In this diary, I look at why traditional Psychology rates girls as immature, even when they're solving problems in more complex ways than boys do (as explained in the feminist watershed, In a Different Voice). I show you how Jake and Amy, two 11 year olds, solve a moral dilemma; and how the biggest failure was the test itself.
I connect this with Jane Austen's formidable skills with Romance and Psychology. I claim that the perceived Femininity of Austen's work, and the smoothness and subtlety of her style, have misled millions of readers - so that they failed to perceive her depth and power.
I consider why so few women are in the highest Pantheon of Western Literature. I look at how our culture fails to appreciate the qualities and careers we label Feminine. I rant about poor lost America.
Finally, I ask Which Great Writers are the Easiest to Underestimate?
Let's start with three questions, each of them far too large to answer in a single diary:
How do Women Write Differently than Men?
In what respects do Women write Better than men?
Why are so few women deemed Great Novelists?
If you inspect the Great Books of the Western World, you find books by 28 novelists, 4 of whom are women (Austen, Eliot, Cather and Woolf). Most traditional (i.e. Dead-White-Male-centric) views of the Western Canon look similar. In the very first rank, you might also find Wharton and approximately one Brontë.
The Canon is conservative: it is an accumulation of long-tested opinion. Part of its myopia is, it's always half a century behind the times. If you're looking for a broader view of Great Women Novelists my diary, Who is the Greatest Woman Novelist since 1950?, includes lists of all the Women Novelists who have won Nobel, Pulitzer or Booker Prizes since 1950. The poll and comments also consider earlier Women Novelists.
In that diary, in the poll, 42% of readers voted Jane Austen the Greatest Woman Novelist before 1950. Yet millions of readers find Austen limited, sedate or shallow. That's because those readers are themselves limited or shallow. Still, Jane Austen is the easiest Great Writer to underestimate. I'll return to this topic - which Great writers do we underestimate - at the end of this diary.
Why do so many readers underestimate Jane Austen?
Let's explore a few reasons. One of Austen's greatest gifts is, she always makes it easy on her readers. She is all about clear thinking, feelings that add up, and making her plot and meaning precise and lucid. She has an instinct for how a story should flow, and a genius for explaining herself. Compare this with James Joyce, who's always hitting you over the head with how smart and obscure he is.
Austen writes prose so delicious that we swallow it like sherbet, and miss all the subtlety, layers, and grit in her craft. Austen's pages are like fractals: the deeper you peer, the more you see that dazzles. Far too many readers get assigned Pride and Prejudice in high school or starting college, glide through it once - and never come back to take a closer look, with enough life and reading experience to illuminate all the substance beneath Austen's smooth surface.
So where are the hidden depths and dazzling fractals that many readers miss in Austen? I broke it down in my Austen Diary last week. I owe a shout-out to all the commenters who brought so much knowledge and insight to share there. I learned more from all that conversation than I have from any previous diary. But if you lack the time or patience for a full overview of Austen's genius, here is my twenty-second summary.
Most readers miss at least some of Austen's complexity. Many of her strongest skills are very subtle: she is a queen of plotting, wit and irony; she works magic with her narrative voice (using bold innovations - which have informed every novelist who came after her); and she owns one of the brightest and clearest styles in all of literature. Yet all of these gifts are easy to ignore, or take for granted.
Jane Austen's Feminine Domain
Jane Austen is a queen both of Psychology and of Romance. The latter is, in a certain sense, unfair. The whole genre of Romance follows in Austen's wake, and swims in currents she discovered first. But there are many faults associated with Romance - getting lost in a plotless flow of passion, approaching pornography, losing verisimilitude - which Austen is mostly immune to. She keeps her wits and her distance about her.
Nevertheless, Austen pays meticulous attention to Psychology and Romance, and weaves her tapestries around them. Many men consider this a drastic flaw in her work. They figure that if a novel has no swashbuckling heroes, wild adventures, madness, mayhem and murder - then it's pretty thin gruel, and not worth staying up late over. They look down their nose at Austen, and this world of womanly concerns she confines herself to.
There is a small truth in this critique, and a large error (but this is just my opinion; you're welcome to disagree in the comments). The small truth is, Jane Austen does show us a world with pretty strict boundaries, mostly confined to the domestic affairs and marriages of middle-class people living in the Home Counties of England. If you compare Austen to the other Women Novelists at the top of the Canon (Eliot, Cather, Woolf, Wharton and the Brontës), every one of them travels further geographically, socially, and in their subjects, than Austen did.
