In the Guardian, AJ Flood points to a Slate article by Katha Pollitt about A Jury of Her Peers, Elaine Showalter’s big new critical/historical survey of the lives, work, and reception of American women writers. I’ve just recently begun reading Showalter’s book, so I won’t comment on it here. But, like Flood, I was struck by one particular passage in Pollitt’s piece about Showalter’s book:
Many women writers have complained that fiction by women is undervalued because we undervalue the domestic and the personal as opposed to big manly subjects like war and whaling. It’s an important point, but I think there’s something deeper going on. In fact, there are men who write about intimate life and women who take on big public subjects. More different than the books themselves is the gendered framing of how we read them. Nobody says Henry James is a less ambitious writer because he wrote The Portrait of a Lady and not The Portrait of a Sea Captain. If The Corrections had been written by Janet Franzen, would it have been seen not as a bid for the Great American Novel trophy, but as a very good domestic novel with some futuristic flourishes that didn’t quite come off? If the most prolific serious American writer was John Carroll Oates, would critics be so disturbed by the violence in his fiction?
This is a very sharp observation on Pollitt’s part. I’ve long been bothered by the way many critics tend to dismiss (or simply fail to notice) the grand (even awe-inspiring) scope of Joyce Carol Oates’s literary ambition, and I don’t doubt that gender plays at least some role in this. Oates is routinely bashed for being prolific, rather than admired for her vast range and phenomenal energy—whereas Philip Roth’s late-career burst of productivity has been widely hailed as a renaissance, and has cemented his place in the American literary canon.
Further, I think Pollitt is right on to point to the violence in Oates’s work as another potential source of the problem—it’s not very ladylike, after all, for a writer to devote so many pages to seriously elucidating a red-meat, manly theme like the role that violence plays in shaping American lives, identities, relationships, and culture (which is in fact one of the major preoccupations of Oates’s fiction). But in contrast, few critics blinked at the horrific violence that is the central concern of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666. (In a side note, I also find it fascinating that no one has taken Bolaño to task for writing from what I think can only be understood as a feminist perspective on the nature and causes of violence against women. It is clearly men who are responsible for the violence in 2666, and Bolaño strongly suggests that the many female victims in the book would have been less vulnerable if it hadn’t been for the fact that both the (male) murderers and the (male-dominated) state failed to take women seriously as individuals with rights and ethical stature; because the deaths of women (and especially poor women) are seen as not especially significant, it becomes that much easier for men to kill them. I wonder what the reception would have been if 2666 had been written by a woman—would critics have objected to the uncompromising stridency of the author’s feminist perspective?)
I suspect it’s not only the violence in Oates’s work that strikes some critics as unseemly, but also her absolute fearlessness about confronting dark events and emotions with both honesty and empathy. The result is sometimes unsettling in its intimacy, and also exhausting in its raw, searing energy. These are qualities that are often praised in male writers, but perhaps Oates’s gender leads some readers to dismiss the great intensity of her work as mere feminine emotionalism run amok. Never mind the serious intellectual (and especially philosophical) heft of much of her work—better to keep her safely in her place as just another sentimental scribbling woman.
As for Janet Franzen: again, I think Pollitt is right on here. The Corrections is far from a bad novel, but it is very difficult to imagine that the same book would have been seen as so earth-shatteringly important if it had been written by a woman. Yet, even before the infamous Oprah incident, Franzen’s book enjoyed an astounding amount of critical attention—I bought it on the day of its release (placing a real strain on my post-college part-time bookstore clerk’s wages) expecting something akin to the next Moby Dick, given all the wild, unadulterated praise the novel had received—but instead I found it to be nothing more than yet another solid but unexceptional contemporary novel, and certainly nothing to get all worked up about. I’ve experience similar disappointments when reading the work of a number of other recent literary “it” boys—some of them write good books, and some write bad ones, but there have been very few (like Bolaño) whose work actually lives up to all the hype.
At the very least, critics could start creating similar buzz and excitement over books by a few women writers every now and again. A handful of women writers of sterling, well-established reputations (Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Toni Morrison) tend to be treated with great seriousness and respect by critics—but very, very few seem to be given the kind of breathless and rapturous reception that mediocre (or worse) books by Franzen, Safran Foer, and their ilk enjoy on a routine basis. It is all too rare to read a review like the one that The New York Times ran on Curtis Sittenfeld’s American Wife, which recognizes the boldness, ambition, and importance of a new novel by a younger woman, and treats the book in much the same way a critic would consider the work of a man like Franzen. But you’ll never guess who wrote that particular review. All right, I’ll give you a hint: it wasn’t John Carroll Oates.