This is the first monograph dedicated to Sarah Waters and as such it solidifies her standing as a major figure in contemporary literature. Herein lies one of the major contributions Claire O’Callaghan makes to the fields of contemporary literature more broadly, and contemporary women’s writing specifically. The book, which provides a substantial study of Waters’ writing to date, successfully demonstrates the richness of her oeuvre and the sustained attention it merits. But O’Callaghan does more than read Waters’ novels, and indeed their adaptations, she also mobilizes these novels in an attempt to connect histories of gender and sexuality. One of the tasks of writing the first scholarly book on any given topic is the implicit demand for comprehensiveness, and the book faces that demand head on by following a chronological, work-centred structure. Each chapter focuses on one of Waters’ novels, from her debut Tipping the Velvet (1998) to her most recent publication, The Paying Guests (2014). In addition, each chapter surveys a fundamental theoretical or conceptual issue in the field of feminist and queer theories, ranging from the essentialist versus constructivist debates to the so-called porn wars to questions of post-feminism. This systematic approach alongside the clarity with which it presents both a history of the relevant theories and extended readings of the novels in one place is one of the book’s real strengths. O’Callaghan is effectively drawing together critical theory and fiction as a way of fully attending to complex ideas—like gender, like sexuality. She sets out to show how Waters puts ‘gender and sexual theory into “practice” by means of fabulation’ (p. 2), and she does this by tracing the ‘rifts, tensions, synergies and overlaps between feminist and queer modes of enquiry as well as Waters’s perspectives on their interrelation and dynamic’ (p. 3). Her aim is to move beyond a notionally received oppositional binary between ‘feminist’ and ‘queer’, and to demonstrate the contribution Waters’ fiction writing makes to this undertaking. This foregrounding and, in fact, conceptualization of ‘fabulation’ as considered political practice is heartening. It speaks to a wider concern regarding the role of literature in our contemporary moment. It also engages seriously with Waters’ literary project, as it emerges from her historical novels that re-vision (literary) history from a gendered and sexed perspective, an endeavour that Waters has also pursued in her scholarly writing. The book works through a series of important methodological questions for literary analysis, ones that pose a challenge in particular for scholarship in contemporary literature. One of these is what to do with the living author. The fact of the author’s real presence in the world is one of the thrills of working in the field. It turns criticism into a form of dialogue, and forces us to constantly reconsider the relationship between writer and text, the idea of exegesis, and the slippery distinction between the author and the author-function. What to do with the wealth of material—interviews, comments, websites, live events, etc.—produced by the contemporary author in a content-driven media landscape? O’Callaghan demonstrates her knowledge of and authority in the field by including such extra-textual material in her wide referencing, reminding her readers of its significance as well as the risk it can run of inscribing an aura of authorial intention. A second, related methodological issue taken up by this book is how to figure the relationship between critical theory and literary production, especially when the author has also published scholarly work. The double-pronged approach—a history of key critical debates in the fields of feminist and queer theories alongside an engaged overview of Waters’ novels—means there is a lot of ground to cover. It is a testament to Waters’ fiction and to O’Callaghan’s critical perceptiveness that the book manages to sustain its approach persuasively. In places, though, it can lead to the novels being mapped perhaps too neatly onto these theoretical movements. Waters’ substantial, multifarious oeuvre then serves as an exemplification of critical theory debates, so that the texts ‘reveal’, ‘reflect’, or ‘illustrate’ these. What O’Callaghan’s approach demonstrates most clearly is the difficulty we all encounter when identifying a discrete object of study, an issue she navigates with care. The book sets out to examine gender and sexuality together, in the context of Waters an unprecedented endeavour, and this means they need to be first distinguished. The problem with disentangling the intricately linked subjects of gender and sexuality as discrete objects for analysis is that the attempt at stabilizing these objects of study necessarily highlights their messy relations and slippery boundaries, as becomes especially evident in the discussion of different approaches to identity politics via Tipping the Velvet. The choice of organizing the theory alongside Waters’ oeuvre as a double progress narrative tends to elide the temporal and spatial returns and ruptures so powerfully showcased in Clare Hemmings’ (2011) critique of received narratives of feminist theory. Where she gives herself space to breathe and really develops readings grounded in formal detail and informed by innovative critical theory choices, O’Callaghan’s analysis shines. For example, when she argues for the queering of the wedding band exchanged between Kay and Viv in The Night Watch (p. 115). Or when she attends to structure, showing how the repetition of the sex scene in Fingersmith from different perspectives critiques the formulaic nature of mainstream pornography. The chapter on Affinity is one of the strongest because it is committed to the novel—rather than the progressive relationship between novel and theory—and because its critical perspective is fresh, making use of relevant and recent critical theory (Lauren Berlant’s ‘cruel optimism’ and Jack Halberstam’s concept of queer failure) to offer a truly original reading of the novel. Similarly, the critique of the ‘straightening’ adaptations of Waters’ novels effectively highlights normative cultural practices, and the tension between mainstream and ‘alternative’ success. It is refreshing to have a full-length book study devoted to Waters without readings refracted through the prism of the neo-Victorian or the Gothic, which distinguishes O’Callaghan’s study from much recent scholarship in the field. She persuasively demonstrates the resilience of the fiction in the face of persistent critical scrutiny, and provides a valuable starting point for future research in an emerging field. The book makes useful connections across Waters’ fiction oeuvre and to the history of feminist and queer theories. It also reminds us that fiction writing, ‘fabulation’, can be political practice, and that is a message of hope. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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