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Fetish of ambition
February 24, 2009 10:05 AM   Subscribe

"... many critics and editors, especially male ones, make a fetish of "ambition," by which they mean the contemporary equivalent of novels about men in boats ("Moby-Dick," "Huckleberry Finn") rather than women in houses ("House of Mirth"), and that as a result big novels by male writers get treated as major events while slender but equally accomplished books by women tend to make a smaller splash."

A book review of Elaine Showalter's newly published book, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx, contains a brief historical overview and discussion of the question, "Why can't a woman write the Great American novel?"
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome (95 comments total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

 
What about slim novels about men in boats, Joseph Conrad? Eh?
posted by Mister_A at 10:14 AM on February 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


Ha. That's what I love about Conrad, he combines the best of both worlds in his stories - psychological portraits combined with plenty of action, and he has a number of short stories as well as the longer novels.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 10:21 AM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


It stands to reason that novels involving boats are more likely to make a bigger splash ...
posted by mr vino at 10:33 AM on February 24, 2009 [6 favorites]


My wife & I will write a large-format yet slim novel about haemaphrodites on house-boats.

Hah! Where's your criticsim now, Miller?
posted by lalochezia at 10:35 AM on February 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's an interesting question I hadn't considered. I don't have the time to read the article just this instant, but I'll read it when I get home. Off the top of my head, I can immediately think of Jeanette Winterson who, despite earning considerable praise for books like Sexing The Cherry and The Passion, certainly doesn't get the kind of "omg watershed" level praise that (admittedly stellar) writers like David Foster Wallace or Michael Chabon get for their much longer books, despite her remarkable talents.

note: this is not a criticism of DFW or Chabon, both of whom I admire tremendously.
posted by shmegegge at 10:37 AM on February 24, 2009


What is "the great American novel"? If women can write great novels in England, then their sisters have the opportunity also in the U.S.. For sure Austen, Woolf, the Brontes, and
George Eliot are all major novelists. We have a number of good American lady novelists but even among males, is Roth, Updike, Bellow, etc writers of "the great American novel"?
posted by Postroad at 10:41 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I read this article this morning, and I still don't understand the question "Why can't a woman write the Great American Novel?" Does it mean, "Why are women failing to write the Great American Novel?" or "Why are women choosing not to write the Great American Novel?" or "Why are certain novels by women not recognized as Great American Novels?"

Never mind that the primary use of the term "Great American Novel" has been tongue-in-cheek for at least a while--no one really uses that term seriously, and yet Miller (if not Showalter) seems to be treating the term as such. At the least, Miller's being "jocoserious", to borrow a word coined by one of those fetishized ambitious masculine writers.
posted by Prospero at 10:42 AM on February 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


I thought that review was pretty good; it certainly makes me interested in the book.

Something that I think it missed, or at least that I would like to learn a bit more about, is that male writers also dominate the "formalist" impulse. Pynchon, Foster Wallace, Barth, Bartholme, Auster… even Hemingway, for me, is only really interesting because of the way he writes, not what he writes. (Especially his short stories, which are often absurdly hilarious, in that clipped, macho style.) I just can't think of any women, really, who marshal that sort of attack on the established forms of writing.

This is, no doubt, because I don't read enough, and I'm happy to take suggestions. It's just that when I think of my favorite female writers—Cather, Munro, Atwood, O'Connor, etc.—I don't think of them primarily as working to force the way a novel is written into broader places. I think of them more as writers who have an innate elegance with dialog or plot or phrasing. Equally valid expression, sure, but not nearly as prestigious.
posted by klangklangston at 10:43 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the discussion of book length and the discussion of gender/subject matter are two separate issues.

I don't really have anything to contribute to the gender discussion, but I know that I generally favor longer works over shorter ones. This is because whenever I read a short story or a short novel, it always ends right when I start to get interested. Then I'm all disappointed because I want more from the book and instead have to move onto a different book. Frustrating.
posted by Afroblanco at 10:44 AM on February 24, 2009


Just waiting for the great american novel about the little man in a boat.
posted by fnerg at 10:52 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Prospero - just because the concept of the GAN has been mocked and made fun of for a while now, doesn't mean that it isn't a goal. Indeed, one could argue that the anxiety produced by the desire to write it is the cause of such jocuseriousness.

But it's true that even recently the most ambitious novels by US authors seem to be written by men (not that I'm current on contemporary US fiction) - Infinite Jest being the obvious relatively recent example by an author who is, though dead, of the current generation of novelists.

One question - I haven't read Marilynne Robinson's Gilead - where does that fit in this dicussion?
posted by taliaferro at 10:54 AM on February 24, 2009


When I think of Literary Lions, Hemingway always pops into my head. I can't stand to read him and I think his lionization was entirely due to him being a "man's man". Other works of American Fiction that I choked on are Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn. On the other hand, I consider To Kill a Mockingbird the Great American Novel. The good news about not being in school is I have stopped caring what professors and critics think and have allowed myself to decide what is great and worth my 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.

