“A Memoir of Feminism: An Interview with Nancy K. Miller,” excerpted below, was first published in Issue 68 (Spring 2007) of the minnesota review. The interview took place on 10 February 2007 in Nancy K. Miller’s office at CUNY. It was conducted by Jeffrey J. Williams, then editor of the minnesota review, and transcribed by David Cerniglia, then an editorial assistant for the review while a PhD student in literary and cultural studies at Carnegie Mellon University. You can access the full interview via our online archive, available through Duke University Press.
Nancy K. Miller’s work represents, in some ways, the itinerary of contemporary criticism. She was trained as a structuralist, in the 1970s became a feminist, and since the 90s has moved to memoir. She has been one of the most astute commentators on the rise of personally-inflected criticism and on the longer tradition of autobiography, in a series of books: Getting Personal: Feminist Occasions and Other Autobiographical Acts (Routledge, 1991), Bequest and Betrayal: Memoirs of a Parent’s Death (Oxford UP, 1996), and But Enough About Me: Why We Read Other People’s Lives (Columbia UP, 2002). Currently she is completing her own memoir of living in Paris in the 1960s, Out of Breath.
Miller’s early work is part of the feminist revision of the canon and creation of a new literary history. Her first book, The Heroine’s Text: Readings in the French and English Novel, 1722-1782 (Columbia UP, 1980), examined the fate of women characters in canonical eighteenth-century French and English novels; drawing on her dissertation, it shifted focus from the devices of plot to the representation of women. Thereafter, Miller was in the thick of things, directing the Women’s Studies program at Barnard College through the 1980s, organizing conferences (one of which resulted in the influential collection The Poetics of Gender [Columbia UP, 1986], which she edited), and continuing her writing on fiction and feminist theory, in Subject to Change: Reading Feminist Writing (Columbia UP, 1988) and French Dressing: Women, Men, and Ancien Régime Fiction (Routledge, 1995). She also co-edited the collections (with Joan DeJean) Displacements: Women, Tradition, Literatures in French (Johns Hopkins UP, 1991) and (with Jason Tougaw) Extremities: Trauma, Testimony, and Community (U of Illinois P, 2002).
Williams To start, I want to ask about the trajectory of feminist criticism in the US. It seems that you were at key places at key times—you studied French at Columbia in the early 70s when structuralism was in its heyday, but you were part of a cohort that developed if not invented feminist literary criticism. How did you come to do the work you did?
Miller I went to graduate school for a PhD in 1969. It was really the beginning of the widespread development of feminism in the United States, and I started a women’s group with my friend Hester Eisenstein in January 1971. By then I was getting ready to write my dissertation, and there had already been the March for Equality, Sexual Politics was published in August 1970, and the first issue of Ms. Magazine came out in New York Magazine in 72. So there was this sense that something was happening. It wasn’t particularly happening at Columbia, but it was happening in New York, and I felt that I was part of something. I certainly did not take any classes that had anything to do with feminism or women writers.
In any event, there was almost nothing recognizable as feminist criticism. When I told my advisor that I was very excited about Sexual Politics because it was a model for reading men’s writing, which is what I was going to be doing in the dissertation, he said—I will never forget— “Don’t be a second-rate Kate Millett, she wasn’t first-rate to begin with.” She was a Columbia PhD and had gotten her PhD, I think, in 69 or 70, so that certainly set a tone.
Williams Who was your advisor?
Miller That was actually my second reader, Otis Fellows, who dominated eighteenth-century studies. People felt free to say things like that then. My actual thesis director was Michael Riffaterre, as you may know, and I think he was amused. The only reason that he tolerated my working on the question of the representation of women was that I was a structuralist, which is this sort of bizarre fact of my history as a feminist. I had been trained as a structuralist, that’s what we did there: semiotics and the structural analysis of narrative, narrative theory and the Russian Formalists. While I was still at Columbia, in part through the Maison Française, Lacan came to speak and Derrida, and poststructuralism started to emerge. But the line with Riffaterre was structuralism, and his particular take on it, structural stylistics. Because I was considered at the time to be a “theory person,” the fact that I was also interested in heroines was tolerated. But it was just barely tolerated, and it was seen as something that would pass, an emotional reaction possibly.
Williams In the beginning of The Heroine’s Text, you distinguish between “euphoric” as opposed to “dysphoric” narratives, euphoric being when the heroines are integrated into society and dysphoric ones when they die, which seems to happen to a lot of women characters in novels. I can see a connection with structuralism, in staking out the generative opposition.
Miller Okay, but here’s the thing: between the time I wrote the dissertation, which I defended in December 73, and the time I finally transformed it into a book, important feminist literary criticism had been published. That was partly why I shifted from an organization that had categories of structural analysis to more thematic categories. By then I had precursors— there was Literary Women by Ellen Moers in 1976, and Elaine Showalter’s A Literature of Their Own in 1977. I had already finished my book when Madwoman in the Attic came out in 79—I was kind of glad because, well, it would have just changed everything.
Williams So, in other words, it was part of what was going on, and you were part of a group that was discovering this.
Miller I taught my first course on French women writers in 1977. The Committee on Instruction had to approve all the courses, so when I proposed the seminar, I probably benefited from the fact that I was the only person in the department asking to do this. It was like, “How threatening could it be? We’ll allow her to do this one course.” When we met for the first time, we felt like terrorists. When we shut the door and said we were there to read women writers, the students and I were filled with a sense that we were doing something truly transgressive. I don’t know whether every movement has this feeling, whether the first time people taught African- American or queer literature it was the same thing, but we thought we were being very daring.