Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The 8th Deadly Sin (for women)

Just in time to dovetail with my musings on the propriety of lady writers having ambition, a friend of mine sent me this review of Elaine Showalter's new book. Her thesis is a variation of what you'd either call a myth or a truism, depending on your point of view: men are interested in Things while women are interested in People; and when it comes to literary prizes and recognition, Things win out every time:
She has insisted that themes central to women's lives -- marriage, motherhood, the tension between family and individual aspirations -- constitute subject matter as "serious" and significant as traditionally masculine motifs like war and travel.
Then, of course, there are those insidious doubts to contend with:
The majority of the women writers whose lives and work Showalter chronicles wrestled with the nagging feeling that they were going against nature as well as country in pursuing what was rightfully a man's work.
Which is not to say that lasses lack ambition; rather that what of it we have, we fear -- if not the drive itself, then the possible repercussions. And it's true! What's less ladylike than ambition, for god's sake? The word itself trembles with connotations of greed, heartlessness, and selfishness, none of which are laid out in the "Eyshes Hayl," a Jewish Friday night prayer extolling the virtues of the fairer sex. "Eyshes Hayl, mi yimstah?" King Solomon once asked, and we repeat: a righteous woman, who can find? No one looking through the aisles of Barnes and Nobles or the op-ed pages, that's for sure.

Her worth is above rubies. Why? Because she keeps her husband happy, her home clean, the candles lit, and there's a bunch of stuff in there about wool and flax and whatever. The point is, what wife and mother doing all that would have time to write a grand sweeping novel about the Napoleonic era?

Even now that many of us have rooms of our own and can outsource the spinning and weaving, it feels unseemly to step forward and say, "I, yes I, have written a book! Though I know the proper thing to do would be to bury it in a drawer, though I know I should be modest and afraid of outshining any current or potential reproductive mates, those I am exposing myself to ridicule for trying, I am putting this book out there for you to judge."

We try to cushion the blow by making the books either memoirs or memoirs masquerading as fiction (the literary equivalent of an "I" statement) or easy to ghettoize as "genre" (mystery, young adult, sci fi/fantasy).

This all boils down to the following summary: women write small, modest books about relationships, while men write large-scale epics about stuff, and when John Updike died half of the next New Yorker issue was dedicated to him, with another piece in the end about Ian McEwan. The only woman who could command a similar level of attention is Toni Morrison, and thank heavens she's around, if only for symbolism's sake.

Because I am an orderly person who likes charts and measures of things, I have created a handy-dandy scale for authors, ranging from 1 to 16.

1 = You really think you'd be good at this writing stuff! You read things and think, Pssssh I could do better than that in my sleep. You even have a weblog for when you will fulfill your potential and start having a go at it, at which point you will knock everyone's socks off.

16 = classics who get serious obits when they die; who are taught in graduate school; who have won at least one major international prize. 16s include Martin Amis, V.S. Naipaul, Rushdie, Coetze, Pynchon, Melville, Dickens, Nabokov, Elliot, Austen, Woolf, Orwell, Joyce, Faulkner, Tolstoy, James, Wharton, Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert, Marquez, Kundera, Steinbeck, Morrison, and their ilk. The majority of 16s are already dead. Almost all are male, serious, and at least occasionally unreadable. Frankly, I'm not sure even Twain makes the cut, though David Foster Wallace's untimely death might push him over the edge.

In between is everyone else, from the eager blogger with several beginnings of short stories and an outline for a novel on his computer (3) to the 26-year-old with a completed manuscript who just got an agent (9).

Anyone published is an automatic 10. Whether they continue to rise from there depends on whether anyone buys/reads/respects their book (11), writes a couple other books and has moderate name recognition, at least within certain circles (12), sees an adaptation make it to movie theaters and/or wins a prize and/or appears on a major radio or TV show (13), achieves name recognition and status to the degree that s/he can write whatever s/he wants (14), and is considered Great (15).

15s: Roth, Updike, Irving, DeLillo, McEwan, Ishiguru, Chabon
14s: Haruki Murakami, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Cunningham, Ann Patchett, Jonathan Franzen, Richard Russo, and popular authors whose gold makes the rules like JK Rowling, John Grisham, Amy Tan, & Dan Brown
13s: Donna Tartt, Alice Sebold, Myla Goldberg, Yann Martel, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nick Hornby, Curtis Sittenfeld
12s: Nicholson Baker, Audrey Niffenegger, Caleb Carr

I aspire to be a 12, if I'm very lucky a 13. But even admitting that much ambition is difficult.


nathan said...

In all, interesting and entertaining. I love this stuff. One thing: You cite The New Yorker Mcewan article, yet Enduring Love is a novel about people and relationship dynamics and the unspooling of thoughts if ever there was one. Atonement had the whole war/historical context, sure, but was also a profoundly interior story. I understand that Saturday is much the same.

That is all. Oh... I'd move a few names around in your 12 through 15's, but I quibble, really. :)

procrastsensation said...

How could you put Franzen in the same category as Brown?!?

Franzen rocks. Brown is something read in book clubs and taken seriously in bad book clubs.

ester said...

thanks, nathan. :)

eva, that's my point exactly. i'm not making these judgments; society is. to me, franzen's a hundred times the writer brown is, but i think they both have roughly the same capital.

sorelle said...

how about if I someday manage to publish an obscure computer science article that a few other obscure computer scientist read (maybe 5 of them)? I don't get to be a 10, do I?

ester said...

Sorelle, sadly I think this only applies to people who want to call themselves writers and publish books. But that might be cuz it's my ridiculous and highly specific imaginary rubric.

The more I think about it, Nathan, the more I agree with you -- that McEwan is a very "female" writer and it is his actual gender that elevates his status despite his topics.

procrastsensation said...

*grumbles* yeah....but anyone knows that a book whose adaptation could gross $225 opening weekend is not real literature.

sorelle said...

no? what about if I publish an obscure computer science book that, if I'm lucky, gets used in a few obscure computer science classes where suffering students are forced to read it?

ester said...

sorelle, you win. you're a ten! :)