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Revisiting the best-selling confessional novels of the 1970s

Mary Joannou

The best selling 'classics' of the women's movement including Lisa Alther's Kinflicks, Anja Meulenbelt's The Shame is Over, Kate Millet's Sita, Marilyn French's The Woman's Room, Rita Mae Brown's Ruby Fruit Jungle and Erica Jong's Fear of Flying originate din the United States. But they were read and discussed by countless women in Britain and throughout the world. This workshop will explore a number of questions relating to the feminist sexual confessionals of the 1970s: Why were they read so avidly? What kinds of relationships between cultural analysis, consciousness-raising and political praxis do such novels suggest? Was the feminist best-seller a contradiction at a time when feminists themselves were often pilloried? Was the expression of sexual desire fiction written by women (heterosexual as well as lesbian) liberating per se? and did this have different meanings for men and for women? To what extent were these novels able to politicise women as part of a process of consciousness-raising?

This workshop will be based on ideas developed in my recent book on women's writing, Contemporary Women's Writing from The Golden Notebook to The Color Purple (2001). I hope to circulate extracts from some of the above novels for discussion and that other women will wish to talk about the fiction which influenced them, perhaps bringing their own books or extracts. I want to ask how well the feminist confessionals have survived after they have been cut adrift from their moorings in the women's movement? I am particularly interested in the responses to this fiction of younger women who may not have been born in the 1970s.

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