Voice Lessons Critical Essays

Nancy Mairs

Voice Lessons

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

Mairs’s stated purpose in this book is to break down the traditional “electrified fences” between academy, criticism, and writing. Her own life and work have embraced all three, and she sees no reason why they should be segregated and hierarchized, except to give the members of one category a spurious superiority over the members of another.

Here, as elsewhere, Mairs sees a patriarchal conspiracy at work, breaking up the world into arbitrary categories in the cause of male power. Much of the book is devoted to feminist polemic against the “binary” universe that discriminates between me/not me, active/passive, normal/deviant. She lays the blame for all problems— personal, social and linguistic—on the divisiveness arising from “the abrupt erection of the phallus.” Unfortunately, her purpose in debunking the binary universe is often defeated by her own binary vision. For example, she incisively attacks the Freudian doctrine of the supposed female neurosis of penis envy, but substitutes a rival feminist doctrine—a male neurosis of baby (or womb) envy. She champions a feminine “irenic” (conciliatory) style of writing— employing the very “agonistic” (combative) approach she opposes.

VOICE LESSONS succeeds best where it departs from the theoretical and grounds itself in the immediate and personal. The essay “The Literature of Personal Disaster” is a wry yet intensely moving exploration of why people such as she write about harrowing life experiences such as terminal illness and bereavement. In contrast to the preceding polemic, it convinces readers of the value of irenic feminine discourse by embodying it: It brings subjects which many people find frightening or unpalatable within their understanding, acceptance, and love.

Sources for Further Study

Belles Lettres. X, Fall, 1994, p. 18.

Booklist. XC, May 15, 1994, p. 1660.

Choice. XXXII, December, 1994, p. 600.

Library Journal. CXIX, May 15, 1994, p. 74.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. May 29, 1994, p. 8.

National Catholic Reporter. XXXI, December 2, 1994, p. 30.

The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, June 26, 1994, p. 18.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLI, May 2, 1994, p. 291.

The Washington Post. July 20, 1994, p. B2.

The Women’s Review of Books. XI, September, 1994, p. 1.