Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Great American Novels

I was reading Ted Burke's insightful thoughts on Franzen, and it occurred to me that Franzen is not the only novelist I haven't been reading. Chabon's fiction, Nathan Englander, Jonathan S-something Foer, Nicole Krauss, David Foster Wallace, Jane Smiley,Gary Shteyngart, Rivka Galken, Annie Proulx -- I haven't read any of them. I've only read a few candidates for Great American Novel at all. The ones that I have read and enjoyed are not really comparable to one another: Middlesex, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Man, and Jazz.

Even making the lists bores me.

I like big social novels of ideas, I really do, and I would like to read most of the authors on that list (just not Foer. If I am ever locked up in interrogation, the way to make me crack would be to dangle a copy of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close in front of me). I just think the whole enterprise of setting out to write a great American novel -- or worse, The Great American Novel -- is at heart empty in the same way I find nationalism empty.

I'm repeating a sentiment offered here, but I think my critique is a little different. Laura Miller thinks the practice is old and tired. I think the practice was never all that interesting to begin with, but sadly seems to linger in the imagination of many of the folks who have been christened as the next generation by the likes of Granta or The New Yorker.

13 comments:

Keifus said...

"American Novels," muttered Yoda, "not make one great."

I sort of agree with the gist of her article, at least if I can condense it to a point properly, that great American novelness has been defined around male writers instead of the other way around. It's the male-written novels that have been judged as canonical.

It is difficult to see how the quest for individual vis a vis the American myth precludes women. Yeah, business tycoons and frontiersman are part of that, and were the big novel themes in more male-dominated times, but there's nothing stopping us from looking back. Aren't women's experiences canonical as well? They're half the population. You might get a little farther thinking about the dominance of epic themes, or male-oriented styles of literary conflict. But if we can publish "great American novels" about dull suburban everymen, then I think we're ready to accept the female experience as central too.

So why aren't women writing those? people are complaining in respect to the success of your rival. I don't know.

[You know, in this sort of context, Miller would have done well to omit phrases like "America is the first nation united by ideas rather than a shared cultural and racial history," or "the great exception to this is women of color." These statements could be seen to reflect exclusionary opinions of whose experience in this country is more valid, which is not only subtly offensive, it's also exactly what she's complaining about.]

I realize that women had far less liberty than men to write and publish. Ms. Miller has an interesting point that housework may have damned American women to write less than British women, although she kind of refutes herself by pointing out that the likes of Willa Cather, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton (Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Louisa May Alcott, uh, wait, what?) were generally in unusual circumstances. Wasn't that the case with their English counterparts as well?

I didn't mean to reply at such length, but one more note. I tell myself I like women writers pretty well, but I looked at my list, and I'm only reading about 1 in 10 over the last couple years. Quite a few (epic-ish) novels with women characers that I liked were written by men. Smartypants, pants thyself.

Dawn Coyote said...

I don’t believe housework was the barrier to women’s writing. It was children. Octavia Butler seems to have been childless, and Doris Lessing abandoned two of her children:

"For a long time I felt I had done a very brave thing. There is nothing more boring for an intelligent woman than to spend endless amounts of time with small children. I felt I wasn't the best person to bring them up. I would have ended up an alcoholic or a frustrated intellectual like my mother." http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doris_Lessing

I knew a woman in Vancouver, the daughter of a famous poet, who related with some bitterness her mother’s indifference to her while in the creative throes. For me, it’s not the absence of children that facilitates my writing so much as the correct dosage of helpful medications and some kick-ass writing software that helps me organize my jumbled visions into something resembling a narrative.

I don’t like to admit this, but I’m working on a novel. It’s the same novel that has sat in a box in the back of my closet for nine years, tormenting me. It’s situated on a fictional island right on the border, in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but it’s not going to be a Great CanAmerican Novel. I hope it’ll be a passable horror novel, but at this point I don’t even care if it’s any good at all or if it ever gets published. I just want it to stop tormenting me. I may put it back in the closet in a few weeks or months, but right now, I’m working on it.

So just lately I’ve been trying to figure out how to get around the inconvenience of being female and writing. I struggle with the idea of a female voice, a female point of view, a female protagonist. It’s a relief to read in Miller’s piece that Showalter, building on past work, describes the evolution of "the American female tradition" as going through four stages: "feminine," "feminist," "female" and finally, the current one, which she has dubbed "free."

