The Great American novelist

Grace Lin asks when women’s writing will be considered literature rather than ‘chic lit’

Oesophagal Cancer for Web
Now I know some of you will agree with Hitchens that women are about as funny as oesophagal cancer…
Cartoon: Nina Ubaldi

The decline of literature has been a long time coming. In an excerpt from his forthcoming book, Jonathan Franzen rallies against the intellectual poverty that characterises our “media-saturated” world. The past couple of months saw a number of think pieces in publications such as Salon and NYT, comparing literature to a stagnant echo chamber replete with clichés. Mark Edmundson’s Poetry Slam article in the July issue of Harper’s derides modern poetry as weak and feeble.

The undercurrent of chauvinism in Edmundson’s piece is obvious. Instead of being “soft” and “lovely,” poetry should reach for “conviction” and “risk.” Franzen once again expressed his distaste for the insipidity of women’s work by proclaiming that the downfall of Alice Munro’s work is the pathological sentimentality she has for her characters. And in an odd non sequitur on Charlie Rose, David Foster Wallace rallied behind the practice of writing long-winded books against feminists, who, according to him, constantly complain that a white male will “sit down and write this enormous book and impose his phallus on the consciousness of the world.”

But Wallace’s position is deceptive because this is exactly what white, male writers take advantage of. I don’t think it’s a controversial position to claim that women are required to recognise male consciousness in a way men are not required to understand female consciousness. Films with female leads are considered ‘chick flicks,’ whereas films with male characters are considered relatable because they are framed as stories about humans. Also contemplate Zadie Smith’s deliberate decision to only mention the race of characters in her novel NW if they are white. By growing up and reading a litany of white male authors such as Saul Bellow, John Updike and Martin Amis, “everybody’s neutral unless they’re black. I just wanted to try and create perhaps a sense of alienation and otherness in this person, the white reader, to remind them that they are not neutral to other people.” Works like Huckleberry Finn and Moby Dick are revered stories for all genders. But asking boys to read novels from the likes of Austen, Woolf and Plath? No chance.

So, what next? The solution is apparently to return to the yesteryear of literature, the days of unadulterated wisdom and passion from the likes of Fitzgerald and Kerouac: the musings of tortured geniuses who encapsulated the heart of American identity. But the willingness of the public to indulge young men with no direction as poetic souls and creative contrarians is not interesting to me. Fitzgerald ‘borrowed’ extensively from his wife’s diaries for material while simultaneously discouraging her from publishing, lest she encroach upon his success. Gregory Corso, a writer in the inner circle of the Beat Generation, stated that women did exist in the movement with the caveat that “if you were male you could rebel, but if you were female your families had you locked up.”

Take a look at any women’s literature section and it becomes clear that women are not afforded the luxury of obliviousness. Even though female authors write about the same things as male authors – grand public subjects as well as the intricacies of intimate life – and just as compellingly, books about women’s lives and by women struggle to enter the echelons of top-tier literature by virtue of being characterised ‘for women.’ As Joyce Carole Oates once lamented, “the woman who writes is a writer by her own definition, but a woman writer by others’ definitions.” Seen as a doughy, undifferentiated mass of melodrama undeserving of acclaim, literature by women is still largely read with the preconceptions that authors like Franzen have.

And female writers continue to face an uphill journey in escaping the dominion white, male writers yield. VIDA, an organisation dedicated to women in literary arts, compiled a statistical rundown in 2012 with unsurprising results. Nearly three-fourths of authors reviewed in the well-known publications it analysed were men. It seems like women are stuck between a rock and a hard place. You’re only allowed to choose one or the other: wealth like Jodi Piccoult or critical acclaim like Franzen.

I enjoyed reading Infinite Jest and I don’t think Franzen’s work is without merit. But rather than offering accurate analyses on the state of literature, I see the tugged collars of writers’ shirts who feel that the white, male voice as a neutral voice for all is crumbling due to incursions from authors they deem below them. By being destined for posterity regardless of merit, it’s understandable that these men feel threatened by the likes of acclaimed authors such as Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who herself states that we do a “greater disservice to girls because we raise them to cater to the fragile egos of men.” I just didn’t expect their critiques to be so petulant.

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