demeaning experience of sexual intercourse precludes mutual respect or integrity. Dworkin's semiautobiographic novels, Ice and Fire and Mercy, give vivid expression to the conclusions in her nonfiction. Ice and Fire relates the experiences of an unnamed young feminist from Camden, New Jersey. She grows up in a work-class Jewish neighborhood, goes to college, marries an abusive husband, and eventually settles in New York City where she lives in squalor, prostitutes, and is brutalized by various men while attempting to write a book. After much difficulty locating a publisher, the protagonist finally gets her book into print, though it flounders due to its spiteful publisher and poor sales. Dworkin's alter ego in Mercy, also a young woman from Camden, is named Andrea. The first person narrative documents a long history of horrific sexual abuse inflicted upon its protagonist, beginning when she was molested in a movie theater at age nine. Andrea is sexually assaulted by sadistic prison doctors, raped and mutilated by her husband, and repeatedly violated while living a bohemian existence in New York City. Her rage finally gives way to retributive violence, leading her to firebomb sex shops and assault homeless men while envisioning an international guerilla war on men. The narrative action is framed by a prologue and epilogue, both entitled "Not Andrea," in which Dworkin parodies her liberal feminist and academic detractors. Dworkin's views on the political, cultural, and physical subjugation of women are further elaborated in the essays, columns, and speeches collected in Our Blood, Letters from a War Zone, and Life and Death. In the nonfiction work Right-Wing Women, written during the early years of the Reagan administration, Dworkin attempts to explain the appeal of the Republican party for women, despite its opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment and other legislation to enhance the well-being of women. According to Dworkin, fear of male violence compels many conservative women to relinquish their autonomy for the security of traditional sex roles which demand passivity and subservience. The book was in part an attempt by Dworkin to distance herself from the antipornography advocacy of anti-feminist, religious, and conservative groups such as the Moral Majority.
Dworkin's compelling examination of sexual politics and pornography is the subject of divisive controversy in academic, political, and feminist circles. Though praised by some for her insightful, groundbreaking analysis of cultural misogyny and sexual exploitation, her detractors typically object to the abrasive presentation of her postulations. Critics frequently complain that Dworkin's bombastic rhetoric distorts and sensationalizes the substance of her findings while alienating much of her audience. Critics also condemn Dworkin's interchangeable use of literal and metaphorical statements and her tendency to construct sweeping generalizations based on overstated or anecdotal evidence. Pornography and Intercourse, her best known and most inflammatory works, are generally recognized as her most important contributions to feminist scholarship. Negative critical response to Intercourse is directed primarily at elements of biological determinism in Dworkin's argument. According to many reviewers, Dworkin reduces the inequality of women to the inevitable anatomical facts of intromission. Though critics often dismiss her methodology and conclusions, many praise her highly perceptive critical analysis of literary sources in Pornography, Intercourse, and Woman Hating. Dworkin's vigilant condemnation of pornography has also caused fissures among feminist activists, especially those reluctant to challenge First Amendment rights. However, Dworkin's focus on pornography as a Fourteenth Amendment infringement instead of an obscenity issue, a strategy formulated with MacKinnon, is considered an important legal maneuver for antipornography advocacy. Dworkin is less appreciated as a novelist. While some reviewers commend her visceral evocation of sexual violence, most find fault in her simplistic prose, undeveloped characters, overt feminist agenda, and graphic sexuality which, as some reviewers note, resembles the pornography she decries. Eschewing theoretical abstractions and the insular ideological battles of academic feminists, Dworkin has won many supporters for her willingness to address distasteful and often overlooked aspects of sexual abuse. A formidable independent thinker and activist, Dworkin is recognized as one of the most articulate and influential voices of contemporary feminism.
