Readersforum's Blog

June 10, 2013

Rachel Kushner’s Ambitious New Novel Scares Male Critics

Photo Credit: RachelKushner.com

Photo Credit: RachelKushner.com

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

By Laura MillerIn 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.

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