Poet, essayist, and critic Nancy Mairs has won considerable acclaim for her autobiographical works Carnal Acts (1990) and Ordinary Time (1993). Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer is also an autobiography, of ideas rather than events. Things do happen to Mairs: She completes a doctoral dissertation, her husband endures the ordeal of chemotherapy, she watches herself decline through multiple sclerosis. Yet the events, introduced nonchronologically, are not foregrounded as important in themselves. Rather, they form a skeleton around which Mairs drapes her discoveries about herself as a woman writer.
Mairs’s stated purpose in these essays is to break down the traditional “electrified fences” between academy, criticism, and writing. Her own life and work have em- braced all three, and she sees no reason that they should be segregated and hier- archized, except to give the members of one category a spurious superiority over the members of another.
This is not the only place in the book where Mairs sees a patriarchal conspiracy at work, with men defining the world in terms of power and exclusivity. In the same spirit, she challenges the perceived value of writerly originality and fame, dismissing the desire for differentiation as fundamentally a male construct. As a woman, she believes that her writing succeeds not where her experiences set her apart from others but where they resonate with them.
In defining women’s writing and women’s values, however, Mairs is in danger of positing another world as exclusive and judgmental as the patriarchal world she attacks. She quotes the feminist author Carolyn Heilbrun as saying that “women, especially, must ‘see themselves collectively, not individually. . . . I suspect that fe- male narratives will be found where women exchange stories, . . . talk collectively of ambitions, and possibilities, and accomplishments.’ ”
One might respond that any prescription that binds women to a particular way of writing, of relating to themselves and others, is reductionist. To say that women do not or should not pursue fame, seek power over others, or seek to find and express their individuality is not only presumptuous but also denies reality. Certainly women may be more inclined than men to think collectively rather than individually, but they cannot be confined behind the collective fence. In life, as in writing, a lively balance of opposites is available to be claimed by men and women alike. The individual experience generalized or the general experience individualized forms the lifeblood of literature.
Mairs falls into the same trap in her discussion of language. Her argument goes like this. “The fundamental structure of patriarchy is . . . binary: me/not me, active/ passive, . . . normal/deviant, . . . friend/enemy.” Similarly, male discourse is the language of opposites. It is “agonistic”—adversarial, combative. Feminine discourse, on the other hand, is “irenic”—conciliatory, “a babel of eroticism, attachment, and empathy.”
So far, so good, if one is willing to settle for such a simplistic division. (What about female writers who write agonistically, or male writers who write irenically? What about the majority of writers of both sexes, who meander back and forth between extremes or encompass both forms of writing in the same sentence?) Mairs sabotages her argument, however, with the kind of sweeping metaphor-used-as-fact that can undermine the credibility of feminism. Apparently seriously, she suggests that the rupture of creation into halves is “engendered by the abrupt erection of the phallus: those who have and those who have not.”
In “Essaying the Feminine,” Mairs elucidates this idea, citing psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan to the effect that “the child learns to speak only to name what is absent, irretrievably lost: the body of the mother, riven from the child by the father, who introduces the wider social world founded on sexual difference.” Again, she posits the phallus as “the point of division” through which the child enters language and develops the concept of “I.” Woman, without a phallus, is confined to the role of non-I, naught, and cannot utter female experience.
The basic elements of Mairs’s argument are metaphysically cogent. Traditionally, the masculine principle is defined as the “I” that divides creation into self and nonself, and the feminine principle as undefined unity. Yet to say that men have a monopoly on the concept of I-ness, any more than women have a monopoly on unity, is plainly false. The women writers Mairs quotes, including Virginia Woolf and Alice Walker, rely on I-ness as much as on unifying irenic discourse. To claim one mode to the exclusion of the other is effectively to silence life and language.
In her discussion of language, Mairs knocks down the feminist Aunt Sally of the phallus and sets up a series of vague suggestions about what “l’ecriture feminine” might be: writing without closure, beginning from all sides at once, frequent use of the dash. This train of thought does not bear up under...
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