With his eye on creating a panel for the next AWP in Seattle, Ted Pelton, the publisher of Starcherone Books, sent out a query to his authors, asking us what we thought about the relation between innovative fiction and gender. He writes, “At every ‘experimental’ fiction panel I’ve ever served on, the issue of the genre being exclusively male always surfaces — usually as a kind of accusation. As editor of Starcherone, I’ve been sensitive to it, and sought to keep balance in our list. But something odd happens when we look at manuscripts in our query period: we receive roughly 85-90% manuscripts from men. Our blind submission contest is 50-50, but when we ask for queries from established writers, it’s almost all boys.” The panel wasn’t picked up, but the issue warrants discussion. The common perception, whether false or not, is that experimental fiction is a boys’ club. Are women hesitant, resistant, or loathed to enter? Or are women writing in the genre but not being recognized for it? Or maybe these are the wrong questions?
I’m not certain.
Of course, innovation in fiction is as old as the novel itself. After all, a cursory glance reveals that the epistolary novel made its appearance and then, for the most part, departed; serial publication created its own formal possibilities; its passing gave way to new forms; verisimilitude reigned for a while; so did the slipperiness of symbols (think of a white whale, a raven, a pond, some grass, a black veil, a scarlet letter); as did the slipperiness of consciousness; the sign was exalted; words slipped free from their referents and continued horizontally sliding across the depthless plain of the text; as borders between texts became permeable, hybrids came alive. Sometimes innovation was a consequence of shifting literary aims, such as in Twain’s critique of the American Romantics, or in the Romantics’ repudiation of both British influence and the sentimentalism of “the mob of scribbling women.” Sometimes innovation was pursued for the sake of innovation in itself, such as in Pound’s famous mandate to “make it new.” This cursory glance ignores all the undercurrents—political, economic, cultural, military—that are often helpful in explaining newness.
Thus, an inquiry into gender and innovation will yield different answers for each moment in the development of the novel. Woolf already effectively answered for us “What if Shakespeare had a sister?” We can ask a similar question in regard to the current moment. Perhaps asking it will strike one as strange, too soon, or inaccurate—but what if, we may ask, “What if Pynchon had a sister?”
The question contains some presumptions. First, it establishes a kind of innovation, as well as a standard, that can be called “high postmodernist,” which is a euphemism for the boys’ club, the canonized literary giants who are easy to list: Gaddis, Nabokov, Barth, Barthelme, Pynchon, DeLillo. Just as a Wright or a Woolf may sneak onto the list of high Modernists, exceptional writers, as in exceptions, may be granted occasional access here, too. Second, the question sets a temporal border for the current moment somewhere in the mid-1950s, and it suggests that the shadow of these giants covers the latter half of the twentieth century and persists today.
It may not be fair, but when I read contemporary male authors that I admire, particularly Wallace, Franzen, and Eugenides, I tend to assess them by how they write under such a heavy shadow. For the most part, I say, exceedingly well. I’m not in the camp of critics who easily dismiss Wallace as a Pynchon knock-off, unless one is referring to the similar encyclopedic scope of his mind and the even greater expanse of his heart. Still, nobody pities the contemporary male writer for writing under this burden, because with it comes the license to try; access has been granted by birth. Actual entrance, of course, is another story, one of struggle, frustration, and possible achievement. And perhaps like the ordinary oedipal drama, it is just another tale in which script has been written for a little boy. I think one of the tasks of the serious contemporary white male writer is to rewrite the drama that he inherited. Even so, I’m not unaware of what the doubter may say: an ironic patricide, no doubt, but no less the familiar, familial murder: not to kill one’s father.
Yet for the female writer, the shadow of the father poses a different set of problems. For one, access is not a given; in fact, it may not even be wanted. In the latter case, the struggle is not even in the same arena, and thus a parallel history of innovative fiction, perhaps a counter-history, runs alongside the one for boys. However, despite the author’s intentions, her readers will keep pulling her back under the shadow, assessing and measuring by a standard that she may well regard as arbitrary and misguided.
In terms of power and agency, the female writer of innovative fiction seems to be confronted with two divergent paths.
The first is to work within the male tradition, perhaps to be in it but not of it, to use the destructive capacities of innovation to creative ends. In Breaking the Sequence: Women’s Experimental Fiction, Friedman and Fuchs write, “In exploding dominant forms, women experimental writers not only assail the social structure, but also produce an alternate fictional space, a space in which the feminine, marginalized in traditional fiction and patriarchal culture, can be expressed. Thus, the rupturing of traditional forms becomes a political act, and feminine narrative resulting from such a rupture is allied with the feminist project” (4). If I may, I would like to suggest that is also allied with the high postmodernist project. When Pynchon’s Tyrone Slothrop, at the beginning of Gravity’s Rainbow, drops his harmonica into the toilet and descends into the foul water, he begins a quest to resuscitate art, looking to find the lost music. It is the quest of the Preterite, the passed over, the neglected, the marginalized, the forgotten, and the Other. Only by going outside of the dominant tradition, by rejecting the normalizing and stultifying codes and customs of ordinary culture, by descending into shit, as it were, can one find the possibility of new identities, new voices, and new art. Freedom is in the margins.
The second path is to be skeptical of the freedom promised by the first path. When the author’s work has become a writer’s text; when the characters in the story, with all their desires and flaws, become an assemblage of words, if not mere sounds and symbols; when their ambitions and actions become worn out, exploded plots; when depth, that inward plunge into the psyche and the soul, that outward thirsting for connection, both human and divine, has become pounded flat; when the joy of reading is no longer about empathy or “the human heart in conflict with itself,” but the pleasure of wordplay, the play of appearances—then, very poignantly, the skeptic may wonder why subjectivity, agency, and voice are seemingly abdicated by the type of innovative fiction categorized by the high postmodernists. In her critique of Foucault, Nancy Hartsock asks, “Why is it that at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic?” (qtd. in Habbermas 210). In the boys’ club, it might only be a seeming abdication, yet for the female writer, it might sound like a dangerous proposition.
Are there other paths? Sure.