The large error is: are Psychology and Romance really feminine? I believe they are universal. Four lads from Liverpool sang, "All you need is love"; the whole world listened. Romance is at the heart of our families and our happiness. Psychology is everywhere we look - and saturates the most interesting novels.
But there is a blindness in our culture, which has painted Romance and Psychology pink, and called them feminine - as if that made them less. Jane Austen writes about universal truths with enormous warmth, wit and acuity. But we live in a world where most men have learned not to talk about their feelings, and many don't even look at them. As bookgirl diaried last month, in this world a Myopic Male Writer and Professor can say that he doesn't want to teach literature written by women. This is not a wrestler, or a cop. He is a writer and professor - educated, aware of other cultures and fine distinctions - who's not interested in what women write, because it doesn't speak to him, it's just not that significant.
There's a knotty problem here, which also shapes the rest of this diary: what is actually feminine, inherent in people who are born with two X chromosomes; and what is "feminine", layered onto girls by a society which was dressing most of us in pink or blue before we had words or favorite colors to call our own.
Why Girls Grow Up Stupid
Of course, they don't. But, bearing in mind that nature/nurture question re. femininity/socially-constructed-femininity, girls do grow up differently. Girls grow up into a smartness of their own, which doesn't fit into the rigid straight lines society surrounds us with - so society sees girls's smartness as simply stupid.
There's a splendid book on this, In a Different Voice (1982). When Harvard University Press reprinted it last year, they called it "the little book that started a revolution". It had a profound effect on feminist thought; though some have said that it fails to resolve my knotty problem - distinguishing between innate and acculturated Femininity.
Carol Gilligan's In a Different Voice examines the model of humanity and maturity that modern psychology has constructed, and she shows that the entire scaffolding was built on male development as the norm. This was partly through convenience (it was easier to run tests on large cohorts in male boarding schools and the military), and largely through pig-ignorance.
You know how the IQ scale originally measured mental/chronological development (x100)? So if a 6 year old child tested at a 9 year old level, they'd have an IQ of 150.
Lawrence Kohlberg developed a similar scale, to measure moral maturation: Lawrence Kohlberg's stages of moral development. There are 6 stages of development. 1 & 2 are about, What Behavior can I get away with/profit from; 3 & 4 are about obeying society's conventions and laws; 5 & 6 are about looking beyond our society, towards universal principles (like Socrates or Gandhi).
Kohlberg honed his scale with questionnaires and in-depth analysis of 84 subjects. He followed them for more than 20 years, from childhood to adulthood. They were all boys. Later, Kohlberg found that most women only make it to stage 3 (most men reach stage 4, and a fraction stage 5). At stage 3, morality is framed in interpersonal terms, and goodness is equated with helping and pleasing others. Kohlberg said this was functional for mature women, insofar as their lives took place in the home.
In chapter 2, Gilligan introduces us to two 11 year olds. My next section is an extreme distillation from Gilligan's book. Jake and Amy are in the same sixth-grade class at school, and they're in a study exploring concepts of morality and self. They're each presented with a problem from Kohlberg's tests:
Heinz, his sick Wife, and the Druggist
Heinz's Wife is sick. She is going to die from her illness. There is a drug which can save her life, and the Druggist has it in stock. But Heinz cannot afford to buy the drug. Heinz approaches the Druggist, but the Druggist refuses to lower his price.Jake's Answer
Should Heinz steal the drug?
For one thing, a human life is worth more than money, and if the druggist only makes $1,000, he is still going to live, but if Heinz doesn't steal the drug, his wife is going to die. (Why is life worth more than money?) Because the druggist can get $1,000 later from rich people with cancer, but Heinz can't get his wife again. (Why not?) Because people are all different and so you couldn't get Heinz's wife again.Jake says if Heinz were caught stealing, "the judge would probably think it was the right thing to do", and that he "should give Heinz the lightest possible sentence". Jake considers the moral dilemma to be "sort of like a math problem with humans"; he sets it up as an equation, solves it, and assumes anyone following reason would get the same answer. Jake ends up being rated between stages 3 and 4 of Kohlberg's scale.
Well, I don't think so. I think there might be other ways besides stealing it, like if he could borrow the money or make a loan or something, but he really shouldn't steal the drug - but his wife shouldn't die either. (Why shouldn't Heinz steal the drug?) If he stole the drug, he might save his wife then, but if he did, he might have to go to jail, and then his wife might get sicker again, and he couldn't get more of the drug, and it might not be good. So, they should really just talk it out and find some other way to make the money.Where Jake saw a math problem, Amy sees a relationship problem. She's looking further along the web of connection between all the characters, and she's considering what happens if Heinz goes to jail, leaving his wife bereft. Amy's taken a black-and-white, two-dimensional problem, and she's solving it at a higher level, including relationships, humanity, absence and time.
