Article — From the June 1998 issue

Scent of a Woman’s Ink

Are women writers really inferior?

What a glorious time it is to be an American woman novelist! Oprah Winfrey has only to say a writer’s name—so far, most of her book-club choices have been novels by women—and hundreds of thousands stampede the bookstores in search of the lucky author’s work. Most books are bought by women, who tend to read novels by female authors. One of our two living Nobel laureate novelists is an African-American woman. Women edit major magazines—The New Yorker, The Nation, The New York Review of Books—aimed at readers of both sexes. Women are top decision makers at America’s ten biggest commercial publishing houses. And male editors, writers, and academics will be the first to tell you that they read and publish and teach writings by women as well as by men.

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.

None of this, presumably, is a source of psychic—or financial—pain to a writer such as Danielle Steel, or to the authors of the mostly middlebrow books on which Oprah bestows her lucrative blessings. Commercial fictions—those that traffic in clichés, in titillation, in reassuring conventions, in suspense, gore, consumer and romantic fantasies—have, as it were, an autonomous existence, a trajectory with almost no relation to the more cerebral book-review pages and the literary prizes. But as any publisher will tell you, and many frequently and volubly do, writers of so-called serious literary fiction—work that is tough-minded, challenging, eloquent, disquieting, and demanding of its readers—depend far more heavily (indeed, almost entirely) on reviews to ensure that their books will break even and earn back their advances; this, in turn, enables their editors to convince wary marketing departments to publish the writer’s subsequent works. A major prize frequently translates into a drastic increase in sales, which can firmly establish an author’s formerly shaky career—though (perhaps needless to say) it is the same book that has sold weakly before the award and more strongly after its recognition.

Meanwhile, every writer knows that the desire for stronger sales has little to do with a craving for luxe apartments or racy cars: what writers buy with money is time—that is, time to write, time that would otherwise be spent in activities (teaching, waitressing) required for economic survival. To ask what effect critical neglect has on the careers of women writers is rather like inquiring into the health of the female population in cultures that place girl children at the bottom of the food chain.

And yet there are women writers of literary fiction: the species, however endangered, has not as yet been eradicated. Perhaps this recent batch of book awards was simply an anomaly? Perhaps our apprehensions about the ways in which fiction by women is received are merely symptomatic of some feminist dementia?

In fact, as so often happens, the statistics outdo one’s grisliest paranoias. In last year’s New York Review of Books, twenty-five books of fiction by men were reviewed and only ten books by women—in essays written by three times as many men as women. In 1997, The New Yorker printed thirty-seven stories by men, ten by women; Harper’s Magazine printed nine stories by men, three by women. Since 1992, the Editors’ Choice lists in The New York Times Book Review, arguably the most powerful voice in the book-review chorus, have included twenty-two books of fiction by men and eight by women. Since 1980, sixteen men and two women have won the PEN/Faulkner Award; and fourteen men and four women, the National Book Award. No works of fiction by women were included among the five finalists for the Los Angeles Times book prize last year (though the Los Angeles Times’s winner in a category for “first fiction” was a woman, the short-story writer Carolyn Ferrell, who took the prize with the appropriately named collection Don’t Erase Me). And in 1988, when none of the New York Times’s ten best books of the year was by a woman, the editors (who bypassed, for example, Mavis Gallant’s In Transit in favor of “a circus of storytelling” by Milorad Pavic) published this disclaimer: “In case anyone has failed to notice, none of the books on this year’s list is by a woman. Among more than 40 volumes originally nominated by individual editors were many, both fiction and nonfiction, by women. But none remained among the final choices after two months of weekly discussions.”

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.

Of course, unlike small boys who don’t yet know better than to say that girls’ books are “sappy,” serious readers, male or female, would never admit to thinking that fiction by women is inferior. Male writers and critics have learned not to express every demented thought that crosses their minds, and besides, in most cases, they sincerely believe that they don’t esteem writing according to the writer’s gender. So one searches mostly in vain for current ruminations on the subject of “why women can’t write.”

