Alix Kates Shulman Shulman, Alix Kates (Vol. 10)

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Introduction

(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...

(The entire section is 1,783 words.)