Laura Miller’s article on Publishers Weekly’s top ten list led me to Francine Prose’s article, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink,” which was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1998. It’s not available to nonsubscribers but it’s a formidable piece and relevant still, though it’s equally interesting to think about the ways in which some things have changed. I want to rescue it from the archives and reproduce some parts of it here for consideration as we pound our way through the month of November. My summaries are in brackets and italics.
[Prose notes that all in all, sales are up for women writers and there are more women readers than men. Taking the broad view, all’s well.]
“So only a few paranoids (readers with a genuine interest in good writing by either gender) may feel that the literary playing field is still off by a few degrees. Who else would even notice that in this past year–which saw the publication of important books by Deborah Eisenberg, Mary Gaitskill, Lydia Davis, and Diane Johnson–most of the book-award contests had the aura of literary High Noons, publicized shoot-outs among the guys: Don DeLillo, Philip Roth, Thomas Pynchon, and Charles Frazier, author of Cold Mountain, a sort of Civil War Platoon? Of course, not even the most curmudgeonly feminist believes that accolades or sales should be handed out in a strict fifty-fifty split, or that equal-opportunity concessions should be made to vile novels by women. But some of us can’t help noting how comparatively rarely stories by women seem to appear in the few major magazines that publish fiction, how rarely fiction by women is reviewed in serious literary journals, and how rarely work by women dominates short lists and year-end ten-best lists.”
[Prose meditates on why this might be:]
“How to explain this disparity? Is fiction by women really worse? Perhaps we simply haven’t learned how to read what women write ? Diane Johnson–herself a novelist of enormous range, elegance, wit, and energy–observes that male readers at least “have not learned to make a connection between the images, metaphors, and situations employed by women (house, garden, madness), and universal experience, although women, trained from childhood to read books by people of both sexes, know the metaphorical significance of the battlefield, the sailing ship, the voyage, and so on.” Perhaps the problem is that women writers tell us things we don’t want to hear–especially not from women. Or is the difficulty, fundamentally, that all readers (male and female, for it must be pointed out that many editors, critics, and prize-committee members are women) approach works by men and women with different expectations? It’s not at all clear what it means to write “like a man” or “like a woman,” but perhaps it’s still taken for granted, often unconsciously and thus insidiously, that men write like men and women like women–or at least that they should. And perhaps it’s assumed that women writers will not write anything important—anything truly serious or necessary, revelatory or wise.”
[While many little boys staunchly refuse to read stories about girls and will own up to their reasons for doing so, it’s difficult, of course, to find any adults writing on the subject. The assumption that women writers might have less to contribute to great literature than men seems to tacitly exist but is rarely articulated. Luckily, there’s always Norman Mailer:]
“If Norman Mailer didn’t exist, we might have had to invent the man who could utter, in Advertisements for Myself, history’s most heartfelt, expansive confession of gynobibliophobia:
I have a terrible confession to make—I have nothing to say about any of the talented women who write today. Out of what is no doubt a fault in me, I do not seem able to read them. Indeed I doubt if there will be a really exciting woman writer until the first whore becomes a call girl and tells her tale. At the risk of making a dozen devoted enemies for life, I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquille in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am some. rimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict may be taken fairly as the twisted tongue of a soured taste, at least by those readers who do not share with me the ground of departure–that a good novelist can do without everything but the remnant of his balls.”
“Few critics have so boldly advanced this testicular definition of talent. More often, a male writer’s true opinion must be extracted from the terms he uses to describe his female colleagues, from Walpole’s calling Mary Wollstonecraft a ‘hyena in petticoats’ to Southey’s dismissing the enraged Charlotte Bronte as a daydreamer. In our century, Edmund Wilson complained that ‘this continual complaining and having to be comforted is one of the most annoying traits of women writers….’ More recently, a piece by Bernard Bergonzi in The New York Review of Books began, ‘Women novelists, we have learned to assume, like to keep their focus narrow,’ and in an essay on Katherine Anne Porter, Theodore Solotaroff referred to Porter’s ‘bitchiness’ and ‘relentless cattiness,’ terms used, perhaps too rarely, to scold mean-spirited male writers.
