The Solitary Male Genius Is A Work Of FictionS

The kerfuffle over Jonathan Franzen's Freedom prompts one critic to ask, "Can a Woman Be a 'Great American Novelist?'" But maybe it's time to change how we think of greatness.

In a wise and slightly rueful essay for Slate, Meghan O'Rourke writes,

The issue is not merely about numbers of reviews of women's and men's books. It has to do with the ways those books are reviewed; the language used; the prizes given; the fellowships received. Any man who doubts that there remains a gender gap-if largely an unconscious one-is living in a man's world.

Her piece also includes this telling passage:

It's really, really hard to write a book. It takes a lot of time and solitude. In my experience, women are not as good at insisting they need that time and solitude. (I wonder how many female writers have, like me, sometimes wished they were a man so everyone-family, friends, partners-would understand a little better when they go in the room and shut the door for weeks on end.)

O'Rourke isn't the first to posit that women's greater social and familial obligations sometimes stand in the way of literary achievement, and the argument certainly has merit. But it's interesting that it takes as a premise the assumption that writing has to be solitary. Does it?

Writing a book definitely takes a lot of time, and as many a working mom knows, time is often harder to carve out if you're not of the gender whose work has traditionally been considered Important. But while freedom from interruptions can be a necessity for a writer, freedom from influences is extremely unusual. As Joshua Wolf Shenk points out, also on Slate,

Book editors don't put their names on covers. Their reputation largely depends on authors-who can be notoriously ungrateful and committed to the idea of their solitary genius. Jack Kerouac's On the Road sat on slush piles all around Manhattan until Malcolm Cowley, then an editor at Viking, undertook the laborious effort (literary, political, emotional) of shaping it for publication.

And it's not just editors — many writers nowadays come from graduate programs where they get lots of feedback on their work. Even those who don't have MFAs usually show their writing to trusted friends, and many agents now do a lot of editing before a book ever lands on an editor's desk. And that's not counting all the more informal and intangible contributions made by all the people, central and tangential, in a writer's life. Obviously I wouldn't want my book jacket to read, "by Anna North and everyone she's ever met" — but maybe if we saw books less as the magical products of isolated brains, and more as outgrowths of lives lived in society, we might be more open to different types of greatness.

Again, this is not to suggest that individual writers don't deserve credit for what they do. Nor is it to say that women should just embrace all the demands of other people and not take time for their own work. What Shenk proposes is that the solitary theory of writing — in which somebody tells everyone else to shove it while he (or very occasionally she, as in the case of Emily Dickinson) goes off and makes awesome art — has actually never been true. And if we can accept this, a whole lot of good things might follow. We might acknowledge, for instance, the women who collaborated with famous men (Shenk mentions Erik Erikson's wife Joan). We might realize that lots of smart and creative people — men as well as women — might like to spend time with their families as well as doing Important work, and might put policies into place to help them do that. We might learn to value fiction that deals with human social relationships without having to categorize into either Serious Literature (by men) or Chick Lit (by, duh, chicks).

And, perhaps most difficult of all, we might change our idea of the kind of person who can be a great novelist. This change would be hard to measure — as O'Rourke points out, the biases that mean "our models of literary greatness remain primarily male (and white)" are largely unconscious. But perhaps if we could see greatness as more of a team effort, we'd be less likely to expect it to come to us in a certain form — and that form the one most stereotypically associated with solitary heroism. Maybe if we accepted that, to paraphrase one female writer, it takes a village to write a book, we'd be more likely to give each villager her due.

Can A Woman Be A "Great American Novelist"? [Slate]
Two Is The Magic Number [Slate]

Earlier: Susan Orlean Asks, Is Writing Harder For Women?
Why Books By Women Aren't "Serious"