June 12


Screaming at the Stars

On her blog, the writer Brenna Layne recently posted a series of quotations from famous male authors disparaging female ones, illustrating the struggle for respect that even canonical female authors face: Yes, All Women (Writers)

Some of these quotes seem simply sad and stupid, while others others have a kind of appalling comedy, funny for the blinkered male mind they reveal.

This comment, for instance, by Nabokov, doesn’t make me admire Nabokov more:

I dislike Jane [Austen], and am prejudiced, in fact, against all women writers. They are in another class.

Brenna’s list concludes with the absurd perspective of Canadian writer David Gilmour, who became briefly well known when he explained in an interview that he only teaches “serious hetrosexual guys” in his college classes, those novelists who best chronicle middle-aged male angst and sexual frustration.

I always feel bewildered by comments such as these.

Perhaps there are fields, like particle physics or analytical philosophy, where an introductory survey course, presenting the most famous names, would tend towards a largely male line-up. Perhaps fields of culture exist where seeking out and promoting female genius would be a radical act, pushing against the accepted view of the subject’s history.

Whether or not such fields exist, one thing is certain: fiction is not one of them. Any account of fiction that leaves out female novelists and short story writers has something deeply wrong with it. The radical act is not the inclusion and estimation of the female writer, but the opposite.

The Victorian English novel, for example, is predominantly a female art form. As Ian Watt explains in his account of the rise of the 18th century novel, most of the early novelists were women, as were the majority of novel readers.

One could teach an introductory class on “The Long Victorian Novel” and, without too much injustice, omit men entirely: Jane Austen, Mary Shelley, Emily and Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf. (Perhaps a Charles Dickens novel, like Great Expectations, could be added in as a token.)

You can’t really be a novelist and ignore those books.

That’s why, when editors of prominent publications say things like, “We would publish more women if they would submit to us! But women are so busy with household chores and things” I wonder if we realise what a terrible thing we are saying about our own society: we are claiming that modern life is more destructive towards female writers than Victorian Britain was.

To continue on a related theme, if this imaginary all-female booklist also included all the famous novels written by British men with female protagonists, it would cover 90% of canonical British literature. The archetypal protagonist of a British novel is a young woman deciding who she should marry, from Pamela to Wuthering Heights to Bleak House to Mrs. Dalloway to Portrait of a Lady to Women in Love.

Delineating the sexual anxieties of middle-aged men, in other words, wasn’t really what the novel was invented to do.

Now, I realise that this isn’t as true for all traditions. Particularly in America, there are other, very different novel traditions, such as the Moby DickAbsalom, AbsalomBlood Meridian type of novel, where the story seems only to begin when the male protagonist can get away from women.

I’m reading Blood Meridian right now, and it’s peculiar to see the lengths the novel takes to remove women from the story, killing the protagonist’s mother in childbirth, then sending him into a deserted borderland, then into a nightmarish Mexican desert… (a future post will expand on this). Such hyper-male novels seem attuned to a cosmic rather than a social frequency, and women seem to be part of the social world that, at first, is blocking the protagonist’s access to cosmic epiphanies.

In these kinds of novels, the archetypal protagonist is a ragged, ruined man screaming at the stars.

It’s this total lack of what I’ve been calling the “social” that is making Blood Meridian tough going for me at the moment. The horrors are certainly horrible, and the language is certainly epic, only I find the overall situation a little contrived. But I’m only 100 pages in or so, so I’ll will present a more complete review once I’m done.



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  • Thank you for a provocative critique on the silent, ongoing misogyny of the literary scene, and the reality of male hegemony and domination over all things.

    As a woman who writes fiction, I can attest to the internalization of this misogyny even in my own reluctance to write from a female point of view. I know other women struggle with this same difficulty, this self-obliteration in their own writing, because I brought it up in my thesis defense and the three women on my team all knew exactly what I was talking about.

    The current and universal news of young girls being kidnapped/raped/murdered and Summit on Sexual Violence are finally exposing the appalling reality for most unprivileged women.

    Art reflects life. If you look for it in 95% of films that are made, women in any given narrative, particularly older women, are drawn as either sex objects or vile, malicious, and otherwise unpalatable– a very juvenile mindset indeed.

    Until women find their true voices and lives, literature will continue to glorify the Insecure Little Boy archetype and his outdated illusions.

    • Hi inkandpages,

      Thanks so much for reading!

      Something I’ve experienced in my own writing is how pervasive and deep-seated cliched thinking can be. Sometimes, at least for myself, when I’ve tried the hardest to represent a wider range of characters than is usual in my fiction, that’s when the story reveals my dullest and most formulaic views of the world–it’s as if we (or at least people like me) keep our most socially-determined views down deep in our subconscious. The further down you go (at least for a while) the *more* cliched it becomes…

      Can you say a little more about the struggle to write from a female point of view? Was the thesis project helpful in that regard?

      Best wishes,


      • Here I only speak for myself. I think this is one of the most, if not the most, difficult challenges I face as a writer is trying to find the space and silence within myself divorced from socially constructed fabrications and echo chambers from a male-dominant world. Sometimes I have to stop writing for long periods when everything I’ve written represents these deeply ingrained lies within myself.

        The struggle has to do with sanctioned memes that have long kept women in their place as underclass property. And since the vast majority of fiction has been written by men and features male protagonists, that ongoing exposure over a lifetime creates a powerful, subconscious model: I have learned to be ashamed of myself for being women, reinforced over a lifetime.

        With rare exceptions, as you indicate in your post, women continue to have little or no voice. And when they do speak their minds and stand strong they’re kept in place by derision for trying to be men, i.e., they must be dikes or bitches or sluts or whatever.

        It’s difficult for me to write authentically from a female point of view given these powerful socializing forces. I’ve long felt that if I want to be taken seriously, I must disguise my voice and slip behind a male facade. And I’m not optimistic that this is going to change anytime soon.

        The thesis project was helpful in that I learned that I wasn’t alone in my experience. And since I knew my work was only a thesis, I finally experimented with writing from a female point of view. That’s when I encountered all the elements of “femaleness” that cry out for defamiliarization. It was like opening a huge container of wailing inside it and having to shut it immediately because I didn’t know what to do with it.

        Thanks for letting me explore my thoughts here.

  • Daniel and inkandpages, a resounding yes to all these things! It’s heartening to read your very articulate thoughts, especially after getting bogged down by the likes of Gilmour and Nabokov. And thanks for the link, Daniel. If you ever teach that class on “The Long Victorian Novel,” I want to sign up!

  • Reblogged this on Burlesque Press and commented:
    Gender, the canon, and the novel. Daniel Wallace raises some interesting questions about authorship in his recent post over at The Incompetent Writer. What do you think?

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