Will we still have this argument in another 153 years?


Is it in feminine novels only that courtship, marriage, servants, and children are the staple? Is not this true of all novels? — of Dickes, of Thackeray, of Bulwer and a host of others? Is it peculiar to feminine pens, most astute and liberal of critics? Would a novel be a novel if it did not treat of courtship and marriage? and if it could be so recognized, would it find readers? When I see such a narrow, snarling criticism as the above, I always say to myself, the writer is some unhappy man, who has come up without the refining influence of mother, or sister, or reputable female friends…

These words begin Fanny Fern’s article “Male Criticism on Ladies’ Books,” first published in the New York Ledger in 1857. 1857. 153 years ago, and if you need a little perspective, it was prior to the Civil War. Fern was one of the most commercially-successful writers during this time period, and at the height of her career was the highest paid journalist – male or female. Again, I’ll put a little perspective on that. Most of us my age or older didn’t study many female writers in school. They weren’t included in the textbooks for study. In my American Literature class, we discuss this article, and when we got to it this week, the parallels were blatant between that time period and the current controversy over whether or not the New York Times is biased toward male writers.

I haven’t said much about #franzenfreude, as the argument has been dubbed on Twitter. If you haven’t heard, two female writers, Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner, publicly discussed how the Times seems to favor the white male darlings of the literary world. At the time, Jonathan Franzen’s name was absolutely everywhere. He was the first writer to be on the cover of Time magazine in the past 15 years (Stephen King was the last). His book was pre-selling like crazy. Reviews abounded. Even President Obama got a copy, causing a rush on an unpublished book (and headache for the publisher).

Picoult and Weiner both agree they are not on the same plane as Franzen (they are considered commercial fiction as opposed to literary fiction), but they do not argue for themselves alone but for all the women writers whose names seem to remain in obscurity. Now I’m not a huge fan of Franzen as I have read The Corrections, a novel, and How to Be Alone, a collection of essays, but I have not yet read Freedom. Neither of the former reads blew me away; in fact, the essay collection was a bit pretentious. Ultimately, though, Franzen is just the vehicle for the current issue: do white male authors receive more attention than female authors and authors of color? I don’t think anyone is really even trying to claim otherwise.

In fact, the Times is not alone in the pomp and circumstance. I read an excellent blog post at Color Online about how even Oprah has bowed to Franzen. I don’t have a problem with her adding him to her Book Club as that is her right and choice (even though he snubbed her in 2001, citing previous “schmaltzy” picks behind his reasoning). But as the article points out, it’s about who Oprah’s list leaves off: women. But again, is it really Franzen’s fault? No. Obviously, this is much larger than the Times or Oprah. (I’ll leave the chick lit discussion for another day and time).

Why are we so dismissive of women’s voices? To me, good fiction is good fiction. I just find it ironic and sad that we have not really evolved past the problems with which Fanny Fern takes issue. Male writers at the time were criticizing Fern’s commercial success, which is a slight shift, but you could certainly view J.K. Rowling in a similar light. In fact, part of the reason no one knows her first name (Joann) is her publisher encouraged her to be a bit androgynous on the book cover so male children would pick up Harry Potter as well. This is discussed in a Salon article here, though the author seems to get a bit off track. Jodi Picoult is also a commercially-successful writer, having most recently had her novel, My Sister’s Keeper made into a movie. Hunger Games is written by a woman, Suzanne Collins. Are these books less important or less literary because women wrote them? Harry Potter is certainly in a league of its own, but I would argue Rowling knows her craft and is extremely literary. Does her popularity mean she cannot be a good writer? Lorrie Moore, on the other hand, is not a well-known name. Similar to Franzen, she writes quiet novels of family and home. Her face, though, has not graced the cover of Time; she was not chosen for Oprah’s Book Club. There are frighteningly good women writers out there, but we tend to marginalize them or use their popularity as a bar to their “literary” status.

Fanny Fern knew and understood this, and she ends her small column from 153 years ago with a stinging retort to all those who have written her off (and I couldn’t say it better myself):

But seriously — we have had quite enough of this shallow criticism (?) on lady-books …. Whether ladies can write novels or not, is a question I do not intend to discuss; but that some of them have no difficulty in finding either publishers or readers, is a matter of history …. Granting that lady-novels are not all that they should be — is such shallow, unfair, wholesale, sneering criticism (?) the way to reform them? Would it not be better and more manly to point out a better way kindly, justly, and, above all, respectfully? or –what would be a much harder task for such critics – write a better book!

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