Fortunately or unfortunately, the writers of the past were only too glad to express such ideas. 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, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn. Since I’ve never been able to read Virginia Woolf, and am sometimes willing to believe that it can conceivably be my fault, this verdict maybe 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 Brontë 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; lyric or religious posturing; running between the boudoir and the altar, stamping a tiny foot against God. . . . ”

In view of these persistent attempts to put female writers in the “creepish” pigeonholes they might not have chosen, one can’t blame George Eliot, George Sand, and the Brontës for hiding behind male pseudonyms. Certainly their fears would have been confirmed by the college students in Cynthia Ozick’s essay “Previsions of the Demise of the Dancing Dog,” who were shocked to learn that a writer with the sexually ambiguous name of Flannery O’Connor was female. An intelligent (female) student promptly reconfigured her opinion:

“But I could tell she was a woman,” she insisted. “Her sentences are a woman’s sentences.” I asked her what she meant and how she could tell. “Because they’re sentimental,” she said, “they’re not concrete like a man’s.” I pointed out whole paragraphs, pages even, of unsentimental, so-called tough prose. “But she sounds like a woman—she has to sound that way because she is.” . . . [I]t rapidly developed that the whole class now declared that it too, even while ignorant of the author’s sex, had nevertheless intuited all along that this was a woman’s prose; it had to be, since Flannery was a she.

But can clever readers really tell a writer’s gender from his or her prose? In the spirit of scientific inquiry, let’s try the equivalent of a blind tasting. Let’s examine a series of passages for the telltale bouquet (sentiment, self-absorption, self-pity, humorlessness, narrowness, triviality) by which we might sniff out “the ink of the women.”

Both of the selections below involve a confrontation between two characters, one in a state of physical duress so extreme as to inspire a real (or fantasized) deathbed confession:

Mrs. C., the on-duty nurse in the receiving room, was right out of Dickens, one of those eternal mothers, broad, sympathetic without being maudlin, and appallingly efficient, a woman whose very presence seems to heal.

Listening—to my choked, fearful complaints, she helped me off with my jacket and shirt and onto the hard, white-sheeted leather table. . . . I repeated my words to Freddy: “I’m afraid, Mrs. C.—really afraid.

“Just lie still.”

“Look here,” I demanded, by now half crazy with fear and upset with what I interpreted as her dour indifference, “have I had—I mean, am I having some kind of attack?”

. . . One can imagine the kind of thing I wanted to say: “Look, if anything should happen, tell my mother I loved her—and my wife—well, tell her in my way I loved—no, she won’t believe that. Tell her—well, tell her I’m sorry.”

 

The man was trying to say something but he was only wheezing. Haze squatted down by his face to listen. “Give my mother a lot of trouble,” he said through a kind of bubbling in his throat. “Never giver no rest. Stole theter car. Never told the truth to my daddy or give Henry what, never give him…”

“You shut up,” Haze said, leaning his head closer to hear the confession.

“Told where his still was and got five dollars for it,” the man gasped.

“You shut up now,” Haze said.

“Jesus…” the man said.

“Shut up like I told you to now,” Haze said.’

“Jesus hep me,” the man wheezed.

Haze gave him a hard slap on the back and he was quiet. He leaned down to hear if he was going to say anything else but he wasn’t breathing any more. Haze turned around and examined the front of the Essex to see if there had been any damage done to it. The bumper had a few splurts of blood on it but that was all. Before he turned around and drove back to town, he wiped them off with a rag.

Although the reference to a wife in the first passage suggests a male point of view, it should be otherwise obvious that a woman wrote it. Observe the claustrophobic intimacy of the first person, the emotionality, the hyped-up intensity of the adjectives, most of which describe feelings (sympathetic, choked, fearful, half crazy with fear), the self-conscious, self-correcting (“tell her in my way I loved…”) solipsism of the unspoken confession, the sentimentality with which the narrator surrenders to the Dickensian “eternal mother,” the breathlessness of the syntax, the hazy vagueness of detail, the merciless focus on the self.

