Alix Kates Shulman Critical Essays


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Shulman, Alix Kates 1932–

Shulman is an American novelist, essayist, editor, and writer of books for children whose works reflect her strong commitment to the feminist movement. Her major fictive concerns are with the problems of growing up female in America and with the political and social implications of the Women's Liberation movement as it enters its second decade. (See also CLC, Vol., 2, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 29-32, rev. ed.)

Lynne Sharon Schwartz

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Zane IndiAnna, the heroine of [Burning Questions]—ingeniously cast as the autobiography of a militant feminist—wants above all, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to "share the passion and action of [her] time." After much tedious floundering in aimless confusion, Zane achieves her goal….

Burning Questions is actually, and problematically, two novels in one, unsuccessfully conjoined. One is the traditional Bildungsroman…. [Zane] undergoes the ordeals of the late fifties, sleeping around among the Beats, typing-pool jobs, retreat into a dull marriage, motherhood, and emotional deprivation until she discovers the Movement and changes her life. It is the oft-told tale, valid but uninspiringly repeated. The other novel, though, the second half of Burning Questions, is vastly more exciting and written with conviction and authority: the rebel's tract, merging the circumstances of the historical moment with Zane's personal destiny.

Shulman is at her best when describing with passion the young days of the Movement…. In this aspect, Burning Questions is an experiment in a form unfortunately fallen into disuse, the novel of ideas.

Shulman's formidable intelligence regrettably stands in the way of the more urgent demands of fiction. Every experience is presented twice—as it happens, and in Zane's analysis. (For example, a beautiful, taut moment of sexual desire in the unlikely dark of a police wagon is immediately marred by Zane's explanation of the complex forces that produced it.) This constant commentary on the action, along with the older Zane's hindsight, reflects the awkwardness of trying to have it both ways: how appealingly foolish I was and how mellow I have become. Justification of dubious acts (marriage, adultery) by quotations from the diaries of rebels is not persuasive motivation. (pp. 40-1)

The last section of Burning Questions gives a fine portrayal of the changes in the Movement from the late sixties to the mid-seventies…. Wisely, Shulman makes no premature judgments about this transition, but invokes the passage of time and the constant flux of radical impulses. One wishes she had delineated this ebb and flow in greater detail. (p. 41)

Lynne Sharon Schwartz, "'How Foolish I Was: How Mellow I've Become'," in Ms. (© 1978 by Ms. Magazine Corp.), March, 1978, pp. 40-1.

Anne Tyler

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

It's hard to go unprejudiced into [Burning Questions], which is yet another novel about how an ordinary, middle-class housewife becomes an ardent feminist. It's even harder when there's a bibliography at the end … and when the novel turns out to be, quite literally, a novel within a novel.

The puzzling thing about Zane's story is her extreme distance from her own life. She recounts it in a sweeping way, categorizing, summing up…. Zane has a habit of offhandedly mentioning, a hundred pages late, that such-and-such an event has already occurred, more or less by the bye: her loss of virginity, her marriage, childbirth, two abortions, divorce. Experiences skim past her, as if happening to someone else.

But the surprise is that by the end of the book, we do care for Zane, however impatient we've been with her along the way. I think the reason for this can be found in the title. The "burning questions" are not, as I had feared, queries about women's victimization or men's supremacy, but about "how to live, how to be." What Zane is struggling for is a way of making the best use of her life. What she's struggling against, from childhood onward, is that cursory, pigeonholing glance that "places" her and forgets her; and who wouldn't sympathize with that? The most convincing scenes in the book are those where she attempts to involve herself in the causes of the '60s—signing petitions, joining marches—but is consistently excluded or ignored because she is a matron in sneakers, pushing a stroller: a middle-class white liberal woman, dime a dozen….

She does avoid the temptation to end her story with the end of the '60s, on a note of glory; she admits that the '70s have seen a sort of slackening process. It is this new clear-eyed, steady view of hers that wins us over, finally. I started Burning Questions feeling edgy and suspicious, and some of my suspicions were confirmed; but I think that any book that so satisfyingly and believably portrays the altering of a character's life deserves to be read.

