Why can't a woman write the Great American Novel?

Female authors hold their own on the bestseller lists, but Elaine Showalter's provocative new history wonders why they get so little respect.

Published February 24, 2009 12:00PM (EST)

Every few years, someone counts up the titles covered in the New York Times Book Review and the short fiction published in the New Yorker, as well as the bylines and literary works reviewed in such highbrow journals as Harper's and the New York Review of Books, and observes that the male names outnumber the female by about 2 to 1. This situation is lamentable, as everyone but a handful of embittered cranks seems to agree, but it's not clear that anyone ever does anything about it. The bestseller lists, though less intellectually exalted, tend to break down more evenly along gender lines; between J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer alone, the distaff side is more than holding its own in terms of revenue. But when it comes to respect, are women writers getting short shrift?

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. Two years before that, Jane Smiley, also writing in Harper's, alleged that "Huckleberry Finn" is overvalued as a cultural monument while "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is undervalued, largely because of the genders of the novels' respective authors; the claim triggered a deluge of letters in protest. Alongside the idea that women writers have been unjustly neglected, there has blossomed the suspicion that some of them have recently become unduly celebrated -- an aesthetic variation on the conservative shibboleth of affirmative action run amok.

Onto this mine-studded terrain and with impressive aplomb, strides Elaine Showalter, literary scholar and professor emerita at Princeton. Showalter has fought in the trenches of this particular war for over 30 years, beginning with her groundbreaking 1978 study, "A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing," and culminating in her monumental new book, "A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx." Billed as "the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000," "A Jury of Her Peers" has to negotiate the treacherous battlefield between the still-widespread, if fustian insistence on reverence for Great Writers and the pixelated theorizing of poststructuralists hellbent on overturning the very notion of "greatness."

Showalter is certainly the woman for the job. One of the founders of feminist literary criticism, she has also written about television for People magazine and confessed her penchant for fashion in Vogue. Unquestionably erudite, she has always striven to communicate with nonacademic readers, and her prose is clear, cogent and frequently clever. She has insisted that themes central to women's lives -- marriage, motherhood, the tension between family and individual aspirations -- constitute subject matter as "serious" and significant as traditionally masculine motifs like war and travel. Yet she rejects the preference of many feminist literary scholars for emphasizing "culture importance rather than aesthetic distinction," and she doesn't hesitate to describe some of the writers discussed in "A Jury of Her Peers" as artistically limited, if historically interesting.

All of this is controversial enough in Showalter's chosen profession, and "A Jury of Her Peers" mostly steers a judicious middle course, examining the major figures in depth while giving a nod to innovators who may not be well known or exceptionally brilliant. (The latter includes many 19th-century authors but also some 20th-century writers more notable for the "cultural importance" of their subjects -- Anzia Yezierska on the lives of Jewish immigrants, for example, or Jessie Redmon Fauset on the genteel black middle class of the '20s and '30s -- than for the power of their work.) Most illuminating, she will, when needed, chart the rise and fall of the reputation of someone like Sarah Orne Jewett (who wrote about late 19th-century life in the small towns of coastal Maine), a trajectory that went from being "patronized as the epitome of the little woman writer" in her own time to being touted as a "recovered" feminist pioneer in the 1970s and '80s, and finally, in the '90s, to being "excoriated and banished by feminist critics for her endorsement of bourgeois values and her political thought crimes."

Jewett's posthumous "dizzy ride on the roller coaster of critical politics" offers a textbook case of the absurdities of ideological criticism in the late 20th century. One scholar convinced herself that the meandering structure of Jewett's best-known work, "The Country of Pointed Firs" (a lovely book, by the way), was intended to be a weblike, "feminine" alternative to the oppressively "masculine" convention in which a linear plot accelerates to a climax; a more circular story supposedly corresponds to the purportedly non-goal-oriented unfolding of women's sexual response. This dubious sort of analogy is surprisingly popular among academic critics, despite the fact that the vast majority of women readers have always exhibited a hearty appetite for linear narratives -- much as most women, when given a choice, would prefer to have that orgasm, thanks very much.

