Article — From the June 1998 issue

Scent of a Woman’s Ink

Are women writers really inferior?

( 4 of 7 )

Another charge often leveled at women writers is that our work is limited to the rather brief run “between the boudoir and the altar.” Men write sweeping, phone-book-size sagas of the big city, of social class, of our national destiny, our technological past and future. They produce boldly experimental visionary fiction that periodically revives the moribund novel. Women write diminutive fictions, which take place mostly in interiors, about little families with little problems. And it’s no wonder, since our obsession with “feelings” blinds us to the larger sociopolitical realities outside the tiny rooms in which our theaters of feeling are being enacted.

How odd, then, that the Hemingway story should take place mostly on a cot outside a tent, between a man and a woman in the midst of an upper-class sports-adventure entertainment. Caught up in his feelings, unaware of the colonial fallout around him, Bwana can write home from the safari with zero awareness of how he wound up giving orders to his “personal boy.” There is talk of money, but the subtheme of economics doesn’t get much broader than a few insults leveled by the dying writer against the “rich bitch” who has supported him, the “destroyer of his talent.” At one point he tells her cleverly, “Your damned money was my armour. My Swift and my Armour.” For all his Big Subjects—men at war, men and peace, men without women—Hemingway wasn’t a Big Picture guy. It’s possible to read For Whom the Bell Tolls and remain clueless as to who was fighting, or why.

Meanwhile, a rather large wedge of reality has been neatly slipped into the pages of “Under the 82nd Airborne.” The reason that Caitlin—the down-on-her-luck actress in Eisenberg’s story—finds herself in a room with Lewis and his mixed feelings about fish involves an escalating, undeclared war in Central America, a somewhat larger canvas than a safari tent in the bush. (I’m not suggesting that a great work can’t be written about so small a site—Beckett often stays in one room—or that there is any reason a writer should address our costly interference in the political affairs of other countries. There’s no reason an artist should do anything at all. I’m merely pointing out that these two arenas—inside, private, the heart versus outside, public, the mind—are not always divided neatly by gender.)

“Under the 82nd Airborne” is not the only Eisenberg story to deal with the grim realities of Central American politics. She has also written about the Holocaust. And even her most “domestic” and interior stories are permeated with the facts and details of social class. So one might expect male critics to encourage this girl-author’s valiant efforts to break away from the altar–boudoir axis. But, writing in the Los Angeles Times, Richard Eder recoiled from the “coarse and loud” voice of these subtle, understated stories, and he refined his opinion in a patronizing, bizarre review of Eisenberg’s latest collection, All Around Atlantis, calling her “a writer who bumps between what she does beautifully and what she seems to feel she ought to do. Her gift is to chart the inner landscape of her woman waifs and the harsh weather that batters it. Cherishing is her miner’s lamp; by its light she makes her discoveries. She is weaker when she tackles evil, whether at home or abroad. Denouncing is a defective miner’s lamp; it loses her.”

Cherishing is her miner’s lamp? Do we insist that contemporary male writers—Rick Moody, David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen—stick to that narrow band of illumination? We allow others—Stephen Wright, Denis Johnson, Roth, and Stone—to denounce as much as they please and to tackle the E-word at home and abroad.

is the author, most recently, of the novel My New American Life (HarperCollins, 2011). Read her blog post on “Scent of a Woman’s Ink” and V. S. Naipaul here.

More from Francine Prose:

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

  • shadeseeker

    Straw man–oops, person–arguments throughout. Never thought women writers had the stereotypes Prose gives them at the beginning of the article. She sets up the person of straw, but I don’t buy it.
    This is of course quite beside the fact that at least the current batch of women novelists may not be so hot, as least not as hot as the current batch of men.
    Prose needs to recall the famous exchange between Boswell and Johnson:
    Boswell: Who is the smarter, the man or the woman?
    Johnson: Which man and which woman?
    Apparently Prose cant escape from the 45 year reign of radfem academe, which sets up arguments of straw and then attempts to show reality from such gleanings.


September 2015

Weed Whackers

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Tremendous Machine

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

A Goose in a Dress

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Genealogy of Orals

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content