Science Fiction Studies

# 60 = Volume 20, Part 2 = July 1993



Veronica Hollinger

A New Alliance of Postmodernism and Feminist Speculative Fiction

Barr, Marleen S. Feminist Fabulation: Space/Postmodern Fiction. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992. ix+312. $39.95 cloth, $14.95 paper.

Feminism: a heterogeneous group of political projects which range from the more or less completely theoretical to the more or less completely praxis-oriented. What these projects have in common is their commitment both to improving the sexual/political lives of women and to hastening the downfall of the patriarchal system.

Postmodernism: a heterogeneous group of contemporary socio-cultural perspectives which range from the more or less completely aesthetic to.the almost completely political. What these perspectives have in common is a sense of having broken with the modernist world-view (of course, modernism itself can be defitied as a heterogeneous set of practices which are almost impossible to organize in any orderly fashion).

Speculative fiction: a heterogeneous group of texts ranging from the most "realistic" of hard SF novels to the most allegorical of experimental fictions. Perhaps the only thing these texts have in common is their activation—to different extents and for different purposes—of the various themes, images, and narrative conventions typically associated with science fiction.

Marleen Barr's new study is an important first attempt to bring feminism, postmodernism, and speculative fiction together in a comprehensive way. However, the admittedly inadequate "definitions" with which I began this review are aimed at indicating some of the difficulties inherent in such a project, difficulties to which I will return below. While the groundwork undertaken in Feminist Fabulation is most definitely overdue, Barr's project is not a completely successful one, due, to a certain extent, to the recalcitrant nature of the material with which she is working here.

Barr has coined the very useful term "feminist fabulation" to name what she identifies as a new, postmodern "supergenre of women's writing ... which includes works now thought of as mainstream, SF, fantasy, supernatural, and utopian as well as feminist texts men author" (xiii). Within her frame of reference, "feminist SF' becomes an obsolete term, and texts once considered to be feminist SF are now subsumed into this new supergenre, which, "like Robert Scholes ‘structural fabulation’encompasses many literary forms" (xv). Thus, in Barr's usage, feminist fabulation takes in not only mainstream and genre fiction, SF as well as fantasy, but, in fact, all feminist speculative and fantastic fiction. For this reason, Feminist Fabulation does not confine its discussions to feminist SF, but also contains analyses of contemporary historical novels such as Marge Piercy's Gone to Soldiers, fantastic fictions such as Carol Hill's The Eleven Million Mile High Dancer, mythological revisions such as Christa Wolf's Cassandra, and "realist" fictions such as Margaret Atwood's Lady Oracle. In her construction of the field of feminist fabulation, Barr also includes modernist precursor texts authored by such "literary mothers" as Kate Chopin, Isak Dinesen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Widening the scope of her study even further, she reads these texts against male-authored texts whose concerns parallel those of her feminist fabulators. For this reason, Feminist Fabulation also looks at works by writers like D.H. Lawrence, Jorge Luis Borges, Donald Barthelme, John Barth, and Italo Calvino.

Throughout her study, Barr recognizes the shortcomings of realist literature, which is, ultimately, incapable of envisioning new responses in the face of patriarchal things-as-they-are. For this reason, she suggests, feminist critics need to pay more attention to the field of feminist speculative fiction (although, to be completely fair, she would have done well to recognize the work of critics like Rachel Blau Duplessis, Teresa de Lauretis, and Donna Haraway, all of whom valorize feminist SF for its revisionary imaginative potential). For Barr, feminist fabulation is "fiction addressing patriarchy's fictionality" (48). She is interested in how feminist texts rewrite the narratives of patriarchy, in how women writers (and readers) both resist and overcome the constrictions embedded in such narratives, and in how such fictional resistance interacts with women's resistance in the "real" world. In the process, her wide-ranging thematic analyses include such areas as feminist delineations of domestic space, fictional treatments of "flight" as a feminist metaphor, and feminist attempts to revise the tropes of heterosexual romantic love.

Feminist fabulation is thus a kind of metafictional enterprise and it is this important feature which, if I read Barr correctly, most clearly demonstrates the affinity between feminist fabulation and postmodern textuality. Central to her study is the argument that

Feminist fabulation calls for a new understanding of postmodern fiction which enables the canon to accommodate feminist difference and emphasizes that the literature which was called feminist SF is an important site of postmodern feminist difference. (xv)

While it is by no means certain that there is, indeed, any such thing as a single postmodern canon, Barr is certainly correct in her claim that no version of anyone's postmodern canon is likely to include any significant feminist presence. In fact, her claim is similar to that made by Craig Owens in an early attempt to place feminist cultural production within the framework of postmodernism. I think that Barr would agree, for example, with Owens' proposal that "women's insistence on difference and incommensurability may not only be compatible with, but also an instance of postmodern thought" (61-62). Since Owens first advanced this suggestion, however, many feminist critics have become wary of conflating feminism and postmodernism. While the two are certainly not mutually exclusive, neither are they obvious allies, and it is here that I run into difficulties with Barr's theoretical framework.

