Laura Miller in Salon:
Often the debate about bias against women writers — now regularly revived by the annual VIDA survey and its dismaying figures on the gender breakdown of book reviewers and authors reviewed in prominent literary publications — focuses on genre. Why are some themes (courtship, family life) or forms (the short story) typically regarded as less significant than others (war, adventure, the epic novel)? How is it that purportedly lightweight themes suddenly become momentous in critics’ eyes when the novelist who takes them up is a man (Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides)?
These are legitimate and essential challenges to the values embedded in Mailer’s concept of the Room. It’s also true that chipping away at the fantasy of a rigidly hierarchical aesthetic pecking order — a typological crutch for structure junkies — will open up the literary landscape to more writers and readers. It’s important to challenge both the Room and the supremacy of the kind of novel the Room tends to prize: long, wide-ranging, idea-driven, full of social commentary and concerned with the American dream of self-invention — “ambitious,” as critics often call it.
Given how fiercely American male writers have fought for the Great American Novel laurels, many women authors apparently decided it simply wasn’t worth wading into the fray. Furthermore, there’s a grandiose self-presentation, a swagger, that goes along with advancing your book as a Great American Novel that many women find impossible or silly. Besides, critics longing for a silverback alpha male to declare the leader of the pack are never going to glance at the distaff side. Who wants to play a game whose rules are so obviously rigged against you?
So we don’t have many novels of this type written by American women, even if the women who might have written them (Jennifer Egan, say, or Joyce Carol Oates, to name just two) have done equally impressive work in other rooms, such as composing prismatic explorations of style or exploding seemingly hidebound genres like the gothic. Still, it’s possible to point out that a novel needn’t be “ambitious” to be worthy of the highest acclaim and yet stop short of dismissing the “ambitious” genre entirely.