Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre, and Epistolary Fictions, by Linda Kauffman

Unfortunately, what started out as a very interesting idea - an attempt to define a genre that has yet to be recognized - ended up being a very long college lit paper. The ideas are all there, but the organization is atrocious. Instead of simply sticking to her point, and thereby making the book possibly a hundred pages shorter, Kauffman delved far too deeply into generalized literary criticism. Each paragraph would start with a topic sentence that was referential to the book, but then continue to go deeper and deeper into subjects that were hardly relevant. Kauffman comes off looking like an over-excited college senior, brilliant and imaginative, but disorganized and unedited.

Kauffman's argument is that amorous epistolary discourse is a genre in itself, a genre that started with Ovid's Heroides, flowed through the letters between Abelard and Heloise, a possibly fictional Portuguese nun to her French lover, and on to various novels, such as Clarissa, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and Absalom Absalom! Obviously, what is unique about this genre is that it encompasses the actual correspondences between former lovers, and fictional ones as well. These discourses are typified by legal language, absence, the writer who writes to someone else but mostly to herself (and it is always a woman).

While I take no issue with Kauffman's argument, it is difficult to agree with a premise that is so badly set forth. Not only is the organization and editing terribe, but Kauffman assumes that we have read all these pieces. Of course she cannot write a description of each and every one, and certainly her book has encouraged me to read many of them, but it is exceedingly difficult to understand a point of literary criticism when one does not even know the plot! Not to mention the spoilers involved.


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