Perhaps you have heard of the #franzenfreude Twitter trend, which began when the
chick-lit novelist [no! -- ed.] bestselling author Jennifer Weiner* offered up tart dissent to the praise that has been raining down on Jonathan Franzen, author of the forthcoming "Freedom"?
Coincidentally, Michelle Orange, a Brooklyn-based writer, linked at about the same time to an 1856 essay by George Eliot, for the Westminster Review, titled "Silly Novels by Lady Novelists." (Orange tells me she's seen the franzenfreude hashtag but didn't know what it signified.)
Despite the provocative title ("Extra credit for link-baiting in 1856," Orange wrote), Eliot's essay is hardly a wholesale attack on the literary abilities of women--which would be odd, after all, coming from Eliot. To the contrary, Eliot argues that women can possess not only a universal kind of literary genius but also a specifically feminine one:
Happily, we are not dependent on argument to prove that Fiction is a department of literature in which women can, after their kind, fully equal men. A cluster of great names, both living and dead, rush to our memories in evidence that women can produce novels not only fine, but among the very finest;-- novels, too, that have a precious speciality, lying quite apart from masculine aptitudes and experience. No educational restrictions can shut women out from the materials of fiction, and there is no species of art which is so free from rigid requirements. Like crystalline masses, it may take any form, and yet be beautiful; we have only to pour in the right elements--genuine observation, humour, and passion.
Interestingly, Eliot's concerns are nearly the converse of Weiner's. While Weiner complains that commercial fiction deemed insufficiently "literary" (for arbitrary, indefensible reasons) by book-review gatekeepers gets short shrift, Eliot laments that coverage of bad popular fiction drowns out coverage of superior books:
We are aware that the ladies at whom our criticism is pointed are accustomed to be told, in the choicest phraseology of puffery, that their pictures of life are brilliant, their characters well drawn, their style fascinating, and their sentiments lofty. But if they are inclined to resent our plainness of speech, we ask them to reflect for a moment on the chary praise, and often captious blame, which their panegyrists give to writers whose works are on the way to become classics. No sooner does a woman show that she has genius or effective talent, than she receives the tribute of being moderately praised and severely criticised. By a peculiar thermometric adjustment, when a woman's talent is at zero, journalistic approbation is at the boiling pitch; when she attains mediocrity, it is already at no more than summer heat; and if ever she reaches excellence, critical enthusiasm drops to the freezing point.
*Also my college and high-school classmate (!) ...
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Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.