Pen Men

Elaine Showalter

  • Men and Feminism in Modern Literature by Declan Kiberd
    Macmillan, 250 pp, £13.95, September 1985, ISBN 0 333 38353 2
  • Women Writing about Men by Jane Miller
    Virago, 256 pp, £10.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 86068 473 3
  • Phallic Critiques: Masculinity and 20th-century Literature by Peter Schwenger
    Routledge, 172 pp, £29.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 7102 0164 8

One of the more useful side-effects of the widely-publicised troubles at the International PEN Congress held this January in New York may ironically have been the new timeliness which Norman Mailer’s outbursts bestowed on feminist consideration of masculinity, misogyny and writing. Mailer, president of PEN and chief organiser and fundraiser for the huge writers’ conference, shed his new persona as serene literary statesman when he was confronted with an angry protest from women PEN members about the under-representation of women on the programme (16 out of 117 panelists). ‘There are countries in the world,’ he retorted, ‘where there are no good women writers.’ Furthermore, he told a large audience, ‘there are not that many women, like Susan Sontag, who are intellectuals first, poets and novelists second.’ Since ‘more men ... are deeply interested in intellectual matters than women,’ he concluded, to have invited more women simply for the sake of fairness would have meant ‘lowering the level of discussion’, risking ‘mediocrity’.

In the aftermath of the PEN debacle, lamenting that he would pay for his remarks ‘for years with lousy reviews’, Mailer explained that he had actually meant that in some countries women writers were exploited and kept down. Although it stretches one’s credulity to see Mailer as a feminist, merely to label him a sexist no longer seems like an adequate explanation of his persistent – and perhaps paradigmatic – contempt for women writers. Indeed, his attitude appears to be an extreme manifestation of the way that many late 20th-century male writers define themselves as artists through a sexual dialectic, create explicitly masculine modes of speaking and writing, and contend with feminism, female precursors, and male and female rivals. As we move through the post-feminist period of gender redefinition that always seems to accompany the end of a century, we need a much more complex analysis of the ways that male sexuality and writing intersect. We need studies of the representation of masculinity to put alongside those of the representation of femininity.

Such studies should fall within the scope of feminist criticism, which has developed the most sophisticated theories and methods for the literary analysis of gender. For the past decade, however, the major energies of Anglo-American feminist criticism have been directed towards the rediscovery and re-examination of women’s writing. Feminist critics have believed that there were more important discoveries to be made in the exploration of the neglected history, traditions and psychodynamics of female creativity than in repeated exposés of misogyny in the male canon. While women’s relationship to literature has emerged as enticingly problematic, the male relationship to literature is still regarded as straightforward, unself-conscious or natural. Even when male literary theorists (such as Wayne Booth, Robert Scholes and Terry Eagleton) have taken an interest in feminist criticism, they have seen problems of sexual difference as women’s problems, addressing – to use Jonathan Culler’s terms – the issue of ‘reading as a woman’ but assuming that ‘reading as a man’ requires no attention. As a result, much male feminist criticism has inadvertently reproduced patriarchal attitudes to women, appropriating or challenging the strategies of feminist discourse rather than questioning its own.

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