In academia, courses in Women’s Literature qualify as fulfillment of a requirement that we teach literature by minorities that have been under-represented. Of course women are hardly a minority since we make up more than half the human population, but we have been and are under-represented both in academia and elsewhere. The literary media, hiding behind its ethic of independence, is especially tight-lipped about what it covers and why. The recent raves in The NY Times and elsewhere of Jonathan Franzen’s largely domestic novel Freedom and its placement on front and cover pages everywhere has created a stir about the inequality in the media’s coverage of women’s writing. As a result some useful and damning statistics have emerged.
No one who reads and writes can honestly doubt that the literary media is partial to work by men, and that this is indeed a story of injustice and inequality enabled by patriarchal stereotypes often excused as an unconscious bias. Unconsciousness on this subject this late in our history is unconscionable, and therefore unforgivable. But this conversation about gender inequality obscures the more important one we should be having if we care about the novel as a living form.
As it happens, I am teaching a Major Author’s course on Virginia Woolf this semester and my students and I read “Modern Novels,” her essay about what makes a novel great. For contrast, we also read the recent NY Times review of Freedom in which the reviewer rejoices because this work “gather[s] up every fresh datum of our shared millennial life,” “abound[s] in journalistic touches,” “teem[s] with information,” and “data flow[s] through the arteries of narrative,” as if this kind of sweep guarantees greatness.
Woolf would say: “He is a materialist…taking upon his shoulders the work that ought to have been discharged by Government officials, and in the plethora of his ideas and facts scarcely having leisure to realize…the crudity and coarseness of his human beings. Yet what more damaging criticism can there be both of his heaven and of his earth than that they are to be inhabited here and hereafter by his Joans and Peters?”
Or, I might add, Franzen’s Pattys and Walters, the characters that the NY Times reviewer goes on to describe with surprising approbation as “caricatures,” that finally emerge “misshapen and lopsided,” not “rounded characters, in the awful phrase.” The phrase, by the way, is from E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and you and I might ask when the novelistic call for full or round characterization has turned “awful”? And since when is an inserted diary written for therapeutic purposes an “ingenious device” in literature? Throughout the review, you can hear the heavy breathing that such heavy lifting brings forth. The point of this detailing is to bring us back to the main question: What makes a novel great? And what makes a novelist great? The Russians, Woolf writes, interested as they were in “the dark region of psychology,” in the soul and heart, got at the essence rather than the externals of life. “No one but a modern, perhaps no one but a Russian, would have felt the interest of the situation…one of a shipload of ill Russian soldiers dies and is taken away; the talk goes on among the others for a time; until Gusev himself dies and, looking like a carrot or a radish, is thrown overboard.” Woolf is describing the plot of Chekhov’s Gusev, which is interested in a mere passing moment. Chekhov places the emphasis on evanescence, an image; we learn nothing about the ship itself, are given no details about the soldiers’ lives, nothing about Gusev, but the story haunts the reader with an experience that has more life in it than many a thousand-page doorstop filled with things, hard objects with firm outlines, easy certainties, but with none of the wavering, surrealism of our inner lives, our essence.
You might well ask why this sense of urgency, why do we have to choose between realism and essence? At a time when the novel is threatened on all sides, when the majority of readers has come to expect from fiction only escapist entertainment, offering them more of what they know, the realist materialism of the materialist culture they already live in, gives them every reason to turn around and ask what does fiction tell me that I don’t already know.
Woolf’s conclusion is that fiction asks of us to “honor and love her” by “break[ing] and bully[ing] her…for so her youth is perpetually renewed and her sovereignty assured.” Loving and honoring the novel means pushing and stretching the envelope to force the form to new places, while promoting conventional work that merely offers a facile though sometime eloquent caricature of our very real, materialistic lives most certainly is not.
The question must be asked, and my students and I asked it: Do these reviewers of fiction truly love the novel, or are they more comfortable with hard facts, hence with realism rather than the profound uncertainties of life? We looked up Sam Tanenahaus. Wikipedia informed us that he is an American historian, biographer, journalist, and though he studied literature, his work has been in non-fiction, writing for The New Republic, The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and now The NY Times. We think the answer is rather clear, and it therefore comes as no surprise that review pages for fiction keep getting cut in favor of non-fiction, and the fiction that gets top placement is often work that does less than it should to help the novel live and breathe.