Elaine Showalter The Guardian, Friday 8 May 2009 Article history
The female frontier
The postwar literary landscape has been dominated by the male giants of American letters. So where are all the women? Elaine Showalter chooses the best novelists writing in the US today
Great Americans ... (clockwise from top l) Toni Morrison, Anne Tyler, Joyce Carol Oates, Jayne Anne Phillips, Marilynne Robinson and Gish Jen. Photographs: Murdo Macleod/Getty/Authorpictures/PR
When John Updike died in January, Ian McEwan lamented his passing in these pages as the "end of the golden age of the American novel." In an article for the Times, headed "Who will fly the flag for the great American novel now,?" Stephen Amidon asked whether Updike would have any successors who "possess the ability to engage with the culture at large, to create works that become part of the fabric of their era." Amidon could only think of only one woman, Jhumpa Lahiri, to include in his list of six contenders. Most of Updike's eulogists excluded women completely.
I'm disappointed but not surprised. "Writers can write about anything they want, any sex they want, any place they want," Annie Proulx has declared. But being free to write doesn't mean that American women are equal in a literary marketplace still dominated by male precedents, male literary juries and male standards of greatness. As Joyce Carol Oates has ruefully noted, "the woman who writes is a writer by her own definition, but a woman writer by others' definitions". She cannot transcend readers' assumptions about her gender "unless she writes under a male pseudonym and keeps her identity secret". Yet unlike their 19th-century British and European female precursors, American women novelists have very rarely used male pseudonyms, believing that democratic principles would win them respect. If Uncle Tom's Cabin had been signed by "Harry Beecher Stowe", women's standing in American literary history might look very different.
Women writers today, however, are especially disadvantaged when they have to contend with the mystique of the Great American Novel. In 1868, when the southern novelist John William De Forest coined the phrase, he defined it as "the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence", and nominated Uncle Tom's Cabin, rather than The Scarlet Letter, as the leading candidate. But gradually the definition took on the meanings of Melville's call in Moby-Dick for a "mighty theme", for an art commensurate with the vastness of the nation and the scope of its dreams - a great white whale, a great war, or a great hero. Now it also carries a political dimension; as John Walsh recently defined it, the GAN is "the big one ... a single perfect work of fiction that would encapsulate the heart of the US, interpret its history through the light of a single, outstanding consciousness, unite the private lives of the characters with the public drama of its politics".
Women writers generally fare very badly in competition for the Big One. In 2006, the New York Times asked 200 writers and "literary sages" to nominate the best single work of American fiction in the past 25 years. In his introduction to the survey, the Times critic AO Scott defended the exercise; even if the GAN is a mythical creature like the yeti or the sasquatch, he argued, many people still believe it exists. While Toni Morrison's Beloved topped the list, Marilynne Robinson was the only other woman novelist to receive more than two votes.
It's not just that the GAN is about masculine themes. As Katha Pollitt pointed out on Slate in March, "there's a certain kind of critical receptivity, a hope of greatness for certain kinds of books by men that hardly ever comes into play with books by women, no matter how wonderful they are". Although many women novelists do write about "big public subjects" and many male novelists write about "intimate life", Pollitt suggests, "we emphasise different elements in similar books and only notice the evidence that confirms our gender biases - and give men more benefits of more doubts."
Moreover, serious women writers are much less likely than men to celebrate themselves, like Whitman (who anonymously and ecstatically reviewed Leaves of Grass) or to advertise themselves, like Mailer; and women are judged much more harshly if they are seen as self-promoting or self-important attention-seekers. As a result, they have lower public profiles and less name recognition. They do not marry models, actors or movie stars; they do not get chosen for People magazine's "most beautiful" people of the year; they do not run for political office; they do not stab their spouses or get into brawls on the street; they do not carry sawn-off shotguns in the front of their cars. On the other hand, they don't refuse to appear on Oprah, or brag about staying a little drunk every day; they do not become notorious recluses or unapproachable gurus. They are less likely to be in the headlines, the tabloids and the magazines, and less likely to be in the minds of literary list-makers.
Most important, I believe, women writers do not figure in American literary history, in the large narratives of national cultural development. Indeed, as the scholar Nina Baym has said, American woman writers have entered literary history as the enemy - what Nathaniel Hawthorne infamously called the "damned mob of scribbling women" whose bestselling, sentimental trash kept him and other serious male artists from finding readers and buyers. And women have been too dignified and self-effacing to make their own claims to artistic immortality. Women novelists do not observe the rituals of male literary artistry that sustain historical memory; they have rarely produced manifestoes, aligned themselves in a notable school, named their generation (whether Lost or Beat) and their genre, or feuded heroically and publicly with a critic-double, or a female rival.
