Today I purchased a novel on the strength of an NPR interview with newly named Pen/Faulkner award–winning author Kate Christensen. Titled The Great Man, this novel intrigued me because it addresses the sexuality of a woman in her seventh decade, something that many authors—with the exception of Carol Shields—don’t explore.
Per usual, I read the blurb on the front cover—one peppered with ellipses from the NYT—and turned the book over to read the back. There perched a blurb from O, The Oprah Magazine, which said, in part: “Christensen’s writing is clear-eyed, muscular, bitingly funny, and supremely caustic . . .”
Muscular, huh? It seems to me that this adjective is male-identified, perhaps to separate this novel from the curlicue genre of “chick lit.” Its toughness suggests that yes, fellows can read this work without having their masculinity questioned.
Indeed, this blurb brings a whiff of respectability to the idea of a WOMAN winning the Pen/Faulkner award for a novel about—gasp—an OLDER woman’s sexuality. Women winners of this award are nothing new—check out this list—but as they are in the company of such former winners as Philip Roth, John Updike, E. L. Doctorow, and Richard Ford, it’s interesting how the book is marketed. (I realize that the jacket was printed before Christensen won the award; still, the marketing seems to court male readers. And even Christensen, in her interview linnked above, mentions only two of the men who previously won the award, not the women.)
Some number of years ago, Anita Brookner won the Booker prize for her slim novel Hotel du Lac, about a mother and her daughter. Critical outcry was great then, as if the subject—an older woman and her girl child—didn’t deserve national merit. In fact, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins famously characterized writing as a profoundly male act.
And it strikes me, in these days of literary hoaxes, that readers are quick to judge. Take the case of Laura Albert, aka JT LeRoy, boy hustler and author. In an interview with the Paris Review, Albert talked about how she composed her stories of abuse from the perspective of a male persona because it was a safe way to distance herself from what she had actually endured growing up. She also makes clear that JT LeRoy's works were not published as memoir, but as fiction.
Think also of S. E. Hinton, who wrote the terrific teen novel The Outsiders about boy gangs. I remember being shocked when I learned this author was a “Susan,” not a “Sam.” And it’s no accident that J. K. Rowling’s name was presented like so on her book covers. Would there have been an initial readership for a book about a boy wizard by someone named Joanne?
There’s a long history of women authors adopting androgyny for publishing reasons—think of Currer, Acton, and Ellis Bell, for instance. But do we really have to characterize a woman’s prose as “muscular” (not that women can’t have muscles!!) in order to render it legitimate, literary?
There’s a lot more to say on this topic, hence the parenthetical qualifications throughout this post, but, if we’re judging a book by its cover—author’s name, promotional blurbs—maybe we might think again, and just read the book. Just read it!