A Fool’s Game?
On Gender and Literary Value

The SRB is delighted to be hosting a seminar devoted to women readers and writers at the Writing and Society Research Centre on Friday 22 March 2019.  Julieanne Lamond will be elaborating on the ideas presented in this essay at the seminar. She’ll be joined by Beth Driscoll, Frances An and Sara Knox in a discussion chaired by SRB editor Catriona Menzies-Pike and WSRC Deputy Director Dr Anne Jamison.

When you think about something a lot it becomes hard to know whether what has become obvious to you is also obvious to everyone else. Here is one such thing: most ideas about what constitutes literary value are gendered, and they have been for a long time.

Emily Maguire’s recent piece in Guardian Australia is an account of the realisation of that fact, and how it still has the capacity to knock the wind out of someone in the university classroom. To be told that you have been reading the wrong books, and that you are the wrong sort of reader, is a move that has been made against women (as well as people of colour, and working class people, and young people), countless times, for hundreds of years. It is a way of wielding cultural capital that is straightforwardly brutal and often effective: you are not one of us.

The ways in which it has been wielded have changed across time, and for that reason I think it’s worth restating some history here, even if we’ve heard it all before.

The early years of the novel as a form in the eighteenth century were dogged by fears of what reading would do to women – that women were vulnerable to the inflaming of passions, the developing of ideas above their station, that novels were thought to encourage. Madame Bovary is a later embodiment of this: driven by her reading of popular fiction to desires her life could not sustain. This situation does not end well for her.

The novel as a form began to gain prestige around the turn of the twentieth century. And that, as Gaye Tuchman tells us, is when men began to enter the field as novelists. Her book is called Edging Women Out and that, she argues, is what happened when the novel began to be seen less as trashy entertainment and more as a form of high culture.

Our ideas about what high culture is – especially what kinds of literature are valuable, canonical, important – have been shaped in large part by modernism. And modernism, as Andreas Huyssen argues, formed itself in opposition to a notion of feminised, rapacious, disastrous popular culture. Especially popular fiction. Especially the kinds read by women in this period.

This, to my mind, is where we came from. Since then, much of the feminist activism we have seen in the literary sphere has focused on busting women into the room of Capital-L Literature, and enabling them to have access to the avenues that are usually used to assess whether a work is appropriate to be fit into that category (reviews, prizes, curricula). And we have seen a real cultural shift in Australia, I think, as a result of the work of the Stella Prize – and the longer history of feminist activism in literature and publishing that preceded it.

What we have been asked to think about for this forum is what has happened at the ‘other end of town’ –  has helping women access the category of the Literary changed the assumptions that underlay their exclusion in the first place, around women as readers and writers of non-prestigious books? I don’t think we have enough evidence yet to be able to answer this with any confidence, but here is my working hypothesis.

Our associations of literary value with masculinity are deeply held and very hard to shift. A great many novels that are published now, as since the nineteenth century, do not fit neatly into a clearly demarcated Popular genre. Nor are they immediately, clearly designable as Literary. They are designated so at various stages along the chain: by publishers, marketing teams, designers, reviewers, prize judges, academics and so on. And all of these stages are influenced by the aforementioned deeply held association between masculinity and literary value. So it’s easier for a work by a man to cross the line between the popular and the literary than it is for a work by a woman.

This is compounded by the different ways in which two of the longest-lasting and influential popular genres – crime and romance – have developed. Crime fiction would seem to be the exception to the assumption that popular fiction is primarily the realm of women writers and readers. Here’s the thing though: how crime fiction developed as a genre – possibly because its practitioners were men – allowed for more slippage between the ideas of genre and the literary than romance did. I’m thinking here particularly of the American hard-boiled school. Chandler held Hammett up as a model for taking crime out of the drawing room and into the streets. The hard-boiled hero, wrote Chandler, ‘must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man.’ You get the idea.

Crime fiction repeats Tuchman’s argument in miniature, and a few decades later. Women dominated the writing of Golden Age crime fiction between the wars – the genre gained prestige with the hard-boiled school; men were entering the field. It remains a popular genre: it is sold in vast quantities in Big W. But it gets to have its cake and eat it too; whereas romance, the genre most strongly associated with women writers, does not. It has to keep in its corner. If it’s lucky, it gets released into a bigger corner: variously described but most recently by publishers as ‘commercial fiction’, which is also feminised, also sequestered from the literary.

It seems to me that works by women that draw on popular genres are less likely to be granted ‘crossover’ status and thus be valued. But the deeper issue – that I don’t have an answer for – is that we don’t have a ready language for valuing works that have long been construed as the wrong kind of reading.

When a game is rigged, as the game of literary value so clearly is, should we choose not to play it anymore? Are notions of literary value – of excellence – of prize winning and canons – so deeply associated with masculinity that we should try not to use them at all? Can we teach and write about literature without them? Should we?

My undergrad experience was different to Emily Maguire’s. And that’s because I didn’t do an English degree, per se. I did a degree in Australian Literature. The key works of literary criticism I was engaging with were by writers like Susan Sheridan and Kay Schaffer – feminists rethinking the bush tradition. I studied Dorothy Hewett and Catherine Helen Spence and Christina Stead and Rosa Praed and Barbara Baynton and Thea Astley. I was taught by Elizabeth Webby to think about reception and circulation – I wrote essays on Women’s Weekly fiction and popular memoirs. My degree was remarkably, wonderfully, weirdly agnostic about literary value.

It is much harder for degrees in English to be like that now. One of the most common genres of the academic Tale of Woe is that of the Curriculum Review, in which budget constraints create a situation in which there are Too Many Courses. The result? Fewer, broader, courses in English, which make it much more difficult to teach agnostically.  The survey course is vulnerable to looking like a list of Great Books, which presents obstacles to teaching historically: to give a sense of how works travelled and were received, and how they came to be valued, or not. I am extremely lucky to be teaching at a relatively privileged university where my colleagues and I can still do this, to some extent, but it’s still the case that the range (and number) of books my students read is much narrower than those I did – and that’s not so long ago.

I do think there are courses of action that might help here. This is my plan: to know more about how literary reception is gendered. To talk about it. To teach historically, including about the processes of literary value. And to carve out spaces of agnosticism in my writing about books.