The whole issue of women authors annoys me. Being a woman author is like being a non-Mormon in Utah: you’re still defining yourself by the dominant group; you’re a Not-That, rather than a This. I hate the idea of a female canon, of a women’s literature, and I’ve considered using an androgynous form of my name in the unlikely event that I’m ever published. Doris Lessing has a polite lament in the preface of The Golden Notebook (which I’ve just begun reading) about that novel’s status as a definitive work of feminist fiction. She feels that people missed the point, and that being a voice for the feminist movement is an honor she’d have declined, had she been given the choice.

While I resent having to navigate the political and cultural implications of being a woman writer, it forces me to confront the places where my feminism collides with my sexism, and to figure out how to step away from both and be free. “How to be free” is the heart of the issue. How to overcome the Not-Thatness. Beyond the issue of women being excluded from the canon, there’s also the lack of appealing examples upon whom one may model oneself, and I’m as biased as the next guy: I dismiss women authors far too easily. In this, I believe Octavia Butler will be a great help. I finished Parable of the Sower last night, and promptly ordered nine of her other books. As a black feminist author she manages to write in a way that transcends issues of race, gender and politics. Her writing is free.

Keifus said...

Hey Dawn, I guess you guys can claim Margaret Atwood. Whatever one might say about her, she seems to have avoided being a Woman Writer while being a more or less well-regarded and literary woman writer.

(I read Cat's Eye when I was 19 or so, and thought then that it was a compelling everywoman sort of life-epic, loaded with intense imagery, which was something I liked a lot. Reading it after reading this post, I might pay much more attention to the feminist aspect. Was it also a novel describing the choice to be free artist instead of feminist artist?)

I've read Kindred by Butler, and thought it was pretty powerful for a couple-hundred-page sf book. I figured that it worked for me because I had an entry point in the couple of white male characters, and also of modern characters who were finding just how real and foreign the past was. (That Butler considered sympathy and then denied it seemed to matter, as if she were addressing it to the likes of me.) Your explanation makes me feel better.

Dawn Coyote said...

Atwood is very much a Woman Writer. She's an exemplar. At least, I think she is. I've only read two of her novels, The Edible Woman and The Handmaid's Tale (twice). I tried Surfacing, but it pulled me under.

As a teenager, the gender politics in her stories horrified me. I didn't want to believe what she was saying. I gagged on The Edible Woman, but I could probably stomach it now, after having lived it.

I generally stick to Atwood's poetry, which I love. I do have Oryx and Crake on my night table, and will eventually get around to it. Also Slouching Toward Bethlehem, which arrived last week.

Lessing's essay at the beginning of The Golden Notebook is a very worthwhile read (august, I think you'd love it). Can't speak for the rest of the book, yet.

Keifus said...

Ah well, show's what I know. (I have a short story of hers that liked a lot back then. Handmaid's Tale was mediocre.) Most of it I read when I was younger. She's disowned Oryx's other traditions enough to make me think it's probably not worth reading.

Speaking of which, you read Ursula LeGuin ever? She's played with sexual roles in interesting ways (and I generally like the way she's able to get at some of our commonly held ideas). Wonder where she falls on the spectrum...

august said...

A lot happening here. I guess if I were going to write the top post again I would add that I'm not at all sure what I want novelists to aspire to. I think I mainly want them to answer the question "Why should this be a novel?" I mean, I don't want to read their answer, I just want to feel that the thing I am reading is essential. And "Great American Novel" does not feel essential to me -- it's like "Blockbuster Movie" or "Brittany Spears" -- it's fine, but it doesn't seem to me a life goal.

My favorite novel of Canada is Ondaatje's In he Skin of a Lion. The follow up was, of course, The English Patient. I see why those novels had to be novels, how even though English Patient became a blockbuster, it could not have begun as a movie (the movie was really only interesting to me as a reading of the book).

Cubism was an answer to "Why painting?" The photograph had given the illusion of true representation, and the cubists came along with a statement that representation could include time, multiple perspectives, simplifications, textures that photography could not convey.

I just prefer literature that way. And it may be that Franzen et. al. can deliver. But the status of Great American feels odd to me.

I've only recently come to realize how much childbirth affects the careers of women across the board. In addition to that I think it's fair to say that even as there are more and more women writers, and surely the majority of book buyers are women, there remain in New York publishing at least certain boy's clubs (Believer/McSweeney's, n+1, Paris Review). I'm not sure that it matters. There was a survey of Net York Times Book Review pages that found many more men reviewed than women, but what the articles introducing this fact fail to mention is that the New York Times Book Review no longer has any effect whatsoever on book buying. And I agree with Dawn that "women's fiction" sits even more uneasily than "Great American Novel."

