Reviewing ‘The New Feminist Literary Studies’

by: , June 14, 2021

‘[It] is apparent that women have been making a noise about being silenced for many decades now’. (Cooke 2020: 10)


It seems that women are still making a noise to protest against the norm, to ‘oppose violence and erasure’ (31), to highlight and denounce ‘societal patterns of oppression’ (55). They are fierce and loud, focussed on their wish to ‘unsettle narratives of gender and sexuality’ (140) and ‘disrupt static categories of being’ (16). These women are queer, trans, black or disabled. They are #MeToo witnesses, migrants or sex workers. They question the reproduction of gender in capitalism, the gendered dimension of the environmental crisis, and oppose plutocratic forms of feminism. All spark debates about representations–of motherhood, domesticity, transidentity, migration, youth, prostitution or disability. All ‘invigorate contemporary feminist thinking’ (4) and extend the pioneering radical initiatives of the second-wave feminists.

The New Feminist Literary Studies is a journey through contemporary radical feminisms which foregrounds embodied forms of protest. The collection functions as a subversive intersectional chorus with an ambition to read our current Western culture in a way that deciphers and deconstructs its gendered myths and ideologies. In so doing, it aims to disturb set disciplinary frontiers, to open new fields of socio-political inquiry, and to study a variety of textual forms, both fiction and non-fiction.

I see the volume as a reader in feminist criticism, with a strong emphasis on cultural studies and social sciences, rather than a guide to feminist literary criticism. The analysis of literary forms and gendered textual practices is taken as one among a number of ways of deciphering normative patterns of gender and sexuality. And even if Emily J. Hogg confirms the ‘crucial role of literary texts’ (55), novels and poems are mainly taken as documents of cultural and socio-historical phenomena along with feminist manuals and manifestos or memoirs, and any other type of normative discourse. Feminism is thus used as an interpretative approach to textualities in general, be they literary or otherwise. And, as such, the volume provides multiple epistemological tools to contextualize and examine representational strategies in literature, even if it too rarely makes use of them.

Second-wave literary critics were the first since Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own (1929) to address ‘the interrelation of sexual ideology and culture’ as ‘a fundamental condition of literary form’. (Humm 1994: 22) Literature was seen as a form of social action (Clark et al. 1993 [1979]: 1) and a field of study which would enrich and enlarge feminist criticism in general. (Green & Kahn 1985: 1) From the 1960s onwards, feminist literary scholars. have navigated between feminist critical thinking and textual analysis to account for the ‘interaction between gender and literary form’. (Humm 1994: 4) In this way, Cooke’s selection of essays takes its cue from the work of its twentieth-century foremothers, even if it does not actually look back through them, and bears very little emphasis on the history of feminist literary studies.

Indeed, the anthology rather aims at building a ‘feminist project of futurity’ (20), to borrow Mijke van der Drift and Nat Raha’s phrase. In its plurality and diversity, it acknowledges the ‘ongoing nature of the debate’ (Eagleton 2013 [1991]: 3) over feminist forms of protest and elucidation, and it underlines the plasticity of the term feminist together with the diverse ways it can be used in both feminist studies and literary criticism. The New Feminist Literary Studies has the same ‘future-facing boldness’ (Cooke 2020: 2) of some of the socio-cultural phenomena and literary texts it engages with.

Women are still forcibly voicing out their struggles to evade being silenced, cancelled or framed into normative identities. And feminism still offers the promise of resistance, radical disruption and subversion through embodied ways of knowing. 

In the volume, embodiment is actualised through the multiple subjectivities it assembles, each essay deploying a specific vision and critical background. It is also brought about by the various transgressive corporealities and experiences it explores: disruptive adolescent girls and sex workers, bodies moving across borders or engaging with domesticity, individual or collective bodies, the faces of #MeeToo whistleblowers or of ‘privileged white commodity’ feminists (88), resisting erotic or crippled bodies, among others. All upset static categories of being, question the ways we make meaning corporeally, and call for a renewed use language as a way of finding new forms of shaping lives and their becoming.

But I wanted more: I would have loved to have seen how these radical life experiences challenge novelistic or poetic representations, how they concretely shape words, sentences and paragraphs on the page, and what imagery or narrative patterns they beget. I expected readings that fully delve into the heuristic power of literature and its revolutionary feminist potential. I would have loved to see how feminist studies actually engage with literary criticism, how they shape new literary aesthetics. In sum, I really hope there will be a sequel to this very thought-provoking opus.


Book info: Jennifer Cooke (ed.), The New Feminist Literary Studies, Cambridge University Press, 2020 (258 pages).


Clark, Vèvè, Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres & Madelon Sprengnether (eds.) (1993 [1979]), Revising the Word and the World. Essays in Feminist Literary Criticism, Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 

Cooke, Jennifer (2020), Contemporary Feminist Life-Writing: The New Audacity, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Eagleton, Mary (ed.) (2013 [1991]), Feminist Literary Criticism, New York: Routledge.

Green, Gayle & Coppélia Kahn (eds.) (1985), Making a Difference: Feminist Litarary Criticism, New York: Routledge.

Humm, Maggie (1994), A Reader’s Guide to Contemporary Feminist Literary Criticism, London: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Plain, Gill & Susan Sellers (eds.) (2007), A History of Feminist Literary Criticism, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

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