Child (poetry) 1966
Morning Hair (poetry and prose) 1968
Woman Hating (nonfiction) 1974
Our Blood: Prophecies and Discourses on Sexual Politics (essays and speeches) 1976
The New Woman's Broken Heart (short stories) 1980
Pornography: Men Possessing Women (nonfiction) 1981
Right-Wing Women: The Politics of Domesticated Females (nonfiction) 1983
Ice and Fire (novel) 1986
Intercourse (nonfiction) 1987
Pornography and Civil Rights: A New Day for Women's Equality [with Catharine A. MacKinnon] (nonfiction) 1988
Letters from a War Zone: Writings 1976–1987 [republished as Letters from a War Zone: Writings 1976–1989, 1989] (essays) 1988
Mercy (novel) 1990
Life and Death: Unapologetic Writings on the Continuing War Against Women (nonfiction) 1997
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SOURCE: A review of Ice and Fire and Intercourse, in Los Angeles Times Book Review, May 3, 1987, pp. 1, 7.
[In the following review, Mall offers tempered criticism of Ice and Fire and Intercourse.]
According to Publishers Weekly, Andrea Dworkin's first novel, Ice and Fire, was turned down by 20 American publishers before its appearance last year in England. One wonders why. True, Dworkin, known as a feminist particularly concerned with pornography, takes a flyer on surrealism in the novel, but the style works for her, at least at first.
Her protagonist is marvelous as a little girl on a working class Jewish block in Camden, N.J., in the 1950s, a girl who defies the unwritten law of her neighborhood by making friends with black and Catholic kids at elementary school and walking, in solitary curiosity and defiance, down the blocks where these proscribed people live. Childhood comes to glowing life on this single block with its alleys and, between the houses, spaces mysteriously large to children out playing "witch" on summer nights, the boys chasing the girls, putting the captured one in a homemade cage: "I would play witch, wanting to be chased and caught, terrified to be chased and caught, terrified not to be chased, racing heart…. Oh, it was incredible to run, racing heart…. If only that had been the game. But the game was to get caught…."...
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SOURCE: "Hard Cop, Soft Cop," in The Nation, May 30, 1987, pp. 720, 722-4, 726.
[In the following excerpt, Mullarkey offers unfavorable assessment of Intercourse, which she describes as "a hate-mongering tantrum."]
Is pornography a sex aid, like a dildo, hence undeserving of protection as speech? Is it a potent political message that should be denied protection before it leads to a Haymarket riot of rapists and pedophiles? By what criteria is an image determined "degrading"? Is the pet of the month a nastier purveyor of "bad attitudes" than Calvin Klein advertisements, rock videos, Harlequin romances or the New York Post? Is Screw an unusually dangerous product, like gunpowder, which places special liabilities on its maker? What effect will more laws have on the reasons isolated men masturbate in stalls at Mr. Peepers? Will they try it with chickens after they see Leda and the Swan? If Nazis can speak in Skokie and man-haters can speak anywhere, why can misogynists not speak in Indianapolis?
Andrea Dworkin and Catharine A. MacKinnon are not interested in clarifying issues. Co-authors of the 1984 Indianapolis civic ordinance that declared pornography a form of legally actionable sex discrimination, they prefer obfuscation and shock tactics. Intercourse and Feminism Unmodified should be read solely for clues to the crudity of the authors'...
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SOURCE: "Staying Outside the Skin," in Times Literary Supplement, October 16, 1987, p. 1129.
[In the following review, Sage provides tempered criticism of Intercourse.]
By the time Swift's Gulliver paddles away from Houyhnhnm-land in his Yahoo-skin canoe, he is so consumed with self-disgust and self-hatred (Yahoo-hatred) that it seems he has only two alternatives—to skin himself, to jump out of his skin, or (the one he chooses) to loathe everyone else, and particularly (when he gets home) his nearest and dearest, from whose foul closeness he escapes to the stable to inhale the horses. Andrea Dworkin's Intercourse is a book that belongs in a similar landscape of extremity. It's about skinlessness, about coming home to revulsion:
In Amerika, there is the nearly universal conviction—or so it appears—that sex (fucking) is good and that liking it is right: morally right; a sign of human health; nearly a standard of citizenship. Even those who believed in original sin and have a theology of hellfire and damnation express the Amerikan creed, an optimism that glows in the dark: sex is good, healthy, wholesome, pleasant, fun; we like it, we enjoy it, we want it, we are cheerful about it; it is as simple as we are, the citizens of this strange country with no memory and no mind.
