In the past couple of weeks, while reading new novels by Ellen Gilchrist and Hilma Wolitzer, I found myself in the grip of one of those passions for list-making by which I am occasionally seized. What other names, I wondered, should be added to theirs on a list of contemporary American writers of fiction whose work I find, for whatever reason, interesting and/or admirable? The list, as it fell into place, started out this way:
Ann Beattie. Doris Betts. Laurie Colwin. Robb Forman Dew. Ellen Douglas. Candace Flynt. Gail Godwin. Doris Grumbach. Mary Gordon. Marcy Heidish. Diane Johnson. Paule Marshall. A.G. Mojtabai. Toni Morrison. Cynthia Ozick. Mary Lee Settle. Louise Shivers. Susan Richards Shreve. Elizabeth Spencer. Anne Tyler. Eudora Welty. Joan Williams.
Right: Everyone on that list (and there are bound to be several inadvertent omissions) is a woman. To be sure, if I went back to the shelves and added the men to the list it would grow significantly, but not quite so significantly as one might reflexively suspect; the aging lions of American literature have lost most of their bite, and there are not all that many younger male writers of genuine accomplishment or potential. My little exercise in list-making confirmed me in an opinion that had been growing over recent years: That we are entering a significant new period in American letters, one that will be dominated by female writers and characterized by feminist themes.
We're talking, of course, about writers of fiction that is, or aspires to be, "serious," yet the female voice is increasingly influential in less exalted forms of writing as well. Virtually all the writers of escapist romances are women; Irving Wallace and James Michener have had to make way on the best-seller lists for Judith Krantz and Belva Plain; Gael Greene has demonstrated that she can write smut every bit as graphically as Harold Robbins. For that matter, the iron male grip on the publishing industry itself has relaxed--or, perhaps more accurately, been forced to loosen--with the emergence of a growing class of female managers who have risen far above the levels to which women traditionally have been consigned; they include publishers (Joan Manley, Esther Margolis), chief editors (Sherry Arden, Nan Talese), high-powered agents (Lynn Nesbitt, Candida Donadio).
But what is most interesting, and almost certainly most important, is that serious American writing is increasingly a woman's place. Add to the aforementioned list the names of other writers toward whose work I have more ambivalent feelings--Joan Didion, Marilyn French, Joyce Carol Oates, Judith Rossner, Alice Walker, to name a few--and the true dimensions of this trend become even clearer. Add still another important consideration--that most of these writers are relatively young, with their most mature work ahead of them--and it is reasonable to predict that this dominance will only become more marked, in the years to come.
This is something very new in American literature, which since the days of Washington Irving has been a male preserve. There have, to be sure, been women writers to be reckoned with, from Harriet Beecher Stowe to Edith Wharton to Ellen Glasgow to Flannery O'Connor, but the tendency among critics and literary historians has been to regard them as a sub-category of sorts, interesting but of limited consequence. A woman, after all, cannot be expected to climb into the ring with Hemingway or bend elbows with Faulkner; business goes on in the men's room, and that is where American literature has been.
But it is there no longer. In a stupendous burst of energy and productivity, women writers have to all intents and purposes taken over the place. Although prizes should never be taken too seriously, it is nonetheless significant that when the American Book Awards were handed out last month, all three fiction prizes went to women (two of whom, incidentally, are black) and so did the award for biography; this was not a gesture in the direction of feminism, but an accurate representation of the state of American letters.
This startling phenomenon is as easy to explain as it is to identify. A reasonably close reading of a representative selection of "literary" fiction by younger female writers makes it abundantly plain that the foundation on which their books have been erected is the feminist movement that came into its own during the past two decades. Like most other isms, feminism can mean different things to different people; its thematic diversity is reflected in these novels and short stories. But its basic concerns are consistent, and they appear in these writers' books with a regularity that unsympathetic readers doubtless would regard as monotonous: woman's desire for independence and self-fulfillment, her yearning for freedom to compete in a difficult world and her need to prove herself in it, the conflict between her love for individual men and her anger at men collectively. When the central character in Ellen Gilchrist's forthcoming novel, "The Annunication," writes a note to the husband whom she soon will divorce, she gives voice to sentiments that can be found in countless other contemporary novels:
" . . . I don't know what it is I'm looking for . . . All I'm interested in is my work. I don't know what is wrong with me or right with me. I didn't make my nature. I didn't create my needs and ambitions. Neither will I deny or regret them. I am what I am. So be it . . . "
The themes stated in that passage are archetypical, but so, too, is the underlying stridency of it. Like most of the other writers who are mining the same vein, Gilchrist has difficulty transforming what is at heart a political point of view into the language and form of fiction. A further danger is that because the themes of feminism are in certain respects narrow ones, and since feminism is itself largely a product of the rather narrow world of the educated middle class, these novels tend to follow similar shapes and similar settings; and since most of their authors are either products of creative-writing schools or teachers in them, these books also tend to sound quite a bit alike.
But at this stage in the life of this generation of writers, these shortcomings are of considerably less consequence than the mere existence of such a group of women and the ample, in some cases startling, gifts its members possess. There is plenty of time for the best among these writers to shake off the strictures of feminist orthodoxy and to establish their individual voices and themes; some, such as Godwin and Tyler, have already done this, and others certainly will do so in the future. Now if we could just have a five-year moratorium on novels about divorce, everything would be hunky-dory.