Corsets and caste systems (the real history of women writers)


Interesting review in the slim-but-still-there book section of yesterday's Houston Chronicle. Susan Salter Reynolds writes about A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter. There's some enlightening stuff that sets the literature of women in historical context, and then we get to the beef.

Quoting the review:
Now and then, Showalter is called upon to untangle the waves of criticism and revival that works by writers including Dickinson, Sarah Orne Jewett, Edna St. Vincent Millay and Eudora Welty have endured. Her approach in this thorny landscape (feminist criticism can be fierce) is unifying and magnanimous.

She brings a perspective to changing literary culture that makes criticism seem not only understandable but also healthy and invigorating, making the work timeless in its ability to weather readers’ changing priorities.

Dickinson, for example, has been much criticized for her narrow window on life; Jewett and Welty for bourgeois views; and Millay for her self-styled insistence on domesticity.

The early 1900s saw the end of the Victorian Age and the birth of Modernism — many women in this next generation did not want to be defined as “women writers”; some, such as Willa Cather and Edith Wharton, openly criticized female writers. “I have not much faith in women in fiction,” Cather wrote. “They have a sort of sex consciousness that is abominable. They are so limited to one string and they lie so about that.”

Showalter hardly needs to point out that this open criticism among female writers is far preferable to the silence or condescension previously offered by male critics.

I thought about that statement for a long while. Women bashing each other is better than being bashed by men? (Erica Jong used to say: "You can't find a better slave than the one who beats herself.") But is it any better to "stick together" and support women writers just because they're women? That's patronizing and an insult in itself. I honestly can't decide which approach breeds the bigger migraine.

And we haven't even gotten to the part that really sucks my brain inside out, which is the market statistics indicating that "women dominated the book market, buying between 70 and 90 percent of all fiction." But there is no mention made in this review (so I'm assuming none is made in the book) of women writing genre fiction--romance, romantic suspense, mysteries, thrillers, and fantasy--which outsell literary fiction by far. It continually amazes me that literary critics consistently use that women-dominated market statistic while ignoring the fact that the vast majority of those sales are genre fiction, for which publishers give out sweat shop advances and to which critics give zero respect.

I recently read a novel that reminded me very much (style-wise) of Colleen's forthcoming Beneath Bone Lake, but Colleen's book is marketed as "romantic suspense" while this in-kind novel written by a man will be called "a thriller with a surprising love story" and marketed as mainstream fiction at thrice the price. The publishing caste system keeps the economic corset tightly laced on the majority of women writers by classifying books as women's fiction, chick lit, hen lit. Are we really going to pretend that Nicholas Sparks is not writing romance novels? Are Jodi Picoult's issue-driven novels less mainstream than John Grisham's? Surely somebody must have noticed that the high-minded stuffed shirts of the publishing industry got a ten-year piggyback ride on the shoulders of two intensely smart women: J.K. Rowling and Oprah Winfrey. Love or hate Sandra Brown, she's pulling the hay wagon that carts the elbow patch crowd to their awards ceremonies. And the only thing separating Meg Cabot from Jane Austen is a blow dryer and six feet of God's green earth.

Reynolds' article concludes:
A Jury of Her Peers does an enormous service, houses a drop-dead reading list and gives the reader a fluid framework for the great (much of it still undiscovered) wealth of writing by women in this country.

It was an excellent review. I'll definitely look for the book. And I'll keep hoping that someday the "undiscovered" women writers who are being read by millions will move from the back of the literary bus into the history books.

Comments

Suzan Harden said…
The migraine's equal no matter which way you slice it. But then I write too much like a guy to be accepted by my female peers...

*VBG*
"Surely somebody must have noticed that the high-minded stuffed shirts of the publishing industry got a ten-year piggyback ride on the shoulders of two intensely smart women: J.K. Rowling and Oprah Winfrey. Love or hate Sandra Brown, she's pulling the hay wagon that carts the elbow patch crowd to their awards ceremonies. And the only thing separating Meg Cabot from Jane Austen is a blow dryer and six feet of God's green earth."

This may be the smartest thing anybody -- male or female -- has had to say about the subject.

I've thought more than once that women do more to keep down other women (in writing as well as other endeavors) than men ever dreamed of. Most of the lit-snobbery I've seen in action has come from other women who've bought into the thinking that anything created for women, by women must necessarily be inferior.

Great post!

Back to the pink-collar ghetto... (she types, with tongue firmly in cheek)
Lynne said…
Isn't Nicholas Sparks really Nicola Sparks? And John Grisham actually Joanna? Those guys who turn up at workshops, book signings and functions are just actors hired to put up a public front. The real authors are sitting at their computer terminals, undeniably feminine in their see-through negligees, sipping chi tea, hair in rollers, chipped red fingernails tapping away as the nanny sees to the tots and hubby makes dinner in the luxury new kitchen (paid for with money made from the latest blockbuster she's worked her guts out over).
Personally I read fiction. I don't look at the name of the author to see if its been written by a man or a woman. But if I fancy a good romance, I tend to gravitate towards the woman writers ... men make passion too technical and write with their genitalia. Women write with feeling from the heart.
I am fed up though at the obvious marketing strategies that you describe, and the fact that critics have a less than favorable view of certain female dominated genres.