Can a Woman Be a “Great American Novelist”?

If you doubt unconscious bias exists, you live in a man’s world.

Toni Morrison at an event.
Toni Morrison in New York City in 2008. Scott Wintrow/Getty Images

The literary debate of the fall is the tempest everyone is now calling, illogically, “Franzenfreude.” The storm, summarized here by Ruth Franklin in TNR online, has encompassed a debate about the place of commercial fiction and whether Jonathan Franzen’s work is overrated. But I’m interested less in arguments about the relative merits of Franzen’s latest novel, Freedom I’m halfway through and find it artful and engaging—and more in the deeper question raised by the debate: Namely, why women are so infrequently heralded as great novelists.

A thought exercise, perhaps specious: If this book had been written by a woman (say, Jennifer Franzen), would it have been called “a masterpiece of American fiction” in the first line of its front-page New York Times review; would its author, perhaps with longer hair and make-up, have been featured in Time as a GREAT AMERICAN NOVELIST; would the Guardian have called it the “Book of the Century”? Without detracting from Franzen, I think we can say it would not have received this trifecta of plaudits, largely because we don’t ascribe literary authority as freely to women as men, and our models of literary greatness remain primarily male (and white). Of course, there are the always-pointed-out exceptions: Marilynne Robinson and Toni Morrison, whose Beloved topped the New York Times list of the best books of the past 25 years. So is there really a problem here?

There is, I think, and we might call it not the problem with no name but the problem we can’t define: the problem of unconscious gender bias and how it affects the ways we think about accomplishment and authority. It hardly seems like a coincidence that when a generation of celebrated novelists dies out (Bellow, Mailer, Updike), the new ones anointed are typically white men. (When Zadie Smith—whose work occupies a similar literary space to Franzen’s, at once engaged by the domestic and the social—is on the cover of the Times and Time, perhaps women writers can start to feel differently.) Myriad studies show that women and men alike unconsciously ascribe more authority to a male candidate than a female candidate with the same qualifications. In many circumstances, we also simply assume men are more talented: Before the advent of blind auditions, fewer than 5 percent of the players in major American symphonies were women. But after blind auditions began to be held, the percentage of female players soared almost tenfold. Is there any reason to believe our evaluations of literary talent (which almost always happen with full knowledge of a writer’s gender) are uninfluenced by that kind of unconscious bias?

Unconscious bias doesn’t just affect reception; it shapes female ambition and determination, in visceral, hard-to-pinpoint ways. Studies have shown, for instance, that in the face of subtle discouragement (facial expressions and so forth) candidates perform less well. It’s really, really hard to write a book. It takes a lot of time and solitude. In my experience, women are not as good at insisting they need that time and solitude. (I wonder how many female writers have, like me, sometimes wished they were a man so everyone—family, friends, partners—would understand a little better when they go in the room and shut the door for weeks on end.) If the world around you reliably reflects a slight skepticism about, a slight resistance to your talent, it’s easy to begin to internalize that notion and to strive for less, or just be turned off by the whole racket. I often wonder if this, in turn, means that women end up writing less ambitious books. I’d sorely like to put that question to bed, but I can’t help asking it over and over.

Gender also shapes how we evaluate novels themselves. What can seem authoritative or worthy in the hands of a man often seems to be seen as narrow in the hands of a woman, leading me to wonder if, had a woman written it, the fact that a significant part of Freedom concerns a love triangle and marital discontent would have led reviewers to focus more on the “domestic” aspects of the novel, discounting its social scope. It’s hardly radical to wonder such things. Franzen himself noted on NPR last week that he thinks about these issues, too.

All this is speculative, you might find yourself thinking. I agree. All we can do here is speculate. But one example comes to mind, concerning a New York Times review of Schooling, a poised, ambitious debut novel by Heather McGowan, which made use of stream-of-consciousness and other experimental fiction techniques to tell the story of a precocious girl who has an intense relationship with a male teacher at her boarding school. The reviewer—a man—concluded that such difficult, “fissuring” techniques were justifiable in Ulysses, when Joyce was writing about Leopold and Molly Bloom and a post-war world, but not in Schooling because, “By comparison, the small, private story of Catrine Evans and Mr. Gilbert at the Monstead School has no greater reach. Where is the experiment in this experimental fiction?” To this reader, the reviewer’s outright dismissal of crucial issues in female experience—the way male desire shapes female ambition and sense of selfhood; the way authority is always located in male attention—betrayed a telling assumption about the smallness, the unimportance of women’s experience. Ironically, his very dismissal only underscored the significance of the issues Schooling was exploring.

One of the problems with complaining about gender and recognition is that it risks sounding like sour grapes: There’s no rational, empirical way to have the debate. It’s like asking: What would it be like if dogs meowed? Would we think about them differently? Are male novelists given cred for fetishizing comic books and Star Wars, one acquaintance recently asked, while female writers hide away their girlhood preoccupations with Anne of Green Gables and palominos? It’s hard to say. The issue is not merely about numbers of reviews of women’s and men’s books. It has to do with the ways those books are reviewed; the language used; the prizes given; the fellowships received. Any man who doubts that there remains a gender gap—if largely an unconscious one—is living in a man’s world.

But because we all still do, writers Cate Marvin and Erin Belieu recently founded an entire organization, VIDA, dedicated to supporting female writers and documenting gender issues in reviewing and canon-making. For women live in that man’s world, too: When a female colleague and I were trying to come up with a list of candidates to interview for Open Book, a Slate V interview series with writers, our first list was almost entirely male. (Interestingly, no male writer turned us definitively down, but several female writers did, at least one on the grounds that it was too stressful to be on camera.) Rather than complain about all this, perhaps it’s better to just get off your butt and do, as C. E. Morgan, a New Yorker “Twenty Under Forty” writer, recently put it. Putting my faith in working rather than complaining has long been my preferred method of dealing with sexism in the world and workplace.

But as I get older, I find it harder to ignore the social friction female writers endure. This is where the anecdotal enters the picture, and to sit with female writers, even ones who never complain about gender in print, is, inevitably, to trade war stories—stories that men probably don’t hear all that often, because we tend to keep them to ourselves, knowing they make us look weaker, or like whiners. There’s the provocative female writer who was asked if she had an eating disorder because she is naturally skinny, and whom reporters badgered for information about the number of men she’d slept with. There is the time I met a former professor at a reading, soon after he’d invited me to apply for a prestigious job. Embarrassed at having not recognized me, he told me that “in my frock” I looked like a “sorority girl.” There’s the author who sent out a proposal about John Lennon and learned that editors worried readers might not believe a woman could write with authority about a musician.

In private, these stories become sources of humor, but they are nonetheless disheartening. They’re one more of those adult disillusionments that abrade you and make it hard to revel in the freedom of imagination, harder to feel the pure joy of engagement. These stories, among women, are everywhere—and so what?, you might say. They’re hardly tragic. They’re hardly oppressive in the grand scheme of things. But they do make it more difficult to concentrate on that grand scheme, however determined you are.

Also in Slate: Ann Hulbert totals up the percentage of books reviewed in Slate that were authored by women. On the “XX Factor” blog, O’Rourke responds to the allegation that female novelists work “in miniature,” dissects women and the quest to write the Great American Novel, and explains why she doesn’t yawn when she talks about women writers. And a heads-up: The DoubleX Audio Book Club will discuss Franzen’s book Freedom in October. (We picked it before the feminist flap, and now we really can’t resist.)

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