Elaine Showalter

Elaine Showalter
Talking about American Women Writers

Sunday, November 21, 2010


The University of Maryland is battling with Katherine Anne Porter's estate about her archive and control of her rights (see Links). Luckily I just got the final clearance --and e-book rights!-- from Farrar Straus Giroux to use some fiction by Porter in my forthcoming anthology, The Vintage Book of American Women Writers (January 2011). What a nightmare arranging permissions has been! I had lots of editorial help and back-up from Vintage, and my patient, resourceful, and endlessly optimistic editor Diana Secker Tesdell. But it was really an education in Dicksensian bureaucracy, greed, control freakery, inefficiency, lying, and the blindness of copyright holders to realities of all kinds. I thought that many executors would be happy to have some long-forgotten story or poem by an obscure woman writer republished, and see it as an opportunity to find new audiences. With a few stellar exceptions, not the case. Permisson editors "lost" my letters, until prodded by their bosses or aggrieved authors, when they miraculously located them in a manner of minutes. They took up to five months to reply to simple queries. They asked for exorbitant sums for negligible works. The representatives of various writers wanted to vet my brief introductions, and know who came before and after in the book. (It is arranged by author's  date of birth). They demanded revisions and objected to critical generalities. I finally had to drop twenty of my original 100 writers because they were too expensive or just inaccessible.

Isn't there a way to centralize permissions and reprint requests, with some standard range of fees and a reasonable time-frame? Seems to me this is what computers are for. Ironically, almost every text is now available on the web,, so anthologies may soon be a thing of the past. The big academic textbooks are already staggeringly over-priced, and engineered for planned obsolence; they carry out some kind of revision every few years so that students have to buy new books rather than used copies. It's a bit of a racket. My anthology is a single manageable volume, reasonably priced, and available on Kindle.

Sunday, October 24, 2010


I was very surprised that the American media paid almost no attention to the discovery and publication of Ted Hughes's poem about Sylvia Plath's suicide, in the New Statesman  on October 11. The British press exploded with coverage and commentary, but American papers were silent save for a few brief notices. I wrote on my Facebook page about it, and Professor Dianne Hunter of Trinity College wrote back: "Oh, those two old vampires!" I guess in some sense Ted and Sylvia are the Great Undead of literary history, impossible to keep down, always resurfacing with some new poem, or revelation, or family tragedy. And this poem was never finished; Hughes left it  in drafts and fragments. It's certainly not one of his best; Al Alvarez, a friend of both poets, wrote with uncomfortable phrasing (considering Plath's suicide by gassing herself in the oven), that is was "somewhat uncooked."

But it's not uninteresting; on the contrary, it's a poem of personal confession and strong emotion. Hughes tells that Plath sent him a suicide note which arrived too early, thanks to the efficient London post office, he rushed to her house, and she assured him that it was not serious and burned it in an ashtray before his eyes. Hughes then spent the weekend at a hotel with yet  another lover, a writer named Susan Allison  (unmentioned in the biographies of Hughes by Elaine Feinstein and Diane Middlebrook)---in other words, he was already cheating on Assia Weevil, the mistress he and Plath had separated over. Yet Hughes's tone throughout the poem is angry; he is bitter that  that Plath had planned the whole event in order to torment and haunt him. The telephoned  news of her death is a deliberate, deliberated blow to his life and sanity:

"Then a voice like a selected weapon
Or a measured injection,
Coolly delivered its four words
Deep into my ear: 'Your wife is dead.'"

A weapon selected by Plath? An injection of poison she had measured? Is she the victim or the vampire?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Learning a Little Chutzpah from James Ellroy

I've just been reviewing James Ellroy's latest memoir, The Hilliker Curse.  Clearly, Ellroy is not a woman writer. He is a very macho writer of cult crime fiction and Los Angeles Noir. But he is such a knowing and confident promoter of his own writing, and such an aggressive hustler of his literary persona that I think women writers, who tend to be self-effacing, modest, and genteel, could learn a lot from his style and schticks. Ostensibly, The Hilliker Curse is about Ellroy's doomed pursuit of women who somehow fulfil his guilty memories of his mother, but the subtext of the book is his psyching out the dynamics of bookstore reading and radio self-promotion. As he says "I semi-memorize the passage so that I can stand at the pdoum and share eye contact with the audience. I read shorter sections with as few differentiations in dialogue as possible. Never go long. Never try the audience's  patience." Ellroy spends hours practcing his bookstore gigs, gets snazzy clothes for them, plays to one woman in the audience. He has no hesitation in calling himself "the greatest crime novelist who has ever lived." As one of his interviewers noted, he starts his performances with a strong rhyming riff: "Good evening peepers, prowlers, pederasts, panty-sniffers, punks and pimps. I'm James Ellroy, the demon dog, the foul owl with the death growl, the white knight of the far right and slick trick  with the donkey dick. I'm the author of 16 books, masterpieces all."

Could a woman writer get away with anything remotely close to this?  Probably not; even Camille Paglia risked (and received) plenty of  ridicule. But I'd like to see women writers unafraid to perform.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Louisiana women writers

I've just spent two days in Lafayette, Louisiana, the home of the U. of Louisiana, and also of Tabasco sauce. Total Cajun country, with grits and sweet potato pancakes for breakfast. I  was talking about why I wrote A Jury of Her Peers, but also wanted to take the opportunity to say some things about women writers in Louisiana.

 In 1884, Julia Ward Howe went to New Orleans to preside over the Women's Department of the Cotton Centennial Exhibition, which became a forum for developing a Southern womne's movement. Before Howe's visit,  even literary clubs seemed improper for Louisiana ladies, but Howe strarted a women's book club called the Pan-Gnostics, which encouraged some New Orleans women to write fiction of their own. Indeed, by the late 1880s and 1890s, New Orleans became the center of American New Women fiction. Kate Chopin is the most famous writer about women and New Orleans, but  many other  women who were also not from Louisiana took advantage of its  images of sensuality, racial and sexual masquerade, and  the carnival, and used the setting to experiment with open endings rather than the predictable closures of doemstic fiction.

One fascinating example was Alice Ilgenfritz Jones, a midwesterner who wrote a novel called Beatrice of Bayou Teche in 1895. Beatrice is a beautiful, artistically gifted heiress of mixed blood, who decides to became an expatriate and live in Java, beause she cannot imagine a life of freedom, love, and artistic expression in the United States. Lafayette is smack in the middle of the Bayou Teche region, but no one in my audience had read or heard of this novel or its author. Alice Jones also co-wrote a delightful feminist utopian novel called Unveiling a Parallel (1893), set on  Mars, where there are brothels for women, with handsome young men lounging bare-chested on the lawn.   Jones and her co-author Ella Merchant, sympathize with the young men who are .forced into this unhappy profession, but perhaps celebrate the opportunities of Martian women to buy their services.