Sunday, December 20, 2009

Big issues: one more JCO note

A final brief point about Joyce Carol Oates. She takes on big topics. I was thinking about this in light of her strange status, at once lauded and derided, and the fact that she's won many accolades yet never the two that are arguably the biggest in the literary establishment's eyes, that is, the Pulitzer and Nobel. It leads back to my suspicion that there's a deep sexism at work here.

With some regularity one or another major literary organization comes out with an annual best books or finalists list and it occasions anger and denunciations because the list has either no books by women or very few. Most recently, in November Publishers Weekly issued a 10 Best Books of the Year list with not a single one written by a woman. The defense, when some clueless dolt decides to issue one, is usually a variation on one or both of two arguments. There's the "we didn't take sex into consideration, we just picked the best books, sorry, not our fault that men wrote all the best books" shoulder shrug. This one is so brazen in its arrogance and mendacity that it's been thoroughly rebutted by many commenters. The other argument is even more revealing. It's that "men write important books that take on Big Topics, novels by men range widely over the Big Wide World and delve deeply into the Big Complex Issues, while women write books about feelings and family and hearth and home, novels by women are narrow in focus, small in scope, unconcerned with the largeness, messiness, vastness of humanity, history and ideas."

Uh huh. Well then, what about Joyce Carol Oates? The entire proposition about this supposed difference between male and female novelists is of course utterly specious and it too has been refuted effectively many times. My purpose here is to simply point to one specific example that in itself reveals the misogyny at its base. Because if its proponents believed their own point, that the Great Novel takes on Big Issues, then they'd have long since bowed down to JCO, whose books are nothing if not engaged with the vast messy world, and anointed her the paragon of the Great Novelist. That they have not speaks volumes, both about their sexist hypocrisy in general and about their sexist disregard in particular for one of the greatest writers of our time.