How many times have I heard the term "Chick Lit" used in a dismissive manner. Just by virtue of something being for women or by women means our culture deems it of lesser worth. Which is not to say the trashy romances should receive more respect, but I find it sad that Fried Green Tomatoes is worthy of less attention because it was written by Fannie Flagg and it is a comical tale about women. There really is no comparative term for Dude Lit.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 10:58 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Postroad - I might rephrase your question so that it is not have Roth, Updike, Bellow, etc. written the Great American Novel, but have they tried to write the GAN. In which case, for many American male novelists, the answer is yes.
posted by taliaferro at 10:59 AM on February 24, 2009


klangklangston--

You might enjoy Lydia Davis, who is one of my favorite perpetrators of the short story; or, for a more heavily formalistic approach, try Selah Saterstrom. Davis has (to my knowledge) only one novel, but her short stories radically redefine what can be considered a story, and how it should proceed; Saterstrom (at least her Pink Institution, I haven't read the new one) is at least as experimental as anything by Barthelme, if not as good (but what is?).
posted by shakespeherian at 10:59 AM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Does it at all tie into the fact that "great" means "large" as much as it means "wonderful"? If all of the large, plodding books are being written by men, while women are typically writing more slender, pared down works, then it seems a shoo-in that Great American Novels are written by men.

Personally, I've always been a fan of brevity, and I can't stand the plodding, cumbersome books that just go on and on. So, uh, I can't honestly say that "Great American Novel" is a goal that I'd laud someone for.
posted by explosion at 10:59 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Cynthia Ozick's Heir to the Glimmering World was definitely a great American novel if not THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL.
posted by The Straightener at 11:04 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


SLoG - I think the term Chick Lit (which you are correct is dismissive and has no male-gendered equivalent) has arisen as a response to marketing - all those novels in Barnes & Noble with illustrations of model-skinny women in designer clothes carrying shopping bags. And it's hard not to be dismissive of such images - I don't consider Fried Green Tomatoes to be chick lit. I don't know how much this personal take aligns with the general cultural view, but Wikipedia suggests it does.

(I do think that the male equivalent is sci-fi/fantasy - even though plenty of women read both. And when sci-fi/fantasy is marketed with pictures of dragons, muscular humanoids, and scantily-clad babes on the cover, it isn't taken very seriously by critics either, but it is telling that no gender-specific term has arisen to describe it)
posted by taliaferro at 11:08 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, TKAM is a really great novel, (and so) but yes it is smaller in scope than the so-called GANs. It's about lessons for how to live one's life, but it is NOT an exploration/criticism of our culture at large. It operates within a culture, not within and outside of it.

Or as explosion says, yes, "great" does mean large as much as it means wonderful. So why aren't women writing large novels in the US?
posted by taliaferro at 11:12 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


How many times have I heard the term "Chick Lit" used in a dismissive manner. Just by virtue of something being for women or by women means our culture deems it of lesser worth. Which is not to say the trashy romances should receive more respect, but I find it sad that Fried Green Tomatoes is worthy of less attention because it was written by Fannie Flagg and it is a comical tale about women. There really is no comparative term for Dude Lit.

Lad lit. Primarily UK.
posted by aswego at 11:15 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Well, "lad lit" might not be comparable, in the same way that men and women aren't comparable. But it was coined and intended as a male counterpart. If you examine the works it's applied to, they do line up in dismissive traits (comical, not serious, unsymapthetic characters...) but with men.
posted by aswego at 11:19 AM on February 24, 2009


klang - give Rebecca Brown a shot (just be careful, because there is a Christian author of the same name and oh boy are they different!).
posted by rtha at 11:26 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


This seems like a high-falutin', ivory-tower-livin', over-generalizin' version of "men are like THIS, women are like THIS, amirite?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:31 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


This is, no doubt, because I don't read enough, and I'm happy to take suggestions.

Not contemporary with your examples except for Hemingway, but Gertrude Stein springs to mind.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 11:32 AM on February 24, 2009


Is Miller telling us to take a good hard look at the motherf*ing boat?
posted by weston at 11:33 AM on February 24, 2009


Sigh. Link fail.
posted by weston at 11:34 AM on February 24, 2009


I'd say the Secret History and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are both pretty damn ambitious.
posted by Dormant Gorilla at 11:34 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


"This seems like a high-falutin', ivory-tower-livin', over-generalizin' version of "men are like THIS, women are like THIS, amirite?""

Except that it's kinda the exact opposite and is trying to look at why those over-generalizations still carry, since the reviewer notes that Showalter is explicitly moving beyond a lot of those tortured generalizations for a more modest thesis.
posted by klangklangston at 11:36 AM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


(Keep those recommendations coming, since I just toss 'em on the library pile!

Should I maybe give Alice B. Toklas another try? Because I never really got into it…

And the only boldly formalist female writer I can think of offhand was that one that had the FPP written about her, but she's German and my German is only good enough to meander through the front page of newspapers, not good enough to contend with wicked inversions, etc.)
posted by klangklangston at 11:42 AM on February 24, 2009


I think the term Chick Lit (which you are correct is dismissive and has no male-gendered equivalent)

Lad lit. Not as popular as "chick lit", though it does exist. (Personally, I'd fold writers like Irvine Welsh and Chuck Palahniuk into the middlebrow segment of this genre, too.)