But why should we trouble ourselves about unfeeling, brutish critics when we have gallant defenders like Theodore Roethke, who in 1961 praised Louise Bogan’s poetry by reassuring readers that she is not a typical female poet, handicapped by ‘lack of range–in subject matter, in emotional tone–and lack of a sense of humor…. the embroidering of trivial themes; a concern with the mere surfaces of life . . . hiding from the real agonies of the spirit; refusing to face up to what existence is; Iyric or religious posturing; running between the boudoir and the altar, stamping a tiny foot against God….’
[Speculating that Mailer’s “balls” refer to ambition and scope, here is Prose on the critical reception of Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead in 1991, which weighs in at 750 pages and which I haven’t read, though now I will:]
“From the horror that greeted Silko’s book, published in 1991, one might have concluded that she herself was plotting insurrection or confessing to all the bloody crimes committed in her novel. How upset reviewers were by this ‘very angry author’ seething with ‘half-digested revulsion,’ by her inability to create ‘a single likable, or even bearable, character,’ her ‘bad judgement and inadequate craft,’ the ‘nonexistent plot,’ and, worst of all, her ’emphatic view of sex as dirty, together with a ceaseless focus on the male sex organ, suggest[ing] that more than the novel itself needs remedial help.’
“In USA Today, Alan Ryan lamented that Silko’s book had neither plot nor characters. The normally astute Paul West had similar troubles, which he shared with his L.A. Times readers: ‘I found myself peering back, wondering who was who, only to remember fragments that, while vivid and energetic, didn’t help me in my belated quest for a family tree…. Silko does not interest herself much in psychology, in the unsaid word, the thought uncompleted, the murmur lost.’ The San Francisco Chronicle critic, praising the novel, makes this unintentionally hilarious understatement of the scope of its achievement: ‘At more than 750 pages, Almanac of the Dead is undoubtedly one of the most ambitious novels ever written by an American Indian.’ And Charles Larson concludes his Washington Post review by saying, ‘So many stories have been crammed into Almanac of the Dead it’s often impossible to know when to take Silko seriously.’
“Readers unfamiliar with the novel will have to take my word for it–or that of the few critics who, like Alan Cheuse, recognized the novel as ‘a book that must be dealt with’–that one can follow the story line. Anyway, what’s at issue here is not the dismal spectacle of bad reviews happening to good books but rather the rarity with which major male writers are criticized in the same terms as women. No one seems to be counting David Foster Wallace’s characters, or complaining that DeLillo’s Underworld has too many subplots, or faulting the male authors of doorstop novels for an insufficient interest in psychology. When Thomas Pynchon’s plots spin off into the ozone, we’re quite ready to consider the chance that it’s an intentional part of his method and not the feeble mistake of what Paul West, in his review of Silko, called the ‘shattered mind of an atavist.'”
[Throughout the essay, Prose provides several passages of writing and asks us to identify the gender of the writer. Her point is usually that the qualities ascribed to “female writing” are equally present in the prose male writers. But the most effective example, in my opinion, is the one that troubles this premise of interchangeability:]
“But despite the Skinnerian system of rewards and punishments to which they are subjected, women writers seem to be getting tougher in their insistence on saying the last things men (and even women) want to hear–unwelcome observations about everything from our national attitudes to our self-delusions. Although guys such as Nicholson Baker get the credit for smudging the line between high lit and soft core, women have been increasingly open on the subject of sex, and specifically on the difference between the bedroom and the wet dream. Here, then, one final pair of quotes, on the theme of how power and control shift under the most intense and intimate pressures:
I was dealing, it seemed, with some kind of masochist, or bully, or combination…. To me belonged, as big as a thumb held up to the eye, her pallid moistened body with its thousand jigales and many membranous apertures. … I love the passive position, the silken heavy sway above me of pendulous breasts, the tent of female hair formed when her Olmec face lowered majestically to mine, the earnest and increasingly self-absorbed grind of an ass too big for my hands. Being our second time, it took longer, giving me ample opportunity to keep moaning her name. “Ann Ann! God, Ann. Oh Ann, Ann. Annnn”–the “n”s, the “a.” She took it in stride by now, making no comment; she had slept with enough men to know we’re all, one way or another, kinky.
