A week or so back, Andrew Seal spent some time testing an argument by literary scholar Nina Baym that critics’ favorite works of American literature tends to adhere to a particular theme: Men struggling against a society whose rules and limits are defined by women. To celebrate such books, the argument goes, is to bolster a particular American myth. (At least, that’s how I understand the argument; I haven’t read the Baym essay that Seal discusses.) To investigate the matter, Seal picks a few consensus favorites from the past ten years—The Corrections, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Netherland, The Road—as well as Keith Gessen‘s All the Sad Young Literary Men, I suppose just for the sake of slapping it around a bit more.
The whole post is worth reading, and intuitively it feels correct. Lists of the best books of 2009 are starting to make the rounds, and it wouldn’t be too hard to see this theory at play in some of the year’s critical favorites: Colum McCann‘s Let the Great World Spin (man arrives from Ireland to make a better life for himself, only to be stuck in a house full of prostitutes); Richard Powers‘ Generosity: An Enhancement (a happy woman is strange, a problem that demands investigation and repair); Philip Roth‘s The Humbling (look out—lesbians!); and Paul Auster‘s Invisible (young man tries to make his way in the world, but seductresses get in the way). Seal’s post discusses only male authors, but acclaimed female writers can play into the same themes; central to Joyce Carol Oates‘ Little Bird of Heaven are two men whose lives are made worse for their relationship with an almost prototypical “loose woman.”
Seal’s post also raises the question of who’s got the problem here: The novelists for writing fiction that may simply be a realistic portrait (or critique of) gender roles in America, or critics for admiring them so long as they don’t test the status quo too much. There’s no way to answer that question with any real clarity; literary awards, positive reviews, and best-of lists are imperfect ways to quantify the degree of admiration critics feel for particular works. But is it arguable that Ron Rash‘s 2008 novel, Serena, didn’t win any major awards because its chief protagonist was (essentially) a hard-as-nails businesswoman, a counter to the notion that “there are very few women in American literature who have real power?” Is the reason Zoe Heller’s The Believers is absent from Amazon.com’s list of the best books of 2009 that it focuses on women, not men, who are going through this struggle?