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Flame Wars

2013 June 10

Rachel Kushner’s new novel, The Flamethrowers, has been generating a lot of buzz in book circles. I haven’t read it yet, and I’m not sure I’m even planning to, but I have to admit that I’m curious.

Most of the recent conversation has centered on Kushner’s novel being lauded by many and considered as a contender for that vaunted “Great American Novel” status. Obviously, this is wonderful news for Kushner and her fans. So why the controversy?

Well, it seems that a certain portion of the population (the male one) may be a bit blown away by the novel’s ambition, scope, and power. As Laura Miller contends in her Salon article, the same critics that have praised Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, and John Updike in the past for similarly ambitious novels, have expressed a good amount of skepticism when it comes to Kushner’s novel. Her female protagonist Reno, is described as an anomaly, brazen and aggressive in her confidence. NY Times critic Dwight Garner said by the end of the book Kushner had  “burned down whatever resistance you might have toward her talent or her narrative.” This statement implies an inherent resistance to her talent…why? Because she’s a woman writer?

Perhaps Miller is reading too much into these male analyses, but it’s difficult to discount her theory, given the absolute male bias of the literary world. When is the last time you heard a novel by a woman being called “the Great American Novel”?  Which leads me to my next question–if you were to name female contenders for this “Great American Novel” title, which book would it be? My top 5 nominees (from the last 100 years) would be:

  • The Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers
  • Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Betty Smith
What are yours?


6 Responses Post a comment
  1. Joe permalink
    June 10, 2013

    To Kill A Mockingbird and The Bell Jar should both be nominated.

    • Jill permalink
      June 10, 2013

      Of course! Two classics. Good call.

  2. Raquel permalink
    June 10, 2013

    My STARS! There’s just no way a lady writer could ever write a book that is–GASP!–ambitious, and powerful, and appealing to men as well as women, and–LORDY!–equal to or better than a book written by a gentleman writer! I mean, no way, no how. We’re just supposed to sit back and be content with our pastel covers and flowers and any scrap of praise we get, whilst the gents lead the way and we just try to emulate them, right?

    /END sarcasm. GAH, I am so irritated this conversation even needs to exist…. in 2013…. when women are supposedly but so clearly not yet equal….

    /takes her rage party elsewhere so as not to ooze it all over your marvelous blog.

    • Raquel permalink
      June 10, 2013

      PS: Excellent list. And also excellent post–you are clearly far more in control of your faculties and able to put forth a civil opinion on this than I am! 😉

      • Jill permalink
        June 12, 2013

        Ha! Just barely. I’m sure you could articulate a lovely, if rage-filled, screed on the gender bias in literary fiction. 😉

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