Part memoir and part literary analysis, Kelly Cherry's Girl in a Library: On Women Writers and the Writing Life (BkMk Press, 221 pages, $16.95) could be required reading for anyone about to plunge into -- and those already immersed in -- a writerly existence. The depths explored during such a life are murky and invigorating, sometimes both. Cherry is the author of 19 books, including volumes of poetry, short stories and criticism. She presents here a collection of essays that examine her experience and output as a woman and writer, within the context of other women who write. "It will still be a long while before the term woman writer becomes unuseful -- I do hope someday it will be exactly that," Cherry writes, "and in the meanwhile women writers may look to one another for support, guidance, and a sense of the possibilities, if only by reading one another's work."
Cherry, whose own roots are there, devotes many pages to Southern writers, including one whole chapter for Bobbie Ann Mason. There's also a chapter on Cherry's favorite contemporary African American women writers, plus individual chapters devoted to the writers Elizabeth Hardwick, Mary Ward Brown and Ann Tyler. Within these and other sections, Cherry nods to dozens more scribes, both male and female, whose works influence and impress her. (The bibliography and index, combined, stretch for 12 pages.)
The mentions never devolve into name-dropping, though. Cherry is an
academic, whose studies include the hard sciences as well as the
ephemeral humanities. Her analyses of other writers' work are so
thorough that one needn't be familiar with a poem, story or critical
essay to enjoy Cherry's review of it. She quotes liberally enough to
provide a sort of Cliff's Notes context of the content and, in a
surprisingly economical way, relays the writer's background. In so
doing, she illustrates how a writer's experience as a woman may (or may
not) feed into the characters she invents.
Due to the winding
structure of the book and the fact that each chapter is its own
stand-alone essay, some details of Cherry's life get repeated. The
redundancy isn't too distracting, however at times her passing
references to significant personal experiences in her life serve as a
tease. The reader may wonder, for example, why Cherry lingers on the
failure of her first marriage, yet perfunctorily references years she
spent in love with and isolated from a Russian musician and then
suddenly reveals that late in life she met the love of her life (who we
learn precious little about).
But then, while her relationship
(or lack thereof) to a man (or children) can have a profound affect on
what a woman writes -- or if she does at all (Cherry notes the
difficulty of balancing the writing life with traditional social
expectations of women and mentions how some women to put aside writing
until children are grown or marriages end) -- overindulgence in the
author's romantic history would distract from the book's purpose. Girl in a Library
is an account of Cherry's love affair with writing, which just so
happens to involve a few men. And her parents. And that most mysterious
element of all, herself.