The second selection is, as obviously, the work of a man—though we must imagine what manly writing is, since no one has explained how, precisely, a writer deploys “the remnant of his balls” at the word processor. These cool, hard-boiled, distanced, third-person sentences turn their unblinking eye on a man dying horribly. His incoherent confession is punctuated by his confessor’s (and murderer’s) bullying demands that he shut up. There are almost no adjectives (“hard” is the most notable modifier), nor much emotion, any sentimentality (sentiment is undercut—sliced through—by the implacability of those “shut up”s), the whole grisly scene culminating in the hard slap, the “male” supposition that a human life is worth less than the specter of damage to one’s vehicle, the giddiness of that made-up word splurt, and the fastidious attention to the smears of blood on the bumper.

In fact, the gender of these authors is the opposite of what I’ve suggested. The first passage comes from Frederick Exley’s A Fan’s Notes, a memoir-novel that, in the three decades since its publication, has assumed an iconic status thanks to its painfully honest portrait of a certain sort of male writer and career alcoholic. The second is from Wise Blood, by Flannery O’Connor, the writer who shocked Ozick’s students by turning out to be female.

And if we move beyond these passages to consider the whole books, everything keeps subverting our stereotypical expectations. O’Connor takes the aerial view, gazing down from above, charting the mysterious wriggling of her tiny, comical humans as they scurry about, looking for salvation in all the wrong places. Unlike a humorless girl writer, O’Connor is hilarious, structuring long scenes so that their jokes keep building. She’s not terribly engaged by psychology or the subtleties of motivation, or by that abiding female obsession: romantic love. She is more concerned with questions of grace and free will, with destiny, with sin and mercy—in a word, with metaphysics; she’s less intent on stamping a tiny foot against God than on listening for the footfall of the rather larger foot that God is stamping against us.

If O’Connor’s work resembles aerial photography, Exley’s suggests a sonogram, or images from a brain scan: interior, self-monitoring, charting each subtle psychic shift, each degree of damage. His writing has all the pleasures and drawbacks of the barroom monologue: the overlong rant of the guy propped up on the next stool. There are passages of real eloquence, sections so raw and undefended that they make your skin crawl; but there are also the inevitable repetitions, the rambling, the maddening inability to comprehend the seemingly simple fact of another’s being.

I cannot think of a female memoirist or novelist who raves about her own failure and degradation with quite such goofy abandon. Perhaps women sense that if they were to carry on about themselves that way, no man—and few women—would be willing to sit still and listen. And yet A Fan’s Notes is still apparently saying something readers want to hear; it has recently been published in a Modem Library edition, and Exley is the subject of an admiring biography by Jonathan Yardley.

To be fair, there is a Library of America edition of Flannery O’Connor. But every so often someone feels compelled to remind us that, whatever we may think, O’Connor was a girl writer disguised in overalls stained with the blood and guts of hapless upcountry freaks. Here, in The New York Review of Books, is Frederick Crews, bringing us back to basics: “But to contemplate not a story or two but her whole body of fiction wedged against those of such demigods as Melville and James and Twain is to face the issue of her plenitude, or lack of it, in a suddenly glaring light. Placed in such company, O’Connor’s works for all their brilliance cannot conceal a certain narrowness of emphasis and predictability of technique. . . . O’Connor’s stock is due for what Wall Street calls a correction.”

We can, in seconds, compile long lists of male writers who are—for many reasons and by any standards—tough in ways that any sensible writer, male or female, would want to be tough, whose works are fiercely unsentimental, sharply observed, immensely ambitious and inclusive. What about Robert Stone and Philip Roth? Don DeLillo and Denis Johnson? What of Thomas Pynchon? And we can compile a parallel list of women guilty of every sin Mailer and Roethke could think of—and more. (Anaïs Nin may top many such lists.) But such lists are not quite relevant, since we are not dealing in verities. No one but Mailer and a few mad feminist critics believes that males write in one language and females in another (although given the differences between male and female experience, gender can affect subject matter). There have always been sentimental, myopic writers of both genders. What’s mystifying is how quick men are to identify female emotion with “fey” sentimentality, and how often certain sorts of macho sentimentality go unrecognized as sentimental. Perhaps this is because men realize, as women do not, that to gush on about one’s feelings is an act of bravery akin to facing down el toro in a bullring.

