Suspend Your Disbelief

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r-e-s-p-e-c-t for novels by American women

“Can a woman write the Great American Novel?” With this question in mind, Salon’s Laura Miller reviews Elaine Showalter’s new book, A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx:

…The bestseller lists, though less intellectually exalted, tend to break down more evenly along gender lines; between J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer alone, the distaff side is more than holding its own in terms of revenue. But when it comes to respect, are women writers getting short shrift?

The question is horribly fraught, and has been since the 1970s. Ten years ago, in a much-argued-about essay for Harper’s, the novelist and critic Francine Prose accused the literary establishment — dispensers of prestigious prizes and reviews — of continuing to read women’s fiction with “the usual prejudices and preconceptions,” even if most of them have learned not to admit as much publicly. […] Alongside the idea that women writers have been unjustly neglected, there has blossomed the suspicion that some of them have recently become unduly celebrated — an aesthetic variation on the conservative shibboleth of affirmative action run amok.

Onto this mine-studded terrain and with impressive aplomb, strides Elaine Showalter…

I’d love to hear what you think of this question and the hundreds of others this article raises — what, if any, books by women would you categorize as important American novels? How and how much should scope and subject (domestic vs. worldly spheres) factor into our judgment of a novel’s worth? How do we define the Great American Novel, and is this definition in need of some rethinking? What do you make of the claim that women of color have a better shot at writing something Great (or received as such)?

Side note: The comments posted after the article itself give me hives…as of posting time, these “letters from readers” range from the ever-pointless “quit yer whining” types to this particularly offensive gem. Why are online comments so infernally depressing? It’s a question for another time, but I’m tired of even scrolling through such sad, small, and often hateful shrapnel.

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