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This Book Changes Lives:
The legacy of the "Consciousness Raising" Novel

Imelda Whelehan

In this paper I shall discuss three bestselling works of feminist fiction - Erica Jong's Fear of Flying (1974), Lisa Alther's Kinflicks (1975), and Marilyn French's The Women's Room (1978). The term 'consciousness raising novel', coined by by Lisa Hogeland in her book-length study is used here because of the link it suggests between feminist fiction and politics. Fiction played a crucial part in the women's liberation movement, not least in the development of women's studies programmes in academic establishments, and yet these books, all 'consciousness raisers' in their own right, were deemed problematic in their relation to feminist politics. There is of course a tension in the evaluation of women writers as feminist writers, when a certain amount of proven political activism might be demanded as a demonstration of one's feminism: Alther's and Jong's work was embraced by the mainstream press despite or perhaps because these writers weren't strictly speaking part of the 'movement'. Their explicit heterosexual content also created tensions in a movement where heterosexuality was a dominant theme, but the problems of how to make one's desires gel with one's feminism (the theme of Jong's work in many ways) were often evaded. Fiction could speak to the private in a way that politics could not, and yet the possibilities of mass market fiction were not readily embraced by movement women.

Yet their legacy cannot be ignored. Maria Lauret notes that the successes of such novels may well have helped to create broader mainstream demand for feminist texts, even if this success is double-edged. Having discussed these novels within the context of seventies feminist literary criticism and politics, I shall finally consider their legacy for contemporary women and feminists and ask whether some of the texts deemed least 'feminist' at the time they were published, might be the most interesting and engaging 'CR' novels for a new generation of women. In the last decade, where 'confessional' novels have again become the bestsellers in the much heralded popular genre of 'chick lit', I shall argue that 1970s CR novels are peculiarly compatible with contemporary concerns. In particular, Isadora Wing and Ginny Babcock (heroines of Fear of Flying and Kinflicks respectively) make an interesting counterpoint to Bridget Jones and Carrie Bradshaw.

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