Also, I think the trouble here (as evidenced by the examples above) comes with defining the Great American Novel--it's such a vague term (except that all of us feel that we know it when we see it) that it's nearly useless, and so it's hard to know why women aren't writing more of them. If the qualifications are merely that it be long and have significant historical scope, then Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (irrespective of what I see as its problems) will do for an exemplar Great American Novel by a woman--certainly, it had a greater long-term cultural impact than the works of many of the masculine writers who come up in these discussions. And yet I don't think that's what we mean when we discuss the subject.

If the question is "why aren't more women writing long novels," part (though not all) of the answer is that because of the current state of the publishing market, almost no one is writing (or at least selling) long novels, male or female. Those few writers who are publishing long books these days most likely got their foot in the door in the 20th century. That said, Marisha Pessl's Special Topics in Calamity Physics is a recent long, literary book by a woman that received a considerable amount of positive press.
posted by Prospero at 11:43 AM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I'd say the Secret History and Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell are both pretty damn ambitious.

I was thinking of those exact two books.

But it's true that even recently the most ambitious novels by US authors seem to be written by men (not that I'm current on contemporary US fiction) - Infinite Jest being the obvious relatively recent example by an author who is, though dead, of the current generation of novelists.

I reject the premise that one can quantify an author's ambition through the length of his or her works. But also, Joyce Carol Oates and Margaret Atwood are two female novelists whose work, while sometimes flawed, immediately comes to mind as ambitious in both scope and length.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 11:44 AM on February 24, 2009


NEAR-IMMEDIATE FOLLOWUP

The Pink Institution by Selah Saterstrom.
posted by shakespeherian at 11:45 AM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


TKAM is not the Great American Novel? I just don't see that. It does deal with American culture, racism, provincialism, class-ism. It has a grand scope even if it does take place mostly in a small town and in small houses. I think not including TKAM risks turning the critic's argument into a no-true-Scotsman type thing.
posted by bluejayk at 11:52 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Isn't the ultimate Man and a Boat story (Old Man and the Sea) a Great American Novel and, like, 100 pages?
posted by absalom at 11:53 AM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Marge Piercy writes fat, ambitious, well-respected novels.
posted by languagehat at 12:19 PM on February 24, 2009


bluejayk - what I was trying to say was that yes, TKAM deals with American culture and touches on distinctly American cultural issues, that culture is always a context that is never stepped outside of (ugly sentence! lazy writer!). The novel explores how to live one's life by providing examples of the different ways adults live their lives to Jem and Scout (and the reader). Atticus is the prime/final example, and points towards where the culture ought to be moving.

However, I don't think TKAM has a grand scope. It is deeply rooted in a specific time and place. And it's scope, or the range of it's view, is likewise necessarily limited. The conclusions/lessons that it draws about human nature are broad and apply to more than just that particular place and time of American history, but this is a quality that ALL good novels should have, and since the Great American Novel, to me, ought to be a subset of American novels, I don't think TKAM is eligible.
posted by taliaferro at 12:20 PM on February 24, 2009


Yeah, I don't really follow you. So just for the heck of it, can you tell me how you see Huckleberry Finn differering from TKAM in a way that makes it a GAM?
posted by bluejayk at 12:30 PM on February 24, 2009


Alternately, replace TKAM with The Great Gatsby. Every great novel is rooted in time and place. NTS! etc, etc....
posted by bonehead at 12:36 PM on February 24, 2009


Okay, I'll try. I haven't read Huck Finn in a long time, and don't even know if I could argue that it is a GAN or if I think it is, so I'll use Gatsby.

TKAM is completely regional - it is set in a single town and the characters all come from that town (or at least from the region).

Gatsby is set in Long Island, but characters come the East (Tom and Daisy) and from the Midwest (Nick, Gatsby). Furthermore, the culture of Long Island is different from that of NYC (insert fuzzy memory of black men in a car on the Brooklyn Bridge living in public in a way they couldn't on Long Island)

TKAM features characters fighting about where their culture should be headed. Atticus's idea of a gentleman is very different from Bob Ewells. But they are both essentially fighting for the same idea of what their local culture should be.

Gatsby features a character who tries to escape from his regional culture - Gatsby steps off a boat (more boats!) and reinvents himself. In escaping from regional culture, Gatsby touches on a national idea of what it means to be American - he recreates the immigrant experience, he's a "self-made" man.

