The to-do over Jonathan Franzen's worshipful NY Times reviews ("Franzenfreude", apparently) and its implications spilled over onto the pages of Slate Tuesday. Meghan O'Rourke's Can a Woman Be a "Great American Novelist"? is a good read, as is most everything she writes over there. To think this all started from a couple of innocent tweets nearly tempts you to think it's all just a twitter in a teacup, but the seriousness of those larger issues involved say otherwise. Loren Stein's well-taken (by me, at least) but unfortunately framed point notwithstanding (calling Picoult's and Weiner's criticisms "fake populism" only engages the question half-way, it seems to me, and its pejorative edge was not helpful), the evidence seems undeniable: although women may account for more words written today than men do, and thought they buy more books than men do, and while they may occupy more and more positions of editorial authority (not to mention slots in writing programs), the game is weighted heavily against them. The Times favors male writers with their attentions by a ratio better than 2 to 1, and that reflects the hinterlands landscape, too, pretty damn well.
Regarding how gender affects perceptions of literature these days, O'Rourke says:
"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."
I think part of the reason for this is obviously history. Numbers may favor women now, but the canon is largely written by men, which gives the work of contemporary men the benefit of being more similar to that which is known best, making it seem perhaps more superficially resonant, and probably causing readers not familiar with (or sensitive to) the contemporary landscape to ascribe it with more gravitas, as literature. Regardless, male themes and styles are given a benefit of the doubt not accorded equally, and it is a thing which must change, and that women should insist upon changing.
In a blog entry covering some of the same ground last year, O'Rourke discussed Leah Hager Cohen's apparently fussy review of Kate Walbert's A Short History of Women. Expecting Cohen to engage "old dichotomies and demolish them!" in her review, she was disappointed with her approach, thinking it too grounded in old thinking, calling the review a "prime example of...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." Strong stuff, and while I haven't read the review in question, I believe she was spot-on with the analogy, in general. It is a thing I've noticed before—Camille Paglia picking over the bones of Susan Sontag, for example, in her unending quest for Harold Bloom's drooling approval. And I seem to remember Naomi Wolf's accusation against Yale a few years back, regarding a 53 year-old Bloom's sexual advances upon her 20 year-old person, when she was an undergrad there. There was the expected vituperation and caterwauling from Paglia—she has many of the same fuck-the-facts-and-go-for-the-throat instincts of her current hero, Sara Palin—but what was confusing to me was the chorus of indignation and disapproval directed at Wolf from nearly every quarter (just a few examples can be seen here, here, and here). Maybe there's something wrong with me, I dunno—but I thought her story was compelling, and her reasons for telling it transparent. Among the most disappointing forays into the debate came from Meghan O'Rourke herself, in a rather misleading and hyperbolic exercise in tongue-clucking titled Crying Wolf: Naomi Wolf sets back the fight against sexual harassment. Two-thirds of the way in, she informs us that she, too, is a Yalie, who also studied with Bloom—any chance there's some kind of literary Stockholm syndrome going on here, as well?
O'Rourke's a good writer, and undoubtedly possesses a first-rate mind, so maybe I'm being a little unfair. And, parenthetically, I have to wonder if, as a writer, she might sense a lttle irony juxtaposing the quoted text above with her comments about Naomi Wolf from 6 years ago. But it does seem to me, outsider that I am, that the power is really already in women's hands. They only lack the will, and the cohesion, to exert it.