NO MAN'S LAND The Place of the Woman Writer In the Twentieth Century Volume 1: The War of the Words By Sandra M. Gilbert and Susan Gubar Yale University Press. 320 pp. $22.95

SANDRA GILBERT and Susan Gubar began their collaboration with the well-respected Madwoman in the Attic, a study of women as characters and as writers in 19th-century English literature. As one might expect of this dynamic duo, they have now written a fascinating, controversial, and ambiguous study of the post-Victorian period. That this period is in fact our own -- the premodernist, modernist, and postmodernist era, as they characterize it -- makes it more difficult and at the same time more important to evaluate their achievement objectively. And that this volume represents the first in a projected three-volume series only increases the difficulty. Yet it is worth making the effort.

For one thing, Gilbert and Gubar are among the few literary critics these days who still bother to write in English. Their prose is fluid and accessible, yet intelligent and pointed; they mingle analytic remarks with expository summaries in a way that shows both respect and consideration for the reader. Execrable neologisms, currently so common in the academic trade, are kept to a minimum (though I could do without their frequent use of "foremother" -- and I don't forgive them easily for their "fat-her" pun on Gertrude Stein). In their gracefully written preface, these two writers declare their allegiances and their beliefs: "first, that there is a knowable history and, second, that texts are authored by people whose lives and minds are affected by the material conditions of that history." To those who have suffered sympathetically with the orphaned "texts" of recent criticism, such attitudes come as a great relief.

No Man's Land is the theoretical volume in the proposed trilogy, setting up an argument that will be borne out, according to the authors, by specific explications in the subsequent books. The theory (if I can summarize a complex argument simplemindedly) is that the liberation of women, and their entry into masculine spheres (voting, working, and specifically writing), created an atmosphere that essentially shaped the modern esthetic, as practiced by both male and female writers. Gilbert and Gubar are not discounting such factors as the discovery of Freudian theory, the onslaught of the Great War, and the democratization of education; they are simply adding in the position of women and (for their present purposes) giving it center-stage.

The theory strikes me as an interestingly useful one, and I admire the degree to which the two authors have sought out the works of both major and minor authors to back up the idea. Moreover, the present volume is suggestive in its range: I can't wait to see, for instance, whether they end up including Dorothy Sayers' Gaudy Night in their future discussions about women's higher education, or Edward Bulwer-Lytton's The Coming Race in their consideration of male fears of powerful women.

MY PROBLEM, though, is with Gilbert's and Gubar's specific interpretations of texts. I just don't think they're right when they say that Henry Jame's Bostonians takes Basil Ransom's "masculinist" side, or that Faulkner's Joanna Burden "is shown to want and to deserve the phallic retribution exacted by her black lover Joe Christmas," or that "in endowing Bloom with such speculations, Joyce is taking upon himself the Holy Office of pronouncing that woman, both linguistically and biologically, is wholly orifice." Wordplay aside, such interpretation seems to mistake the essential difference between author and character, and to ignore the vastness of vision that goes into the construction of great novels. Typically, Gilbert and Gubar are somewhat better on women writers than on men, and much better on minor artists than major ones. As they themselves point out, "In the novel (or indeed the short story) each event inexorably leads to another and is therefore always threatened by ironic qualifications, by the metaphysics of causality. Thus, the stories we have studied frequently undercut themselves." For exactly this reason, the authors tend to be on soggy ground whenever they try to squeeze a narrowly pro-female or anti-female interpretation out of a major work of literature.

I think, also, that they tend to overvalue the extent to which men as a class have banded together as a literary mafia. For instance, William Carlos Williams -- whom they cite as a member of the powerful male canon -- couldn't get his poetry published except by an adventurous (and privately supported) small press. And Henry James (who has rightly been described by Elizabeth Hardwick as our greatest 19th-century female novelist) struggled for his entire life against a critical opposition that included many more men than women; with his isolated, high-minded convictions (as well as his distinctly homoerotic leanings), he had far more in common with his suffragette Olive Chancellor than with her male opponent, Basil Ransom.

The ambiguity of Gilbert and Gubar's title aptly expresses what is both pleasing and disturbing about this book. In its evocation of the Great War and other significant historical forces, in its willingness to draw on men's writing (such as Harold Pinter's play of the same name), and in its acknowledgment that men as well as women responded importantly to the feminist movement, No Man's Land represents a triumph of good criticism. But whenever it sees gender as the crucial all-determining factor -- when it places the emphasis on "no man's land" the book slips beneath the level it has elsewhere set for itself. :: Wendy Lesser is the author of "The Life Below the Ground: A Study of the Subterranean in Literature and History" and editor of The Threepenny Review, a literary journal.