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 Dick–Absalom, Absalom–Blood 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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