So that's what I mean when I say the scope is different - does that make sense? I know this isn't a fully-fleshed argument, and my recall of these books ain't perfect, so please let me know where I've goofed.
posted by taliaferro at 12:48 PM on February 24, 2009


bonehead - what I meant/should have said was TKAM is rooted in a deeply regional place in a way that Gatsby, as I tried to say above, is not.
posted by taliaferro at 12:51 PM on February 24, 2009


I do think that the male equivalent is sci-fi/fantasy

Shh. Let someone else get it in the neck for once.
posted by Artw at 12:55 PM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


ha!
posted by taliaferro at 12:56 PM on February 24, 2009


Here's a quote from Gatsby (pulled from here) that has scope: "I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors’ eyes — a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby’s house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of all human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."

In my memory, TKAM doesn't have passages like this. Here are some TKAM quotes. They are about what it means to be a human (crawl around in someone else's skin), not what it means to be American or what America means.
posted by taliaferro at 1:06 PM on February 24, 2009


The topic at hand is what Kingsley Amis dismissively referred to as "genius novels" (or so his son Martin reports). However, I think there is as much genius packed into a three-hour book like Zombie (Joyce Carol Oates) as there is in many of the doorstops that are usually cited as "great American novels".

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the epics sometimes, but to tell a story clearly, convincingly, and completely in a hundred and twenty pages takes as much talent and skill as writing a 900-page gorilla.
posted by Mister_A at 1:09 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Does noone here read that embarrassingly entertaining genre known as the Action Thriller?

Big beefy muscular detectives fighting their inner demons and the bittersweet memories of a past love drive around looking for a dangerous criminal so they can shoot each other in some dank alley somewhere. Normally there's a hot tough talking blonde who pretty much exists for the BBMD to rescue and then provide with the best sex of her life.

That's the guy equivalent of Chick Lit.
posted by aspo at 1:09 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


SF/F has had a strongly multi-gender audience since at least the late 80's, to the point where there are sub-genres of SF/F that cater exclusively to women (Vampires in leather fighting world-devouring menaces while maintaining complex romantic relationships) and men (Anything with space marines.)

No, the equivalent to chick lit are the military thrillers (usually with lead characters named things like "Dirk Pitt", who aren't just college professors, but also expert special-forces marksmen and trained ninjas). It is with a heavy heart I must consign "Age Of Sail" multi-volume epics to this category. Girls just don't get Hornblower.
posted by Slap*Happy at 1:13 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


NOOOOOOOOOO!!!! Surely not Aubrey and Maturin as well?
posted by taliaferro at 1:16 PM on February 24, 2009


aspo, I was reading, over the shoulder of one of my fellow travelers on a flight from Las Vegas, a book by this guy, who apparently has sold about a million tons of books so far. This stuff is hilarious–there's a snapped neck in every paragraph, even the paragraves about having tea!
Detecting more sugar in the tea than he liked, Rapp quickly snapped the tea-house guy's neck–kkkkrrrrick!
It was so bad, it was as though Dan Brown was writing under a pseudonym!
posted by Mister_A at 1:17 PM on February 24, 2009


Wow, aspo, I think that's the male equivalent of romance novels.

I think Ed Abbey is the male equivalent of Chick Lit.
Philosophical Themes pondered in the Great Outdoors while listening to Bach and worrying about Sex, Pooping and Eating. (Ok, not "worryingabout", perhaps "planning"?)
I have met very few women who will even read Abbey. And those who do generally despise him. Also, he never got much recognition from the American Literary Elite.
posted by Seamus at 1:20 PM on February 24, 2009


usually with lead characters named things like "Dirk Pitt", who aren't just college professors, but also expert special-forces marksmen and trained ninjas

That's still salvageable as literature so long as the college professor only uses his sniping skills for shooting bottles after drinking and his ninja skills for moping, and avoids contact with anything resembling a plot.
posted by Artw at 1:20 PM on February 24, 2009


Also I laugh at the suggestion that "Anything with space marines" is a single, undivided sub-genre.
posted by Artw at 1:22 PM on February 24, 2009


TKAM probably doesn't have any passages like that. But for a book written in the early 60's about small town life in the 30's, I think those were issues more important(?) at the time it was written/published than were the questions posed by Gatsby, which to me seems like a novel that belongs very much to the time period it was written in. Not that that's not a great thing.
posted by bluejayk at 1:23 PM on February 24, 2009


Wikipedia says they are both on the shortlist of GAMs and its a pointless confused phrase anyway, so let's drop it like it's hot and get back to naming great Postmodern stylistic female innovators:

Like Elizabeth Knox, who is from New Zealand. Or the Queen Bee of formal experiment, Virginia Woolf, who is from the UK. Or Jeanette Winterson, who also is. Come to think of it, there aren't many Pynchon wannabe-women in the US. Now that's a subject for an article!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:25 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


I would like to be added to the list of people who doesn't care about the Great American Anything. Anyone else reading Proust?
posted by gorgor_balabala at 1:27 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Fair enough bluejayk. Anyway, I'm being told to shut up, so we'll leave it at that.
posted by taliaferro at 1:31 PM on February 24, 2009


It is with a heavy heart I must consign "Age Of Sail" multi-volume epics to this category.

Oh I don't know. My mother is obsessed with the Master Commander series.

