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I’ve Got a Little List


By Erica Jong

June 1999

Well known author (Fear of Flying, 1973) and poet since the early 1970’s, Erica Jong has delighted audiences with her quick wit and honest views. In this article, Ms. Jong turns the tables on the literary world refuting the Modern Library list of 100 best novels. This article is reprinted with permission from the November 16, 1998 issue of The Nation magazine (http://www.thenation.com).

When Random House’s Modern Library imprint issued a list this past summer of the best novels in English published during the twentieth century, surely I was not alone in noticing that only nine books written by women were among the designees. The list created controversy — as lists are meant to do.


There was plenty of printed reaction to the Modern Library announcement, but none I saw seemed to offer an alternative list. The Random House website was deluged with reactions from angry readers who wondered where their favorite novels were, but nobody (not Harold Bloom with his Western Canon, nor Camille Paglia with her six-shooter, nor the Modern Library itself) thought to come up with a list of women writers in English who published novels in this century. Surely a century that produced Isak Dinesen, Virginia Woolf, Colette, Doris Lessing, Simone de Beauvoir and Edith Wharton has been an extraordinary one for women authors. Released from compulsory pregnancy every year, released from having to pretend niceness, goodness, meekness and amnesia toward our own anger, women have produced an astonishing literature in English—and a host of other languages. The twentieth century has been the first in which women publicly roared. Why then have the good people at the Modern Library not heard? Well, women’s achievements tend to be overlooked even by the enlightened who think themselves sensitive to such things.
A woman’s name on a book practically guarantees marginalization — which is why so many geniuses,
from the Brontë sisters to George Sand and George Eliot, chose to use male noms de plume.


And yet I find myself thinking — in 1998! — that we have abandoned that practice at our peril.
Oddly, books written by women tend to be marginalized by both male and female reviewers. Yes, it is
true that certain hunky male authors like Sebastian Junger and Ethan Canin have been reviewed for
their jacket photos, but generally the practice of reviewing the writer’s photo rather than her text,
her personal life rather than her novel, her love affairs rather than her literary style, is the fate
reserved for women authors. A recent example of a writer’s life being reviewed even before her book is
published is Joyce Maynard — but many authors, from Charlotte Brontë to Colette, have met this
fate. Why this automatic response? Surely, given the works of Sappho, Emily Dickinson and
Jane Austen, it should be clear that a vagina is no obstacle to literature. Yet in a sexist society, both
women and men automatically downgrade women’s work. A poetess is never as good as a poet.
An actor is more serious than an actress. An aviator navigates better than an aviatrix. The response
today may be more unconscious than deliberate, but, alas, it remains. (I suggest that some compulsive
scholar do a computer search of the typical weasel words in reviews of women’s books.
They are: “confessional,” “solipsistic,” “self-aggrandizing,” “selfindulgent,” “whining.”) For a woman to claim to have a self is, I suppose, “self- aggrandizing.”


I have been the recipient of this sort of literary “criticism” for so many years that it makes me snort
and laugh rather than smart and weep, but my heart goes out to the novice female writers who run this
gantlet with their first novels and are so wounded they never show up for the second act. This is, of
course, the point. Boo the women off the stage with catcalls and rotten tomatoes and get them back to
their proper womanly duties — editing men’s books, feeding the egos of male writers, writing theses
about James Joyce, William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway — as if we didn’t already have enough.
Political correctness has rapped us on the knuckles for doing this to writers of color who are female. As
a result, those artists are starting to be reviewed on their merits rather than their gender. This is a welcome
change. As recently as twenty-eight years ago Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye, was
turned down by Random House (where she then worked as an editor) because it was assumed that
African-Americans did not buy books and that nobody else would want to read novels about black people. The arrogance of those assumptions has long since been dispelled. But while it is clearly racist to attack writers of color, women writers who appear to occupy no minority niche are still fair game. Women are the scapegoats of the human race, and if scapegoats don’t exist in nature, they have to be invented. The Modern Library list contained only eight women because a ratio of 92 to 8 probably seems normal to literary folk. (Edith Wharton accounted for two of the nine titles.) Diversity has come to mean racial diversity rather than gender fairness. Wherever possible, the token woman on a committee, a panel, a list, is apt to be endowed with melanin. This is a condescending way of including two “minorities” in one fell swoop. But women are not a minority; we are 52 percent of the population. We are, in fact, an oppressed majority. If we didn’t already know this the Modern Library list would have made it abundantly clear.