This Amerika, though (think of Donne, "O my...
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SOURCE: A review of Intercourse, in Sex Roles, Vol. 19, Nos. 3-4, 1988, pp. 255-8.
[In the following review, Tiefer offers qualified endorsement of Intercourse. "Dworkin's book," Tiefer concludes, "deserves appreciation and study for its challenging depiction of various aspects of heterosexual relations despite her overstatement of their importance."]
As feminist historians are beginning to show, theories about sexual acts and values have played a central role in every feminist movement. Feminist sex reformers in the 19th and early 20th century argued intensely over women's and men's sexual "natures," and how best to construct sex to further women's interests. The recent wave of feminism beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s found radical feminists such as Dana Densmore and Ann Koedt writing essays on sexual acts and attitudes that blew people's minds! Lacking awareness of earlier feminist positions, we naive readers excitedly read their claims, including that sexual intercourse was an act designed by men for male pleasure, and that the feminist revolution had to redefine and rechoreograph sexuality from women's point of view. These essays first appeared in pamphlets that circulated rapidly around consciousness-raising groups, generating hours-long discussions, the intensity and honesty of which are recalled to this day by the participants.
After the early clarion...
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SOURCE: "Taking the Lid Off," in Times Literary Supplement, June 3, 1988, p. 611.
[In the following review, Lee offers unfavorable assessment of Letters from a War Zone, which she dismisses as "an appalling book."]
This is an appalling book, and it is hard not to be appalled by it for hasty reasons. Andrea Dworkin is a fanatic, a ranter and a bully. She represents, in her own sad words, "the morbid side of the woman's movement. I deal with the shit, the real shit." To read her is to go to prison: to become, like her, a monomaniac, confined inside the walls of her cruel theme, to the complete exclusion of other and kinder ways of thinking about being alive. She is profoundly offensive to "civilized" liberals because she denies all possibility of tolerant allowances or individual variations.
She is, also, particularly alien to most British readers, since, though she describes herself as a lone prophet in the wilderness of fascist "Amerika," she belongs to a very American tradition of inspirational platform speaking. Letters from a War Zone are mostly speeches, written in the 1970s and 80s as ways of circumventing the publishing and media industries which, Dworkin claims, have repeatedly censored and silenced her. But though she says she was forced into speech-making, public rhetoric clearly suits her: there is no great difference in style between the speeches, the essays and...
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SOURCE: A review of Intercourse, in Ethics, Vol. 99, No. 3, April, 1989, pp. 670-1.
[In the following review, Harrold summarizes Dworkin's view of sexual inequality in Intercourse.]
All right, strap on those crampons, and into the Abyss! How does intercourse relate to the status of women?
Intercourse is examined through a series of concepts—repulsion, skinlessness, stigma, communion and possession, and the opposing/complementary roles of virginity and occupation/collaboration. Dworkin uses a multiple approach to her subject and her subjection. She analyzes social practice and individual lives, and the use of language; she employs psychoanalytical concepts, legal interpretation, and literary criticism. The interpretation of literary texts is excellent—marked by generosity and effective, never strained, exegesis. The examination of legal definition and construction of gender and sexual practices (both legal and illegal) is especially fine.
Dworkin notes the constant challenge to the liberal notion of the individual that women present. Her property in herself is intrinsically compromised by that opening for men to penetrate. Woman is open, marked as penetrable and possessible in biology, personal relations, and law. Dworkin's positioning of intercourse in the foreground of the inquiry into woman's lesser worth has been burlesqued as an acceptance of biological...
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SOURCE: "Street Fighting Feminist," in The New York Times Book Review, October 29, 1989, pp. 11-2.
[In the following review, Dickstein offers tempered criticism of Letter from a War Zone. According to Dickstein, "Much of what Andrea Dworkin has to say is important—whether you agree with it or not—but how she says it tends to undermine her argument."]
Abbie Hoffman might have been pleased to see that someone still spells America with a "k," evoking in one small gesture the clenched fist, the pulsating energy and rebelliousness of the 1960's. Andrea Dworkin is still out there fighting, and hers is a very specific battle: against the way American culture treats women.