Here, again for comparison, are two passages. Both concern characters in exotic locales and in danger. The first takes place in Africa, on safari, and involves a dying white hunter and his girlfriend. The other is set in Central America, in the midst of an undeclared, dirty local war being waged with shady U.S. involvement.

I’m getting as bored with dying as with everything else, he thought.

“It’s a bore,” he said out loud.

“What is, my dear?”

“Anything you do too bloody long.”

He looked at her face between him and the fire. She was leaning back in the chair and the firelight shone on her pleasantly lined face and he could see that she was sleepy. He heard the hyena make a noise just outside the range of the fire.

“I’ve been writing,” he said. “But I got tired.”

“Do you think you will be able to sleep?”

“Pretty sure. Why don’t you turn in?”

“I like to sit here with you.”

“Do you feel anything strange?” he asked her.

“No. Just a little sleepy.”

“I do,” he said.

He had just felt death come by again. . . . It moved up closer to him still and now he could not speak to it, and when it saw he could not speak it came a little closer, and now he tried to send it away without speaking, but it moved in on him so its weight was all upon his chest, and while it crouched there and he could not move, or speak, he heard the woman say, “Bwana is asleep now. Take the cot up very gently and carry it into the tent.”

 

“Of course,” Lewis said, “each fish as an individual is not eternal, which is the down side of fish. To give you an example: I was recently living in the Philippines. Got myself all set up with a fancy tank and a fish to match—a particularly beautiful and pleasing specimen, a sort of blue-and-yellow-banded disk with a flirty tail. . . . It was a very beautiful being. But one evening I was having a little drink with some buddies, and one thing led to another and so on and so forth, and, what with this and that, by the time I got home, which was not for a couple of days, as it happened, when I walked in the door, there was that fish, lying on the surface, belly up.”

“Maybe you should feed this one now,” Caitlin said. The fish looked agitated; it was darting back and forth, bumping against the glass. “I think it’s hungry.” Or maybe it was suffocating—the bowl was filthy, with trailing bits of pale debris floating around in it.

For a moment Lewis seemed not to have heard, but then he lifted the ashtray from the night table and flung it against the wall. “Fucking fish,” Caitlin heard him say through the noise of the impact, which was reverberating around and around her like a lasso about to snap tight.

Ten steps to the door, not more than ten. But the door itself was on the other side of the bed. Lewis lay back down, looking at Caitlin past the fish. “Hey,” he said. “What are you doing down there on the floor?”

Although most readers will recognize the first passage from Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” they may nonetheless diagnose a fatal case of “female” writing. It’s that telltale, kiss-of-death whiff of the “fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, . . . crippled, creepish, fashionable, frigid, outer-Baroque, maquillé in mannequin’s whimsy. . . . ” And what is Bwana doing, exactly, except “stamping a tiny foot against God”? It’s not Hemingway’s best work, so it may be unfair to pick on the stilted Noel-Coward-on-downers dialogue, and perhaps it’s stacking the deck to compare it with the passage from Deborah Eisenberg’s “Under the 82nd Airborne.” Dying from gangrene caused by the failure to disinfect a scratch may be inherently less dramatic than facing rape or worse at the hands of a psycho soldier of fortune and tropical-fish hobbyist. But we are not talking about drama of plot so much as drama of writing: the inflated inexactitudes, the “lyrical posturing” of the Hemingway sentences compared with the crisp, glittering menace, the winking death’s-head humor of the Eisenberg.

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.

