An avid reader, my dad was a thoughtful, liberal sort. He opposed the war in Vietnam before I did, and he supported the Civil Rights Movement ahead of most white people I knew. Despite his enlightened ways, though, he was teensy bit sexist. Not largely and heinously. He admired the intelligence and insights of his wife, sisters, and mother, and encouraged his three daughters in all their pursuits, intellectual as well as athletic. But, born in 1911, he necessarily carried a burden of the attitudes with which he’d grown up.
My mother mentioned more than once that my dad didn’t read or like women writers, and I recall his sheepishly acknowledging this was so. I’m pretty sure he regarded them as lady authors who lacked the gravitas of the great ones. I trust that if he had lived longer (he died in 1971) his outlook on women’s books would have broadened.
Since his death, much has changed, and things are better for women and for women’s books. It seems clear to me, however, that women writers, as a class, rest on a lower tier than men. This summer I’ve reread the fictional output of Marilynne Robinson, one of our best, to prepare to review her new book Lila, due in October, and it’s reminded me we haven’t achieved equality yet.
Robinson’s first book Housekeeping (1980) is a Great American Novel. It’s a strange and haunting story about three women—an aunt and her two nieces—living in a small town out West. The aunt’s idea of housekeeping is to wash tin cans and stack them carefully against the walls of the living room. She’s a vagabond and a mystic, almost, who marches to a different drummer. The book consciously addresses themes raised by the greatest 19th century American writers: Emerson, Thoreau, Dickinson, Melville, Twain. Robinson’s gripping story deals with the most profound questions of existence (one of her favorite words) in lyrical prose.
This novel enjoys a stellar reputation among many, including the critics, all male, linked in this post, but is not widely known. Robinson should rank with Updike, Cheever, Roth, Bellow, Franzen, and the rest, but who ever mentions her? I watched a Charlie Rose conversation a while back with the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik about modern American literature, and not one American woman was named. Not Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison. Not Ann Patchett. Not Anne Tyler. Not Eudora Welty. Not Flannery O’Connor. Not Marilynne Robinson.
Her newest book Lila completes an astonishing trilogy, after Gilead (2004) and Home (2008). As I was reading all three, I kept thinking of John Updike’s prodigious Rabbit series (4½ books, really), cited by the English novelist and critic Julian Barnes as “the greatest postwar American novel.” Updike’s mammoth accomplishment gets its due. I’d assert that Marilynne Robinson’s trilogy deserves comparable accolades.
Robinson’s books deal with injustice, poverty, race, religion, love and relationships, hypocrisy, and American history. I don’t mean to whine, and I don’t blame men. Deep down, I find myself sometimes categorizing women writers as “women writers.” Robinson wins awards and gets stellar reviews—but consider this question honestly. Do you agree men and women writers are judged differently? Are women writers, great though they may be, resting one step below male writers in your own mental pantheon?