Showalter gently but firmly suggests that the lack of resolution at the end of "The Country of Pointed Firs" is instead merely the result of a failure of technique. Jewett had difficulties with plot because satisfying plots are difficult to write, a challenge that most novelists -- including Jewett herself and several others covered in "A Jury of Her Peers" -- have readily acknowledged. As an active participant in the birth and coming-of-age of a new school of criticism, Showalter knows well that an excessively political approach can lead a critic to similarly silly, baroque conclusions, which may in part explain why "A Jury of Her Peers" contains, on balance, more history than interpretation.

Nevertheless, if you're inclined to make interpretations yourself, Showalter offers more grist for the mill than a hundred volumes of theory. Why, for example, did Britain produce several women novelists of genius during the 19th century -- Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës, as well as accomplished lesser artists like Elizabeth Gaskell -- while America did not? That question could (and sometimes does) lead to a lot of speculation on the national characters of the English-speaking peoples, but Showalter mentions an equally plausible, practical cause: "While English women novelists, even those as poor as the Brontës, had servants, American women were expected to clean, cook and sew; even in the South, white women in slaveholding families were trained in domestic arts." Quite a few of the short biographical sketches she offers feature women complaining about being compelled by parents to learn to make pies or mend when they would rather write. In 1877, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps made the heroine of her novel, "The Story of Avis," fume, "I hate to make my bed, and I hate, hate to sew chemises, and I hate, hate, hate to go cooking round the kitchen."

Housework in America has never been an uncomplicated matter. The class system in Britain consigned a certain set of people to this humble labor, while America promised the enterprising among them an opportunity to make something more of their lives. Nevertheless, the cooking and cleaning still had to be done -- especially on the small family farms that were the economic engines of early America -- and so the responsibility for it was transferred from a servant class to the female relatives of the new republic's self-made men.

America is the first nation united by ideas rather than a shared cultural and racial history, and foremost among those ideas is the paradigm of self-invention, via hard work, in the free territory of the frontier. Our literary culture has always hankered after fiction that, in one way or another, embodies this hope. "The answer to the American quest for originality," Showalter writes, "seemed to lie in the coming of the poet-hero, a genius who, through divine inspiration, would create immortal works, and an art commensurate with the vastness of the nation and the scope of its dreams." Only such a protean figure could sum up the whole country in a single work. This in turn led to the fantasy of the Great American Novel -- and also to a condition that I like to think of as Great Literary American Novel Syndrome, a term whose acronym, GLANS, gives you a pretty good idea of just who's expected to write the thing.

If rugged individualism was the sacred vocation of the American male, then cooking his meals, keeping his house and raising his children became by necessity the holy and ordained duty of the American female; the very soul of the nation rested upon it! The majority of the women writers whose lives and work Showalter chronicles wrestled with the nagging feeling that they were going against nature as well as country in pursuing what was rightfully a man's work. She detects the persistent recurrence of images of freaks and hybrids in the poetry and fiction of American women, and a taste for the grotesque and the gothic in writers like Flannery O'Connor and the great, underrated Shirley Jackson. Other women authors constantly made gestures of self-deprecation, beginning with the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet, who wrote "Men can do best, and Women know it well./ Preeminence in all and each is yours." They felt hemmed in by the need to observe a ladylike decorum and to disavow any great literary ambition. 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.

The obvious subject for such women was what they knew: home life. But, as Showalter observes, "Domestic fiction has been the most controversial genre in the literary history of American women's writing, an easy target for mockery and an embarrassment to feminist critics who wish to change the canon." Margaret Fuller articulated that ambivalence when she announced that she wanted to "not write, like a woman, of love and hope and disappointment, but like a man, of the world of intellect and action"; she never managed to pull it off. Meanwhile, titans like Nathaniel Hawthorne complained of a "damned mob of scribbling women," whose sentimental tales of love and family outsold his own books. By the 1850s, according to Showalter, "the American literary marketplace became a battlefield between women and men," with the sales mostly going to the women and the esteem reserved for the men. Even socially influential writers, like Harriet Beecher Stowe (teased by Abraham Lincoln for starting the Civil War), got sniffed at by the critical establishment, and it only got worse when the 20th century ushered in the cult of the he-man novelist as personified by Ernest Hemingway. (The leftist writer Meridel Le Sueur complained that an editor rejected one of her stories for lacking the requisite amount of what she called "fishin', fightin' and fuckin'.")