But the main reason why women do not figure in American literary history is because they haven't written it. Women writers need to be seen in larger contexts than their most recent novel, placed in relation to their contemporaries and their precursors, understood in terms of the themes and issues of their generations. Only then can we rewrite American literary history overall to reflect its full evolution and significance.
So who are the outstanding contemporary American women novelists, and what do they have in common? For one thing, they are strikingly similar to each other in their degrees of higher education. A considerable number, including Jane Smiley, Bobbie Ann Mason, Marilynne Robinson, Siri Hustvedt, Jhumpa Lahiri, Diane Johnson, Dara Horn and Rebecca Goldstein, have PhDs. (Male critics seem largely unaware of the intellectual credentials of women writers; Morris Dickstein, for example, calls Mason, who published her dissertation on Nabokov, as a "lower-middle-class writer" of "Kmart" fiction). Many others, including Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Annie Proulx, Andrea Barrett, Joyce Carol Oates, Cynthia Ozick, Amy Tan and Barbara Kingsolver, began postgraduate work in subjects from linguistics to Henry James to evolutionary biology. Almost all the rest have MAs or MFAs in creative writing. They are sophisticated and self-aware creators of fiction.
They have also thought a lot about what it means to be American, as we see in the titles of novels such as Gish Jen's Typical American (1991) and Susan Choi's American Woman (2003). Many of them are writing about classic American historical themes of cultural and religious identity, revisiting key periods from the civil war to Vietnam. They are aware of their gender but they are "Free Women", in Doris Lessing's famous phrase, free imaginatively as well as politically or sexually, refusing to limit themselves to "feminine" themes of domesticity or love, or to female protagonists. As Gillian Beer noted about the Orange prize submissions in 2002: "Women have freed themselves to write more forcefully about much larger networks - wars, families, communities, national change, terrorism and history."
There are at least 50 outstanding contemporary American women novelists, but I am going to limit myself to eight key figures (Toni Morrison is so well known she does not need to be included). At the top of the list is the prodigious Joyce Carol Oates, author of 55 novels, more than 800 short stories, and thousands of pages of plays (frequently staged in the US), poems, journals and critical essays. Influenced by both Emily Dickinson and Edgar Allan Poe, Oates has reinvented herself as a novelist in almost every decade. In the 1960s, she was a social realist devoted to chronicling the lives of her parents' generation in the depression, and writing about migrant workers, "white trash", racial tensions, and the powerless inhabitants of towns such as Lockport, New York, where she grew up, and Detroit, where she lived and taught from 1962 to 1967. In the 1970s, Oates experimented with postmodernism, writing about "the yet uncharted, apocalyptic America of the late Vietnam war period when the idealism of antiwar sentiment had turned to cynicism and the counterculture fantasy ... had self-destructed". Then in the 1980s she reimagined the great fictional genres of 19th-century American women writers in novels such as A Bloodsmoor Romance (1982) and Mysteries of Winterthurn (1984); explored the deep sources of female creative identity in Solstice (1985) and Marya (1986); and challenged the macho literary establishment, especially Norman Mailer, with books, stories and essays about the symbolic themes of American masculine fantasy and contest, including boxing, sports-car racing and Marilyn Monroe.
From the 1990s to the present, she has been writing with ever-more furious speed and intensity on varieties of American crime, from rape to child murder to serial killers, and their effects on families and communities. Although she insists that violence and psychopathology are part of the contemporary subjects a serious writer must explore, I suspect that Oates, whose life has undergone dramatic changes in 2009, with the death of her husband of 47 years and a recent second marriage, is about to enter a new phase in her fiction. Whatever comes next, her obsession to record what she has called "American ambition, American delusion, American strife, American hopes, American violence, American dreams-gone-wrong" will continue to expand.
Jane Smiley and Annie Proulx have also taken on both the feminine and the masculine traditions of classic American literature. In her poignant early novellas, Ordinary Love and Good Will (1989), Smiley showed that she could write with extraordinary beauty and power about the sorrows of marriage and parenthood. Since then she has displayed her virtuosity in a series of daring and unpredictable novels, including A Thousand Acres (1991), an American updating of King Lear; The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton (1998), a novel set in 1855 during the battles of "Bleeding Kansas," with a feisty heroine who is a combination of Huck Finn and Harriet Beecher Stowe; and Ten Days in the Hills (2007), which relocates the Decameron to contemporary Hollywood at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq, with graphic sexual interludes and stories based on movies past, present and future that connect to the American consciousness. A brilliant and learned literary critic, with a PhD in Old Norse, Smiley has also published a study of Dickens and a book on the art of the novel in world literature.
