This Week’s Column:


... a MobyLives guest column

by Lynn Walterick

18 November 2004 — One segment in the November 10 Moby Lives—"That's all she wrote"— served, along with its link to a story in the November 12 Chronicle of Higher Education, to bring a remarkable journal to the attention of a wider reading public. That journal is The Women's Review of Books, now in its twenty–second year of publication. That's the good news.

The bad news, spelled out by the Chronicle, is that the Review will be suspending publication after its December issue. The determining factor is funding, which is seriously and painfully lacking. Neither the Review's home base, Wellesley College, nor Wellesley's Centers for Research on Women, where the journal's offices are housed, provides a subvention, and the deficit at which the Review has been operating is now too overwhelming to sustain.

But readers who have no familiarity with, or only passing awareness of, the Review's situation could come away from the Chronicle article—though this is not to fault its reporting—thinking that an admixture of circumstances in the academic and publishing worlds, indeed in the society overall, has, in these years of change and hard decisions, simply led to the inevitable end of the road. Too bad, but so it goes: a lament for our times.

Too bad, absolutely. But I don't think it has to go that way. I want to address three potential misconceptions—they could even be called myths—about the Review's current situation, in an effort both to provide some context and, more particularly, to take on the notion that "inevitable" is a descriptor we need to learn to live with. I don't pretend to write with abstract concern: in the years 1997–2001, I was senior editor at the Review. My experience there was an education and a privilege undertaken in the company of extraordinary women, those on staff and those writing in every issue. This is personal.

Myth #1: WRB is primarily the handmaiden of women's studies departments and hence has offered a narrow academic focus, one with little applicability beyond the ivory tower.

Women's studies departments have contributed significantly to the mission and quality of higher education over the past twenty–five or so years; they are an esteemed sisterhood and deserve admiration and gratitude.

But the Women's Review has never been "about" women's studies nor does it publish only academic writers—though without question many of the most distinguished, insightful, and articulate academic women, from departments across the academic map, have written, regularly, for the journal. They have always shared the Review's pages with writers of fiction, biographers, poets, essayists, literary critics, journalists, activists. A few of them: Ursula Le Guin, Nancy Mairs, Angela Davis, Blanche Wiesen Cook, Maxine Kumin, Alice Kessler–Harris, Patricia J. Williams, Lisa Alther, Adrienne Rich, Susan Brownmiller, Marilyn Hacker, Rosellen Brown, Robin Morgan, Carol Anshaw, Ruth Behar, Vivian Gornick, Karen J. Fowler, and Francine Prose.

Myth #2: WRB is a book review journal, and readers now have a wide array of media and options for book reviews and so can find the same material elsewhere.

Readers can certainly find the same, say, twenty–five books, at any given time, reviewed in various mainstream magazines and newspapers and in many online sites. But, as anyone who reads the mainstream book review press with open eyes and mind can readily see (also documented by an article in the November issue of the Review, "The Times Is Not A–Changin'"), women, as authors of books under review and as reviewers, are decidedly underrepresented.

The Women's Review of Books, its editorial mission to "give writing by and about women the serious attention it deserves," has offered women's writing its own stage since 1983. Each issue of the Review includes in–depth reviews—by which I mean not sound–bite blurbs but thoughtful essays of some 1,500 or so words on average—of at least ten to fifteen books by women: books about politics, social justice, race, health, gender, education, religion, the environment, higher education, history . . . the world as it involves and interests women. Works of fiction, biographies, and poetry are regularly reviewed, and the Review publishes a substantial amount of poetry.

Moreover, twice yearly it brings out special thematic issues, featuring interviews and essays. In the past five years alone, several such issues have focused on women and war, money, aging, technology, and electoral politics; others on women writers of the New South and of the Asian diaspora; and another on the lives of women performers in opera, jazz, and popular music.

Myth #3: As have gone any number of feminist organizations and publications, so goes the Women's Review: its time has passed, and feminism has accomplished its mission, anyway.

Ah, the f–word. And this is the heart of the matter. The Review is not an artifact and not incapable of constructive change. But it needs a future into which change might be incorporated, not an obituary at the ready.

In one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons, from some time ago, a little old lady in a flowered dress peers down at an innocent young man in a chair and asks: "Is rock 'n' roll over yet?"

Well, feminism is not "over" and it won't be. But, then, feminism is not merely a movement or a "wave": it's a way of being in the world. One of my friends, a fiction writer, was asked in an interview whether her stories represent a feminist perspective. In her reply she said she believes the word has gotten distorted over time, and added, "I love that Rebecca West quote: 'I've never been able to find out precisely what feminism is. I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat.'"

Anyone who has gone shopping for a doormat recently, or looked through house and garden magazines, will know that doormats have undergone a makeover: no longer dull, mud–colored rubber or bristled slabs, they now feature whimsical chickens, or pigs, or cats, or sweet vine–covered cottages, in hues not unlike those in a Crayola box.

But people still wipe their feet on them.

The late Carolyn Heilbrun—acute critic, poignant memoirist, and, as "Amanda Cross," author of some stylishly wonderful mystery novels—was a founding member of the editorial board of the Women's Review. She described the Review as "a place where experience is the ground upon which many feminists may engage in dialogue, agree, disagree, discover."

Take out "feminists," and isn't she describing, in effect, not only the vital role of the independent media in this country but also, in fact, how we envision the American experience? But let's not take feminists out of it—we all need to be feminists, and proud of it.

In the post–November 2 United States—and certainly earlier––dialogue, reasonable disagreement, and discovery appear to have joined the ranks of endangered species. Difference is under siege; choice—on all fronts—has disappeared, is declining, or is shadowed by threat. This is no time to leave the line of battle for the bottom line. To watch with a que sera, sera attitude as The Women's Review of Books and other brave voices fade into history is to evince belief, however regretfully, not so much in inevitability, even, as in doormats.

LYNN WALTERICK is a frelance editor who lives in Seattle. From 1997–2001 she was senior editor of The Women's Review of Books. Her earlier homes in publishing were the Yale University Press and Houghton Mifflin.

Previous column; MOODY IN SOLITUDE ... What happens when you ask Rick Moody to judge a fiction award contest? Our intrepid reporter goes down river to find out.

©2004 Lynn Walterick


All material not otherwise attributed ©2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 Dennis Loy Johnson.