Those who know me understand that I essentially live in a cave. I write there and occasionally come out. I don’t read much about what’s going on in the so-called literary world. I like to imagine that I simply make books. Just recently some fellow writers approached me and asked my thoughts about what they called the Freedom fuss, a discussion about the latest novel by Jonathan Franzen being called “The Great American Novel.” I was asked to chime in. My chiming is usually off key, but here it is, my chiming, such as it is.
I had not read Mr. Franzen’s novel, frankly I had no plans to read it, but I became intrigued by the notion of The Great American Novel. It sounds a little like the designation Great White Hope. So, I found the novel and gave it a read. I do not pretend here to offer any sort of review or judgment of the novel, though I will do just that, but rather I am concerned with the work’s relation to the aforementioned designation.
I stepped back and reviewed the claim. Novel is the only word that is not problematic. The book is a novel. Though I myself can offer no definitive definition of the thing called a novel, I know that Freedom is one. So, what does Great mean? Especially capitalized like that. If it means long, I suppose a case can be made, though there are many longer novels. The American notion of value does often associate itself with heft, size, length. You see where that might go. We apparently like to get something substantial for our dollars, an SUV of a novel, not a Smart Car. However, I suspect there is more to it than just that. The suggestion is that the writing is great. I thought the novel was well written enough, but I must say that my relationship with language, with literature, with the form of the novel was not challenged, altered or expanded. If anything it was, in that regard, standard. So, it must be the content that makes it great. Again, while appreciating the profound dysfunction of the characters, I came away hardly having my perception or understanding of white middle America changed at all.
And this brings us to the term American. The novel is in fact the product of an American, but that certainly isn’t what is meant. The story is in fact very American, but is it the American story, sad as that might be? It is no more American than Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, which I have to admit I have not read. Ironically, however, Gone With the Wind no doubt connects more with my American experience than Mr. Franzen’s novel. I might say the same of Dixon’s The Clansman, a novel I have read, the book that was the source for Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation.” What about Toni Morrison’s Beloved, James Welch’s Winter in the Blood. My point here is obvious and I don’t want to belabor it. There is no one representative American novel, though there are many American so-called classics, a problematic term itself. I do not understand the designation The Great American Novel. More, I do not understand the desire or impulse to make such a claim.
It has taken me a while to get to my real point, but here it is, rather abruptly. I do not believe that apparent authoritative literary voices of validation would ever make such a grand claim about a novel written by a woman. I say this because I believe there are many novels by women that are about the same sort of world as presented in Freedom. Sadly, the culture usually calls these books domestic or family sagas. Are the novels of Anne Tyler, Marilynne Robinson and Mona Simpson any less white and middle “American” than Franzen’s? They are certainly at least every bit as literary and arguably better written, whatever that means. And they do not suffer the needless verbosity of Freedom. Were a woman to use so many additional words, the prose would be called floral or poetic or maybe even excessive.
I cannot recall a novel written by a man that was described as domestic, as if the male life within a family and household necessarily transcends the bounds of the family home, means something more profound about life itself perhaps. I have had conversations with young women writers about their fear that their novels will be considered “Chick Lit”. They are concerned about whether their titles will doom them to the category. What is the male equivalent? “Rooster-Lit?” “Dick-Lit?” And who fits the category? Who would want to? There used to be “tough guy” fiction, “hard-boiled” fiction, but somehow those are not pejorative. It’s little like the way that the culture has no male counterpart to the term slut. I suppose the closest thing is stud, but that’s not such a bad thing in most circles, however sad that might be.
It goes to the larger question about how women writers are viewed and treated on the American literary landscape. As I mentioned at the onset, I live a rather isolated artistic life, away from that world, so I’m no good source for statistics and verifiable claims about anything. But my friends at Vida, an organization of women writers, were kind enough to supply me with their numbers, numbers that I will not recite here. Except to say that my biggest wonder is how it is that, with women being seventy percent of the book buying audience, women writers receive only twenty percent of book review attention. Read that previous sentence again. I won’t get into the language of reviews and discussion of books by women, because of my own ignorance, my admitted lack of travel though the book world. But much of the language is so ubiquitous that even I can’t miss it.
Women writers are feisty, sassy. When was the last time a male writer was called sassy? Not that I would mind, but you understand my point. As an African American, I understand this sort of backhanded compliment. You see, we are articulate. This is not an insult on the face of it, but the subtext is that our intelligence is a surprise, as if being articulate is the same as being intelligent anyway. I mention this only to dismiss the subject of race here. The culture’s defense against this kind of attack has been to germinate competition between groups with like complaints and desires. The same way the government used to place historically warring Native peoples on shared or adjacent reservations, so has the culture sought to pit women against African Americans, African Americans against Hispanics and so on.
My concern here however is solely the fair consideration and treatment of women writers in publication and media attention to those publications. The discussion is ongoing and I recommend a course different from my kind of hermitage. As I understand it, the stories that have been written about the disparity of attention to men and women writers have been tucked away on whatever page 7B is on the internet and that their requests for comments from the likes of the New York Times and The New Republic have not been well received. Hardly surprising, I suppose. No one really wants to get into an argument with a strident or hysterical faction. How sexist is that?