In Britain the polar opposite of Chick Lit is the true life military memoir, usually set in one of the Gulf wars and involving lots of 'tabbing' and 'slotting'
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:34 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


"So just for the heck of it, can you tell me how you see Huckleberry Finn differering from TKAM in a way that makes it a GAM?"

Uh, that one's easy—They travel all over the Mississippi, having comic adventures. The distance between GG and TKAM is smaller than the one between TKAM and Huck Finn by a long stretch. (Huck Finn is also about a thousand times better as an adult than it was as a kid, forced to read it.)
posted by klangklangston at 1:35 PM on February 24, 2009


I (male) love Ed Abbey, but know several girls who do as well. Ed Abbey is not a good example. Besides, while he revels in masculine drives, the narrator's voice is rather self-aware (at least in The Monkey Wrench Gang).

Mainstream recognition was probably stymied by his encouragement of illegal direct action ("terrorism") and lighthearted approach.
posted by phrontist at 1:37 PM on February 24, 2009


Garth Ennis should write the Great American Novel.
posted by Artw at 1:48 PM on February 24, 2009


Showalter is certainly the woman for the job. One of the founders of feminist literary criticism, she has also written about television for People magazine and confessed her penchant for fashion in Vogue.

Well there you go.
posted by pianomover at 1:54 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Except that it's kinda the exact opposite and is trying to look at why those over-generalizations still carry, since the reviewer notes that Showalter is explicitly moving beyond a lot of those tortured generalizations for a more modest thesis.

Well, I disagree, as the entire point of the exercise recognizes and exalts a line between the mainstream and whatever the "under appreciated" is, according to the author. As if to say, "If only we were all more enlightened/educated, we could fully appreciate XYZ and be better people." Women writers rock because they're women, amirite?

The book's own marketing hints at this with coded language: "But there are hundreds of wonderful books by American women that have been underestimated, overlooked, or forgotten."

Underestimated. Overlooked. Forgotten. All three words presume that some kind of magical unfair judgment was cast, explaining why you haven't heard of them.

You know ... it could just be that ... relatively speaking ... in the full context of their times, these books suck.

There's a reason we all read Shakespeare, and the fact that he was a white male doesn't really have anything to do with it. There's also a reason J.K. Rowling is the richest woman in the UK, and the fact that she's a she also doesn't have anything to do with it, either.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:55 PM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I've been looking for someone to defend this book to me. Why does everyone say it's so great? I had to force myself to finish it. It could've been 60% shorter and much less boring (and I wouldn't say the same thing about Cryptonomicon).
posted by salvia at 2:02 PM on February 24, 2009


Who is Laura Miller, and why am I an 'embittered crank' if I disagree with her?
posted by spacely_sprocket at 2:03 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Helen de Witt, The Last Samurai.
posted by jokeefe at 2:08 PM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I think Toni Morrison is a pretty big monkey wrench in the thesis here.
posted by Smedleyman at 2:13 PM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


I wanted to love Ed Abbey's books, but they just creeped me out. But I think the male equivalent of chick lit is Michael Crichton and John Grisham.

What about Ann Patchett?
posted by salvia at 2:14 PM on February 24, 2009


I dunno salvia, some women like those Grisham books; lots of women seem to enjoy procedurals of various stripe.
posted by Mister_A at 2:18 PM on February 24, 2009


I've been looking for someone to defend this book to me. Why does everyone say it's so great? I had to force myself to finish it. It could've been 60% shorter and much less boring (and I wouldn't say the same thing about Cryptonomicon).

I love this book, but then I also have a fetish for footnotes (ever since discovering The Annotated Alice at, like, 10). I thought the characters were pretty interesting. But to be fair, my mother is struggling through it right now, and I thought she'd love it since she's into Neil Gaiman. Different strokes, I guess?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:22 PM on February 24, 2009


I dunno salvia, some women like those Grisham books; lots of women seem to enjoy procedurals of various stripe.

Hmm, you might be right. So, less Grisham and more techno and military thrillers?

(Also, my dad suggested we all watch Mamma Mia over Christmas break and liked it better than anyone. Does that make it not a chick flick?)
posted by salvia at 2:24 PM on February 24, 2009


The convention of a Great American Novel has always seemed counterintuitive to the American experience, since this country founded so much of its national mythology on immigration and opportunity for multiple oppressed peoples (nevermind that the country is still ruled by a white plutocracy). There is a dying class of professors who claim The Great Gatsby was the great American novel, and Fitzgerald's themes of alienation, social climbing and (if Gatsby is read to be Jewish) racial complexity still feel relatively authentic a century later. But that can easily be said of Philip Roth's The Human Stain and Richard Wright's Native Son and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon. But in an increasingly diversified global economy, it seems that any Great [X Country] Novel becomes complicated if we expect the body of literature to serve as a monolithic, immutable statement of nationhood.

But if I really had to choose among the contemporary canon of brilliant American writers, Toni Morrison is far and away the most gifted living author tackling the various subtexts of American history and identity--female or otherwise.
posted by zoomorphic at 2:30 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


It could've been 60% shorter and much less boring (and I wouldn't say the same thing about Cryptonomicon).

