Elaine Showalter's A Jury of Her Peers.

Reading between the lines.
March 9 2009 6:48 AM

Scribblers of America, Unite!

Are women writers undervalued because of what they write or how we read?

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The clash between literary ambition and family demands, between truth-telling and propriety, between the longing to express oneself and the inadequacy of the available commercial forms in which to do so, made for a lot of careers that went off the rails or never quite got on them. Abolitionist Julia Ward Howe began as a daring and highly gifted poet, whose "frank," "disturbing," "intimate" first book, Passion-Flowers, shocked and thrilled the eminent men of Boston when it appeared anonymously in 1853; when word of its authorship got out, her husband, an eminent Bostonian himself, threatened to divorce her and take the children if she wrote more poetry. Although Howe went on to produce reams of political prose (and the "Battle Hymn of the Republic"), her literary development—Showalter thinks she was potentially a great poet—was stopped in its tracks. A hundred years later, women writers, whether regionalists, Communists, members of the Harlem Renaissance, or whatever, were still struggling against male norms that defined female ambition as deeply unfeminine—shouldn't that poet be baking a pie? getting married? having a baby?—and female experience as trivial and/or embarrassing, and writing by women as unlikely to be all that good.

Women's relation to the literary marketplace explains an apparent paradox: A woman could be renowned in her own time, and a fair number were—but almost always, her fame was ephemeral. Lydia Maria Child (1802-80) was a celebrated and prolific writer (47 books, including  Hobomok, a path-breaking novel about the relations between white settlers and Native Americans) and a key figure in the abolitionist movement. Today she's known as the author of the children's Thanksgiving Day song "Over the River and Through the Woods." Margaret Fuller? We remember she was the only female Transcendentalist, but what did she actually say in her once-indispensable Woman in the Nineteenth Century? In 1923, Sherwood Anderson wrote admiringly to Southwestern writer Mary Austin, "[W]hat Twain and Harte missed you have found"—but the literary West coalesced around the strong and silent cowboys of Owen Wister, Jack London, and Zane Grey, not the white and Native American women Austin wrote about. Glaspell herself, "although she won a Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1931 and was ranked in her lifetime with Eugene O'Neill ... quickly dropped out of the canon."

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Showalter sees women's writing as a story of progress toward self-definition: from feminine (imitation of prevailing modes) to feminist (protest) to female (self-discovery), and, finally, free. "American women writers in the twenty-first century can take on any subject they want, in any form they choose." We have indeed come a long way, but I'm not so sure we've reached nirvana yet. The marketplace, with its many gendered strictures and codes, has not disappeared. Thus, it matters that girls and women will buy fiction by and about both sexes, but boys and men—the relative few who buy fiction at all—stick to their own gender. (There was a reason that J.K. Rowling used her initials instead of her name, and that her student magician hero was not Harriet Potter.) It matters that the Great American Novel for which critics are always hunting is imagined as a modern Moby-Dick, not The House of Mirth. It means there's a certain kind of critical receptivity, a hope of greatness for certain kinds of books by men that hardly ever comes into play with books by women, no matter how wonderful they are. Moreover, in literature as in life, men have much more license to display their whole unlovely selves and be admired for it, as the career of Norman Mailer shows.

Many women writers have complained that fiction by women is undervalued because we undervalue the domestic and the personal as opposed to big manly subjects like war and whaling. It's an important point, but I think there's something deeper going on. In fact, there are men who write about intimate life and women who take on big public subjects. More different than the books themselves is the gendered framing of how we read them. Nobody says Henry James is a less ambitious writer because he wrote The Portrait of a Lady and not The Portrait of a Sea Captain. If  The Corrections had been written by Janet Franzen, would it have been seen not as a bid for the Great American Novel trophy, but as a very good domestic novel with some futuristic flourishes that didn't quite come off? If the most prolific serious American writer was John Carroll Oates, would critics be so disturbed by the violence in his fiction? Perhaps we emphasize different elements in similar books and only notice the evidence that confirms our gender biases—and give men more benefits of more doubts, too. Gertrude Stein is a difficult and frustrating writer, but so is the Ezra Pound of The Cantos and the James Joyce of Finnegans Wake, and nobody serious calls them (as Showalter does Stein) basically frauds.

Try it yourself with the novels and poems on your bookshelf. Jane Updike? John Smiley? And while you're at it, picture a literary America in which women were not just the major purchasers and readers of imaginative writing but also controlled the world of reviewing, prizes, awards, fellowships, relevant academic jobs, important panels, readings, international festivals, and those infernal best-book-of-the-year/decade/century lists. That this would be a highly speculative exercise suggests that Showalter is a bit overoptimistic. Women writers have come a very long way since Anne Bradstreet, Julia Ward Howe, and Mary Austin, but the jury of their peers has yet to be empanelled.

Katha Pollitt is the author most recently of The Mind-Body Problem, a collection of poems.

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