Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 861
Perhaps because of its rather unconventional format, critics have given Silences mixed reviews. While some have hailed the book as a feminist manifesto, others find it wanting in organization, consistency and analysis. It may be its very open-endedness and rather quixotic organization, however, that give the book its power. The structure of the book, which is clearly untidy and fragmented, appropriately reinforces Olsen’s depiction of her own (and others’) career, a career defined by distraction, interruption, and spasmodic efforts rather than by meditation, continuity, and sustained periods of creativity.
Olsen identifies a broad range of constraints that hamper individual and communal expression. She is not advocating an elimination of all these constraints—she sees motherhood, for example as both a constraint and a source of fulfillment—but she suggests that all people must strive to create the conditions that foster expression and creativity without negating the importance of sustaining relationships.
Undergirding Olsen’s analysis are the twin beliefs that human beings are born with curiosity and creativity and that, given the proper context, they are capable of transforming the events of their everyday lives into poignant and lasting literary works. She cites many examples to demonstrate her points and leaves the reader with a much clearer understanding of the ways in which artificial constraints have limited the understanding of humanity’s cultural heritage.
Olsen’s analysis is punctuated by her own humanistic values and her compassion for other people. By analyzing the reasons that past masters have fallen silent, she also offers encouragement to those who have just begun to write and to those who have interrupted their careers for whatever reasons. Taken a step further, Silences constitutes a mandate, a clarion call to the previously silent. Her explanations of the barriers faced by those who are married, those who have children, and those who are working one (or more) jobs are not meant to condone the silences. Instead, they encourage the silenced to appreciate the value of their private reflections and imaginings and to give them the wherewithal to transform them into concrete expressions. Olsen’s hope seems to be that the formerly silenced will experience a new sense of validation and purpose by being made aware of the fact that others have faced similar circumstances and, in some instances, have overcome them.
Toward the beginning of the book, she makes a reference to the “mute inglorious Miltons,” whose circumstances conspire against their creative urges. She demonstrates that there is a wealth of untapped talent by referring to the richness found in folk songs, lullabies, tales, and other forms of expression within the oral tradition. It is not, Olsen argues, for lack of talent that these creators remain unknown but for lack of circumstances and/or confidence.
The circumstances that Olsen enumerates are many. Some she exemplifies by drawing on her own life: her twenty years of child rearing and working at paying jobs that left her what she terms “stolen moments” insufficient to nurture or sustain her creative self. Others are more generalized observations that run the gamut from silences caused by censorship and repression to those self-inflicted silences that stem from denial, addiction, and the like. Still others—cultural traditions, devaluation, critical attitudes, limited spheres of activity, and artificial subject matter constraints—are those that have traditionally silenced women or denied them the recognition that they deserve.
In cataloging the factors that contribute to silences, Olsen has done much to demystify the circumstances that make it possible for some to be prolific while others remain mute. She has also done much to explain the silences that often follow a promising first novel and the relative obscurity of authors who have published extensively and yet are virtual unknowns to the majority of the reading public. Additionally, she has forced academics and publishers alike to reevaluate the importance of out-of-print books and to introduce them to new generations of readers.
Silences not only includes references to a multitude of little-known writers but also urges women to read other women and reconsider their place within the literary canon. It also emphasizes the need for networking and supportive literary friendships. These are the same kinds of concerns that led Olsen to publish lists of overlooked and undervalued writers, most of them women, in the Women’s Studies Newsletter in 1972 and 1973.
Despite a relaxing of some of the constraints that have limited the opportunities of both women and minorities, Olsen’s message remains important. In fact, as she suggested in a 1987 interview with Mickey Pearlman, “Silences are worse now than ever before, because there are more people who have [these hopes and aspirations], . . . the will, the desire, but the circumstances are not there.”
Silences is a book that bears rereading and continued study. It contains important insights not only for would-be authors but also for those who are committed to redefining the literary canon so that it reflects more accurately the life and times of the working class, minorities, and women. Even when one reads Silences during those proverbial “stolen moments,” it provides a window that reveals a rich and diverse body of literary works that have traditionally received too little attention.
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