Writing About a Woman Writer’s Writing: On Gender Identification(s) and Being a Male Critic of Carol Shields’s Work
This essay takes as its starting point my experience as a male critic of Carol Shields’s work. Throughout the researching and writing of my PhD on Shields, I have noted with curiosity the surprise registered by many people upon discovering that a male critic would choose to write about the work of a female author. This reaction, confirmed by other male academics working on female authors, raises a number of interesting questions. What does it mean for a male critic to write about the work of a female author? Why is this still considered surprising, unusual, even strange? Is this view symptomatic of the kind of disturbing devaluation of women’s fiction (and of women’s experience generally) that Shields herself explores so candidly in her final novel Unless (2002)? I suggest that the anti-feminist backlash (outlined by Faludi ), and the profitable establishment of popular literary genres such as “Chick Lit” and “Lad Lit,” have led to a retrogressive “hardening” of gender roles within popular culture, one which endorses a simplistic relationship between author and audience, presuming that texts “by” women must necessarily be “for” women only. Situated within the context of Shields’s own professed ambivalence about her status as a “women’s writer,” and drawing on the theories of Emma Wilson, the essay attempts to broaden out into a wider reflection upon issues of gender and identification within contemporary literary culture. Shields’s work, I argue, subverts assumptions about gendered reading patterns, encouraging through its polyphony and its use of dual narrators a mobile and flexible reading experience which allows the reader to inhabit a range of perspectives and to read productively across gender binaries.