Heh. I sure as hell would.
posted by adamdschneider at 2:32 PM on February 24, 2009


"Well, I disagree, as the entire point of the exercise recognizes and exalts a line between the mainstream and whatever the "under appreciated" is, according to the author. As if to say, "If only we were all more enlightened/educated, we could fully appreciate XYZ and be better people." Women writers rock because they're women, amirite?"

Well, no, there's a line between prestigious work and commercially successful work in nearly all media. Most of the canon, for example, is critically successful but hasn't been commercially successful for generations, if ever. Even beyond that, the sheer volume of written work (or films, or music, or whatever) virtually guarantees that there are under-appreciated works, things that would be widely loved if only people were familiar with them. So, despite your new love of "amirite," you're missing the point.

"Underestimated. Overlooked. Forgotten. All three words presume that some kind of magical unfair judgment was cast, explaining why you haven't heard of them.

You know ... it could just be that ... relatively speaking ... in the full context of their times, these books suck.
"

Right. Or it could be because they didn't have good distribution, or because they were unfairly dismissed due to cultural prejudices, or because they failed to find an influential champion. I mean, I must be missing something here, because the way you're framing this is so monumentally stupid that I'm confused. Of course there are great works that I haven't heard of or haven't read, that you haven't heard of or haven't read. Women wrote a subset of them, and have a fairly legitimate historical claim to undue discrimination. Sure, I have no doubt that women wrote a lot of suck-ass books, likely per capita about equal to the suck-ass books of men. But since the review notes that Showalter backs away and repudiates previous ideological elevations of minor works, that seems to directly contradict the bullshit you're shoveling.

"There's a reason we all read Shakespeare, and the fact that he was a white male doesn't really have anything to do with it. There's also a reason J.K. Rowling is the richest woman in the UK, and the fact that she's a she also doesn't have anything to do with it, either."

Yeah, so? I mean, that's pretty much an appeal to popularity, right? I mean, first off, there's not a single reason why we all read Shakespeare, especially when you think about the body of work that Shakespeare left. He has a lot of lesser works, and even throughout his major works, the quality isn't always consistent. But, because you're not an idiot, you also have to recognize that a large part of why Shakespeare was preserved and transmitted as part of the canon is that he appealed to contemporaries with power and wealth, and then was seen as part of the identity of someone with power and wealth.

Women have been historically overlooked. That doesn't mean that all of their work is good because they're women, merely that it's more likely that good works haven't gotten the attention they deserve. Amirite?
posted by klangklangston at 2:43 PM on February 24, 2009 [3 favorites]


I'm not particularly well read or extensively educated, but one of my very favorites, along with Edith Wharton, is Theodore Dreiser, who I think wrote great American novels featuring complex women and criticism of male ambition. I guess a lot of people put him down for having kind of a clunky style, but i don't think I've ever put down one of his books without wanting to pick it up and start over again.
posted by troybob at 2:45 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


"Fitzgerald's themes of alienation, social climbing and (if Gatsby is read to be Jewish) racial complexity still feel relatively authentic a century later. But that can easily be said of Philip Roth's The Human Stain and Richard Wright's Native Son and Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon."

Except for the fact that Native Son is one of the worst novels ever written. It might as well have been written in all caps.
posted by klangklangston at 2:48 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Different strokes, I guess?

Maybe. A lot of people certainly agree with you (eg), and overall I don't understand the heapings of praise. Ah, but here are a few negative reviews and with some of that said, I can better see some of what's good in the book.
posted by salvia at 2:48 PM on February 24, 2009


Maybe. A lot of people certainly agree with you (eg), and overall I don't understand the heapings of praise.

I found it really charming, and liked the integration of magic with real history--but I could easily see how those same traits could be seen as grating by other readers. I mean, yeah, it's twee. But as Tullycraft says, fuck me, I'm twee.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 2:53 PM on February 24, 2009


Helen de Witt, The Last Samurai.

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. If I had to flee my burning house with only one recent American novel, that would be the one.
posted by languagehat at 2:57 PM on February 24, 2009


Side note about women authors being taken seriously by non-woman audiences:

There's also a reason J.K. Rowling is the richest woman in the UK, and the fact that she's a she also doesn't have anything to do with it, either.

"Before publishing her first book, her publisher Bloomsbury feared that the target audience of young boys might be reluctant to buy books written by a female author. It requested that Rowling use two initials, rather than reveal her first name." (wiki)
posted by cadge at 3:06 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


fuck me, I'm twee.

That gave me a good laugh, PhoBWanKenobi.

liked the integration of magic with real history

Yeah, I liked that, at least in theory. During some of it (the war scenes, for one), I think I was still wondering about some other unresolved piece of the narrative and was like "what? we're over here? now we're over there?" and just wanted to get back to the main thread of the story.
posted by salvia at 3:21 PM on February 24, 2009


I mean, I must be missing something here...

Indeed, you are. You just have such a relentless sense of injustice that it clouds your opinion and makes you miss the forest for the trees.

