Every time the issue of gender disparities in our genre’s publications comes up, I reflect on how complicated a phenomenon it is and how many different ways there are to address, explain, or engage with it. My own approach usually combines Susan Winnett’s observations in her famous 1990 article in PMLA, “Coming Unstrung: Women, Men, Narrative, and Principles of Pleasure,” and my own understanding of discursive politics. The fact that we don’t have a single, intelligible way to talk about the problem is probably one of the reasons that we keep approaching it so clumsily and from such different angles. And as Winnett says,
Considering the last decade’s preoccupations with sexual difference and the pleasure of the text, it is surprising that theories concerned with the relation between narrative and pleasure have largely neglected to raise the issue of the difference between women’s and men’s reading pleasures. But this question seems to require critical tools that, for reasons I explore in this essay, have not been available. Indeed, the same analytic paradigms that give us professional access to texts have already determined the terms in which we accede to, comply with, or resist the coercions of a cultural program for pleasure that is not interested in---and whose interests may be threatened by---the difference of women’s pleasure.
Winnett is, of course, talking about the texts of capital-L Literature that is the usual object of scholarly literary criticism. But it seems to me that a large part of the problem we have talking about the differences in our genre is that, indeed, the terms in which the argument is cast are always those of the status quo and for that reason simply won’t be made to---maybe even can’t---accommodate the interests of women writers and fans. Of course, Winnett wrote that article back in 1990, and it immediately became one of the “critical tools” used by feminist critics to talk about the problem and has since been cited innumerable times by feminist critics exploring narrative politics. But seventeen years later, I don’t see that that’s made much difference to the literary critical establishment as a whole (which is, after all, still dominated by white men).
The opening of Winnett’s article, which immediately foregrounds women’s pleasure, is not only provocative, but also (as later unfolds) perfectly appropriate:
I would like to begin with the proposition that female orgasm is unnecessary. I am not, of course, saying that it is unnecessary to any particular woman that she experience orgasm or, for that matter, to any particular man that his female partner do so; rather, I mean that women’s orgasm and, by extension, women’s pleasure can be extraneous to that culmination of heterosexual desire which is copulation. Women’s pleasure can take place outside, or independent of, the male sexual economy whose pulsations determine the dominant culture, its repressions, its taboos, and its narratives, as well as the “human sciences” developed to explain them.
Winnett then describes male arousal and ejaculation in strictly visual terms and observes that narratology takes Freud’s “Masterplot” as the model for understanding narrative structure and asks “If they were conscious that the narrative dynamics and the erotics of reading they were expounding were specifically tied to an ideology of representation derivable only from the dynamics of male sexuality, would they not at least feel uncomfortable making general statements about ‘narrative,’ ‘pleasure,’ and ‘us’?” But, she says, on encountering a passage by Robert Scholes (from “The Orgiastic Pattern of Fiction”), she realized that asking such a question was simply naïve. She quotes Scholes:
The archetype of all fiction is the sexual act. In saying this I do not mean merely to remind the reader of the connection between all art and the erotic in human nature….For what connects fiction---and music---with sex is the fundamental orgiastic rhythm of tumescence and detumescence, of tension and resolution, of intensification to the point of climax and consummation. In the sophisticated forms of fiction, as in the sophisticated practice of sex, much of the art consists of delaying climax within the framework of desire in order to prolong the pleasurable act itself.
Scholes, in other words, insists that the structure of male orgasm is the one correct (and universal!) structure of artistic creation. Winnett remarks: “Even if we have become wary of the generic ‘man in society,’ we still might need to be reminded that such generalizations in such contexts indicate that the pleasure the reader is expected to take in the text is the pleasure of the man.”
We hear all the time in our genre, of course, that many men simply do not read anything they know to be written by a woman yet most women read without gender discrimination. (Obviously there are exceptions to this generalization, but it’s largely true and therefore meaningful to the discussion.) So what happens when men can’t take pleasure in certain texts written by women that many women take inordinate pleasure in? It’s obvious what happens, because I encounter this happening all the time (and not just with my own work or with the books I edit and publish for Aqueduct): the male critic or editor or fan reading them judge them boring, or clumsy, or dull, or inept---or “girly.” Such readers may well praise some work by women because often women writers choose to conform to the male sexual “Masterplot” of narrative. But they will be quick to dismiss (often with contempt) anything that they personally can’t understand or relate to with pleasure. As Winnett says,
For the male critic, the sexual pleasure of reading would seem to take place within a nexus of homosocial arrangements in which ‘the marriage of true minds’ is an affair ‘between men,’ as Eve Sedgwick has put it. In this system, woman is neither an independent subjectivity nor a desiring agent but, rather, an enabling position organizing the social fiction of heterosexuality. In its honest outrageousness, Scholes’s erotics of reading makes clearer than does Brook’s more subtle articulation that the patriarchy has a simultaneously blind and enlightened investment both in the forms of its pleasure and in its conscious valorization and less conscious mystification of them. And this realization does nothing but make it all the more frightening to contemplate the obstacles our own education has placed in the way both of women’s conceiving (of) their own pleasure and of men’s conceding that female pleasure might have a different plot.
Winnett shows how a narrative structure based on women’s pleasure might be delineated (and uses Shelley’s Frankenstein to do so). Perhaps I ought to note that she is not claiming that narrative should necessarily be understood as morphologically mimicking orgasmic pleasure (male or female): “I of course do not think that textual production and narrative dynamics are matters of sexuality alone…” In fact, in the second part of her article she challenges the dominant emphasis on narrative form (or narrative arc, which is how writers typically talk about it) as she notes that Scholes considers the sort of relations that interest women “merely thematic” (and not very interesting: Scholes dismisses as “situational-thematic” (for examples) “the role of mothers and daughters, situations of nurture and bonding, and so forth”), meaning that they can’t be recuperated within the structure of the narrative form (the way every aspect of the Oedipal plot naturally is). Scholes, by the way, chides feminist critics for spending so much time on what he sees as extraneous aspects of narrative.
In sum, if you’re interested in why this difference in taste and perception of quality is so hard to talk about productively, it’s definitely worth your time to get hold of the article and read it.