Salon's Laura Miller turns to a provocative topic about the literary canon, one I've mulled myself for more time than you want to know.
The question is horribly fraught, and has been since the 1970s. Ten years ago, in a much-argued-about essay for Harper's, the novelist and critic Francine Prose accused the literary establishment -- dispensers of prestigious prizes and reviews -- of continuing to read women's fiction with "the usual prejudices and preconceptions," even if most of them have learned not to admit as much publicly.
I've taken my turn to wonder about why nearly all books translated into English are by men and the gendered side to literary ambition, not to mention doing some byline counting here at Isak and reflecting over at WIMN's Voices. I've learned if nothing else what a many-sided issue this is--there is a troubling systemic, traditional, quiet sexism that absolutely is at play in our literary landscape and will not go away without publishers, editors, critics, professors, agents, grant-givers, and other 'canon-makers' of all genders taking a true account of their assumptions and being pro-active and creative about changing the pattern.
At the same time, there is what I'll call an internal sexism in many women as well, leading them to not take themselves as seriously as writers, and to not be as persistent or ambitious in their submissions or projects. There's nothing that will solve this piece of the problem except serious self-responsibility and nerve. (It is this conclusion that I came to in the article for Bitch Magazine on ambition.)
A new entry into this thorny public conversation about how literature and gender intersect, and the cue for Laura Miller's article, is Elaine Showalter's new book: A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx.
Miller approves of Showalter's cultural history and literary analysis.
What's more, it seems that Showalter offers provoking questions--and answers--that frankly had never occurred to me:
Showalter (as I understand her via Miller) makes a fascinating connection with the American dream of pioneering individualism and originality and how this led American women to understand that doing anything other than keeping home for those rugged individuals was a crime not only against family and culture, but also Nation and God. It was a burden unequal to their sisters in Britain--and so: "No wonder, then, that much of American women's writing before the 1960s can seem cramped and apologetic compared to their more entitled sisters across the Atlantic, let alone compared to a rampant (if charming) egoist like Walt Whitman."
Perhaps we are now poised at a moment of evolution. Miller points out that the last generation of "old-fashioned androcentric Great American Novel practitioners will die out with Philip Roth" and "literary men under 45 are as likely to idolize Joan Didion or Flannery O'Connor as Norman Mailer or John Updike."
I have pleaded for an end to this era of Literary Giantdom (or, as David Foster Wallace put it, the Great Male Narcissists), and all signs to its demise gives me great hope.
Perhaps it is this moment, then, where authority will become available to writers of all genders if they have the will, the talent, and the work ethic to justify it.
Miller and I seem to agree in the twin catalysts that are necessary to meeting our moment:
Another is for America's women writers to seize their share of those big canvases. Showalter seems to feel that they are now doing so, and lists authors like Annie Proulx and Jane Smiley as examples. It's difficult, however, to think of the equivalent -- both in attempt and reputation -- of "Underworld" or "Infinite Jest" by an American woman. By contrast, with examples ranging from Iris Murdoch to Doris Lessing, British women are perfectly at home with the capacious novel of ideas; after all, George Eliot practically invented the thing.
The great exception to this rule is women of color -- most notably Toni Morrison, but Prose also singles out the Native-American novelist Leslie Marmon Silko -- whose work became mainstream in the 1980s. Apart from their own considerable talent, these writers have been politically liberated to claim a big swath of territory that white male novelists could not make a feasible bid for anyway; Don DeLillo knows better than to attempt the Great American Novel about slavery. Morrison's black male counterparts, on the other hand, have raised an infamous ruckus over her apotheosis, which suggests that winning the right to speak for an entire people is still, in some minds, a prerogative of men.
Indeed, on all accounts. Aside from the Jane Smiley reference (who I'm no fan of, with the single exception to "The Age of Grief"), it sounds like Showalter's book is a must-read for someone has invested and curious in this ongoing story of gender and literature as I am--and who desperately wants to see (help create?) a new pattern of whose voices have space to speak.