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T A B L E_.T A L K

First Stephen Glass, then Patricia Smith: Is there any way to make sure your news sources are credible? Share your thoughts in Table Talk's Media area

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From crackhead to literary star
By Matthew Flamm
The writer Kurt Vonnegut hails as "the new Jack London" revisits his former home -- Grand Central Station

Confabulation crisis
By Peter Carbonara
It's the battle of the Boston Blowhards as a scandal at the Globe raises questions about standards for columnists

Is Time brain-dead?
By Janelle Brown
Ally McBeal and other "silliness" prompts the magazine to ask, "Is feminism dead?" But it's the question itself that's silly

Our tchotchkes, ourselves
By James Poniewozik
Is the unexamined living room worth living in?

Hearsay rules
By David Corn
Matt Drudge's no-standards journalism invades the networks

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male writers vs. female writers: beyond the preconceptions

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An acclaimed novelist argues that the most interesting women writers can't be compared to men -- because they defy all categories.
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How much have things really changed? In 1931, in the margins of the first draft of a speech to the London and National Society for Women's Service, Virginia Woolf wrote, "I detest the masculine point of view. I am bored by his heroism, virtue, and honour. I think the best these men can do is not to talk about themselves anymore." If Norman Mailer had even been aware of her advice he'd have ignored it when he set out to write his famous account of his olfactory sensitivity: "the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hat, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic." Or consider the reviewer in the New York Times who attacked Randall Jarrell's last book, "The Lost World," for its "sentimental Mama-ism." Or the reviewer in the New York Times who, more recently, called himself "a steak and potatoes man" and damned the novelist John Hawkes as a "quiche and salad" sort of writer.

Gender is a handy insult for writers and is used not just by men to insult women but by women to insult men and by men to insult other men. With Francine Prose's recent article in Harper's, "Scent of a Woman's Ink," the game has heated up again. The "playing field," Prose writes, "is still off by a few degrees." Women writers just aren't receiving their fair critical due. To distinguish the talents of a few women writers she compares Flannery O'Connor to Frederick Exley, Mary Gaitskill to John Updike and Deborah Eisenberg to Ernest Hemingway. Look at this, she tells us. These women write just as well, or even better, than our renowned male authors. See how crisp their fiction is, how sexy, how bold.

Give Francine Prose a point to make, and she'll inevitably lay it out solidly, with irresistible panache. Who can disagree with her argument as she describes the critical neglect suffered by women writers? From the book awards to the book reviews, we can see, with Prose's help, a significant disparity in the world of fiction. But when she goes on to compare women writers to their male counterparts, she invites the counterpunch that Laura Miller lands in her rebuttal in Salon: Prose's list of notable women writers "hardly makes the word 'epic' spring to mind," Miller complains. At best, they are "brilliant and eclectic," but all of them, and, as it turns out, all the other women writers in America, according to Miller, lack the ambition to create the big books. "American women novelists need some rousing," she scolds. Look abroad and you'll find Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood. Look at this country and you find women writing teeny tiny stories that are received with a teeny tiny bit of critical fanfare.

But even while Laura Miller opposes Francine Prose's list, she shares the assumption that the lower status generally suffered by women writers is due to the lower status of certain fictional subjects. In Francine Prose's examples, women writers prove themselves worthy by writing about violence and sex; for Laura Miller, a woman writer can prove herself worthy by writing about Big Ideas. But both sorts of proof are misleading -- a great novel distinguishes itself not with its subject matter but with its imaginative treatment of its subject, and great writers can still aspire, as Flaubert did, to write "a book about nothing."

Even in these arguments where subject matter serves as the measure of a fiction's value, there are implicit convictions about style. While Francine Prose insists that ambitious writing tackles troubling subjects, she uses the words "crisp," "cool" and "hard-boiled" to describe her favorite passages. For Laura Miller, good writing is big and expansive, "magnificent, if imperfect," in the manner of Pynchon and David Foster Wallace. Between Miller and Prose, we can see the fictional landscape clearly -- on one side of the fence the writing is clipped and carefully tended, unburdened by lyricism; on the other side, writing is left to grow wild and is full of weeds and brilliant wildflowers. Every work of fiction is expected to fall on one side of the fence or the other, regardless of the gender of its writer.

If only good writing were so easy to measure. It certainly can't be measured by the number of pages. Big isn't necessarily better. (In a pinch I'd choose Beckett over Pynchon to take to my desert island.) And crisp, cool and hard-boiled aren't necessarily better. I'm inclined to question the criteria that Francine Prose sets up at the end of her article: "There is no male or female language, only the truthful or fake, the precise or vague, the inspired or the pedestrian." But imaginative writing isn't necessarily truthful. What about Woolf's "Orlando" or Emily Brontë's ghosts, what about Dickens' impossible coincidences? Even to use "truth" to describe some higher concept, independent of phenomena, makes me nervous. The fake, the invented, the celebration of the unreal -- these are among the finest joys of fiction. To demand "truth" from imaginative writing is to keep the balloons from soaring in the air. And what about precision? If we demand precision from fiction, we deny Poe the opportunity to confuse an image of life with death. We take away the hazy dreams of fiction -- and there are contemporary writers who want to do just that. I recently heard a novelist declare that dreams do not belong in fiction, for they can be no more than simplistic symbolism. Dreams in literature "never work," he insisted. But I want to insist that anything can work, even dreams, especially dreams. We must keep the dreams, the flagrant inventions, the weird, strange, lyrical flights of fiction. We must keep the art as expansive as possible and allow the inspired writers -- to accept Francine Prose's final value -- to wander where they will.

How then do we measure good writing and bolster the status of women writers if we can't generalize about the value of subjects and styles? First, we attack the values that are demeaning to both men and women -- the steak-and-potatoes sexist values that limit the possibilities of fiction. We shred the reviews that attack male writers for writing like women and that praise women for writing like men. Then we go to the independent voices, the indefinable writers, the writers who won't stay put in any category, who take on big subjects and little subjects, who write both lyrically and crisply, and who keep expanding the field. A list of women writers might include Ellen Akins, Andrea Barrett, Kathryn Davis, Rebecca Goldstein, Maureen Howard, Toni Morrison, Cynthia Ozick, Susan Sontag. These are some of the writers -- some famous, some not so famous -- who have no male counterparts. These are the American writers who are capable of rousing us when we're ready to listen.
SALON | July 2, 1998

Novelist and short story writer Joanna Scott's books include "Arrogance," "Various Antidotes: Stories" and her most recent, "The Manikin." She was the recipient of a 5-year MacArthur Fellowship for fiction in 1992.

Will a woman pen the next Great American Novel? Discuss gender and literature in the Books area of Table Talk.

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R E L A T E D_.S A L O N_.S T O R I E S

Are men better writers than women? A Harper's essay takes up the touchy question of whether size in literature matters.
By Laura Miller
June 3, 1998

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