Ms. Dworkin, a novelist and the author of six books of non-fiction, is most famous for having initiated, with the feminist lawyer Catherine MacKinnon, legislation in Minneapolis in 1983 and 1984 that would have outlawed pornography as sex discrimination and a violation of women's civil rights. Passed by two City Councils, it was vetoed twice by the Mayor. Similar statutes in Indianapolis and in Bellingham, Wash., were struck down by the courts as a violation of the First Amendment right to free speech.
A political firebrand, Ms. Dworkin is a street fighter and an unswervingly radical feminist. Revolutions need people like her, women willing to draw fire on the front lines and the barricades. But...
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SOURCE: "A Conversation With Andrea Dworkin," in Sojourner, Vol. 15, No. 10, June, 1990, pp. 17, 19-20.
[In the following interview, Dworkin comments on pornography and contemporary feminist protest.]
[Gail Dines:] Why did you have to go to England to get Letters from a War Zone published originally?
[Andrea Dworkin:] I can give you the reasons I know. In the United States the pornographers and the publishers see themselves as having identical interests—legal, social, and economic interests. In the United Kingdom that is not the case. Pornographers are still regarded as pimps and sleazeballs even though the consumers are your regular males, normal citizens. Publishers still see their responsibility as being to publish writers, and it has been in that kind of a social environment that I get published. People will say, "Whether we agree with you or not, you are a fine writer, therefore we will publish you."
It looks to me like pornography is getting worse, acts of violence are getting worse, and the younger the assailant, the more vicious and violent the act. But what I've found with a lot of women is, "Oh, pornography? We've dealt with the pornography question. Can't Dworkin give it a rest?" Do you agree that pornography is getting worse?
I think there's a certain detached objective way in which you can say it's not getting...
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SOURCE: "Why Feminists Should Read Andrea Dworkin," in Sojourner, Vol. 15, No. 10, June, 1990, pp. 16-7.
[In the following essay, Russo and Torres provide a positive overview of Dworkin's feminist perspective and political activism through analysis of Letters from a War Zone.]
The following retrospective essay provides an analysis of Andrea Dworkin's work from 1976 to 1989. It is based on Dworkin's newest book, a compilation of essays and speeches entitled Letters from a War Zone: Writings 1976–1989, which covers subjects ranging from Hedda Nusbaum's experience of battery to the ACLU's stand on pornography.
Dworkin has devoted her life to fighting violence against women in all its manifestations, particularly pornography. She co-authored, with attorney Catharine MacKinnon, an antipornography ordinance (known as the Minneapolis ordinance), which defines pornography as a violation of women's civil rights. The ordinance allows those who are hurt by pornography to sue for damages….
Women, according to Andrea Dworkin, are socialized to be indifferent to our own situation and that of other women. She seeks through her essays and speeches, compiled in Letters from a War Zone, to compel women to fight for women's rights. Writing is her active response to the war being waged daily against women. She introduces her new volume of essays by...
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SOURCE: "Nasties," in Times Literary Supplement, October 5, 1990, p. 1072.
[In the following review, Heller offers unfavorable assessment of Mercy.]
In 1983, Andrea Dworkin gave a speech to students at Hamilton College in upstate New York. "I represent the morbid side of the women's movement", she began. "I deal with the shit, the real shit." Seven years on, Dworkin's commitment to the dirty work of feminism shows no signs of letting up. "The shit"—or more specifically, the physical abuse of women by men—is still her specialization.
Her second novel, Mercy, is the story of Dworkin's alter-ego, "Andrea", a young woman whose journey through the misogynist world ("this zoo of sickies and sadists") constitutes an almost encyclopaedic survey of male sexual violence. Andrea begins her first-person narrative with an account of being assaulted in a cinema at the age of nine. Adolescence is french-kissing dirty old men on buses, and sex at knife-point with the neighbourhood tough. Adulthood is heralded by being raped "properly" for the first time.
The young Andrea is a Walt Whitman fan. She wants to sing the body electric and contain multitudes. But wherever she goes and whatever she does, she confronts a relentless male hostility. She is sent to jail for being on a peace demo, and sadistic doctors rip her up inside with a speculum. She travels to Crete and is...