The indignant litany of insults and hindrances flung at woman writers throughout history has become a familiar motif in feminist literary criticism, and Showalter wisely refuses to indulge in it overmuch. She prefers to focus on what they brought to the table. Still, surveying this history, it seems that before the 1970s there was nothing more conducive to a woman's literary success than the failure of the men in her life. More often than not, what prompted these writers to sit down at their desks and send out their manuscripts to magazines and book publishers was the bankruptcy, desertion, idleness or death of her husband or father. When the touted sanctuary of the nuclear family let them down, and they needed the money to feed their children and keep a roof over their heads, their talents were finally loosed. Women like Stowe apparently supported hordes of relatives with her pen. Yet despite this manifest evidence that the traditional, conventional gender roles really don't fit all, only a few American literary women (rich women like Edith Wharton, lesbians like Willa Cather and the odd wild card femme fatale like Edna St. Vincent Millay or Katherine Anne Porter), ever felt entirely at ease in their profession.

This began to change in the 1960s and '70s, and Showalter, building on past work, describes the evolution of "the American female tradition" as going through four stages: "feminine," "feminist," "female" and finally, the current one, which she has dubbed "free." By this she means that "American women writers in the 21st century can take on any subject they want, in any form they choose."

This may indeed be true, but to a certain degree it always was; a writer's feeling of artistic power -- her authority -- has been there for the seizing, even if at times it's been almost impossible to lay hands on it, given the fog generated by our national myths, rigid ideas of the genders' innate capabilities and downright sexism. The difference between then and now lies just as much in the ability to get published and read, and in the economic factors, from book sales to teaching gigs to grants and fellowships, that permit a writer to support herself in her chosen vocation. Francine Prose, in that Harper's essay a decade ago, argued that the prestige awarded by critics and prize committees is crucial in securing these supports for literary writers (as opposed to commercial and genre writers), and they are still distributed unfairly.

Prose maintained that the authorities in charge of these goodies still harbored the tacit assumption that "women writers will not write anything important -- anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise." Prose is right that many critics and editors, especially male ones, make a fetish of "ambition," by which they mean the contemporary equivalent of novels about men in boats ("Moby-Dick," "Huckleberry Finn") rather than women in houses ("House of Mirth"), and that as a result big novels by male writers get treated as major events while slender but equally accomplished books by women tend to make a smaller splash. One response to this situation is to argue that the novel of psychological nuance focused on a small number of characters shouldn't be regarded as less significant than fiction painted on a broader social canvas.

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.

Great Literary American Novel Syndrome is a surprisingly persistent condition, despite the increasingly obvious likelihood that no work of art can sum up a nation as heterogeneous as ours without neglecting somebody. And in the end, critical reputation might become a moot point; substantive book reviews are a vanishing phenomenon, and the guardians of the citadel are fading away on every front. The last generation of old-fashioned androcentric Great American Novel practitioners will die out with Philip Roth; it's difficult to picture a new version of that crew gaining a foothold in a marketplace where the vast majority of those who buy and read fiction are now women. Furthermore, in my (admittedly limited and anecdotal) experience, literary men under 45 are as likely to idolize Joan Didion or Flannery O'Connor as Norman Mailer or John Updike.

And perhaps the literary novel itself is doomed. "A Jury of Her Peers," while a fascinating and often revelatory history, is decidedly historical. The boundless horizon that Showalter sees opening up before us is more likely to feature memoirs and other forms of nonfiction as its landmarks, yet her book barely touches on these genres. Whatever the future of America's women writers will be, it is women readers who will have the most say in it, and their tastes are shifting. This is, indeed, a jury of her peers, and every American writer now finds her- or himself hanging upon their decisions.

By Laura Miller

Laura Miller is the author of "The Magician's Book: A Skeptic's Adventures in Narnia."

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