Refreshing the text, Jan Cronin

Her Side of the Story: Readings of Mander, Mansfield, & Hyde
Mary Paul
Otago University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 877133 71 X,

 

One of the many problems of Mary Paul’s Her Side of the Story: Readings of Mander, Mansfield, & Hyde is evident in the title. “Her side of the story” suggests a focus on the texts of the three authors (albeit from a decidedly feminist perspective), while “readings of” implies a focus on the multiple interpretive possibilities. This book is uncomfortably divided between considering the cultural significance of the respective texts and considering the historical and cultural significance of interpretation. In the same manner Paul conflates the boundaries between books and films, and unceremoniously applies film theory to literature without signalling her disregard for such distinctions. The problem is not that she pursues such methods but that she seems oblivious to any of the implications of this approach. This is particularly unfortunate as the aim of the book is to encourage a greater degree of self-awareness in the practice of criticism in relation to New Zealand texts.

Based on a 1995 PhD thesis, which was supposedly written as a book, Her Side of the Story exhibits few signs of the coherence which would support such a claim. Diversity may be the aim of the book, but unfortunately the place where it is most apparent is in the structure. In her introduction Paul claims that “In order to evoke the experience of reading and not to lose its sensuousness, I put myself inside each reading, so to speak – inside its universe of discourse.” The only chapter which justifies this claim is the initial chapter on Mansfield, which juxtaposes psychoanalytic, feminist, Lacanian, and modernist readings of “Bliss”. The second chapter on Mansfield provides an account of the chosen approaches rather than examples of them. The result of this is that the chapter launches a meta-critical attack which is disproportionate to the depth in which these readings are presented.

Although the introduction claims that the aim is not to find the “right reading”, but the reading which is most relevant to today’s culture, there is an implicit hierarchy in the presentation of the readings and little effort to mask it. While Paul deliberately presents “each reading as a conscious construction”, and talks at length about the need for self-consciousness in interpretation, she makes no effort to register the agenda which leads her to choose the various sample readings in the first place. In this sense there is an all- pervasive false consciousness about the book.

The first chapter on Mander is a study of the production details of The Piano, which, despite Paul’s emphasis on the need for “exceptionally complex forms of criticism, acutely aware of contexts”, is neither complex nor relevant to the task at hand. Thus the sections on Mansfield and Mander read as entirely disparate entities rather than components of a coherent argument. It is as if the author sets out from a rather loose theoretical stance and plays around with several paradigms before she hits on the most suitable format (in the chapters on Robin Hyde).

The first Hyde chapter will prove extremely useful to students. It provides a lucid account of the history of the interpretation of Hyde’s work, rather than the confusion of accounts, critical excerpts and meta-criticism that characterises the earlier sections. This does mean, however, that the structure outlined in the introduction turns out to bear little resemblance to the text which follows. The Mansfield chapters comprise four and five readings respectively. The Mander chapters entail two accounts of film productions and one reading, while the second Hyde chapter (Paul’s own reading) is four times as long as its counterpart in the Mansfield section.

Paul posits herself as “a new player entering the court”. The readings she suggests as being most suited to today’s interpretive climate are uniformly historicist. While she sees herself as a new historicist, her lip-service to the notion of the fluidity of history is not borne out in her treatment of texts. As her readings are rooted in the cultural context of their production, there is little sense that her final reading can (will) be superceded by the interpretive concerns of the next decade. Thus the readings which she herself advocates are inimical to the concerns of her text. In both her introduction and conclusion, Paul stresses the need for new and fresh critical approaches, yet the status of new historicism and cultural materialism as products of the early 1980s invalidates the book’s claims to innovation. The critics Paul relies on (Bordwell, Hodge – who incidentally is missing from the bibliography – and Ricoeur) published their relevant pieces in 1989 and 1990 respectively (and much earlier in the case of Ricoeur), marking their contributions as products of a cultural moment at least five years before Paul published her PhD thesis.

Paul’s account of her history as a reader makes it clear that her theoretical background is primarily feminist. However, while the title somewhat misleadingly suggests that the whole enterprise is couched in a feminist discourse, the actual representation of feminism is less than positive. Despite her entirely justifiable scepticism at the type of emotional biographical criticism to which Robin Hyde has been subjected, Paul indulges in a specifically female interpretive community comprised of “an MA student who, like Hyde, had experienced the death of a baby” and “a friend [who] had arranged to come round to play … the piano. While she played I watched her baby in the sun in the kitchen … Talking afterwards over a cup of tea, she noticed the novel …” This set-up I found somewhat baffling, as it was never commented on as a critical strategy: no mention was ever made of whether the student brought her personal experience to bear on her reading of Hyde and whether or not Paul regarded this as a viable critical approach. I could only conclude that it represented the cultural context of interpretation with which Paul is so concerned.

Yet I must confess I found that in its own way such an approach can pay dividends. While in the process of reading this book I had a friend over for lunch. Simone picked up said object and commented that the first section entitled “‘Bliss’ and why ignorance won’t do: current reading practices” sounded familiar. Several hours later she dropped off a copy of Opening the Book (edited by Mark Williams and Michele Leggott), and sure enough the tenth chapter was an essay entitled “‘Bliss’, and Why Ignorance Won’t do: The use of Criticism and Theory in Current Reading Practices, written by one Mary Paul. Upon closer inspection, I found that while a number of sentences had been altered, and an account of a Lacanian reading added, the first chapter of Her Side of the Story is essentially a piece published five years ago. This realisation provides some explanation for the structural inconsistencies of the text, but assumes new ironies in the context of a book which posits itself as concerned with “new strategies to make our ‘readings’ fresh.”

Add to this various irritating errors such as a reference to Alex Garland’s novel The Beach and the subsequent film as The Island, and the confusion of names in the Mander chapter (Holly Hunter is referred to as playing Asia – the name of the daughter in the Mander text – instead of Ada, a small but significant slip in a chapter which is concerned with the relationship between the novel and film) and you have enough to make at least this reader question the scholarly integrity of the work.

 

Jan Cronin is a Foundation Scholar of Trinity College, Dublin.

 

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Posted in Gender, Literature and Review
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