Do Women Novelists Really Work in "Miniature"?

What Women Really Think
June 15 2009 3:28 PM

Do Women Novelists Really Work in "Miniature"?

Do women novelists work in "miniature"? This was the question posed by the cover piece in the New York Times Book Revie w this weekend. The piece was a review of Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women , a novel that offers a canny fictional portrait of how women's rights have (and have not) evolved over time. In the book (which I haven't read in full yet) Walbert tries to summarize women's history by dramatizing it. At the opening of the piece, the review's author, Leah Hager Cohen, restates Virginia Woolf's famous quote about how we see men and women's novels differently: "This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing room." Ahh, I thought. Hager Cohen is going to take on the old dichotomies and demolish them! And she's going to do so in the Book Revie w itself, one of the few literary edifices that still shapes people's careers-and itself sometimes reflects these same old fallacious assumption s. She is going to create a revolution from within!

Alas, no. In fact, this review is a prime example of what I'll now call literary Stockholm Syndrome, in which women reviewers and writers all too eagerly embrace the sexist-and hell, yes, let's call it what it is-terms by which women's writing is still evaluated. An example. At the beginning of the review, Hager Cohen writes that Walbert's new book "delivers what feels like a reasonably representative history of women-at least of white, Anglo-Saxon women, over the past hundred-odd years. What is that history? What are its implications? And why should we care about them?" She goes on to explore those very large questions. But at the very same time, Hager Cohen buys into the notion that to write closely and intimately about women's lives (particularly their domestic lives) is somehow to deal in miniature. The final line of the piece is "Kate Walbert may work in miniature, but her scope is vast." I understand what Hager Cohen (an intelligent critic) is trying to do; but at the same time, I find myself frustrated that yet again a critic is buying into a language of smallness, of prettiness, we resort to when describing a woman's work; a language that we often wouldn't use, I am convinced, if the text in question were by a man.  This is why I call it literary Stockholm Syndrome: We have so identified with the captors that we are smitten with their superstructures, their rules, their way of seeing.

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Of course there are women (and men) who work in miniature. I recognize that Walbert's work, which I know and like, can seem quiet, or still. But it doesn't seem to me that on the one hand a critic can say a book delivers a history of women for the past hundred odd years and at the same time say she does so by working in "miniature." It's just not logical. Or am I missing something obvious?

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.