When I was interviewed for my university job, the Vice Chancellor asked me a question I hadn’t answered since I filled out my last college application: If you could have dinner with any three people in history, who would you choose? I said the first three people that came to mind:
1. Virginia Woolf
2. Jane Austen
3. Harriet Beecher Stowe, who lived 2 miles and 150 years away from me in Cincinnati
“You know,” the Vice Chancellor said, surprised, “you’re the first person I’ve met who picked all women.” (I was probably also the first person to pick all writers, but he didn’t mention that.)
This anecdote is a reminder that men remain our (women’s and men’s) default mode. For everything.
Which is, in part, what the writer Leah Stewart addresses in her excellent guest post on literary sexism for Caroline Leavitt’s blog. Stewart argues that there remains the false perception that women write only about relationships and men write about Other Important Things. A reason for this, she says, is that “it’s easier for the culture at large to believe that things matter if they happened to men, or are related by men.” Stewart says that the fact is, plenty of stories by and about men are ultimately about relationships, “but because they’re told via a masculine archetype—the heroic journey from boy to man—they’re not automatically dismissed.”
I got my Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati, and I finished the year Leah Stewart was hired, so I’ve never met her, which is a huge bummer because she’s dealing with the same things I dealt with and deal with and am sure to deal with times 1000 when my book of stories about suburban women comes out next year.
One of the ways I dealt with this issue as I worked on my dissertation was to write an article about Kathryn Davis’s amazing novel Hell, in which I argue that Davis reworks the Gothic women’s literary tradition to high literary and political ends. Davis’s narrator reads obsessively and reflects on her reading, especially of Wuthering Heights (“Nothing saves you from the grave, Cathy Earnshaw”). In my article, which is available online here at MP Journal, I explore the scholarship of women as readers, of women writers as readers, and of the female version of the “anxiety of influence”, and I move to an examination of how Davis positions the 1950s American suburb as a site of Gothic terror.
Along the way, I take on one of my esteemed professors who wrote a scathing review of the book in the Washington Post and who also happened to be on my dissertation committee (until he ended up out of the country during my defense). He criticized the book for being too self-consciously postmodern and for not taking on more important subject matter, like refugees. He admitted he might be “sensitive-adolescent challenged.”
I feel like I’m just getting warmed up, but the beauty of a blog (I’m starting to appreciate this strange form…) is that you can come back topics, elaborate, clarify, backtrack, and maybe get something right. So I’ll leave this post with a quote from Hell, which sums up Leah Stewart’s post perfectly:
Two adolescent girls on a hot summer night—hardly the material of great literature, which tends to endow all male experience . . . with universal radiance. Faithless sons, wars and typhoons, fields of blood, greed and knives: our literature’s full of such stories. And yet suppose for an instant that it wasn’t the complacent father but his bored daughter who was the Prime Mover . . . . Mightn’t we then permit a single summer in the lives of two bored girls to represent an essential stage in the history of the universe?