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SOURCE: "Declaring War on Men," in The New York Times Book Review, September 15, 1991, p. 11.
[In the following review, Steiner offers tempered criticism of Mercy. According to Steiner, "Ms. Dworkin's argument, proceeding from pain, may be moving, but it is also intolerant, simplistic and often just as brutal as what it protests."]
This past spring in London, with an hour to kill in a bookstore, I decided to read the first few pages of as many new novels as I could. Among the recent releases was Mercy, a second novel by the controversial feminist Andrea Dworkin, better known to me for her nonfiction tirades against pornography, against intercourse, against men. She was not a writer I would normally be drawn to, but in the spirit of experimentation I read through the first chapter. It was a representation of sexual trauma through a 9-year-old child's bewilderment, and I found myself utterly transfixed; I had to keep on reading. But although it seemed powerful to me as fiction then, I now see Ms. Dworkin's book in a larger context—as another salvo in the war between liberals and radicals. Once again the noddy head of tolerance is pummeled by the unbrookable demands of outraged pain.
Mercy is spoken in the voice of a woman named Andrea, who tells us the story of her life. It is a Bildungsroman, composed to explain why she now kills men. "I was born in 1946,"...
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SOURCE: "Review Article: Dworkin's Mercy," in Feminist Review, No. 38, Summer, 1991, pp. 79-85.
[In the following review, Kaveney offers tempered criticism of Mercy, which she describes as "an ambitious novel." Kaveney writes, "The real failure of this book is not in the cheating, or the calculated omissions, or the implicit elitism; it is in the deep solipsism that characterizes it from beginning to end."]
Polemical novels are problematic, both ethically and aesthetically. When a novel is merely a novel, the aesthetic questions around it have to do with how well it achieves its artistic ends: a critic may prefer Alexandrian trickiness, or may prefer simple passionate utterance, but these preferences are matters of opinion. When we are considering a polemic, the questions that have to be asked deal with the position advocated, but also with the methods adopted; most would agree that a polemic in favour of an egalitarian project which manipulates by subliminal rhetorical cues is devalued thereby, because to influence rather than to argue is to adopt a position of superiority at odds with the ideology promoted.
When a novel is both art object and argument, the weighing of the two sets of judgements becomes complex. The duty to produce the best possible novel, and the duty to put a case as clearly as possible in a way that respects readers' understanding, might sometimes...
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SOURCE: "Sustaining a Scream," in Chicago Tribune Books, September 15, 1991, p. 5.
[In the following review, Bell offers favorable assessment of Mercy. Bell praises Dworkin as "a brilliant and passionate theoretician" whose "anger is a polished and dangerous instrument."]
"Now I've come into my own as a woman of letters," goes the prologue of Andrea Dworkin's second novel, Mercy. "I admit to a cool, elegant intellect with a clear superiority over the apelike men who write…." Some apelike reviewers may find this sort of thing prejudicially annoying. Let the reader be warned.
But the main body of the novel is told in a different voice, by a first-person narrator named Andrea, presumably distinct from Dworkin herself and certainly different from the author of the prologue, who is somewhat confusingly identified as "Not Andrea." It's the narrating Andrea that controls most of the text, which is most interesting for its aggressive style. It's difficult to sustain a scream for over 300 pages, but Dworkin's narrator does quite a good job, using long tumbling run-on sentences to achieve a powerful effect.
Perhaps it would not have been too submissive for her to paragraph occasionally. But there's only one significant strategic error, the persistent misconjugation of verbs, which Dworkin deploys in hopes of sounding more proletarian or street-inured, maybe. This...
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SOURCE: "To Remember the Pain," in Women's Review of Books, Vol. IX, No. 5, February, 1992, pp. 6-7.
[In the following review, Jenefsky offers a favorable evaluation of Mercy. According to Jenefsky, "The result is a work of artistic integrity that, in the manner of Dworkin's body of writing generally, synthesizes form and content, art and politics."]
