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The very fact that reading and writing are in jeopardy, or simply evolving, means that to try to put the brakes of old criteria on a changing situation is going to be either obstructive or boring. In our critical age of almost manic invention, the most effective criticism of what, in the critic’s eyes, is a bad book would be to simply ignore it, while nudging better books toward the fulfillment of what the critic understands to be each book’s particular creative aim.Lee Siegel buries the hatchet-job.
If “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated? Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter, but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction” and make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men (and, yes, some women — more about them later), are prominently displayed and admired.So begins The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women, an essay in the New York Times by novelist Meg Wolitzer. She was interviewed about her essay in the NYT Book Review podcast (mp3 link, interview starts at about 18:30). Wolitzer references the classic 1998 essay by Francine Prose, Scent of a woman's ink: Are women writers really inferior?, and further back in time you find Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own, which, as literary critic Ruth Franklin notes, still sounds fresh today.
"The more I think about Charlie and the character of Willy Wonka and his factory, the more I am reminded of McLuhan’s coolness, the basic nature of his observations, and the kinds of things that excite him. Certainly there are several interesting parallels between the point of view of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and McLuhan’s 'theatrical view of experience as a production or stunt,' as well as his enthusiastic conviction that every ill of mankind can easily be solved by subservience to the senses."What followed was a knock-down, drag-out, letter-writing brouhaha, refereed by Horn Book editor Paul Heins, with librarians, parents, teachers, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Roald Dahl himself joining in, and it was one of the main causes of the book's revision that year. [more inside]