Friday, November 30, 2007

Levels of American Greatness

Thanks to Mr. Champion for pointing out this little scrap of brilliance by Tao Lin in Seattle's The Stranger. He describes the levels of American literary greatness, from the bottom -- self-published blogger -- through the midlist and bestselling ladies, the cool guys, the near-geniuses, and all the way to Philip Roth. Haha! It's very funny and scarily accurate.

And it's nice to see someone come out and say, of the near-genius level, Women rarely attain this level of greatness. Yeah, it's my hobbyhorse. What's that all about, really? Is it something about American women as writers and readers, or about the critical establishment, or about marketing? Francine Prose published a great article about this, "Scent of a Woman's Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?" in Harper's ten years ago, (which I OUGHT to be able to access online since I've been a subscriber since forever, but NO) which, if I recall, pissed a lot of people off just by pointing out that about 80% of all the big awards go to men, and 80% of the names of yearly lists are men's. I was miffed to see that each of the five NYTimes Year's Best Fiction titles were by men -- though I confess I don't know who I'm miffed at, exactly. I wouldn't want them to do a quota thing.

Is it that worthy literary achievements by women aren't being recognized? Definitely: Lydia Davis should have been on that list instead of, well, someone else. But it is also that worthy literary achievements by women aren't happening, too. I've been in writing classes -- taking them and teaching them -- from first grade on up through graduate school, and you can watch it happen: little girls write cirles around the boys, they love writing more than boys and care more about doing it well and produce reams of it. This is true right through college, when boys begin to catch up. And then, by the end of college and into graduate school, something happens: boy writers begin to become more experimental, daring, and confident, and the girl writers begin to self-destruct.

I wish we could figure out why.

(Oh, I have do have a quibble or two with Tao Lin's piece. He says that Don DeLillo and Pynchon will never reach the level of Roth because "they were born in America and their parents aren't Jewish." Hm, I don't think so. Actually, though I prefer the writing of Roth, I think all three are at the same level of "establishment greatness.")


Anonymous said...

I did a half-assed search looking for the spot where you spoke of good marriage books so I could drop a post, but I had no luck. I just learned today that Revolutionary Road (the movie) is coming out next year. Should be interesting. Starring is the attractive Titanic couple.

Lila said...

Rhian, I've got a PDF of that Francine Prose article you mention, if you'd like a copy. I'm looking forward to reading it. This is an issue that always troubles me because I find that I'm much more apt to read and enjoy male authors than female authors. One thing I realized recently, however, is that (with innumerable exceptions) I tend to prefer women as short story writers, and men as novelists. I have yet to search deep inside my soul and find out why that is.

rmellis said...

Lila, I would love a copy of that essay, if it's not too much bother.

You know, there just *aren't* that many excellent American women novelists -- I don't think it's just you.

We women need to work it out.

I'd be interested in seeing your favorites list, btw.

Anonymous: Thanks for the head's up! If you'd added it to the old post, we'd never see it, since we only check recent posts for updates...

zoe said...

I feel like part of the problem is the whole idea of American Greatness. Is it impossible to write as an American without that notion?
At least if you write in Britain there isn't that type of pressure. Although, I'd imagine there's a whole raft of others inhibiting greatness.
The issue of there being less great women writers is a real worry. I think maybe men are better at giving their whole life over to "art" and women are crap at ignoring the chaos that ensues when one gives over one's self to a non domestic state. I know many people will have a big problem with me saying that, and I'm fully aware that it's a gross generalisation, but I've said it now..
On the positive side, several big prizes were awarded to women writers in the UK this year - the Booker, the Scottish book of the year and the Saltire. Possibly things are changing, we'll see.

jrlennon said...

I was trying to address that a little bit in my Great American Novel post...I think you're right, Zoe, the whole "American Greatness" thing might be an impediment to women writers...I feel as though the parameters of that concept favor "masculine" ways of seeing the world. (Please take those quote marks to heart.) Personally, I am not terribly interested in the Big Picture in fiction, or rather it only interests me as a context for presenting the Small Picture, which is all I really care about. I think a lot of women writers approach their work in a similar way.

The Big Novel has to be seen to be GRAPPLING with something, to be TACKLING some big PROBLEM, and for whatever reason, this approach seems to appeal more to guys. And then the world of publishing rewards them for their efforts, however crappy they are, paying undue attention to books like DeLillo's latest, about 9/11, and his worst book in many, many years of superb writing...or the Jonathan Safran Foer 9/11 book, which I think seemed insufferably dated about two months after publication. Meanwhile, smaller scale works by women (and men) of substance and intelligence end up remaining the secret pleasure of a few isolated aesthetes. I keep using the recent Kelly Link collection as an example.

I guess what I'm saying is the US commercial publishing is a shithole, and perhaps literary writers ought to consider throwing it overboard, especially women. Publishing is the new record industry.

debra di blasi said...

There are in fact a great deal of amazingingly brilliant women writers producing innovative work that far exceeds the writing of "American Greats" whose writing is, in fact, relatively conventional and safe.

Innovative women writers take tremendous risks in structure, content and style and thus are not published by big presses who don't know how to market it. (They're looking for domestic and chick lit novels.) Likewise, critics are simply not educated enough to intelligently review these books. I'd be lying if I pretended these works were accessible to the likes of Charles McGrath of the NY Times whose gender publishing record has been 80% men writers / 20% women writers for the past decade -- worse before that.

Remember: It takes a tremendous amount of imagination and creativity to be a great reader, too. America suffers more from a dearth of great readers of women's fiction than great writers of women's fiction.

You should know these writers:

Kathy Acker (deceased)
Lydia Davis
Carole Maso
Lidia Yuknavitch
Lucy Corin
Vanessa Place
Diane Williams
Kass Fleisher
Teresa Carmody
Jennifer Calkins
Kate Bernheimer
Stephanie Strickland
Shelly Jackson
Annie Proulx
Alexandra Chasin
and there are hundreds more

jrlennon said...

I don't know most of those writers...though if you've been reading this blog you probably know that Lydia Davis is our hero.

Thanks for the recommendations!

rmellis said...

The fact that after two lifetimes of reading, writing, teaching, and working in bookstores we *still* don't know most of those writers means that either we are, indeed, lame-asses or that there is a big problem with women getting work out into the world. Maybe both.

TIV: the individual voice said...

Really interesting. I love Lydia Davis and I appreciate Debra di Blasi's reading suggestions. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

At least Doris Lessing won the Nobel Prize, and that insufferable blowhard Norman Mailer never did. So there's some hope that better writers will be recognised. True, men tend to write about Big Things, and women look to the Significant Detail. Personally, I prefer the detail. Some writers do both, such as Delia Falconer in "The Lost Thoughts of Soldiers". A small and thoughtful and quite beautiful book.

rmellis said...

Yes, Doris Lessing -- one can find lots of non-American examples, actually.

I really think that America is not a big fan of womanhood. Sometimes it pretends it is, but it is not.

Tao Lin said...

most fiction writers i like are female

joy williams
lorrie moore
ann beattie
lydia davis
bobbie ann mason
deb olin unferth
rebecca curtis
jean rhys
mary robison
richard yates

richard yates is a woman, he wrote about emily grimes, a woman, and said in interview that he was emily grimes

Tao Lin said...


stacey levine
miranda mellis

rmellis said...

Tao Lin: You have surprisingly 80'sish taste for such a youthful person. Those are also some of my faves.

Lorrie Moore will come out with a novel soon, I just feel it.