In an interview with herself in Yearning (1990), bell hooks asks "Why remember the pain?" and responds:
Because I am sometimes awed, as in finding something terrifying, when I see how many of the people who are writing about domination and oppression are distanced from the pain, the woundedness, the ugliness. That it's so much of the time just a subject—a "discourse."… I say remember the pain because I believe true resistance begins with people confronting pain, whether it's theirs or somebody else's, and wanting to do something to change it.
In contrast to the notion, popularly advocated by academic feminists, that focusing on women's pain accentuates our victimization and powerlessness and thereby denies our agency, hooks claims that speaking from that place of pain is transformative—that it is the necessary location from which one learns about oppression and learns what is necessary to overthrow it.
Andrea Dworkin's most recent novel,...
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SOURCE: A review of Letters from a War Zone, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 9, No. 3, Spring, 1994, pp. 74-5.
[In the following review, Dunlap offers positive assessment of Mercy.]
The urgency and rage that suffuse Andrea Dworkin's writing leave little room for savoring the distinctions between pre- and post-French Revolution pornography. In Letters from a War Zone (1993), Dworkin asserts that pornography remains essentially the same across eras and cultures precisely because women's oppression—"expressed in rape, battery, incest, and prostitution"—remains the same. "The change," writes Dworkin, "is only in what is publicly visible."
Dworkin never claims to be objective. "Objectivity, as I understand it, means that it doesn't happen to you." And "it" does happen to Dworkin, from the days when she was raped as a student and battered as a wife, to later, when her work made her the target of threats, including being made the subject of a sexually explicit cartoon in Hustler. ("A cartoon like that says, bang, you're dead, and one way or another you are, a little.") And "it" does happen to women every hour of every day (including one rape every three minutes), to women who have told their stories to Dworkin over the last two decades.
Dworkin is interested in drawing distinctions: between words and action, between political protest and literal...
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SOURCE: "Fighting Talk," in New Statesmen & Society, April 21, 1995, pp. 16-8.
[In the following interview, Dworkin discusses formative events in her life, her writings, and her views on pornography and free speech.]
[Michael Moorcock:] You were born in Camden, New Jersey, in 1946, had an admired father, went to a progressive school, led the familiar bohemian life of the 1960s, were active in protest politics, were arrested and received unexpectedly brutal treatment—but not as brutal as being a battered wife, stranded in Amsterdam with your monstrous husband, a political radical. Pretty traumatic stuff, yet you remain, I think, fundamentally an optimist.
[Andrea Dworkin:] Optimism is what you do, how you live. I write, which is a quintessential act of optimism. It sometimes means the triumph of faith over experience, a belief in communication, in community, in change, and, for me, in beauty. The power and beauty of language. I act with other women to create social change: activism is optimism. I've always believed in art and politics as keys to transformation. Emotional authenticity and, if you will, social progress towards fairness and equality.
I was happy as a kid, although my mother was sick with heart disease, and my younger brother and I were often parcelled out to various family members, separated from each other and my parents. I grew up very fast...
(The entire section is 2907 words.)
SOURCE: "Battle-Ax," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, March 16, 1997, p. 9.
[In the following review, Futrelle offers an unfavorable assessment of Life and Death.]
To read Andrea Dworkin is to enter into an alternate universe.
In her Amerika—yes, she still spells the word with a K—we live in the midst of an obscene, unending war: the war of the sexes. Women live, she says, "under martial law … in a situation of emergency … under a reign of terror … brutalized by 'pimps' and pornographers and just plain ordinary men."
These dramatic phrases are not, to Dworkin, simply examples of poetic license, the sort of boilerplate bellicosity that can give spice to an otherwise tepid political speech—Dworkin believes "the war against women is a real war. There's nothing abstract about it. This is a war in which his fist is in your face."
Readers familiar with Dworkin's work will find very little in Life and Death, her newest collection of essays, that is new or surprising. In the writings contained within it—some originally given as speeches at feminist gatherings, others reprinted from magazines and journals and even the pages of this newspaper—Dworkin plays variations on the themes she's explored in her previous books: pornography, prostitution, rape and violence against women.
These are all serious subjects—indeed, in...
(The entire section is 1209 words.)
SOURCE: A review of Life and Death, in Ms., Vol. 7, No. 5, March-April, 1997, p. 82.
