Two giants of the feminist movement, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, have been named winners of the 2013 lifetime achievement award from the National Book Critics Circle. Their books, particularly “The Madwoman in the Attic” (1979) and “The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women” (1985), changed the shape of literary criticism and influenced generations of students and scholars.
The announcement came on Monday, along with the list of 30 finalists for the NBCC book awards, which will be presented Feb. 28 in New York.
Steve Kellman, chairman of the NBCC selection committee, praised Gilbert and Gubar’s “groundbreaking and nuanced study of the tenuous position of women writers and women characters.”
Reached by phone at her home in Bloomington, Ind., Gubar said, “I’m very grateful for the attention, not just for me and Sandra, but for our publishers, most especially W.W. Norton, Yale University and Indiana University.” Asked if she was surprised by the longevity of “The Madwoman in the Attic,” she said, “Everything about the longevity of that book surprises me in this age of electronic media.”
Gilbert agreed. “It’s been a pleasure and surprise to see that the book has continued to sell and be read everywhere I go,” she said from her home in Northern Calif. For her, their study of female creativity was “a kind of intellectual activism during the second wave of feminism.”
The two friends met in the early 1970s when they were teaching English at Indiana University. They designed a new course together on literature by women and went on to collaborate on a dozen books, working by phone and through the mail after Gilbert went to teach at the University of California at Davis. In 1986, Ms. magazine named them “Woman of the Year.”
Elaine Showalter, a feminist scholar who has known Gilbert and Gubar for many years, remembers that when “The Madwoman in the Attic” first came out, “it found its audience very fast. It was a stunning moment for literary criticism.” She and other scholars who were working in the field “greeted it with tremendous excitement.” This was a busy time for feminist criticism. Showalter published an influential essay of her own that same year called “Toward a Feminist Poetics.”
But she recalls that not all the initial responses were positive, largely because Gilbert and Gubar and other feminists were suggesting a new way of thinking about literature. “This was the very beginning of the discussion. There was no sophisticated tradition of women writers as such.” Critics were asking, “Was there something different about the way that women wrote that was not a product of biography?”
“People were still not accustomed to the special focus on women,” Showalter said from her home in Bethesda. “There was a certain amount of complaint that it was unfair to separate women, that it was unfair to make these generalizations. But whatever resistance or suspicion some people felt was just overwhelmed by the weight of Susan and Sandra’s research and their erudition and the scope of their book.”
Feminist writer Katha Pollitt points out that the way Gilbert and Gubar reframed the study of literature is now so widely accepted that it’s easy to overlook how groundbreaking it was. “People forget that, when they were writing, even to talk about women writers as having anything in common, as having a story of their own, as being connected in any way to each other, was incredibly controversial. Now it seems completely obvious.”
After Gilbert and Gubar began publishing, the canon — the list of titles considered most important — opened up to include many more books, particularly books not written by white men.
“There’s a lot of really great Victorian fiction that we didn’t read in a very serious way,” Pollitt said by phone from her home in New York. “ ‘Jane Eyre’ was in that camp. Its complexities were not of great interest. But then Gilbert and Gubar made us see a whole range of writing by women in a way that deepened it and made it more complex and more important.”
Some critics complained that “The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women” ghettoized women’s books, while others insisted that if women’s books were deemed important enough, they would be included in the “regular” anthologies. But plenty of scholars followed Gilbert and Gubar’s lead and began looking for works of literature that were no longer being read or no longer being read seriously.
For instance, in 1996, the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley published a controversial essay in Harper’s, arguing that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” didn’t deserve to hide in the shadow of Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.” And in 2005, Smiley brought renewed attention to a forgotten novel by Jetta Carleton called “The Moonflower Vine” (1962), which was subsequently reissued. For Smiley, Gilbert and Gubar pointed the way with good advice. From her home in Carmel Valley, Calif., she said, “Their work came at a really important time for women writers who had been born after WWII and suddenly found themselves taking advantage of higher education en masse. They said to us, ‘Think what you want to think, believe your own instincts and express yourself. And don’t look to authorities for a pat on the head.’ In reclaiming the ground for women, they did it for everybody, not just women.”
Both Gilbert and Gubar hope to attend the NBCC awards ceremony in late February, though Gilbert will be in Italy and Gubar is being treated for cancer. They haven’t worked together for several years, but Gubar says, “We’ve remained fast and true friends.”