It's like the guy that swears he was a great baseball player, but couldn't break out of the minors because of dugout politics.

You know, it could be that he just couldn't hit a curveball. It is not a moral imperative that we feel sorry for you.

It requested that Rowling use two initials, rather than reveal her first name." (wiki)

Funny how the later revelations and publicity really trampled the sales of books 2 through 7 and held back the franchise. Oh wait...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 3:34 PM on February 24, 2009


"It's like the guy that swears he was a great baseball player, but couldn't break out of the minors because of dugout politics."

Yeah, because there have never been any athletes held back by discrimination.

Too bad Cool Papa Bell was never good enough to play in the Majors.
posted by klangklangston at 3:42 PM on February 24, 2009 [2 favorites]


PS— I like the Funny how the later revelations and publicity really trampled the sales of books 2 through 7 and held back the franchise. Oh wait... bit for its thought process that goes Because Rowling is popular now, sexism has been solved and it has never been a problem prior to now! Woo!
posted by klangklangston at 3:45 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Before publishing her first book, her publisher Bloomsbury feared that the target audience of young boys might be reluctant to buy books written by a female author. It requested that Rowling use two initials, rather than reveal her first name."

Also these stories were initially fantasies she had about herself but when she wrote the first book the lead character had to become a boy rather than a girl, because as everybody knows, girls will read books about boys but boys will not read books about girls.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 3:46 PM on February 24, 2009


Hence the failure of the Dark Materials books.
posted by Artw at 4:41 PM on February 24, 2009


It's like the guy that swears he was a great baseball player, but couldn't break out of the minors because of dugout politics.

You mean like the Negro League?
posted by shakespeherian at 4:57 PM on February 24, 2009 [1 favorite]


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell

I've been looking for someone to defend this book to me. Why does everyone say it's so great? I had to force myself to finish it. It could've been 60% shorter and much less boring (and I wouldn't say the same thing about Cryptonomicon).


Thank god somebody else said this. After three attempts so wade through it I "accidentally" left this book at a B&B. Jeebus. Talk about ponderous and dull. And, after breaking my cardinal rule about big hard-backs while traveling all because a good friend would not shut-up about JS&MN, I was getting pretty sick of toting that thing around in my carry-on.

But I think that Huck Finn and Moby Dick completely merit Great Novel status. For classics they are excellent reads. I could read Moby Dick over and over.

As far as ChickLit I thought that was publisher-ese for books mostly consumed by women. Most are not written by women if the Oprah Book List is any indication.
posted by tkchrist at 6:10 PM on February 24, 2009


It is with a heavy heart I must consign "Age Of Sail" multi-volume epics to this category. Girls just don't get Hornblower.

Come a little closer and say that again. *brandishes first edition of Commodore Hornblower* Wait, what am I thinking?! *puts it down, picks up Northcote's Hornblower biography instead* I wouldn't want to get that nice leather cover all dirty.
posted by bettafish at 11:30 PM on February 24, 2009


klangklangston -

There are plenty of female writers who have "marshal[led] that sort of attack on the established forms of writing."

- Virginia Woolf (the Grandmother of challenging and playing with form)
- Gertrude Stein (cubist stories as well as poetry)
- Jeanette Winterson (definitely about pushing the form)
- Alice Walker - take a look at the form in The Colour Purple - how the narrator's (changing) literacy affects what can be told in the novel and what cannot

Most of which have been named in the thread, but I can't think of any more because, ironically, I don't like that kind of writing very much. I like poetic writing, such as Winterson's, but I also want strong characterization and world creation - if I truly like the book, I will stop being aware that there are sentences and words, and instead the author's images are just in my head. So playing with form is, to me, a distraction from what I really want. I wish, for example, that Jeanette Winterson were a better world creator. I loved her Written on the Body, because it is set in a contemporary realistic setting that I could simply fill in, but when she does historical writing (as in The Passion), I find her world creation too insubstantial and thus confusing. But this is just my taste, of course.

I had a creative writing teacher who could direct you to far more than I can - she was a PhD student in English as well as a poet, and really liked form and the pushing thereof. And I hear about new novels on the radio by women all the time which are experimental, etc - before I turn it off to find something more interesting : ) So you just need to pay attention to what the literati types read, and not us philistines.

Personally, I think Jane Austen has a form and voice all her own, as original as (and more compelling than) Hemmingway's, and (again ironically) the utter opposite of the form and voice in most modern regency romances, or her own contemporary Gothic novels (cool where they are warm, delicate where they are strong). If you like form, go back and look at the construction of Pride and Prejudice - not a sentance out of place, built like a delicate house of cards.

----------------------------

Re "guy"-lit:

Science fiction is definitely not the guy-lit equivalent, especially as that genre includes some very important feminist writers and sophisticated writing about gender (compared to either chick-lit or guy-lit). Chick-lit is more a marketting category than a genre, right now; some modern regency romances have been marketted as such, even though they are much more part of the regency genre than Brigit Jones' Diary.