[In the following review, Golden offers praise for Life and Death.]
Twenty-five years ago, after a feminist helped her escape from her brutally violent husband in Europe, Andrea Dworkin made a vow: "I would use everything I know in behalf of women's liberation," she recalls in Life and Death, an impressive collection of speeches and articles she wrote between 1987 and 1995.
And Dworkin knows a lot. In Life and Death, her eleventh book, it is clear that she knows—firsthand—about rape, prostitution, battery, pornography, child sexual abuse, and poverty. She knows, deeply, how patriarchy works and how it sustains itself. And she knows how to tell the truth about women's lives, especially those women in prostitution and pornography.
Dworkin's critiques are original and compelling. In stark, powerful prose, she bears heartbreaking and relentless witness to the violence and degradation that women suffer, leaving the reader awash in indelible, haunting images. "My only chance to be believed is to find a way of writing bolder and stronger than woman hating itself—smarter, deeper, colder," she writes in "My Life as a Writer." In other pieces, she takes on the State of Israel, the creators of the Holocaust museum, the rulers of the Serbian death camps, and, as always,...
(The entire section is 381 words.)
SOURCE: "Rage and Reason," in The New Republic, August 11, 1997, pp. 36-42.
[In the following review, Nussbaum comments on Life and Death and provides sustained analysis of the philosophical, legal, and moral dimensions of Dworkin's case against pornography.]
Prophets don't write like philosophers. Why not, since they seem to have a common goal? Since Socrates, philosophers, like prophets, have been dedicated foes of ethical complacency, and of the many forms of moral disease complacency conceals. Socrates's call to the examined life was inspired by a concern for the health of souls. He once described the insides of his interlocutor as filled with tumorous growths, and his arguments as purgative drugs that would carry away the diseased material. This vivid sense of the ugliness of evil and the urgency of ethical change makes itself felt in the arguments of many of the greatest moral philosophers. Even when philosophers write calmly, as they usually do, an intense engagement with corruption can frequently be detected beneath the serene surface. (It would not be wrong to see the arguments of John Rawls, a deliberately abstract, cool philosopher, as motivated by the ugliness of human dignity violated, and a longing for the world that would be constructed by "purity of heart, if one could attain it.")
And yet, as I have said, philosophers do not...
(The entire section is 6341 words.)
SOURCE: "The Art of Confrontation," in Without Apology: Andrea Dworkin's Art and Politics, Westview Press, 1998, pp. 78-93.
[In the following essay, Jenefsky and Russo examine Dworkin's political methods and rhetorical discourse as an antipornography activist. According to the critics, Dworkin's approach centers upon strategies of "concretization" and "de/centering," by which she draws attention to the real-life implications of pornography while undermining familiar constitutional arguments in its favor.]
Dworkin's advocacy against pornography is shaped by her commitment to confrontational politics as "the essence of social change." "The way that you destabilize male power," she says, "is basically not by seduction, and not by begging, and not by any of the female stratagems that [women] are essentially taught should be the basis of our politics…. The places where society has moved, it has been because of confrontation." Accordingly, Dworkin rejects all "female stratagems" as ineffective political methods and expressly devotes herself to confrontational politics: "My activism is centered on my notion that what's important is to confront male power; that's the standard by which I decide what I will and won't do." This standard abides in her artistic practice and demands that the form and content of her writing be as direct and concrete as possible:
The form, the...
(The entire section is 8138 words.)
Eberly, Rosa A. "Andrea Dworkin's Mercy: Pain, Ad Personam, and Silence in the 'War Zone.'" Pre/Text 14, Nos. 3-4 (Fall-Winter 1993): 273-304.
Examines Dworkin's literary reputation and critical response to Mercy.
Jenefsky, Cindy, and Ann Russo. Without Apology: Andrea Dworkin's Art and Politics. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998, 163 p.
Book-length critical study of Dworkin's nonfiction writings and feminist discourse.
Wolfe, Alan. "Dirt and Democracy." The New Republic (19 February 1990): 27-31.
Discusses Dworkin's objections to pornography as delineated in Pornography.
(The entire section is 114 words.)