More than any other American woman writer, Proulx has claimed male territory as her own, writing about fishermen, itinerant musicians, cowboys, ranchers and drifters in ways that seem natural and unforced. In her three books of short stories set in Wyoming, she has mixed gritty naturalism, magical realism and local colour to talk about love and death in the American west. "The Bunchgrass Edge of the World" rewrites one kind of Grimm fairy tale, "The Frog Prince"; the frog in this case is a talking John Deere 4030 tractor, crooning love to hefty Ottaline Touhey, one of the few heroines in the stories. Ottaline suffers from "minstrel problems", she's "the size of a hundred-gallon propane tank" and likes a good bull sale, where "scrotal circumference is damn important". The tractor is determined to win her: "There's girls fell in love with tractors all over the country. There's girls married tractors." But Ottaline is immune to his charms. Another kind of grim fairy tale, "Brokeback Mountain", made her famous when it became an Oscar-winning movie.
Proulx's understanding of the west and the western genre is radically antiheroic. In reality, "women in the west boiled down to emigrant wives and female children on their way to Oregon and California over the dusty trails; frontier school teachers; the wives that ranchers, cowboys, store-keepers and army officers went back east to marry and bring west; and at the bottom of the ladder, prostitutes and squaws". In 2008's Fine Just the Way It Is, Proulx turned to write about the harsh lives of female homesteaders, housewives and daughters in the tough and unforgiving Wyoming territory. "Them Old Cowboy Songs", set in 1885 on the frontier, tells the story of a teenage husband and wife, Archie and Rose McLaverty, who come to grief trying to fight poverty, isolation and the cruel landscape. The magnificent final story, "Tits-Up in a Ditch", is set in the present. Dakotah Lister escapes from a teenage marriage to become an MP in Iraq, where she falls in love with another woman, but ends up severely wounded, bereaved, and trapped back home. Dakotah comes to see the Wyoming country, with its "romantic heritage of the nineteenth-century ranch", as a tragic place, another graveyard of the American Dream, where every woman had suffered, and "every ranch ... had lost a boy, lost them early and late".
Marilynne Robinson has published only three novels, but each is a stunningly original exploration of the classic forms and formulas of American writing. The descendant of pioneers who arrived in Idaho in covered wagons, Robinson began by drawing attention to the far west as an overlooked site of American history and culture. With a PhD on Shakespeare, Robinson was also drawn to 19th-century American literature, and "was particularly impressed with the use of metaphor in all the great ones - Melville, Dickinson, Thoreau. It seemed to me that the way they used metaphor was a highly legitimate strategy for real epistemological questions to be dealt with in fiction and poetry."
Her first novel, Housekeeping (1981), was a fable of female relationships to language, nature and home set in a surreal and metaphorical western landscape. Housekeeping presents heroic American Eves who reject the conventions of domesticity, rather than American Adams like Ahab or Melville himself, who escape the pull of the domestic to contend with brute nature. As Robinson has acknowledged, Housekeeping was intended to be a female counterpoint to Moby-Dick, in the sense that it raised mighty American themes out of an environment populated exclusively by one sex. "I thought that if I could write a book that had only female characters that men understood and liked," she explained, "then I had every right to like Moby-Dick."
Robinson wrote only non-fiction for the next 24 years before publishing her second novel Gilead (2004), about the spiritual battles of a midwestern congregationalist minister, John Ames, whose ancestors were abolitionists in "Bleeding Kansas" before the civil war. In Home (2008), set in 1957 during the civil rights movement, John Ames Boughton, the prodigal son of Ames's best friend, returns to Gilead, Iowa. His story, which raises modern questions of race and redemption, is told through the eyes of his sister Glory. As Sarah Churchwell pointed out in her justly rhapsodic review of the novel for this paper, it is the most "explicitly political" of the three books about "metaphysical exile and homecoming and their relation to history".
Anne Tyler, too, has written about these subjects, in a more realistic mode than Robinson's. In Morgan's Passing (1980), Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant (1982), The Accidental Tourist (1985) and Breathing Lessons (1988), Tyler's characters run away from claustrophobic marriages, families and homes, and recreate new families and utopian communities in unexpected forms. In Saint Maybe (1991), my favourite of her novels, Tyler invents a very American and very pragmatic religion, the Church of the Second Chance. As its minister, Reverend Emmett, sums up its credo, "Jesus remembers how difficult life on earth can be ... he helps you with what you can't undo. But only after you've tried to undo it." In a recent novel, The Amateur Marriage (2004), Tyler begins on Pearl Harbor Day, 1941, and ends 60 years later, after the World Trade Center attack. These days of infamy bracket tectonic shifts in American society. The novel is also a beautifully recreated social history of the disappearance of an immigrant generation - Polish Catholics in Baltimore - into the American mainstream.
