Sarah Avery (dr_pretentious) wrote,
Sarah Avery

Double Standards Within Double Standards

I'm not going to take on all the points in this review of Elaine Showalter's new chunky tome on women in literary history, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx. It used to be my job to read exactly that kind of chunky scholarly tome--I've got a bunch of Showalter's older books on my shelves--but right now I don't have a lot of time to read stuff that doesn't have immediate bearing on my fiction, my teaching, or my kid.

Which is too bad, because I always thought Showalter was one of the sane ones, and this book actually sounds intriguing, even now that I don't have to read literary history.

Showalter's always been interested in the interplay of gender and genre, especially in the way novels by women about women's experiences get categorized as non-literary fiction. My recollection, and my impression from this review, is that while Showalter looks at the heavily policed boundary between literary fiction and romance/chick lit/women's fiction, aside from the inescapable Mary Shelley, she doesn't look much at women's contributions to science fiction, fantasy, horror, or mystery. I wonder if I'm wrong about that.

If Showalter had looked at women in sf/f, surely the reviewer, Laura Miller, would not have accepted and passed along the dichotomy she fixates on in this passage:

[Francine] Prose maintained that the authorities in charge of these goodies [awards, teaching gigs, grants, etc.] 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.

Laura Miller has difficulty imagining an American woman writing a long, sprawling book with a large cast of characters who actually leave their houses and get mixed up in adventures, wars, and affairs of state, with implications that make readers consider big what if questions? I could name half a dozen American women writers consistently able to work on that scale, and I wouldn't even have to look beyond my livejournal friends list...but they're all writing science fiction or fantasy, so their work is inadmissible in this discussion of whether women can write ambitious fiction. Because, hey, if they were really ambitious or literary, they wouldn't be writing genre fiction, would they?

Anybody who wants to know where the women with a calling to write epics went can wander over to our section of the bookstore anytime.

The reason it's hard to publish a vast novel with a large cast painted, as it were, on a broad social canvas has lot more to do with the costs of printing and binding a book more than 200,000 words long than it does with the difficulty of writing the damn thing, regardless of authorial gender. Not that I have any baggage about writing sprawling epics...
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