Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life

Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life

Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life

Private Voices, Public Lives: Women Speak on the Literary Life


Interweaving the personal, private voice with scholarly, public intent, Nelson and the other contributors argue for a more interactive and cooperative approach to the teaching, reading, critiquing, and writing of literature.

These essays are a direct result of the desire by many women within the academic community to break free of what has been called the "masculine" or "adversary" mode of literary criticism.

Private Voices, Public Lives is of critical importance to readers, teachers, reviewers, and critics. The essays incorporate ideas on current issues of autobiography, memoir, women's voice, reader response, diversity, life writing, and gender.


Honesty, excitement, poignancy, frustration, and exuberance pervade the essays in this collection. Private Voices, Public Lives is the direct result of our desire, after years of academic training, to break out of the masculinist mode of communication, and in breaking free, to explore the deepest parts of ourselves as we relate to the texts which have shaped our lives.

It all began in the spring of 1991, when I received an excited phone call from my friend Ann Putnam; Ann was proposing that I participate in a revolutionary panel for the fall meeting of the Western Literature Association. Although feminist themes and topics had been a frequent part of the program in years past, Ann's panel, "Loving Work and Working Love," was to be different. Four participants, Ann, Charlotte McClure, Ann Fisher-Wirth, and myself, presented essays in a personal voice, an approach foreign to most traditional academic conferences. That day each presenter exposed a raw nerve: in a familiar tone and voice, we each risked talking about how the study of text had helped us to reconcile the conflict between our private worlds and our public lives.

When the meeting was over, a silence reigned in the small room. After some polite questions, the session ended. Only then did one or two people come forward to express their appreciation for the honesty of the papers. One man in particular stated: "I don't believe I've ever heard anything quite like this session before."

The approach to the discussion of literature which we used that day is clearly articulated in Olivia Frey's article, "Beyond Literary Darwinism: Women's Voices and Critical Discourse." Frey analyzes the masculine, "adversary" mode of literary criticism, pointing out that it not only encourages an argumentative, combative interaction with others but also limits the critical writer's ability to relate to the literature personally. In her discussion, Frey cites Daniel Calhoun's social constructionist concept of knowledge in his book The Intelligence of the People: "... both women and men require healthy communities of discourse, or one might say discourse relationships" (Frey's words 517). In addition, in putting aside the adversary method, the writer is freed from traditional constraints of argumentation and "imagines who she is writing for and how they might respond. The motivation is intensely personal—to connect with someone else in a meaningful way. A nurturing relationship is important" (517). Frey concludes that the . . .

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