American women writers have usually written about war by telling the story of non-combatants on the home front, but Jayne Anne Phillips and Bobbie Ann Mason feel free both to write directly from male perspectives and to imagine the soldier's war through the emotions of sisters. Phillips began her literary career with a book of short stories, Black Tickets (1979), which Raymond Carver praised. In Machine Dreams (1984), she wrote a complex and luminous novel detailing the history of a representative American family, the Hampsons, from the second world war to the aftermath of the Vietnam war. Narrated by all the members of the family - the father Mitch, mother Jean, daughter Danner and the son Billy - Machine Dreams also includes letters and dreams: combat dreams, post-traumatic stress dreams, dreams of the moon landing and the Vietnam draft lottery which will determine the fate of so many young men. Mason's first book of fiction, Shiloh and Other Stories (1983) was packed with references to popular culture, television and rock music. The title story, "Shiloh", named for a famous civil war battlefield and memorial park, describes the disintegration of a marriage, told from the perspective of the husband, a truck driver named Leroy Moffitt. Injured in an accident, he is at home doing crafts and even needlework, while his wife Norma Jean is taking bodybuilding classes and adult education courses. Tracing the effects of the new civil wars of gender and generation, "Shiloh" was the most-anthologised American short story of the 1980s.
For In Country (1985), her novel about the post-Vietnam generation, Mason used an epigraph from Bruce Springsteen: "Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go." Her 18-year-old heroine, Samantha Hughes, the daughter of a soldier killed in Vietnam, buys Born in the USA en route from Kentucky to see the Vietnam Veterans' War Memorial in Washington. The songs of Springsteen and the soundtrack from the movie Apocalypse Now form a counterpoint to Sam's journey in country, trying to come to terms with her lost father and the losses of the war. Towards the end of the novel, Sam reads her father's diary from Vietnam, preserved but probably unread by his parents, and is sickened by his account of killing. She runs away to a Kentucky swamp in an attempt to experience something like jungle survival herself: "If men went to war for women, and for unborn generations, then she was going to find out what they went through ... If the USA sent her to a foreign country, with a rifle and heavy backpack, could she root around in the jungle, sleep in the mud, and shoot at strangers? How did the Army get boys to do that?"
Immigrant women writers have always played an important role in recording and shaping the American experience, writing on the borders between the old world and the new. Russian-born Mary Antin emigrated to the United States in 1894 and settled in Chelsea, a poor urban area near Boston that was rapidly becoming the first stop for Yiddish-speaking Jewish immigrants from eastern Europe. She was a gifted child, who dreamed of the day when she would find her name close to Louisa May Alcott's in a dictionary of American writers. By the beginning of the century, she was publishing in such strongholds of New England tradition as the Atlantic Monthly. In 1912 the old-guard Boston firm Houghton Mifflin published her 20-chapter memoir, The Promised Land, with the Statue of Liberty on the cover, and a golden torch on the spine. She was a Jewish immigrant woman who dared to claim the Puritans as her forefathers too, and who compared Ellis Island to Plymouth Rock: "Every ship that brings your people from Russia and other countries where they are mistreated is a Mayflower."
Contemporary women novelists from a wide variety of locales and hyphenated national origins, as well as second-generation daughters of immigrant parents, stress their contributions to the American experience rather than their distance or alienation from it. In this generation, which includes Julia Alvarez, Fae Myenne Ng, Edwidge Danticat, Sandra Cisneros, Jhumpa Lahiri and Dara Horn, Gish Jen is outstanding both as a novelist and as a spokeswoman. "I do struggle with the Asian-American thing," she has said. "I don't mind it being used as a description of me, but I do mind it being used as a definition of me." In her fiction, she addresses the changing status of Asian-Americans, and defines her own status as an American novelist. Her first book, Typical American, centres on Ralph Chang, a Chinese-American immigrant who makes himself into a middle-class American despite homesickness and racism.
Jen followed it in 1996 with Mona in the Promised Land, a coming-of-age novel about Chang's American-born teenage daughter. The feminist adolescent heroine is at a new stage of ethnic identity, renaming and self-creation; in the promised land, American girls can change their names, their religions, their nationalities. Mona converts to Judaism, and in the final pages of the novel, discusses with her Aunt Theresa the possibility of changing her name when she marries her high-school sweetheart, Seth Mandel:
"To Mandel?" says Theresa, surprised. "No more women's lib? ..."
"No, no. To Changowitz," says Mona. "I was thinking that Seth would change his name too."
Jen has yet to write a sequel about the marriage of Mona and Seth Changowitz; but her vision of a multicultural America goes well beyond the angry rants or despairing projections of Roth, DeLillo, McCarthy or other finalists in the Great American Novel competition. Like Oates, Smiley, Proulx, Robinson, Tyler, Phillips and Mason, she writes about great public themes without fanfare or pretension. The death of John Updike was a great loss for American letters and the international novel, but it was not the end of a golden age. In the 21st century, no understanding of American literature that excludes women's voices can hope to do justice to its splendour.