Thursday, February 26, 2009

Elaine Showalter

There's an interesting review on slate.com by Laura Miller about a new book by Elaine Showalter on why women are not getting the respect (read prizes) although they do get the bucks. Here's a sample:

Feb. 24, 2009 | "Every few years, someone counts up the titles covered in the New York Times Book Review and the short fiction published in the New Yorker, as well as the bylines and literary works reviewed in such highbrow journals as Harper's and the New York Review of Books, and observes that the male names outnumber the female by about 2 to 1. This situation is lamentable, as everyone but a handful of embittered cranks seems to agree, but it's not clear that anyone ever does anything about it...

Onto this mine-studded terrain and with impressive aplomb, strides Elaine Showalter, literary scholar and professor emerita at Princeton. Showalter has fought in the trenches of this particular war for over 30 years, beginning with her groundbreaking 1978 study, "A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing," and culminating in her monumental new book, "A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx." Billed as "the first comprehensive history of American women writers from 1650 to 2000," "A Jury of Her Peers" has to negotiate the treacherous battlefield between the still-widespread, if fustian insistence on reverence for Great Writers and the pixelated theorizing of poststructuralists hellbent on overturning the very notion of "greatness."...

Why, for example, did Britain produce several women novelists of genius during the 19th century -- Jane Austen, George Eliot and the Brontës, as well as accomplished lesser artists like Elizabeth Gaskell -- while America did not? That question could (and sometimes does) lead to a lot of speculation on the national characters of the English-speaking peoples, but Showalter mentions an equally plausible, practical cause: "While English women novelists, even those as poor as the Brontës, had servants, American women were expected to clean, cook and sew; even in the South, white women in slaveholding families were trained in domestic arts."

Francine Prose, in that Harper's essay a decade ago, argued that the prestige awarded by critics and prize committees is crucial in securing these supports for literary writers (as opposed to commercial and genre writers), and they are still distributed unfairly."

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