Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism

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Listening to Silences: New Essays in Feminist Criticism. Elaine Hedges and Shelley Fisher Fishkin, editors. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. vii + 326 pages.

As Hedges and Fishkin write in their introduction to Listening to Silences, the volume "is intended both to trace a genealogy and to offer a spectrum of the ways in which contemporary feminist criticism continues to respond to Tillie Olsen's discoveries." This new volume, in effect, "listens" to the work begun in Olsen's groundbreaking 1978 volume Silences. According to Hedges and Fishkin, Olsen's text initiated a new discourse in feminist thought and, based on the continued reaction to Olsen, "clearly continues to matter." Listening to Silences not only responds to, but extends Olsen's examination of the "unnatural" external silencing of women's literary voices through its use of the current contexts of postmodern feminist thought and American cultural production. In the same manner that Olsen integrated the personal and the political (as Fishkin notes), so Listening to Silences illustrates the connections between personal expression and the more public conditions of that production.

Hedges and Fishkin have arranged Listening to Silences in three parts, each demonstrating Olsen's examination of silence in a different arena of cultural production. The first section includes four essays focusing on Olsen's work, ranging from personal accounts of the effect of Olsen's life and work on scholars, writers, and theorists to critical considerations of Olsen's short story collection Tell Me a Riddle. These two critical articles, by Deborah Silverton Rosenfeldt and Constance Coiner, demonstrate how the various ideologies identifiable in Olsen's text weave a complex dynamic of complicity and resistance to the dominant culture.

The anthology's second section contains six readings of women's fictions; as Hedges and Fishkin write, these are "postmodernist critical approaches to silences, as well as other [approaches] that demonstrate the continuing applicability and relevance of many of the approaches Olsen pioneered." This section is notable both for the quality of the essays included, as well as the diversity both of the subject matter and of the readings of speech/silence. The various cultures represented in the texts critically examined include African American, Asian, Chicana, Native American, working class, and white European and American. Several of the articles present silence not as it is traditionally understood--a dehumanized condition--but as an empowering act in specific social/historical situations. For example, the self-silencing of "Linda Brent," in Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl can be read in the context of slavery as empowering, as withholding information was one method a slave had of asserting autonomy, according to Joanne M. Braxton and Sharon Zuber. In the editors's desire not to create a hagiography of Olsen, they point to Carla Kaplan's essay, noting that it presents a "major challenge to Olsen's work." Kaplan rejects Olsen's reading strategy based on an identification with the heroine, stating that this approach denies difference between reader and heroine.

The seven essays of the third section move into the arena of the cultural production of criticism and intellectual knowledge, reflecting, as the editors note, "Olsen's own insistence in Silences on the importance of the material conditions of cultural production." Various academic activities--teaching, criticism, activism--are engaged in these essays. A second essay by Constance Coiner analyzes the challenges of parenting in the academy, which she claims have their source in an institutional neglect of the family. …