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February 25th, 2009


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03:54 pm - Interesting Feminist Literary Analysis
I've considered myself a feminist from around the time in the 1970s when I learned what the term meant. I've also read a fair amount of older (second wave) feminist writing from the 1970s & 80s. However, I've never been particularly impressed with much feminist analysis of both literature & culture, too much of it seemed dominated by radical feminist ideologues who were ignorant of history or cultural diversity. I've encountered references that this has changed in the last decade or so, and it's wonderful to see an example of this.

Although I avoid anything that could remotely be called great literature or even literary fiction, I am (unsurprisingly) interested in writing as a profession and a cultural phenomenon, and it's definitely true that high culture attitudes towards writing strongly affect genre fiction. In any case, here's a truly excellent Salon magazine article on women & literary culture that is largely a discussion of A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers from Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx by Elaine Showalter, a fascinating sounding book by an author who is well respected professor of literature.

Two piece of the article stand out for me:
One scholar convinced herself that the meandering structure of Jewett's best-known work, "The Country of Pointed Firs" (a lovely book, by the way), was intended to be a weblike, "feminine" alternative to the oppressively "masculine" convention in which a linear plot accelerates to a climax; a more circular story supposedly corresponds to the purportedly non-goal-oriented unfolding of women's sexual response. This dubious sort of analogy is surprisingly popular among academic critics, despite the fact that the vast majority of women readers have always exhibited a hearty appetite for linear narratives -- much as most women, when given a choice, would prefer to have that orgasm, thanks very much.

Showalter gently but firmly suggests that the lack of resolution at the end of "The Country of Pointed Firs" is instead merely the result of a failure of technique.
I've not read the novel in question, but I have seen quite a number of discussions of "female style", "female thinking", and similar nonsense from Second Wave feminist authors where they discussed circular non-goal oriented stories. Given that all of the women that I've known well (just like everyone else that I've known well) is a geeky fan of genre fiction, I've never seen any preference for such narratives among women, and I find it exceedingly refreshing to see such an analysis dismissed.

More importantly, I firmly believe that any discussion of gender roles needs to be firmly grounded in historical realities, and I was fascinated by this piece of information
Showalter offers more grist for the mill than a hundred volumes of theory. 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." Quite a few of the short biographical sketches she offers feature women complaining about being compelled by parents to learn to make pies or mend when they would rather write. In 1877, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps made the heroine of her novel, "The Story of Avis," fume, "I hate to make my bed, and I hate, hate to sew chemises, and I hate, hate, hate to go cooking round the kitchen."

Housework in America has never been an uncomplicated matter. The class system in Britain consigned a certain set of people to this humble labor, while America promised the enterprising among them an opportunity to make something more of their lives. Nevertheless, the cooking and cleaning still had to be done -- especially on the small family farms that were the economic engines of early America -- and so the responsibility for it was transferred from a servant class to the female relatives of the new republic's self-made men.
I'd never considered this, but it definitely fits with what I know of the respective histories of the US and the UK, and repercussions of this can easily be seen in the 1950s & 60s in the US, and to an extent today.

In any case, the article is definitely worth reading, and for people with more of an interest in literary fiction, Dr. Showalter's book also looks well worth reading. Of course, such discussions take on an extra interest now, since according to various surveys that I read, for the past decade or so, twice as many women as men regularly read novels.
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From:scholargipsy
Date:February 26th, 2009 12:21 am (UTC)
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Gender essentialism is insulting to both sexes: while it isn't hard to find men or women who conform to certain gendered stereotypes, you'd think these scholars, who self-identify as feminists, wouldn't spend so much time trying to jam people into little moiety boxes. Alas, five years of graduate school taught me different.
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From:roseembolism
Date:February 26th, 2009 02:30 am (UTC)
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Given that all of the women that I've known well (just like everyone else that I've known well) is a geeky fan of genre fiction, I've never seen any preference for such narratives among women,

Those academics would no doubt dismiss genre writers by saying that the requirements of participating in such a WASP-dominated field would lead to imitating the male voice. Of course that's as much dismissing genre fiction as the writers, but well....

That whole sort of academic gender stereotyping of course is just the flip side of the whole Victorian "home and family" stereotype.

Interesting little anthropological analysis of the difference between UK and American households, by the way. I'd never thought of that.

[User Picture]
From:scholargipsy
Date:February 26th, 2009 02:49 am (UTC)
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That whole sort of academic gender stereotyping of course is just the flip side of the whole Victorian "home and family" stereotype.

If you've not read Rene Denfeld's The New Victorians, I recommend checking it out. She explores the eerie parallels between a certain school of contemporary academic feminism and traditional Victorian notions regarding women as the guardians of a certain feminine purity that was wholly other to "masculine" thinking and behavior. It's a great, and well supported, rant, and a book I wish more people interested in feminism would read and discuss.
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From:roseembolism
Date:February 26th, 2009 07:51 am (UTC)
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I will look up that book, definitely. I've noticed for quite some time parallels between academic feminism and well...antifeminism. As if they arrive at the same head space by going opposite directions.
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From:heron61
Date:February 26th, 2009 08:39 am (UTC)
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Denfeld's The New Victorians is definitely worth reading.
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From:badgerbag
Date:February 26th, 2009 02:08 am (UTC)
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But Country of the Pointed Firs is *amazing*. I would never think to compare it to some kind of diffuse and bullshit theory of gendered orgasms. But it's a great book! It goes well with Moby Dick.
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From:derekcfpegritz
Date:February 26th, 2009 02:39 am (UTC)
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I totally agree! Sarah Orne Jewett is awesome. Not quite as awesome as Charlotte Perkins Gilman, though.
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From:badgerbag
Date:February 26th, 2009 02:11 am (UTC)
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Also I would say that the judgement of Britain having great novelists has a lot to do with the mechanisms of literary critics and the way value is created and judged. I am super suspicious of this judgment about social class and domestic work.
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From:heron61
Date:February 26th, 2009 08:41 am (UTC)
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I am super suspicious of this judgment about social class and domestic work.

