Lingering gender bias in the literary world is an ongoing discussion in some circles (mostly just circles of female writers, unfortunately). Yearly, VIDA publishes The Count, an analysis of major literary journals that examines the gender breakdown of their authors—and yearly, the majority of authors published in most of those journals are men. Every so often, I stumble upon an article about the systemically adversarial relationship between the literary publishing industry and female authors—just about as often as I stumble upon a literary novel by a woman that’s been given a “girly” cover (light colors, soft fonts, out of focus images of women’s bodies, shoes, or handbags) to be placed on the chick lit shelf.
Recently, I read a review of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers on Salon that tackles this issue. In her review, Laura Miller writes: “The deliberate pursuit of the Great American Novel has always been a peculiarly masculine endeavor. It is a book, in [Norman] Mailer’s words, designed to ‘seize the temper of the time and turn it.’ To attempt to write the Great American Novel is to surmise that you can speak on behalf of an entire, fractious nation.” While Miller argues that Kushner’s novel attempts to win this big title (and that this intimidates male critics), she also acknowledges that many women have simply opted out of the fight. Referencing a 1963 Esquire article, “Some Children of the Goddess: Further Evaluations of the Talent in the Room,” she writes: “The presumption and the belligerence embodied in this ideal have put off many American women writers. They weren’t going to be allowed into the Room to begin with, but exclusion gave them the opportunity to discover something important: There’s more than just one room.”
While this idea is not entirely new, Miller’s transformation of Esquire’s metaphor strikes me as incredibly valuable for female authors and readers alike—and one that points toward a causal relationship between women’s writing and experimental writing. For women writers, the experimental novel is an eschewing of tradition in more than one sense: because most women cannot conform to the tradition of masculinity (in the most literal sense of being a man), the choice to not conform to the traditions of style and structure is a method of gaining agency—a swerve. Perhaps it goes without saying then, that not all novels represent an attempt to write the Great American Novel, as it has previously been defined.
Most of the novels that I count among my favorites are neither traditional nor male-centric, nor male-authored. To some extent, this may be a conscious choice—I seek out work by women, and many of the recommendations I get point me toward experimental work because I have expressed a taste for it. However, I don’t disregard traditional work, nor do I avoid work by male authors (traditional or experimental, for whatever those terms are worth at this point). I am beginning to wonder if my preferences are more a matter of voice or content than form or authorship. Perhaps the appeal for me lies in the female-centric nature of these works, which provide a complex female narrator or central character—and more importantly, a female perspective and experience of the world. Perhaps a female perspective rings truer to me as a female reader. That is not to say that I cannot relate to male narrators or characters, nor that the genders of readers and authors or main characters must align (though they often do, as this study suggests).
Kathryn Davis, a master of the experimental novel in my opinion, has expressed frustration over the narrow scope of what is considered literary subject matter, noting that domestic themes (often associated with female experiences) are often disregarded. (Of course, the bias against domestic themes is gendered, which accounts at least in part for the ghettoization of so many novels about young women into the chick lit section, while so many novels about young men are touted as the next Great American Novel.) In an interview with Bookslut, Davis comments on form as well: “I think that’s what really infuriates me, that certain level of bigness that a lot of 30- to 40-year-olds are writing great, big, fat books that are supposed to have a great, big, fat scope to them, as if the thickness of the book somehow has to do with the seriousness of the book, and it has to talk about things in a comprehensive way politically and historically in order to be considered serious literature.”
I’ve read Davis’s Hell and Labrador, and was captivated in both by the use of an entirely new perspective that seems more fitting of their content than any perspective offered by more traditional styles. In both novels, internal experiences of home become all-encompassing. The tension between macro- and micro-cosmic spaces is central, as are the experiences of adolescent girls. I must admit that I was initially frustrated by Hell, as it’s a difficult book, but I think this frustration points back to Laura Miller’s observation about female writers and the overlap with experimental writing. If some women are writing in different rooms, as Miller argues, readers may need to find new entrances into their work.
I see this as an issue related to the concept of accessibility (an issue I encounter mainly in poetry). When a work uses traditional methods of expression, readers can enter it easily, because they have already been prepared for that type of work; when a work uses new methods, readers will try to enter it in the way they have been taught—which is effective on traditional books—but they will find that they cannot enter the experimental work that way. At this point, many readers give up—such is the plight of experimental work. Some readers, however, will allow a text to show them a new way in, one that will allow access to an “inaccessible” work.
There are plenty of other novels that make new use of form-content relationships in order to present specifically female experiences. I think many of Anne Carson’s novels do this. I even think of Duras’s The Lover as a novel in this vein. Thylias Moss’s Slave Moth, a novel in verse, extends this concept to issues of race as well. Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum’s Madaleine is Sleeping uses lyrical prose blocks more akin to poetry than fiction in order to paint the dream-like experiences of a young girl. Selah Saterstrom’s novels The Pink Institution and The Meat and Spirit Plan both tell the female coming-of-age story through nontraditional forms. In fact, when I read The Pink Institution, I questioned whether or not it should be called a novel. Although the language is not particularly lyrical, the structure is not exactly narrative, and there are even tiny poems mixed in. The narrator’s gaze is sometimes turned so far inward that it becomes a challenge to follow exactly what has happened on a narrative level—similar, in this way at least, to Davis’s novels. And who is to say that a novel can’t do these things? If a novel tells us it can, then it can.
All this is not to suggest that men do not also write experimental novels. They do, and many of them do it very well. I am only suggesting that for women, it may be a stylistic choice more weighted with the politics of gender and form. For women (as well as other minorities), experimental work can be a response to disenfranchisement, and thus a matter of necessity.