Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Judging the Judges, Again

I've come across another interesting post on the PW woman-free Best List, courtesy of the Mumspimus, by zunguzungu, Repressive Anti-Sentimentalism: Best [Male] Writers of 2009:

The problem is that there are a lot of people in the world who would prefer to believe in a standard of value that produces only male writers as “best” than to imagine that maybe, just maybe, that standard is a function of a desire to privilege a standard of literary value that is derived from a sense of what masculinity is.

Now, this might not be a desire on the part of the judges themselves; it might simply be something they’ve inherited from a two century long American tradition of regarding real literary value as something threatened by a “damned mob of scribbling women,” using words like “domestic” and “sentimental” as a short-hand for what Nina Baym calls “the encroaching, constricting, destroying society” against which an American writer has to struggle manfully in order to be considered literary. Her argument — which, to my mind, is unanswerable — is that the entire American canon of great books, on which the standard for American literary greatness gets derived, isn’t just male in a descriptive sense, but is subjectively male: to be an American writer is to write about struggling with a feminized domesticized society embodied by the figure of the woman. As a result, since the “great” books seem to be overwhelmingly about men on boats running away from women, the woman writer, as Baym puts it, enters American literary history as the enemy.

It may not be sexism. It may just be this. But what’s the difference, in practice? When the need to believe that it is possible to “ignore gender” trumps, in practice, the need to consider whether it is possible to do so, what are we to conclude? If you assume that it is possible — and that this panel of judges has “ignored gender” — then how is any conclusion possible other than that women are just not good writers?
Do read the whole post.


Nancy Jane Moore said...

Zunguzungu's post provides an explanation for something that completely mystifies me: the reputation of Philip Roth. If "literary" is defined as fiction in which a man suffers angst because of what women have done to him, then obviously Roth writes literary novels.

But who reads these novels? Surely women don't read them -- I read Portnoy's Complaint when I was young and haven't wasted time on Roth since. Are there really enough men who are interested in stories about male angst to provide Roth with a living? His books must sell, or else publishers would drop him even if he does have this "he ought to be considered for the Nobel" reputation.

A review of his most recent book in The New Yorker made me laugh out loud: apparently the protagonist, an aging man suffering angst, has an affair with a lesbian 25 years his younger. A lesbian? Why would any self-respecting lesbian have an affair with a Roth hero? (Why would any self-respecting woman have an affair with a Roth hero? I guess the key is the phrase self-respecting.) I'm tempted to look at the book to see if I can figure out why he decided the character was lesbian, but I don't think I can face reading Roth, and anyway, I suspect it was just to convince himself he was still hip.

Roth aside, Zunguzungu has nailed the heart of the matter: if the great American novel is about a man suffering because of women-induced civilization, then any novel about other things -- and especially any novel about women struggling with a male-dominated world -- is clearly inferior. Not to mention science fiction or any other literature that requires use of imagination.

zunguzungu said...

Cheers! Though the good parts of my argument were mainly just channeling Nina Baym, who is still eminently worth reading (really, check out the essay on googlebooks that I linked to in the post). Also, you might enjoy this David Foster Wallace article on the "magnificent male narcissists" like Roth (though he focuses more on Updike):


Josh said...

Um, NJM, I'm afraid women do read Roth. My aunt's a fan: she thinks Portnoy's a hoot. I have a brilliant twenty-one-year-old student who, although perfectly liberal, likes American Pastoral. And I think I've alluded on this blog to a secretary in Buffalo who reads Roth and says, "Men really are like that."

Roth, remember, was a longtime Grace Paley booster -- any record of how she regarded his work?

I'd also note that, although the scholar in question was no feminist, the argument Zunguzungu's making (or attributing to Nina Baym) owes a lot to Leslie Fiedler.

Foxessa said...

Josh is right about Leslie Fiedler.

But this entered the Literary Argument long before that, as Fiedler delinieates in his evidence for this argument: Samuel Clemmons / Mark Twain and James Fenimore Cooper -- and many other 18th and 19th writers who complained of the damned packs of female scribblers who ruined and diluted a perfectly good occupation.

The same complaints are even now, yes, still, muttered and sometimes shouted, by SF males ....

Love, C.

zunguzungu said...

Hmmm. Her argument owes a lot to Fiedler in the sense that it's a critique of Fiedler. But by that standard, Karl Marx owes a lot to Adam Smith.

Josh said...

Karl Marx would be the first to admit that he owed a lot to Adam Smith.

Gotthold Lessing, on the other hand, would be less generous to the man. But dialectics incur odd debts!

Nancy Jane Moore said...

The Baym analysis is wonderful. And it's a plug for the value of Google Books, because now I really want to read the whole book of essays and am going to have to order it. (I did put her analysis of The Scarlet Letter on hold at the library -- having just re-read that book and discovered that it was funny, I want to know what she has to say about it.)

You know, for many years I have alternately read around and railed against that tendency in male literature to depict women as both the civilizing force and the person who is trying to keep the hero from doing the right thing or the brave thing. I knew it was a powerful meme (and a powerful lie). But it hadn't occurred to me that it was so powerful that it influenced the whole definition of good literature. I'm having a real Eureka moment here.

It is unfair of me to single out Roth when I haven't read him in years. I might even be surprised if I tried him again. But from the pieces I recall, I don't think men are like that (and I definitely don't think he gets women at all). Perhaps I'm blessed in the men that I know.

I can't read Updike, either. I read a couple of his short stories in The New Yorker and found no there there.

BTW, I put up my own reaction to the PW List on the Book View Cafe Blog. My analysis is not as sophisticated as Zunguzungu's -- I just think an all-male list violates basic principles of probability. Y'all are welcome to come over there and expand the conversation.

Athena Andreadis said...

This mindset pervades human civilization: when women enter any profession in great numbers, it's automatically devalued. It's endemic in self-labeled progressive enclaves - including writers of speculative fiction. If "good" sf is defined as having a Campbellian hero plus undigested science infodumps... then it follows that "women don't write mindblowing SF". More on this issue here: Is It Something in the Water? Or: Me Tarzan, You Ape

Josh said...

Nancy, I think that's key -- PMR does not "get women" (his attempt to write from a woman's pov in The Counterlife is just sad), and he tends to write vividly of the subset of men who are serious gynophobes (presumably like himself). It works for me on the few occasions when he's dealing with eras and characters where I can believe such feelings predominated, and when the ethnic identity themes are handled deftly --in other words, I hold The Ghost Writer in high regard and am squicked out by its sequels. I think Roth's important to the conversation we're having not because of his individual weaknesses but because he's so hyper-canonized: an author whose field of interest was so circumscribed in any other way would not be the subject of so much "Why no Nobel?" talk in this country.

In addition to gender prejudice, there's also class issues there: why don't the androcentric novelists who wrote for The Wire have Roth's cachet? I think it's cause their novels are about ghettos and working people, rather than white-flight professionals. People criticized the working-class cartoons in The Human Stain, but class prejudice is integral to Roth's popularity.