Demolishing the Literary Gynaeceum, and Other News


On the Shelf

From the cover of The Story of the Lost Child.

  • Elena Ferrante would like to remind you, now that her novel The Story of the Lost Child is out, that she is not a man, and that if you think she might be a man, you’re part of the problem: “Have you heard anyone say recently about any book written by a man, ‘It’s really a woman who wrote it, or maybe a group of women?’ Due to its exorbitant might, the male gender can mimic the female gender, incorporating it in the process. The female gender, on the other hand, cannot mimic anything, for it is betrayed immediately by its ‘weakness’ … even the publishing industry and the media are convinced of this commonplace; both tend to shut women who write away in a literary gynaeceum … we’re dealing with a new tradition of women writers who are becoming more competent, more effective, are growing tired of the literary gynaeceum and are on furlough from gender stereotypes.”
  • We often praise fiction for its ambiguity, which is counterintuitive—normally we admire good writing for its clarity, and more confusingly still it seems that the best fiction is at once clear and ambiguous: so what do we mean when we celebrate ambiguous fiction? “Ambiguity, uncertainty, multiplicity are positive in literature in so far as they act as a corrective against a dominant and potentially harmful manipulative hubris … the novelist has to be truly open to the world he describes; it is the multiplicity he then inevitably lets into the text that overwhelms the petty habit of knowing better… Nothing is less attractive, in a poem or novel, than the feeling that ‘ambiguity’ has simply been constructed or contrived.”
  • There’s a rich ambiguity about the nose, at least insofar as it figures in literature. Gogol’s story “The Nose” “was but one part of a larger body of literature improbably concerned with, of all things, the human nose … The history of the written nose is rich, varied, and wildly unpredictable, marshaled for a host of potential uses and meanings from slapstick gag to moral emblem to racial signifier.”
  • Stephen King recently wrote an Op-Ed defending novelists who publish (very) regularly, including himself and Joyce Carol Oates. But it’s time to take a stand against prolificacy: “King concludes his op-ed by saying that he’s glad Ms. Oates continues to write new books ‘because,’ he says, ‘I want to read them.’ I wonder if he really has. If anyone has read them all. Or truly does anxiously await the next one’s arrival … When considering huge bodies of work, there’s still the uncertainty about where to enter and where to go next once you’ve found a way in.”
  • The tremendous resurgence of so-called “nature writing” reveals the inadequacy of the term: “ ‘Nature writing’ has become a cant phrase, branded and bandied out of any useful existence, and I would be glad to see its deletion from the current discourse … The best of the recent writing is ethically alert, theoretically literate and wary of the seductions and corruptions of the pastoral. It is sensitive to the dark histories of landscapes and to the structures of ownership and capital that organize—though do not wholly produce—our relations with the natural world … Some of this writing is kick-up-the-arse furious, some is elegiac, some is about disease and dispossession, some is about dignity and the deepening of knowledge. Across its range, moral engagement and hope are consistently in evidence.”