Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Broadstreet to Annie Proulx is about to be released in Britain, and she wrote an article for The Guardian on America’s best female novelists. It’s worth a read (so’s the book). It’s interesting to think of her introducing these writers to people who don’t know them abroad. Of course, the book aims to (re)introduce writers to Americans, but the article has feels like it’s written for people who are less familiar with the women writing over here.
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.
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.
I think the above is true, but also that it is changing.
Here’s a list of Showalter’s top 10 books by American Women you haven’t read – read it at Amazon, buy the book elsewhere.