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?

Mountain Men

I recently finished Serena, Ron Rash‘s 2008 novel about logging, profiteering, and murder in a western North Carolina mountain town. I was interested in Rash’s notion that strong female characters are lacking in American fiction—I still haven’t heard many arguments to the contrary—and though I was a little disappointed in just how Lady MacBeth-archetypal and bloodthirsty Serena Pemberton is, Rash’s novel is still impressive, a thoughtful portrait of the entire structure of a logging town and how various classes behave within it.

I hadn’t realized that Serena’s setting was such a popular one, but the Smoky Mountain News reminds me that Charles Frazier‘s Cold Mountain and Wayne Caldwell‘s Cataloochee are also set in the same county as Serena. As a practical matter, Cold Mountain‘s success has given the region a bit of a tourist boom. And a companion piece by Thomas Crowe gets into more stylistic and historical details, pointing out that all three novels have classical analogues. All three also make the landscape a character in its own right—something that can’t be helped given the region’s history, as Caldwell tells Crowe:

“[Cataloochie is about] the historic prelude that led up to the government’s confiscation of land in Madison and Haywood counties — by hook, crook and eminent domain and displacing hundreds of mountain families, including some of my own people,” he said. “This story runs in my blood, I guess you could say. And it’s a part of regional and national history, like the removal of the Native peoples, that has been largely ignored, forgotten, and I felt was begging (me) to be told.

Ron Rash’s Women Trouble

Discussing his new novel, Serena, with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Ron Rash brings up an interesting point:

“It struck me as I got deeper in the book that there are very few women in American literature who have real power,” he says. “There are plenty of women who have power within a family, but women who have the real kind of power, to kill people, to control a 100 men, as in this case. That was intriguing to me; we don’t have that many views of that kind of women, particularly during the Depression.”

is on my to-read pile, so I can’t speak to the specifics of Rash’s definition of a powerful woman. But if the standard is a woman who runs armies, cities, companies, he may have a point. There are plenty of novels about successful, empowered women (Sister Carrie is the first to pop into my head, for whatever reason), but not on Rash’s terms. Maybe it’s an improperly framed question—outside of spy novels, there isn’t too much fiction specifically about male leaders. (Excepting Sinclair Lewis; inside my brain this morning, World War II hasn’t yet begun.) But this can’t be entirely a dead zone—female power brokers in American fiction? Anybody?