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. The bestseller lists, though less intellectually exalted, tend to break down more evenly along gender lines; between J.K. Rowling and Stephenie Meyer alone, the distaff side is more than holding its own in terms of revenue. But when it comes to respect, are women writers getting short shrift?
The question is horribly fraught, and has been since the 1970s. Ten years ago, in a much-argued-about essay for Harper’s, the novelist and critic Francine Prose accused the literary establishment — dispensers of prestigious prizes and reviews — of continuing to read women’s fiction with "the usual prejudices and preconceptions," even if most of them have learned not to admit as much publicly. Two years before that, Jane Smiley, also writing in Harper’s, alleged that "Huckleberry Finn" is overvalued as a cultural monument while "Uncle Tom’s Cabin" is undervalued, largely because of the genders of the novels’ respective authors; the claim triggered a deluge of letters in protest. Alongside the idea that women writers have been unjustly neglected, there has blossomed the suspicion that some of them have recently become unduly celebrated — an aesthetic variation on the conservative shibboleth of affirmative action run amok.
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."
Showalter is certainly the woman for the job. One of the founders of feminist literary criticism, she has also written about television for People magazine and confessed her penchant for fashion in Vogue. Unquestionably erudite, she has always striven to communicate with nonacademic readers, and her prose is clear, cogent and frequently clever. She has insisted that themes central to women’s lives — marriage, motherhood, the tension between family and individual aspirations — constitute subject matter as "serious" and significant as traditionally masculine motifs like war and travel. Yet she rejects the preference of many feminist literary scholars for emphasizing "culture importance rather than aesthetic distinction," and she doesn’t hesitate to describe some of the writers discussed in "A Jury of Her Peers" as artistically limited, if historically interesting.
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