Probably you could just talk about "mass market" novels, some of which fall into definite genres which are written with a certain gender in mind. That said, this can be broken even without the author's intention: Bernard Cornwell's Sharpe novels fit into a mostly traditionally male genre of heroic action novels (and the female characters are so badly written - they are more props than people), but have gotten a large female audience from the television show, and not just because Sean Bean is cute (though he is). Similarly, Hornblower will probably expand its audience, both male and female, with the television series.

But there is a good question: lots of women read supposedly "guy" fiction (hard SF, Star Wars novels, many action books), just as many girls read about boys in children's literature, but how many men would read "chick-lit"?
posted by jb at 7:31 AM on February 25, 2009 [2 favorites]


Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is brilliant, but one of its brilliancies is that it actually reads like something would from the early nineteenth century. The form is impeccable. But 18th/19th century writers (with the exception of the singular Miss Austen) were not short-winded. People just had more time then.
posted by jb at 7:33 AM on February 25, 2009


Thank god somebody else said this. After three attempts so wade through it I "accidentally" left this book at a B&B. Jeebus. Talk about ponderous and dull. And, after breaking my cardinal rule about big hard-backs while traveling all because a good friend would not shut-up about JS&MN, I was getting pretty sick of toting that thing around in my carry-on.

you know, i actually liked the book, but not like liked it. As in, if someone asked me what I thought about the book, I'd be like "eh, I liked it I guess." but if the book handed me a note saying "do you like like me? check yes or no." I'd have to check no.

there's a certain style of writing, I tend to think of it as "the roald dahl style." Rowling has mastered it, many popular writers of children's and young adult literature use it. It's basically just the style of writing that makes fables and fairy tales so endearing. It's the 3rd person Indirect Discourse style that is lyrical without being confounding. The perfect example really is Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory. Susanna Clarke comes just shy of using it successfully throughout that book. It is the most infuriating thing to read at times, because it's like watching someone jogging, except that they stumble every 5th step. Every one of her sentences is just slightly off, musically. They all fall just shy of sounding warm. It reads like a mean old librarian who is trying, finally, to speak to children without frightening them and not quite getting it.

Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is brilliant, but one of its brilliancies is that it actually reads like something would from the early nineteenth century.

It really doesn't. Henry James, Jane Austen, George Elliot, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe... the list of people from that century who write nothing like Susanna Clarke goes on and on. The list of people from that century who write precisely like Susanna Clarke is exactly 0 names long.
posted by shmegegge at 8:38 AM on February 25, 2009


I'm reading Margaret Oliphant's Miss Marjoribanks right now. She is one of those writers who had to women who turned to writing in order to support a large family; her husband died young and her brother was financially ruined. This novel is meant to be a comedy, but it isn't very snappy. I'm sorry to say it is a bit tedious and I am used to reading 19th century authors. Jonathon Strange was quite lively read, I thought.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:51 AM on February 25, 2009


She is one of those writers who had to women who turned to writing in order to support a large family

Thank god I don't have to support MY family with my writing.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:56 AM on February 25, 2009


Henry James, Jane Austen, George Elliot, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe... the list of people from that century who write nothing like Susanna Clarke goes on and on. The list of people from that century who write precisely like Susanna Clarke is exactly 0 names long.

With the exception of Austen, you are naming people from the mid- and late- 19th century (Poe is the oldest, born 1809 and American, James the youngest, born 1843), and those which appeal more to a modern audience.

I said 18th/early 19th - I have read a lot of historical documents, and her tone and style reminded me strongly of late 18th century newspapers and non-fiction, even late 17th century academic work (there is quite a lot of continuity). Things like Samuel Well's 1830 History of the Drainage of the Great Level, or Thomas Sprat's History of the Royal Society (1660s). Now, you can pick away if you wish, but all I know is that I read a lot of historical documents c1600-1800 - and the colour and sound of the language made me feel like I was reading a book written c1800.

As for the Roald Dahl tone - that's the "early to mid 20th century British Children's literature style", and yes, it is clearly in J.K. Rowling. But I don't think Clarke ever intended to have that tone - she wasn't writing children's literature, and the feel of the language is not at all c1910-1950, but c1780-1810. Which makes sense, since it is set in 1804, if I remember right. I don't remember her tone and language being that different from Jane Austen - the length is much longer, but so were many of the novels at the same time (see Mrs Radcliff's works), and certainly the academic books were (which I think are Clarke's real models).
posted by jb at 2:16 PM on February 25, 2009 [1 favorite]


How many times have I heard the term "Chick Lit" used in a dismissive manner....There really is no comparative term for Dude Lit.

I guess we coud call this stuff Dick Lit?

just watch out for the dicklet homophones when using it.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:22 PM on February 25, 2009


Robert Bly and the Men's Movement are also probably decent candidates for the moniker, equal in self-caricature if less hilariously absurd in the process.
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:28 PM on February 25, 2009


sorry - I didn't say early 19th. But I was thinking it. Clarke reads like an Enlightenment book.
posted by jb at 6:33 PM on February 25, 2009


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