Gender and genre

As I continue reading Latin American literary criticism from the 20s and 30s onward, I keep noticing that critics often decide that women poets missed the genre bus. A critic will launch into a discussion of modernismo, and then mention at the end of the chapter that some women were writing, but they are really Romanticists who came to the party years too late. That in 1910, no respectable poet would still be writing in a Romanticist tradition; poetry has evolved beyond that. And then later, that in 1930, no respectable poet would still be writing in a modernismo tradition, because now the new thing is different.

As if only one genre could exist at a time, and as if there were a model of evolutionary progress. Literary Darwinism. And as if there weren’t fuzzy boundaries, as if even a single poem didn’t have multiple traditions feeding it – not to mention the entire body of work of a poet who might write in many genres, many styles.

But then, in a strange twist; the same critics lament that there was never a great woman Romanticist poet, never a real one who was Romanticist to the core; never a true poet of modernimso.

I see the same thing in science fiction. Oh, it’s too bad women don’t really fit “the genre” — don’t write “hard sf”. (Despite all the ones who did, and still do.) But then when they do… Well, of course when women start doing it, they’ve missed the bus; they’re out of date, they’re stuck in the past, they’re no longer the cutting edge. We men have already plumbed that genre to its depths and discarded it and we have our Great examples. We’ve gone somewhere else to redefine the center of power, now that you women have come.

And I begin to believe the same is true of the “where are the masterworks” argument. (Which is now happening, heatedly, on the WOMPO list.) Where are the masterworks by women throughout history? Where is our female Dante, Homer, Shakespeare? This question always asked as if there could be no possible answer except pity that the terribly sexist conditions of the past precluded women ever acheiving something great. How inassailably logical! Always, we are on the cusp of Now; because of the recent advances in women’s rights and education, we might, someday, hope to acheive a masterwork; the problem is, this arguement has been around for hundreds of years at least. It’s always almost. It’s always as if the problem were new and the carrot were just out of reach. And … this is a big fat lie. And women, if you buy into that lure of Now Almost Maybe and it might be you who surfs the new thing into the open arms of important history; well you’re actually screwing over the women of the past in order to eliminate some competition, you’re elbowing other women out of the way in a roller derby you aren’t going to win, because that token position is a shaky one. Be careful what you’re buying into.

It is very instructive to look at the ratio (As Beth Miller does in her essay “El sexismo en los antologías”) of women to men in anthologies over a long time period. We need more studies like this, with charts and data analysis… To make the patterns and process more obvious to everyone.

I remain convinced that not only are the masterworks out there (one small example – I’d put the Heptameron up against Boccacio any day) but there is something wrong with you definition of masterwork if you think they aren’t.

And I’m also convinced that one solution is to redefine genres. I like my idea of maenidismo as a genre. It fits so well. Redefine and recreate genres in which women’s work is central, is the core. In science fiction, we have some of that with the push to define a canon for feminist speculative fiction. But I’d like to see more thought and discussion; more genres invented. Perhaps the beginning is to take the work by women, and put it all together, and look for patterns, create groupings, look for movements and feedback loops. Then define the genre. THEN look and see if there’s any work by men that might half-way begin to fit in that genre.

I wonder if anyone else has used this approach? Probably; but it’s a new thought to me and I’ve been developing it for many years. It goes beyond the creation of women’s anthologies and studying work by women only. Create genres and traditions, and then let in men’s work halfway, as tokens. This avoids pure separatism, and the ghettoization that seems to accompany it. Even if this doesn’t “work”, with the ripple effects of power that I’d like to see, well, then it ends up functioning like other gender identity-based efforts and anthologies; as pockets for information and women’s work to be preserved for future rediscovery by people like me, which is maybe the best we can hope for.

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3 Responses to Gender and genre

  1. Chava says:

    Dear Liz,

    That’s why I think it important to argue for a particular woman’s text or poetry, to define it and (against all the macho shouts and masculinist points of view) argue strongly for its equal validity to the male’s.

    Chava (Ellen Moody — an old pseudonym I use on my blog)

  2. serena says:

    Awesome post. I particularly appreciate that you are out there digging up masterworks and loudly calling attention to them.

    I am not sure about the idea of ‘argument for equal validity to the male’s.’ To me this whole framework assumes that there’s something to be argued for–that the dichotomy between male/female artistic quality has some validity. Maybe it’s idealistic of me, but I think that women will only truly be free when we just don’t even ask, or understand, the question “is women’s work as good as men’s?” By golly by gee, why wouldn’t it be?

    Rectifying the historic underrepresentation and lack of analysis of women’s work seems to be a good way to take us there, though.

  3. Jo says:

    It’s interesting, too, to think of the men in literary movements having contact with each other, being in sort of their own metropolis, whereas women might not have the same access to each other. Like when you see a woman artist with her work up at SFMoma, is she working within the context of other women’s art, or in answer to male-defined genre? Because I would think she would be critiqued within “women’s” art, but might consider her own work as part of something else.

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