While her claim that "the canon, like power, is an unavoidable system; some texts will always be chosen at the expense of other texts" (276; n. 7) makes a convincing case for the inclusion of feminist work within the power structures of contemporary cultural production, her unproblematical identification of feminist SF as postmodernist fiction is less convincing. As a feminist critic and reader, I am eager to agree with Barr's arguments, but they tend, I would argue, to simplify the very complex interactions between feminism and postmodernism. Patricia Waugh, for example, suggests that

Postmodernism expresses nostalgia for but loss of belief in the concept of the human subject as an agent effectively intervening in history, through its fragmentation of discourses, language games, and decentring of subjectivity. Feminism seeks a subjective identity, a sense of effective agency and history for women which has hitherto been denied them by the dominant culture. (9)

Linda Hutcheon also warns that, while feminism and postmodernism may occasionally become overlapping projects, it would be a mistake to conflate them:

Both enterprises clearly work toward an awareness of the social nature of cultural activity, but feminisms are not content with exposition; art forms cannot change unless social practices do. Exposition may be the first step; but it cannot be the last. Nevertheless feminist and postmodernist artists do share a view of art as a social sign inevitably and unavoidably enmeshed in other signs, in systems of meaning and value. But I would argue that feminisms want to go beyond this to work to change those systems, not just to [demystify] them. (153; emphasis in original)

Barr cites both Waugh and Hutcheon to strengthen her own arguments; in her eagerness to make her case, however, she fails to pay sufficient attention to the cautions embedded in the writings of these two critics.

It may be the case, in fact, that most feminist cultural production— including feminist SF—is definitely not postmodern. Sarah Lefanu, in an argument which parallels Waugh's, points out that "the radical, or transgressive aspects of the structuralist subversion of the subject do not allow for an analysis that shows ‘woman’ never to have been the subject in the first place" (98). In other words, the postmodern sensibility is, on the whole, incompatible with many aspects of the feminist enterprise. Most feminist SF writers (and readers)-like most feminist theorists-have very little interest in, or affection for, the ironic and frequently nihilistic "playfulness" of the postmodern, which frequently theorizes the real world and real bodies out the window. Its ironic stance is incompatible with many of the projects of feminism, which are serious, grounded in real-life experiences, and utopian in a way which the postmodern rarely is.

This certainly does not mean that feminist writers never produce postmodern speculative fiction, only that such fiction is relatively rare. Examples might include Anna Kavan's Ice (1967), Monique Wittig's Les Guérillères (1969), Joanna Russ's The Female Man (1975), Jody Scott's I, Vampire (1984), and Kathy Acker's Empire of the Senseless (1988), texts whose radical formal and rhetorical structures can quite easily be identified as postmodern. None of these texts, however, is given more than a passing mention in Barr's study, while relatively conservative texts such as Joan Slonczewski's A Door into Ocean (1986) and Pamela Sargent's 7he Shore of Women (1986) are discussed in detail. Thus, while the aim of Barr's study is to expand the postmodern field to include feminist fabulation, her own boundaries are occasionally unexpectedly narrow as far as textual aesthetics are concerned.

Barr has, I think, been too hasty in her claim that all feminist SF-all feminist speculative fiction, in fact--can be identified as postmodern fiction. While she rightly calls for an expansion of the terms within which the (patriarchal) theoretical establishment has defined postmodernism, in order that it may more adequately encompass the particular characteristics of feminist cultural production, she tends to gloss over the problems inherent in such revisionary work and this is where many readers, I suspect, will run into difficulties reading Feminist Fabulation. On the other hand, Barr's study is very convincing in its readings of the interactions between and among the various texts-realist and fantastic, modernist and postmodernist, men authored and women-authored-which taken together make up the field of feminist fabulation.

Even more importantly, I think that the passion which Barr brings to her readings and the utopian desire which impels this passion is a healthy corrective to the frequently too-polite tone of most feminist critics of speculative fiction. We are, on the whole, a well-behaved group and our work rarely poses much of a challenge to the institutional structures within which we function. Barr's work, on the other hand, is frequently infuriating and deliberately sets out to revise the terms of literary acceptability. Features which can be identified as weaknesses-her impatience with established theoretical structures, her readiness to appropriate the terms of those structures for her own purposes, even her occasional misreadings of various theoreticians so that they come to mean what she insists that they mean—are also those which make Feminist Fabulation an exciting and challenging study. It demands engagement from its readers and rewards serious critical thinking about its positions, whether or not we agree with them. And the broad range of texts which together make up the field of feminist fabulation do indeed, as Barr argues, rewrite old stories and fashion new ones, replacing the cultural narratives of an outmoded patriarchy and serving as at least one strand of a "literature of replenishment" (262).


Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism. NY & London: Routledge, 1989.

Lefanu, Sarah. In the Chinks of the World Machine. Feminism and Science Fiction. London: The Women's Press, 1988.

Owens, Craig. "Me Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism." The Anti Aesthetic. Essays on Postmodern Culture, Ed. Hal Foster. Port Townsend, WA: Bay Press, 1983. 57-82.

Waugh, Patricia. Feminine Fictions. Revisiting the Postmodern. NY & London: Routledge, 1989.

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