What’s Best and What’s Sexist

A week or so back, Andrew Seal spent some time testing an argument by literary scholar Nina Baym that critics’ favorite works of American literature tends to adhere to a particular theme: Men struggling against a society whose rules and limits are defined by women. To celebrate such books, the argument goes, is to bolster a particular American myth. (At least, that’s how I understand the argument; I haven’t read the Baym essay that Seal discusses.) To investigate the matter, Seal picks a few consensus favorites from the past ten years—The Corrections, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Netherland, The Road—as well as Keith Gessen‘s All the Sad Young Literary Men, I suppose just for the sake of slapping it around a bit more.

The whole post is worth reading, and intuitively it feels correct. Lists of the best books of 2009 are starting to make the rounds, and it wouldn’t be too hard to see this theory at play in some of the year’s critical favorites: Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin (man arrives from Ireland to make a better life for himself, only to be stuck in a house full of prostitutes); Richard PowersGenerosity: An Enhancement (a happy woman is strange, a problem that demands investigation and repair); Philip Roth‘s The Humbling (look out—lesbians!); and Paul Auster‘s Invisible (young man tries to make his way in the world, but seductresses get in the way). Seal’s post discusses only male authors, but acclaimed female writers can play into the same themes; central to Joyce Carol OatesLittle Bird of Heaven are two men whose lives are made worse for their relationship with an almost prototypical “loose woman.”

Seal’s post also raises the question of who’s got the problem here: The novelists for writing fiction that may simply be a realistic portrait (or critique of) gender roles in America, or critics for admiring them so long as they don’t test the status quo too much. There’s no way to answer that question with any real clarity; literary awards, positive reviews, and best-of lists are imperfect ways to quantify the degree of admiration critics feel for particular works. But is it arguable that Ron Rash‘s 2008 novel, Serena, didn’t win any major awards because its chief protagonist was (essentially) a hard-as-nails businesswoman, a counter to the notion that “there are very few women in American literature who have real power?” Is the reason Zoe Heller’s The Believers is absent from Amazon.com’s list of the best books of 2009 that it focuses on women, not men, who are going through this struggle?

8 thoughts on “What’s Best and What’s Sexist

  1. So I think Baym’s argument is quite interesting… that the template for the great American novel was set in a sexist time, and so as critics measure what is ‘great’ and distinctly American, they reify away. Yet I wonder how that situation could be improved? You point out in your examples (Joyce Carol Oates) and comments that it’s a fallacy to assume that novels by women would necessarily break this mold; it’s similarly a fallacy to assume that criticism by women would help either. I’m convinced there’s an issue, but I’m not sure it’s been framed in a way that leads to any constructive discussion.

    And Seal notes, but doesn’t unpack in any meaningful way, the hole in Baym’s argument: race (and gender/sexual preference). In Seal’s post, he doesn’t take on what Oscar Wao is doing with race and the concept of the ‘American hero’, nor does he take into account the inescapable ‘jewiness’ of his body of work and project. And in your post, McCann’s Irishness doesn’t matter? In fact, these sort of readings of this work are necessarily superficial and distorting– you’re trying to gloss plot and aspects of theme and character and structure into a package that seems close enough to Baym’s framing of the sexist ‘great Am. novel’ to make sense.

    I grant that there’s a problem. But where do we locate it, and how do we begin to address it?

  2. Having just come from Fantastic Mr. Fox, which fits the man vs. the rules of women model to a hilarious T, I don’t doubt the general theory, but just wanted to stick up for us at Amazon, since we were among Serena’s biggest champions last year, whatever reasons we might have had for neglecting The Believers this year. (Speaking only for myself, not the whole team, I just didn’t like it nearly as much as What Was She Thinking?/Notes on a Scandal, which I adored. I don’t think it was for the reason you give, although I did read it a long time ago now and I may not be the best judge of my own judgments…)

    1. @Tom Thanks for letting me know that “Serena” did get prominent placement on Amazon’s ’08 list. I don’t mean to pick on Amazon specifically, though you guys were probably first on my mind because your list didn’t include my favorite book of this year (“The Believers”) but was topped by a novel that disappointed me (“Let the Great World Spin”—I liked “Zoli” much more). I’m hoping to get to “What Was She Thinking” soon.

      @Mike I agree that there’s a kind of parlor-game element to these sorts of discussions, at least in the way I’m bringing them up; this embrace of myth-like structures is definitely worth noting, but I’m not sure what specifically can be done to the myth itself. And reading fiction through these kinds of filters can be, as you say, superficial and distorting. Most of the books I discussed in that post are books I admired for some reason or another; if “The Humbling” treats lesbians as confused and controlling, it also upends a lot of myths we have about aging, success, and virility (at least when it comes to men). Because the target of Baym’s critique is more literary critics than writers, the lesson I take from it is to be aware of this kind of gender-focused myth-building as similar to any other cliche that an author deserves to be dunned for, just like “Magical blacks” and deus ex machina plot turns.

      1. @Mark. Man, maybe I need to give The Believers another try. I came in with such anticipation after loving her previous one and didn’t like it at all. But there were plenty of people who agreed with you about it…

  3. Mark, that makes good sense– regarding this as a sort of cliche. By ‘magical blacks’, are you talking about Malamud?

    I actually find myself thinking about your O’Connor post of a few days ago, too (specifically, “The Artificial Nigger”), and how a part of this discussion has to address the distinction between literary vision/lexicon/theme (‘Increasingly, it seems to me, the Kingdom of Heaven must be taken by violence or not at all’… moments of ‘grace’ that cannot be sustained’), and representation by an author who’s a product of their time and place of upbringing. Was O’Connor a modern progressive? No. Did she have attitudes that were regressive even for her time– was she comfortable with a white woman dating a black man? No. Is a frequent trope of hers that just because whites are racist doesn’t mean they’re not human beings? Sure. Does that mean we shouldn’t read her because her work reinscribes stereotypes and power structures that oppress blacks in the South? Well, depending on who you are, perhaps– I value Conrad, but understand why Chinua Achebe might need to reject him and his work in its depiction of Africans. And I value O’Connor’s craft and evocation of ‘mystery’ (by the way, speaking of ‘great American books’, wasn’t Ms. O’Connor just named the best of the National Book Awards for all time? Is there any writer beyond Chekhov that more American writers look to and are influenced by? But then, I suppose her reputation isn’t really based on the critical success of Wise Blood), but if I were a black writer, I might reject her too.

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