She unzipped his pants. “Stop,” he said. “Wait.” . . . This was not what he had in mind, but to refuse would make him seem somehow less virile than she. Queasily, he stripped off her clothes and put their bodies in a viable position. He fastened his teeth on her breast and bit her…. He could tell that she was trying to like being bitten, but that she did not. He gnawed her breast. She screamed sharply. They screwed. They broke apart and regarded each other warily…. He realized what had been disturbing him about her. With other women whom he had been with in similar situations, he had experienced a relaxing sense of emptiness within them that had made it easy for him to get inside them and, once there, smear himself all over their innermost territory until it was no longer theirs but his. His wife did not have this empty quality, yet the gracious way in which she emptied herself for him made her submission, as far as it went, all the more poignant. This exasperating girl, on the other hand, contained a tangible somethingness that she not only refused to expunge, but that seemed to willfully expand itself so that he banged into it with every attempt to invade her.
“No one will be fooled this time. The author of the first passage is inarguably a man, since women rarely think of the female body in terms of its ‘many membranous apertures.’ And few women, I imagine, define ‘kinky’ widely enough to include a male taking the bottom position and engaging in some spontaneous, if not exactly erotic, verbalization. The second passage goes a bit further. A breast is bitten, it’s not clear who is calling the shots, and the male character has a truly nasty moment of realization about the nature of sex. This realization so closely resembles female paranoia about male sexuality that we may suspect the writer is a woman. But that hardly matters, since in its extreme acuity it attains a shocking verisimilitude. We recognize the man’s perception not only as true of a few men, or of many men on a few occasions, but as a truth we have always known or suspected and have never before seen, quite so crisply and boldly, in print.
The author of the first passage is John Updike, known for his lyrical-ribald, celebratory, and honest depictions of sex. The second is Mary Gaitskill, a gifted younger writer who, one can’t help noticing, is rarely invited to give her opinion on quite the range of subjects that the media routinely solicits from John Updike. Indeed, Updike is considered a pillar of our literary culture, whereas Gaitskill–whose talent is widely admired–is perceived as slightly transgressive, even slightly nutty, on the subject of sex.
As should be clear by now from the passages and reviews quoted above, fiction by women is still being read differently, with the usual prejudices and preconceptions. Male writers are rarely criticized for their anger; Philip Roth is beloved for his rage, and rightly so. Few reviewers warn Robert Stone against mucking about in parts of the world where CIA operatives masquerade as businessmen. No one dares propose that William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice is in many ways as kitschy, manipulative, and inauthentic a historical novel as, say, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind. And, with its forays into the maudlin, it’s hard to believe that A Fan’s Notes by Ms. Frederika Exley would be called, by a Newsday reviewer, ‘the best novel written in the English language since The Great Gatsby.'”
Prose suggests that good writing manages to transcend the accident of gender; I don’t know if that’s quite true, nor do I think people are as forgiving of Styron (for example) as she thinks. But her main point stands: I think it is the case that when a man with a way with words produces a convoluted mess with literary and transcendent aspects, it’s greeted with an assumption of readerly inadequacy. The mess is intentional and artful unless strenuously shown to be otherwise. The burden of proof is on the reader. The converse is true for women, for whom stridency and expansiveness (firecrackerness, too) are undesirably marked qualities. Not bad in themselves, but noticed and questioned. The fact that Beloved tops the Best American Novels list the NYT published some years ago only proves my point. Morrison’s book is a mess that only pretends to be messy: it’s actually obsessively neat, neat to the point of compulsiveness. Every symbol, every apparently stray word, every unpunctuation is part of an overdetermined attempt to create the illusion of mess while betraying an absolute and frankly (to me, anyway) exhausting penchant for authorial control. Not surprising: the burden of proof is on Morrison: she needed to be able and ready to show her work.
One of the most interesting things about writing a novel (as opposed to a short story) and writing it so quickly is that one has a rather Pynchonian or Silkoian right to mess. And mess is fun. I’m taking the month to write it.