Anne Tyler, "After the Prom," in Book World—The Washington Post (© The Washington Post), March 26, 1978, p. G3.

Pearl K. Bell

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Will the women's movement survive its novelists? This question seems urgent in the wake of Alix Kates Shulman's new novel, "Burning Questions." Mrs. Shulman has undertaken to write not merely another of those vaguely fictionalized chronicles about the inchoate misery of a housewife-and-mother who finds her tongue and her freedom from patriarchal oppression after joining a consciousness-raising group; no, Mrs. Shulman aspires to loftier deeds than personal confession. With the story of a feminist leader who calls herself Zane IndiAnna (because she comes from Indiana), an early convert to women's liberation in the 1960's, she hopes to capture the apotheosis of radical feminism, an instructive exemplar who will be no less than the Representative Woman of our revolutionary times.

Mrs. Shulman has written "Burning Questions" in the form of Zane's autobiography so that her heroine will be endowed with prototypical stature. Its title ("My Life as a Rebel") and tone of didactic uplift are intended to echo the stirring autobiographies of such actual revolutionary women as Angelica Balabanoff (who also called her story "My Life as a Rebel"), Emma Goldman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Mothers Bloor and Jones, Angela Davis, Vera Figner, and so on. At decisive moments of her narrative, Zane quotes her redoubtable predecessors as though to affirm her place in their legendary company, and when at the end of her book she provides a lengthy bibliography of...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Eliot Fremont-Smith

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

One of the burning troubles with [Burning Questions] is that it comes labeled "a novel." This makes one expect enticingly interesting character, artful movement of plot, efficiency of revelatory thought, etc.—all of which, along with a felicitous prose style, are missing. Humor isn't, but that's another problem. The book seems intended as a kind of way-we-are-now political statement—the saga of the development of a radical feminist consciousness over the last 20 years. One presumes that it is autobiographical. It is at times tongue-in-cheek. The heroine's name is Zane IndiAnna, and Burning Questions is her phrase, and this is meant to be her memoir and tract. But it is also, plainly, the author's—that is to say, it's serious business. This has the strange effect of making one feel out-of-line if one smiles, as if only the author could do that because she alone can do it in love of Zane, as if she alone can know precisely when Zane is being silly and when Zane is being brave. And, of course, it is at her direction…. It isn't a hateful book, and some will see it as intriguing, clefy history. But it isn't very good, either. As one of Zane's lovers notes (in a typically cute-macho way), Zane is "always thinking"; unfortunately, one's interest in the process depends somewhat on the quality of the results. Zane's are earnest but wanting—which makes me get irresponsible and giggly. But then ugliness sets in. For Zane's thoughts are only what Alix Kates Shulman has allowed; Shulman herself is off the hook (one can only guess what she thinks), and I am on. If winning players are always lucky, losers are set up—and Burning Questions is, for me, a losing game. I wish it hadn't been a novel. There is, of course, a lingering respect for the intentions of a plainer book, and for the hard-won consciousness that this book is witness to. For the rest, sheepishly, with irritation, I must castle. (p. 69)

Eliot Fremont-Smith, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1978), April 3, 1978.

Michele Turin

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[Burning Questions] is a well-written and intelligent account of one woman's journey through befuddled and aspiring youth to satisfying and productive adulthood. In another way she reveals the saga of the women's movement—how we hope, how we struggle, how we survive, and even overcome….

The book has its drawbacks. Many of the early pages' political references seem tedious. The main character has not been fully developed as yet, and much of this politicizing seems hollow pontification…. But these are minor points contrasted with Shulman's overall accomplishment.

She has written a forceful and articulate appraisal of one woman's transformation. It can be a guide to anyone slightly curious about the progress of the women's movement. It is bold, but it is thoughtful, too. (p. 109)

Michele Turin, in Best Sellers (copyright © 1978 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), July, 1978.