I have had many divergent responses to IOZ in the past, but his two posts on Franzen are the first time I've found him downright boring.

Keifus said...

Well, I'm in no position to criticize other people for being boring or unpleasant, and often enough I love the guy, but that was a little too much taste-flaunting for me, and I don't like when people brag about their reading speed either.

I was on a huge science fiction kick for five or ten years, and there is a tremendous difference between a writer whose story falls within the genre and a writer for whom the genre is the point of the story. Never could get far with the second kind. (Although of course there are authors who could celebrate the genre and be original. Subjectivity leaves us few fine lines.) I think Great American Novels and Women's Lit have to qualify as genres as well.

This thread made me think of how reading was (a little) different for me in different in different times of my life. That's a segue: there's a really crappy-looking children's movie out, that reminded me of a book I read at ~12 yrs old that, I think more than anything else I read at that age, taught me that writing can be beautiful. I have wondered if the impression holds. Just ordered it.

(Thanks to all, by the way. Nice to not be talking to myself for a change.)

Dawn Coyote said...

Truly, I'm more interested in Great Canadian Novels than in Great American Novels, though I haven't read many of either. The English Patient seems deeply, essentially Canadian; Life of Pi not as much. I haven't read In the Skin of a Lion, though I mean to.

Perhaps Canada is still unformed enough that writing the Great Canadian Novel seems like a worthwhile aim.

I mainly want them to answer the question "Why should this be a novel?" I mean, I don't want to read their answer, I just want to feel that the thing I am reading is essential. And "Great American Novel" does not feel essential to me

Ha! Lessing expresses precisely this in that Preface I mentioned, and many more good things besides.

Keifus, I'm getting into Science Fiction a little these days, after having left it behind in my early 20's, but I haven't read any Le Guin. I had Always Coming Home on my bookshelf for years, but every time I picked it up, it annoyed me, and I never tried anything else of hers.

Dawn Coyote said...

Also, sorry for going astray. I was responding to some amalgam of Miller's piece and your post.

Keifus said...

Does Roberston Davies write in the "great Canadian" genre? I think a case could be made. I recall that Bacon hates him.

Would recommend The Left Hand of Darkness, and The Dispossessed, her famous ones. (The former we could call a gender study.) I liked how she could file an edge or two off of human nature, and make us fit into much different molds. Easy to do that sort of thing as a shortcut, but she does it in a consistent way, and studies the results. (I also liked The Lathe of Heaven, which may have been more a got-me-excited book than a great one. There are a couple movies made from it.)

august said...

I'm happy for the conversation to flow in whatever direction it goes.

Keif -- exactly! The Great American Novel is the genre created by folks trying to accomplish some ideal that no longer makes sense.

I have the Golden Notebook here, staring at me, accusingly. I've been on a huge literary non-fiction kick lately.

Skin of the Lion is about a Canadian place -- Toronto is its landscape and subject matter. Maybe that's a distinction worth making -- I'm all for novels inspired by landscapes, that put language into light and space (or maybe I mean the other way around -- put light and space into language). The landscape of English Patient is so essential. A lot of my favorite writers deal with that kind of issue (and the genres are quite different -- Cormac McCarthy's Border Trilogy, Amitav Ghosh, John Gardner, Pablo Neruda (there's a male list if ever there was one)). One of the things I love about such books is that they are often writing about the tensions between landscapes and political borders.

Hmm, maybe I will read Lessing's preface now.

I love thinking about the reading I did at different stages of life. One of the reasons I went back to Great Gatsby is that there are a huge number of books I read between 12-18, when I was really reading all the time, whenever I could, that made me feel adult, but which I now realize I must not have read very well. Gatsby was one of them, although on rereading I think I pretty much got it at the time, longing being an emotion well-suited for adolescence. Anyway, that might be worth a new post. Feel free to write your own...

Dawn Coyote said...

Kief: thanks for the recommendations. I've put them on the list.

After I read this http://www.slate.com/id/2267184 I removed all the male authors on my bedside table, and made a stack of women. Except for Neil Stephenson. I don't know that I can resist him.

august said...

Well, Zadie Smith may not be on the cover of Time, but she's going to be book reviewer for Harpers, and the fiction folks at Princeton were Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates, both of whom have been accused of writing The Great American Novel.

None of which really challenges O'Rourke's claims. Like many things gender-related, I throw up my hands. Which is possibly not the most helpful response, but there it is.