I’ve no particular wish to dump on the Modern Library. That venerable venture, started by legendary twenties publisher Horace Liveright and sold to Random House long before it was a vast agglomeration of formerly independent imprints, has always had a worthy mission: Bring good books to the people inexpensively. The Modern Library was clever to devise the 100 best list as a way of getting column inches for books. It worked. Anything that gets people talking about books in a video culture is to be applauded. The composition of the original list was, however, hard not to quarrel with.


Ulysses by James Joyce, a formerly banned book that is now safely verified as a masterpiece because
nobody reads it in its entirety, was the safest of safe top choices. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita gave the list
a bit of derring-do, circa 1955. Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, a personal favorite of mine, is a wonderful
satirical novel about how the press starts wars, then covers them, but it is in no way as large a portrait of
the world as The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing. The Modern Library did make an attempt
to include writers of color — V.S. Naipaul, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright, James Baldwin — though
women were not among them. Of the women on the list, Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence and
The House of Mirth are inevitable rather than courageous choices. (I would probably give a limb
to have written The House of Mirth, but it hardly takes imagination to praise Wharton this long after
her death — in 1937 — and recent transfiguration into film.)


The Random House readers who posted their choices on the Web site wound up with a list that puts four Ayn Rand novels in place of Ulysses, The Great Gatsby, Catch-22 and Darkness at Noon. Since Ayn Rand is not my cup of tea, I’m not impressed, but the readers’ list is far more gender neutral than the original and doesn’t discriminate against sci-fi or horror authors. (Robert Heinlein and Stephen King figure prominently.) The attempt to create a women’s fiction list proved a fascinating exercise. I wrote to the 250 or so distinguished women writers and critics whose correct addresses I have in my database. I posted a notice on the rather lively writers’ forum that’s on my Web site (www.ericajong.com), and then, for good measure, I wrote to about thirty male novelists, critics and poets whose judgment I respect and whose addresses I happen to have. The results of this informal survey were instructive. Because I promised anonymity to my respondents, they were frank with me. They apologized for liking certain books that they deemed to be important in their own lives — Gone With the Wind and Interview With the Vampire are two examples — but that they suspected Helen Vendler and Harold Bloom might pooh-pooh. The scholars responded quickly — as if they had been list-making all their lives. The poets’ and novelists’ lists dribbled in more slowly. Pretty much everyone I wrote to tended to take the project seriously. They congratulated me on raising the question of a women’s list at all — whether or not they had seen the original Modern Library list. Sometimes they included lists from their best friends, members of reading groups or seminars.


This list is the preliminary culling. It gives us, at least, a starting point. An equally long list could be made of memoirs, poems and novels in languages other than English.


All lists are highly arbitrary. And this, like all such efforts, is a work in progress. If you will write your favorites to me at my e-mail address (jongleur @pipeline.com), the next edition will surely include books I and my respondents have missed. This exercise may turn into a publishing project, so I hope to be as inclusive as possible.

Ranking the listed books seems to me like a useless exercise. Books are not prizefighters. They don’t compete against one another. It may even be that many worthy volumes escaped the notice of my helpers because they were printed in tiny editions and disappeared into the pulping machine before they were even discovered. Many good women’s books undoubtedly go unpublished. What the list chiefly teaches us is the extent of our own ignorance. I don’t claim to have read all these books, but it strikes me that this list would make a fascinating beginning course in women’s literature. If we could only begin to immerse ourselves in the riches of the writers who came before us, we would see that we had an excellent broth to nourish our future efforts.


It interested me greatly to learn how hard it was for most of my respondents to name 100 books. I received scribbled notes that said things like: “Don’t forget Angela Carter!” Or “What about the short story writers whose novels are less good?” Since the list was of novels written in English, I had to exclude favorites of mine — like Colette, Simone de Beauvoir and Marguerite Yourcenar. Memoirs like Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior were excluded because there will be a separate list of memoirs. Poetry was excluded because that, too, must wait for a future tally. (Women poets in English in this century could fill a very large library.)


Assembling the preliminary list, I kept being reminded of Emma Goldman’s wise words: “When you are educated, when you know your power, you’ll need no bombs or militia and no dynamite will hold you.”

 

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