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Emilie Walezak, Rethinking Contemporary British Women’s Writing: Realism, Feminism, Materialism

London: Bloomsbury, 2022. 184 p. ISBN: 9781350171367. $120
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Emilie Walezak, Rethinking Contemporary British Women’s Writing: Realism, Feminism, Materialism. London: Bloomsbury, 2022. 184 p. ISBN: 9781350171367. $120

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1Emilie Walezak’s book examines how the British realist tradition, which has been dismissed and supplanted by modernists and post-modernists – mostly male – in the past decades, is being renewed and reinterpreted by British women fiction writers. The book concentrates on Pat Barker, A. S. Byatt, Andrea Levy and Rose Tremain, as well as “Millennial writers” Bernadine Evaristo, Sarah Hall and Zadie Smith. Political and environmental debates loom large in the “mirror […] the contemporary realist novel hold[s] up to the reader” (p. 2). Borrowing from the scholarship of Jacques Rancière, Donna Haraway and others, Walezak also engages with theoretical debates about the realist mode of fiction, in particular its alleged conservatism, so as to investigate “new ways of reading realism” today (p. 4).

2The introduction charts out the book’s plan and provides a detailed summary of each chapter. The second chapter examines A. S. Byatt’s and Zadie Smith’s involvement in theoretical debates about the novel form, which have turned them into public intellectuals. Walezak argues that the omniscient voice in their fiction is carried over into their non-fiction to form what Christopher Holmes has called “novel-thinking”. Faced with the criticism that their novels were merely lectures in fancy dress, they have argued that realist fiction plays the important role of taking readers out of themselves, developing their empathy and opening their horizon onto unfamiliar worlds, thus transferring the novel’s focus from sincerity to truth.

3The third chapter relies on Julia Kristeva’s definition of abjection in Powers of Horror, and analyses self-loathing and the grotesque female body in contemporary women’s fiction. Walezak focuses on the way Rose Tremain and Pat Barker return to the roots of the realist tradition by presenting uncongenial, even abject individuals, while avoiding moral manipulation and leaving readers free in their degree of involvement or identification with self-loathing characters. In Andrea Levy’s Small Island, the device of “affective focalization” is used to denounce racist constructions. The reader plays an active part in redistributing his or her sympathies and reassigning different positions to the characters, thus becoming, not only “a co-producer of the text” but “a companion to the characters” (p. 63), who corrects the wrongs done by gender, class and racial divides in a society which systematically degrades women.

4In the fourth chapter, Donna Haraway’s theory of situated knowledge forms the basis of an investigation into the role played by realist characterization in immersing readers into unfamiliar subjective standpoints. While marginal personalities may help to decenter perception, Walezak focuses more particularly on the way the traditional device of narratorial omniscience is used in contemporary fiction to introduce a variety of partial understandings, producing “human knowledge” (p. 68). What brings contemporary realism to a new kind of objectivity is the use of conflicting, embodied perspectives that are openly presented as partial.

5Chapter five explores the art of realist description in relation to objects and textures. In these descriptions, female corporality is often perceived as fluid and made accessible through “modes of seepage” (Elizabeth Grosz). Their effect does not stop at creating an impression of reality: they evoke and recreate trauma. In the novels of Bernadine Evaristo and Zadie Smith, the adjectives have a material quality that covers a vast range of embodied experiences which come into sharp contrast with the sensations and textures that were privileged in white middle-class male writing. The “material-semiotic node” of hair, belonging to both nature and culture, provides many examples of how novelists can play with a language shaped by decades of scientific racism.

6The last two chapters are more directly concerned with ecological debates. “Posthuman Naturalism” examines the tradition of scientific inquiry that originated with naturalist writing. In contemporary fiction, women can return to empirical and scientific practices by revising the latter’s anthropocentric and phallogocentric positioning. Chapter 6 includes a timely analysis of water as shared substance and resource, based on Astrida Neimanis’s concept of “hydrocommons”. The seventh chapter focuses on post-pastoral literature and “weathering” in texts by Sarah Hall, Sarah Moss and Melissa Harrison. It circles back to non-fiction, and brings the book to a close by providing reasons why “realism matters”: daily lives speak not only of personal or family environments or contexts, but connect with global issues in a world in constant change. The function of the realist novel is to allow new perspectives to emerge while remaining democratically accessible.

7Not a book for the theoretically faint-hearted, Walezak’s dense and well-argued study offers thought-provoking insights to readers interested in realist literature and the art of the novel in general. The book discusses several features of realist writing: the idea that characters stand for ideas, the process of reader identification, the art of description and the scientific approach are revisited and problematized along new lines. The book gives substance to feminist materialism by showing how feminist intuitions help identify different forms of oppression.

8Emily Walezak gives their due to other scholars in the field, so that her book provides a guide for future scholarship. The thirteen-page bibliography and the index of names, works and notions offer plenty of openings for further readings of fiction and secondary sources. The book’s great merit is to provide a thematic approach to several novelists, and their evolution – the shift from omniscience to first-person narration in the works of A.S. Byatt and Zadie Smith for instance – rather than devoting separate chapters to each author. And it is all the more useful as it is compact (150 pages).

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Nathalie SAUDO-WELBY, « Emilie Walezak, Rethinking Contemporary British Women’s Writing: Realism, Feminism, Materialism »E-rea [En ligne], 20.2 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2023, consulté le 01 octobre 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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