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Rachel Kushner’s Ambitious New Novel Scares Male Critics

When a woman—not a venerable male auteur—writes the Great American Novel, male reviewers get flummoxed.

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In 1963, Esquire magazine’s July issue was about the American literary scene, and featured an essay by Norman Mailer. Titled “Some Children of the Goddess: Further Evaluations of the Talent in the Room,” the piece was a repeat of a survey of his “rivals” that appeared in “Advertisements for Myself.” Few American novelists have ever been more invested than Mailer in the mystique of the Great American Novel, and it’s no coincidence that his list of the authors likely to produce such a work (William Styron, James Jones, James Baldwin, William Burroughs, Joseph Heller, John Updike, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger and Saul Bellow) consisted of exactly zero women.

The deliberate pursuit of the Great American Novel has always been a peculiarly masculine endeavor. It is a book, in Mailer’s words, designed to “seize the temper of the time and turn it.” To attempt to write the Great American Novel is to surmise that you can speak on behalf of an entire, fractious nation. Plus, by all appearances, we’re talking about a game of King of the Mountain: Only one winner allowed, and the competition is bruising. The photograph accompanying Mailer’s piece showed him standing in a boxing ring, poised to deliver his punches.

The presumption and the belligerence embodied in this ideal have put off many American women writers. They weren’t going to be allowed into the Room to begin with, but exclusion gave them the opportunity to discover something important: There’s more than just one room. There are, in fact, an awful lot of rooms in American fiction, rooms in which Mailer contemporaries as brilliant and varied as Shirley Jackson, Eudora Welty, Ursula K. Le Guin and Paule Marshall found ways to flourish creatively and reach many readers, albeit without the prestige accorded to the guys in the Room.

Often the debate about bias against women writers — now regularly revived by the annual VIDA survey and its dismaying figures on the gender breakdown of book reviewers and authors reviewed in prominent literary publications — focuses on genre. Why are some themes (courtship, family life) or forms (the short story) typically regarded as less significant than others (war, adventure, the epic novel)? How is it that purportedly lightweight themes suddenly become momentous in critics’ eyes when the novelist who takes them up is a man (Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides)?

These are legitimate and essential challenges to the values embedded in Mailer’s concept of the Room. It’s also true that chipping away at the fantasy of a rigidly hierarchical aesthetic pecking order — a typological crutch for structure junkies — will open up the literary landscape to more writers and readers. It’s important to challenge both the Room and the supremacy of the kind of novel the Room tends to prize: long, wide-ranging, idea-driven, full of social commentary and concerned with the American dream of self-invention — “ambitious,” as critics often call it.

Given how fiercely American male writers have fought for the Great American Novel laurels, many women authors apparently decided it simply wasn’t worth wading into the fray. Furthermore, there’s a grandiose self-presentation, a swagger, that goes along with advancing your book as a Great American Novel that many women find impossible or silly. Besides, critics longing for a silverback alpha male to declare the leader of the pack are never going to glance at the distaff side. Who wants to play a game whose rules are so obviously rigged against you?

So we don’t have many novels of this type written by American women, even if the women who might have written them (Jennifer Egan, say, or Joyce Carol Oates, to name just two) have done equally impressive work in other rooms, such as composing prismatic explorations of style or exploding seemingly hidebound genres like the gothic. Still, it’s possible to point out that a novel needn’t be “ambitious” to be worthy of the highest acclaim and yet stop short of dismissing the “ambitious” genre entirely. American women writers have been so creative in the other rooms of our national literature that it’s easy to miss the paucity of conventionally “ambitious” novels written by their hands — until that is, a book like Rachel Kushner’s “The Flamethrowers” comes along.

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