Why so? I know that servants were far more common among the British middle class than among the US middle class, and prior to the 1920s, housework took a truly staggering amount of time and effort.
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From:derekcfpegritz
Date:February 26th, 2009 02:38 am (UTC)
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Fucking feminists always tie the fact that most women can't plot worth a damn into some kind of metaphorical orgasm-theory. "We like to write about things unfolding in a slow, gentle manner, with flowers and angels singing and OH MY GOD I JUST WROTE THE LOVELY BONES." What a crock of utterly indefensible horseshit.

There's one very simple reason why there aren't many great American female novelists:

In this country, women are not encouraged to take part in the arts. Even today, most women think they have basically two futures in life: the Ever-So-Happy Marriage and Family Route, or the Make Money And Party And Act Like a Complete Tramp For As Long As You Can (As Long As You're Getting It On Camera) Route. Those women who do become novelists are still falling into one or the other category, they just write about it (and its downsides) rather than live it. Those who do choose to write are mostly self-taught, and haven't read much worth reading in order to learn the craft for themselves. So what do they do? They write shitty, clumsy, meandering novels that are all about characters and emotions and short on plot.

These feminists keep perpetuating a stereotype of female writers every time they engage in this critical nonsense. Women writers can write perfectly good books. As long as they're not trying to comform to what feminists SAY they should conform to.
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From:kitten_goddess
Date:February 26th, 2009 10:13 pm (UTC)

For derekcfpegritz

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Thank you! You just stated why I'm not a feminist.

I got a lot of that crapola (second-wave feminist deconstructionist nonsense) forced down my throat in college by my English professors. I feel that I cannot call myself a feminist because I don't endorse the wangstery that proclaims all women are pure and nonviolent and gentle and do not "objectify" and yadda yadda bullshit.

NOTE #1: I am a woman.

NOTE #2: I am very far left politically. I am pro-choice and support women's rights and LGBT rights.

NOTE #3: Something else I don't get among one strain of feminism: Why is it wrong to "objectify" (ogle or lust after) women and not men? Does that mean that only straight women and gay men are moral and pure? What about lesbians and bisexuals of any gender?
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From:heron61
Date:February 26th, 2009 10:44 pm (UTC)

Re: For derekcfpegritz

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It's useful to remember that there's a rather impressive distinction between liberal feminism (the sort I believe in) and radical feminism (which is IMHO mostly fairly problematic, and often exceptionally dubious). If you've seen some allegedly feminist writing that has seemed impressively destructive and wrong-headed or perhaps simply bizarre and nonsensical, you're almost certainly dealing with radical feminism.

It makes me very sad that a combination of a carefully orchestrated right-wing anti-feminist backlash, combined with radical feminists prioritizing ideology over people (and simultaneously playing into the prejudices of the far right) have alienated so many people in the US from feminism.

I proudly call myself a feminist and don't care that radical feminists who I mostly drastically disagree with also use the same term for themselves.
[User Picture]
From:derekcfpegritz
Date:February 27th, 2009 02:20 am (UTC)

Re: For derekcfpegritz

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Thank YOU for showing me that there are real feminists still Out There who believe wholeheartedly in women's rights but do not subscribe to the sickening Ivory Tower Lesbianism that has prettymuch ruined Academia. I used to be an adjunct teacher at a certain local college but lost all hope of ever getting anything out of that position when a new "Director of Freshman Writing" was chosen who demanded we all follow her lead in teaching writing via "a proven combination of feminist and queer rhetorical theory."

WHAT THE FUCK is "Feminist and Queer Rhetorical Theory"?

Of course, I asked, "What does this even mean? I'm here to teach these students how to write intelligently, not to teach them about alternative lifestyles. If they want to know about that stuff, sure, I'll point 'em in the right direction"--I was a member of the campus LGBT Alliance, after all--"but I don't see what any of this has to do with the teaching of basic college writing."

Boom. End of job.

You can't get any more politically liberal than me, I think, but someone has to call shenanigans on this completely mutated, completely pointless "academic liberalism" that is giving both academia and liberalism a bad name! Thank you for being on the side of intelligence! It's people like you who keep me from becoming a complete misogynist. :)
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From:silvaerina_tael
Date:February 26th, 2009 04:07 pm (UTC)
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When reading the above article you quoted from, I noticed this rather enlightening quote from the second page, right at the top.

"If rugged individualism was the sacred vocation of the American male, then cooking his meals, keeping his house and raising his children became by necessity the holy and ordained duty of the American female; the very soul of the nation rested upon it! The majority of the women writers whose lives and work Showalter chronicles wrestled with the nagging feeling that they were going against nature as well as country in pursuing what was rightfully a man's work."

It seems to support the housewife "ideal" for females, and really stratified the gender differences between the two sexes. Later on in the same paragraph:

"They felt hemmed in by the need to observe a ladylike decorum and to disavow any great literary ambition."

I'm not so sure about the "great literary ambition", but it's still seen as "unseemly" to not appear "ladylike" for the most part, regardless of how one defines "ladylike".

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