Can a Woman Be a "Great American Novelist"?
If you doubt unconscious bias exists, you live in a man's world.
The literary debate of the fall is the tempest everyone is now calling, illogically, "Franzenfreude." The storm, summarized here by Ruth Franklin in TNR online, has encompassed a debate about the place of commercial fiction and whether Jonathan Franzen's work is overrated. But I'm interested less in arguments about the relative merits of Franzen's latest novel, Freedom — I'm halfway through and find it artful and engaging—and more in the deeper question raised by the debate: Namely, why women are so infrequently heralded as great novelists.
A thought exercise, perhaps specious: If this book had been written by a woman (say, Jennifer Franzen), would it have been called "a masterpiece of American fiction" in the first line of its front-page New York Times review; would its author, perhaps with longer hair and make-up, have been featured in Time as a GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST; would the Guardian have called it the "Book of the Century"? Without detracting from Franzen, I think we can say it would not have received this trifecta of plaudits, largely because we don't ascribe literary authority as freely to women as men, and our models of literary greatness remain primarily male (and white). Of course, there are the always-pointed-out exceptions: Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison, whose Beloved topped the New York Times list of the best books of the past 25 years. So is there really a problem here?
There is, I think, and we might call it not the problem with no name but the problem we can't define: the problem of unconscious gender bias and how it affects the ways we think about accomplishment and authority. It hardly seems like a coincidence that when a generation of celebrated novelists dies out (Bellow, Mailer, Updike), the new ones anointed are typically white men. (When Zadie Smith—whose work occupies a similar literary space to Franzen's, at once engaged by the domestic and the social—is on the cover of the Times and Time, perhaps women writers can start to feel differently.) Myriad studies show that women and men alike unconsciously ascribe more authority to a male candidate than a female candidate with the same qualifications. In many circumstances, we also simply assume men are more talented: Before the advent of blind auditions, fewer than 5 percent of the players in major American symphonies were women. But after blind auditions began to be held, the percentage of female players soared almost tenfold. Is there any reason to believe our evaluations of literary talent (which almost always happen with full knowledge of a writer's gender) are uninfluenced by that kind of unconscious bias?
Unconscious bias doesn't just affect reception; it shapes female ambition and determination, in visceral, hard-to-pinpoint ways. Studies have shown, for instance, that in the face of subtle discouragement (facial expressions and so forth) candidates perform less well. It's really, really hard to write a book. It takes a lot of time and solitude. In my experience, women are not as good at insisting they need that time and solitude. (I wonder how many female writers have, like me, sometimes wished they were a man so everyone—family, friends, partners—would understand a little better when they go in the room and shut the door for weeks on end.) If the world around you reliably reflects a slight skepticism about, a slight resistance to your talent, it's easy to begin to internalize that notion and to strive for less, or just be turned off by the whole racket. I often wonder if this, in turn, means that women end up writing less ambitious books. I'd sorely like to put that question to bed, but I can't help asking it over and over.
Gender also shapes how we evaluate novels themselves. What can seem authoritative or worthy in the hands of a man often seems to be seen as narrow in the hands of a woman, leading me to wonder if, had a woman written it, the fact that a significant part of Freedom concerns a love triangle and marital discontent would have led reviewers to focus more on the "domestic" aspects of the novel, discounting its social scope. It's hardly radical to wonder such things. Franzen himself noted on NPR last week that he thinks about these issues, too.
All this is speculative, you might find yourself thinking. I agree. All we can do here is speculate. But one example comes to mind, concerning a New York Times review of Schooling, a poised, ambitious debut novel by Heather McGowan, which made use of stream-of-consciousness and other experimental fiction techniques to tell the story of a precocious girl who has an intense relationship with a male teacher at her boarding school. The reviewer—a man—concluded that such difficult, "fissuring" techniques were justifiable in Ulysses, when Joyce was writing about Leopold and Molly Bloom and a post-war world, but not in Schooling because, "By comparison, the small, private story of Catrine Evans and Mr. Gilbert at the Monstead School has no greater reach. Where is the experiment in this experimental fiction?" To this reader, the reviewer's outright dismissal of crucial issues in female experience—the way male desire shapes female ambition and sense of selfhood; the way authority is always located in male attention—betrayed a telling assumption about the smallness, the unimportance of women's experience. Ironically, his very dismissal only underscored the significance of the issues Schooling was exploring.
Meghan O'Rourke is Slate's culture critic and an advisory editor. She was previously an editor at The New Yorker. The Long Goodbye, a memoir about her mother's death, is now out in paperback.
Photograph of Toni Morrison by Scott Wintrow/Getty Images.