Books Graduate school

Monday-morning link

An interesting post by Laura Miller at the National Books Critics Circle blog explaining why she chose not to participate in the recent NY Times survey on the best American novel of the last twenty-five years (and why she thinks a shortlist is generally preferable to naming a single “best” work). In the comments, people also discuss the gender imbalance of the Times list — twenty male authors, several with multiple books or multiple entries, and two female.

My school just gave out a really huge student literary prize, also aimed at fiction that somehow encapsulated the American experience. (I have such an urge to put every other word in that last clause in scare quotes.) It was judged, this time, by a panel of five men. There were five finalists; every one was male. Those I’ve read are talented writers, and I don’t mean to impugn their work at all, but there are also a hell of a lot of talented female writers in the two writing programs on campus, and it strikes me as strange that none of them were named as finalists. I think Miller is on to something when she connects the drive to identify a “best American work” with a nostalgia for the supposed (white male) American monoculture. And boy howdy, is it interesting to be reading Blood Meridian while thinking about these things.

3 Comments

  1. Some things sure haven’t changed. And it’s scary to think that many women of your generation don’t think that gender discrimination exists any longer. Not you, of course. We can talk about this more when you get here in June. And, um, just for the record, I think that you should have been on that shortlist. ahem.

  2. I’ve heard the same thing from younger women: surely there are now so many published books, so many women’s studies programs, so many recognized authors, that we can never go back to the old days of obscurity and exceptionalism? Aaaargh. It makes me want to take a copy of How to Suppress Women’s Writing and superglue it to their hair.

    The old American monoculture was a function of narrow channels. You went to Main Street to shop, and you bought what was offered. There wasn’t a lot of variety. When I was a kid, before the malls, there were 500-600 bookstores in the United States, total, and most of them were in big cities, university towns, and the Northeast. (Thank goodness for paperback racks, and book nooks in department stores.) Hardcovers and paperbacks tended to be published by separate houses, and upscale hardcover publishing was largely a game for WASP men. There was a lot more official consensus about what were and were not the important books. And if you go back and read through their reviews chronologically, you can watch writers like Georgette Heyer and Cecelia Holland gradually getting pushed out of the main review columns and into the three-sentence roundup reviews of inconsequential category romance novels.

    Even now, even now. I have to wonder why so many ambitious, literarily meritorious male novelists get treated like they have tenure after only two or three books, but Francine Prose is still getting treated like adjunct faculty.

    Have you ever noticed how often, in lists of the best & most influential, there’ll be two women? Not one; that looks too paltry, and raises the question of female representation. Not three; that makes it look like books by women are, y’know, some kind of thing. Like they’re not the exception. Besides, they’d be occupying too many slots. So it’s two. You get (say) Aphra Behn and Jane Austen; but if you add Wollstonecraft or Bradstreet or one of the Brontes, Aphra Behn has to go. If you’re doing moderns you can have (say) Willa Cather and Virginia Woolfe; but adding Toni Morrison will make Willa Cather to drop from the list, and may cause a black male author to disappear as well.

    I’ve started thinking of the Two Notable Female Authors as the equivalent of the canonical Two Beers, which is the quantity claimed by injured drunks when EMTs ask them how much they’ve had to drink. That is: it’s the smallest possible quantity they think will sound plausible.

  3. I’ve started thinking of the Two Notable Female Authors as the equivalent of the canonical Two Beers, which is the quantity claimed by injured drunks when EMTs ask them how much they’ve had to drink. That is: it’s the smallest possible quantity they think will sound plausible.

    That’s frighteningly apt. (And also makes me want to start a band called The Two Notable Female Authors.)

    I was also disappointed to note that A. O. Scott’s essay on the survey results barely mentions gender — he’s careful to cite more names of female authors when discussing writers who might have been named to the list, but, again, never quite as many female as male. And here’s part of his paragraph on the lack of younger writers on the list:

    In sifting through the responses, I was surprised at how few of the highly praised, boldly ambitious books by younger writers — by which I mean writers under 50 — were mentioned. One vote each for “The Corrections” and “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay,” none for “Infinite Jest” or “The Fortress of Solitude,” a single vote for Richard Powers, none for William T. Vollmann, and so on.

    A grand total of… zero Notable Female Authors. Oh yeah, gender discrimination is a thing of the past.

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