Why can't a woman write the Great American Novel?

19 posts / 0 new
Last post
Why can't a woman write the Great American Novel?

From Salon.com:

  Why can't a woman write the Great American Novel?

Female authors hold their own on the bestseller lists, but Elaine Showalter's provocative new history wonders why they get so little respect.

By Laura Miller

Feb. 24, 2009 | 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 full article is available here:


 It goes on to discuss: Is it easier for women of color to write an ambitious American novel?


Have you ever noticed that "coming of age" or "chronicling the life of" novels with male protagonists are considered great works and make school reading lists, but that "coming of age" or "chronicling the life of" novels with female protagonists are often simply brushed off as "chick lit"?


That is an interesting discussion, jrose - especially the latter question, as  I clicked on this thread with the intention of pointing out that women have written great American novels. The first examples in my mind were Toni Morrison's Tar Baby and Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings - and they are both women of colour.


The issue is: who decides who has written "The Great American Novel".

A related point: what makes a novel a "great, American" novel? (I wouldn't want to write one of those, myself.)


I agree, RosaL. What does define the "Great American Novel?"

And really, I'd argue that many female Canadian writers could be contenders for writing the "Great Canadian Novel."


To answer RosaL, I think it is obviously "educated" men who decide these things and label them as such for the purposes of university courses, etc.  I remember when I took "Writing by Women 321" in university I was excited about all of the wonderful writing I was being exposed to and hadn't heard of, but also annoyed that this writing wasn't in the "general" English literature courses. Why were those courses not more aptly-named "writing by men"?

 More generally, I think what is a great novel is obviously going to be in the eye of the beholder.  One thing the course I took did discuss was why so many women choose Harlequin-type novels over more "serious" or "intellectual" ones. What are the sociological dimensions of this?

 Another example of a "Great American Novel" that is actually recognized as such by men and women alike is Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Maysie Maysie's picture

Are women of colour women? 


Soujourner Truth: Ain't I a Woman?



I think you're right on that, ghislaine. If I had to pick "THE" Great American novel, in my opinion, it would be Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

N.Beltov N.Beltov's picture

from the article ...


"The Great Literary American Novel Syndrome is a surprisingly persistent condition, despite the increasingly obvious likelihood that no work of art can sum up a nation as heterogeneous as ours without neglecting somebody."

There's no such thing today as a single novel to summarize everyone's experience - either in the USA or in this country - no matter what the gender of the author is. Nothing wrong with that; it just means that more reading means more understanding. I always thought that was true anyway.I suppose the title of the article is a way to grab a reader's attention. 

The author of the article goes on to point out that "the vast majority of those who buy and read fiction are now women." So, perhaps women are going to decide what's important reading just by default alone. 


Catchfire Catchfire's picture

Edith Wharton wrote the Great American Novel twice. Well, the Great New York Novel, anyway. And then she taught F. Scott Fitzgerald how to write one too.

I think that's a neat article, and It's especially interesting how many dominant British (and, indeed, Canadian) women writers there have been through the years, and how that compares to American women. And how this paucity doesn't seem to apply to women of colour, particularly African-American women: Stowe, Toni Morrison, Nella Larsen, Alice Walker, and so many more.

Jacob Two-Two

Yeah, To Kill a Mockingbird was the first thing I thought of as a "Great American Novel". It's certainly the only thing I've read that would qualify, but it's just occuring to me how little "Great American Fiction" I've taken the trouble to read. Outside of TKAM and some Steinbeck, I can't think of anything.


It is certainly the book most often assigned by High School American Lit and Comp teachers. Just to throw in some other names though, Carson McCullers. Either Member of the Wedding, or the Heart is a Lonely Hunter.

Any thing by Louise Erdritch, anthing by Ursula K. LeGuinn

Cueball Cueball's picture

I don't usually post here, but The Violent Bear it Away and Wiseblood by Flannery O'connor easily fit in the category of "Great American Novels" in the Steinebeck mode. In fact I think Steinbeck even said O'Connor was the greatest American female author of the period. I personally evaluate the Violent Bear it Away as better than anything by Steinbeck.

This is really an issue of literary ignorance.

Ken Burch

Perhaps the question SHOULD be:

"Why can't a woman get the Great American Novel PUBLISHSED?"

For all we know, someone may have written it already and it's sitting in a cd-rom on her desk.

_________________________________________________________________________________________________ Our Demands Most Moderate are/ We Only Want The World! -James Connolly

saga saga's picture

Why can't a woman write the Great American Novel?

Why can't women recognize that a woman likely already did?

Waiting for men to make the judgment?Tongue out


George Victor

Folks reading Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings usually don't get past The Yearling, or her memoirs in Cross Creek.

They should try her shorter works, Cracker Chidlings and Jacob's Ladder for a very down to earth look at 1930s Florida backwoods, and I am going to try to find her South Moon Under, which she researched by living with a moonshiner for several weeks.

I think Marjorie's work was just too close to the world that America wanted to forget, too real to achieve prominence among the flag wavers.


I think it interesting that many of the books that might be described as "The Great American Novel" don't even have female characters in them. Moby Dick, Old Man and the Sea, Blood Merridian come to mind. And, it was "The Great Gatsby" and not the "Great Daisy."  

I think one fascet-- perhaps the most important element-- of the great American novel is that the protagonist has to be a person of action.

And, except in more enlightened company,  such as here, (sorry for mentioning the enlightenment, btw) society at large still views men as playing that role.



George Victor

And some women writers don't want that classification.

From NYTimes review of books this week:

It may be surprising that there’s been no comprehensive history of women’s writing in America. But Elaine Showalter has now undertaken this daunting venture with her vast democratic volume, “A Jury of Her Peers: American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx,” in which she energetically describes the work of long-forgotten writers and poets along with that of their more well-known contemporaries. In the 1970s, Showalter wrote “A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists From Brontë to Lessing,” which established an alternative canon of British women writers at a moment when feminist studies were very much in vogue, and her new book is an attempt to do the same thing for American literature. Showalter was, for nearly two decades, a professor in the department of English literature at Prince­ton (she was the head of the department when I was graduate student there), and she remains a grande dame of feminist literary studies.

Skip to next paragraph


American Women Writers From Anne Bradstreet to Annie Proulx

By Elaine Showalter

586 pp. Alfred A. Knopf. $30

It’s worth noting that many of the most talented writers she discusses — Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Bishop, Joan Didion — objected to being categorized as women writers and preferred to think of themselves simply as writers. As Elizabeth Bishop put it, “art is art and to separate writings, paintings, musical compositions, etc. into two sexes is to emphasize values that are not art.” Showalter handles these rebels by corralling them into special subchapters with titles like “Dissenters.”

remind remind's picture

Well, I am going to write a great Canadian novel.