In March of 2009, I wrote to Elaine Showalter on behalf of The Rumpus, saying she inspired me as a writer, editor, and feminist. She agreed to an interview, the focus of which would be her latest book, A Jury of Her Peers. Ranging from the instigators to contemporary innovators, Jury is the first (yeah, first) history of American women writers. It was published in 2009. In it, Showalter catalogues the forgotten and the famous, resurrects the women disappearing from literary history, and encourages new writers to discover our own power, deepen our understanding of it, and move beyond it to create a space of our own.
Elaine wrote back:
You have really written something besides a set of interview questions; this is more like a short story, a dialog you are having with yourself with me as a sort of half-fictional figure…”
After I cried, I thought: My God, what a brilliant idea.
She didn’t answer three-fourths of the questions I asked her—because I gave her over thirty paragraph-length questions, because I read seven of her books, because she is the leading feminist literary critic of our time and introduced women’s studies into college curriculums and makes me want to be her, inhale her, and impress her—when she didn’t answer all my questions and tumbled just short of my dreams, I stepped into her own persona, as per her implicit suggestion. What follows is Showalter’s actual responses (in quotation marks) and those I imagined for her (in brackets).
The Rumpus: You published A Jury of Her Peers in 2009, but I’m sure it took an incalculable number of years to dream up, outline, research, write, rewrite, get frustrated, battle depression, question your life, and settle permissions. Can you discuss what’s been happening in the literary scene since Jury went to press: which writers are becoming great sources of excitement via claiming contemporary feminist intellectual heritages? If you could have an addendum to Jury, whom would you spotlight?
Elaine Showalter: “If I could have an addendum to the book, I might add the recognition of Marilynne Robinson, [who won] the Orange Prize this summer.”
Rumpus: [I like Marilynne Robinson; reading her is like eating chocolate cake. To me, she is a symbol of evolution in novel writing. Magazine writing seems less evolved.] You say that at the turn of the 19th century, “[women] had begun to edit periodicals whose titles, [included] gender-marked terms like ‘Ladies,’ ‘Mother,’ and ‘Home.’” What do you think about women’s magazines today? George Saunders writes for Esquire; why aren’t his female counterparts writing for Cosmopolitan? You ask it better than I do: is “the feminization of the literary market a good thing or a bad thing?” (And why does “feminization” translate into beauty tips and celebrity-diet-poop secrets and doing [explicative deleted] to men?)
Showalter: “I am a voracious reader of women’s magazines in the United States and United Kingdom, and I think they are a lot more interesting than Esquire. . . . A lot of very good women writers can be found in magazines like O, Vogue, Elle, and English magazines like Red. Their range goes beyond fashion, sex, and diets, but I suspect that our cultural-internalized disdain for such topics is part of the problem, whatever the quality of the writing.”
Rumpus: Maybe it’s a question of money: what makes money and who makes money. In her review of Jury, Sarah Churchwell (who studied with you at Princeton) said you gave her “the single most influential piece of professional advice [she’s] ever received: ‘Write to get paid.’” Writing for money seems inconceivable to me; your advice encourages me, but most magazines and the Internet deflate me. If more writers are writing a) disposable content and b) for free, how can women find valuable writing work that pays?
Showalter: “I told Sarah Churchwell (and all my graduate students), ‘Learn to write so well that you can be paid for it, rather than so badly that someone has to be paid to read your work.’ Many graduate students in English deliberately make their writing so obscure and pedantic that it is unreadable. But actually getting paid as a freelance journalist demands hard work and luck, as you know, and these days the market is tighter than ever.”
Rumpus: Back to novel writing, which depresses me less. You say, “The Awakening, which Chopin subtitled ‘A Solitary Soul,’ may be read as an account of Edna Pontellier’s evolution from romantic fantasies of fusion with another person to self-definition and self-reliance.” My friend asked me, “Can I be a woman without reading The Awakening?” I said, “No. The answer is no.” Do you agree?
Showalter: “The Awakening: certainly one of the most important feminist novels about romantic illusion, although not so good on what comes next.”
Rumpus: Like Edna, I’ve learned the main thing is a make fuss. Susan Sontag taught me this (indirectly). Through reading you, what she believes becomes clearer: 1) “Ironizing about the sexes is one step toward depolarizing them”; 2) “Writing comes from a kind of restlessness and dissatisfaction”; 3) “I never thought, ‘There are women writers, so this is something I can be. No, I thought, There are writers, so this is something I want to be.’” I think of Susan Sontag as one of my enduring teachers. Who do you consider your teachers?
Showalter: “My teachers—dozens, including critics and scholars and journalists as well as literary artists. I admire a number of contemporary British newspaper journalists, columnists, and book reviewers, including Simon Jenkins and India Knight, and literary essayists including Michael Holroyd. The most inspiring teacher/scholar/writer in my life was the British historian Roy Porter who died very young. I think Joyce Carol Oates is a brilliant book reviewer.”
Rumpus: [I think Joyce Carol Oates is a brilliant six-word memoirist: Revenge is living well, without you.]
Showalter: [Mine would be: Born with vagina; wrote; changed world.]
Rumpus: It has not been easy for us. Even Edith Wharton and Willa Cather were “against women’s writing.” You discuss “their commitment to an art beyond the limitation of gender. . . . Paradoxically, American women’s writing could not fully mature until there were women writing against it.” Today we have “chick lit.” Do you believe this is the evolution of a Brontë/Austen tradition, or is this genre more like a parodic side effect of a new women’s media (one that extols the sexy new zeitgeist who is precocious yet mature, strong with weakness, and alone but never lonely)? Is “chick lit” hurting the integrity of women’s writing?