Meanwhile, too few readers appear to have noticed which gender has been elected to winnow the important from the trivial. Virginia Woolf observed the self-perpetuating dominance of “masculine values”: “Speaking crudely, football and sport are ‘important’; the worship of fashion, the buying of clothes ‘trivial.’ . . . This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop. . . . ” One wants to point out that Diane Johnson’s funny, chilling novel The Shadow Knows, which concerns a woman with several children reduced, along with her black nanny, to poverty and paranoia in a Sacramento housing project, says as much about race and class as Tom Wolfe’s panoramic Bonfire of the Vanities. And that great talents like Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant understand—as did Edith Wharton—that every gesture and word represents the entire complex chemistry of character, history, money, and social class.

And yet since literature has its size queens insisting that bigger is better, it should be said that women (in fiction as in life) have moved beyond the playground and onto the battlefield, beyond the supposed safety of the kitchen into the big bad world outside. One extraordinary example is Leslie Marmon Silko’s Almanac of the Dead.

This wildly ambitious, epic, gritty, and violent novel, which builds to an apocalyptic vision of a vengeful and justified uprising of Indians throughout the Americas, provides a map to help readers follow the plot from Arizona and New Mexico to Alaska, Mexico, and Cherry Hill, New Jersey. But the novel always lets you know where you are, so you don’t need the diagram or the list of characters, which includes Mayans, Yaqui, Pueblo, Caucasians, Latins north and south of the border; a psychic and TV celebrity who specializes in locating the lost dead; a Yupik female shaman who can make planes crash by rubbing an animal pelt on a TV screen; revolutionaries in Chiapas led by two brothers who in turn are led by the spirits of macaws; pornographers in Tucson making child snuff films; Mexican and American judges, lawyers, and politicians; evil twin sisters dealing coke; smugglers of drugs, guns, and illegal aliens; Mafiosi, junkies, low-rent strippers, losers, bikers, New Agers, Vietnam vets. The most obsessive size freak can’t pretend that a novel confronting centuries of European–Native American relations is modest or minor. And yet women writers continue to be reminded, as Sir Egerton Brydges suggested to Virginia Woolf, to “courageously acknowledg[e] the limitations of their sex.”

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.”

What writers such as Eisenberg, Silko, Gallant, Munro, Johnson, and O’Connor have in common, as much as their gender, is that they are extremely intelligent and tell us things we might choose not to hear—yet another quality (the hard news, told brilliantly) that we prize in male writers but are less comfortable with in women. Virginia Woolf was hardly the first to speculate about why men seem less than thrilled to hear the truth from women: “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size. . . . That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men. And it serves to explain how restless they are under her criticism; how impossible it is for her to say to them this book is bad, this picture is feeble, or whatever it may be, without giving far more pain and rousing far more anger than a man would do who gave the same criticism. For if she begins to tell the truth, the figure in the looking-glass shrinks; his fitness for life is diminished.”

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 jiggles 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.”

In the end, of course, it’s pointless to characterize, categorize, and value writing according to its author’s gender, or to claim that women writers fixate on everything that irritates gynophobes about our sex. The best writing has as little to do with gender as it does with nationality or with the circumscriptions of time. A novel such as Pride and Prejudice or Anna Karenina, a story such as Mansfield’s “Prelude” or Kleist’s “The Marquise of O,” transcends not only the facts of its author’s life but the manners and customs, the superficial gloss, of the era in which it was written. There will always be categories into which fiction falls, standards that have less to do with stereotype and preconception than with originality and revelation, with the ability to translate life—in all its simple and endlessly mysterious complexity—onto the printed page. But there is no male or female language, only the truthful or fake, the precise or vague, the inspired or the pedestrian. If, in the future, some weird cataclysm should scramble or erase all the names of authors from all the books in all the libraries, readers may have trouble (and progressively more trouble, as more women join the professions and the military and more men immerse themselves in the domestic) telling whether Emma Bovary and Hester Prynne were created by women or men. The only distinction that will matter will be between good and bad writing.

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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.

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