TELLING WOMEN'S LIVES by Linda Wagner-Martin


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A well-researched, engrossing history and critique of biographies about women. After publishing Sylvia Plath, A Biography (not reviewed), Wagner-Martin (English and Comparative Literature/Univ. of North Carolina) found herself ""bewildered and then amazed at the lambasting"" some British reviewers gave her book. Compelled to understand this criticism, Wagner-Martin attempts here to delineate why writing about women's lives has become ""a dangerous cultural and literary project."" In probing the differences between biographies about men and women, she analyzes the unique difficulties faced by the biographers of women. Biographies, she asserts, are a traditionally male domain because comparatively few women have had the kind of success that attracts notice. And because fewer women have lived public lives, women's biographies are more often based on private events. It is the centrality of these private events that creates problems for traditional biographers. ""If a woman is promiscuous,"" asks Wagner-Martin, ""what kind of response will readers have to this aspect of her existence?"" A biographer who acknowledges the lesbian relationships of Gertrude Stein, Eleanor Roosevelt, or Margaret Mead has to risk alienating certain readers who chauvinistically hold women up to different moral standards. Postfeminist women biographers of the past 30 years, on the other hand, are seen as changing the parameters of biography to focus far more on the internal lives of their subjects. In the course of examining these questions, Wagner-Martin also delves into other interesting areas, such as the ethical issues biographers face (what to reveal and what to conceal) and gender stereotypes about ""what a good, moral woman should be."" An extensive bibliography appends the text. A significant and provocative contribution to postfeminist literary criticism.

Pub Date: July 8th, 1994
ISBN: 0813523753
Page count: 200pp
Publisher: Rutgers Univ. Press