Alas, Amy's no longer coloring within the lines of the problem as stated in the test. As the interviewer conveys through the repetition of questions that the answers she gave were not heard or were not right, Amy loses confidence, and her replies become more constrained and unsure. Asked again why Heinz should not steal the drug, she's reduced to "Because it's not right." Jake was sure that Heinz should steal the drug; Amy's sure that "if Heinz and the druggist had talked it out long enough, they could reach something besides stealing."
But in Kohlberg's scheme, Jake's answer is clear, and Amy's is muddy. Amy ends up being rated between stages 2 and 3 on the scale. According to the test, her responses show a feeling of powerlessness in the world, an inability to think systematically about concepts of morality or law, and a reluctance to challenge authority, or to examine the logic of received moral truths.
When they weren't being badgered by annoying psychologists, Jake and Amy showed similar maturity and sense of self. Amy describes herself as "growing and changing", and says she "sees some things differently now, just because I know myself really well now, and I know a lot more about the world." But Amy's world is orthogonal to the one Kohlberg is measuring. Her world is a world of relationships and psychological truths, where an awareness of the connection between people gives rise to a recognition of responsibility for one another, a perception of the need for response.
The saddest part of Kohlberg's whole rigged game is, many girls do as well or better than boys of the same age, when they're younger. After the age of 10, the boys seem to mature in straight lines, and their world grows clearer in black and white; but the girls mature like a growing, branching tree, and their answers appear less clear-cut by the laws of logic. So a lot of teenage girls mature in their own fashion, yet they regress according to Kohlberg's scale.
Amy's World, Austen's Rules & poor lost America
What Amy's seeing is the world Austen writes about. Romance for Austen wasn't about heaving bosoms or sparkly vampires. Romance, at Austen's highest level, is about kind and noble hearts; open-minded, perceptive responsiveness to all the people around us; and people ending up together who match each other well (even if Knightley has to move into Emma's smaller house, so they can both look after her father).
Another theme in Gilligan's book is how our society degrades everything it considers feminine - so nurses, maids, and elementary school teachers all get underpaid. We degrade some of the most precious and human parts of our culture, like taking care of the weakest among us, and ensuring that every child in America has food, shelter, love and a good education.
There is a horrific blindness all across America: our guns are sacred, our war-machine is sacred, our almighty dollars and unfettered corporations are sacred, our unborn children are sacred (even in a stranger's belly); but our schools, our sick, our poor, our personal rights and our shared dreams all fall by the wayside.
Jane Austen's Romance and Psychology are not limited, shallow truths. They are universal truths, and they are the truths that America has most woefully mislaid. David Gilmour refusing to teach books written by women is in the same cloud of unknowing as George Bush mocking prisoners about to be executed, which is the same unknowing that allows a vast right-wing conspiracy to lie about very little thing, in order to hobble Obama and drown our government in a bathtub.
This is the final piece of my puzzle: Why do so many readers underestimate Jane Austen? Because two of her greatest gifts are her ownership of Romance and Psychology. But we live in a technological age, in a global economy, hungering for more freedom, adventure and luxury. Our hearts are too cheap and hurried to appreciate Austen's "feminine" gifts.
Jane Austen is the sanest writer I know: her mind and heart are clear, penetrating, and completely reliable. She has sterling judgment. These are some of the most universal gifts an artist can have, and they offer a nutrition our culture is starving for lack of. But we degrade this wisdom, we drop it by the wayside, and we run after our glittering dreams of monstrous happiness.
Which Great Writers are Easiest to Underestimate?
Jane Austen. Which sounds silly, considering how widely she is adored, and the praise that some have heaped upon her. But you know, it's easy to underestimate the Beatles, too. Even though they're widely considered the greatest rock group of all time, few have studied their music or their history enough to see how many things they did first, how original, brilliant and consistent their songwriting was, how rich their sonic stew . . . well, Austen's the same. You have to study her deeply and from many angles to discover all she has going on; then you have to study literary history to appreciate that she was a century ahead of her time. On top of which, there are all those people who never gave her a second chance, or who are trapped in the image of Austen, and never noticed all the bits which don't fit.
Which Writers have Depth or Craft that most Readers Don't See?
Others that occur to me are Emily Dickinson, Chekhov; and perhaps Wodehouse, Hemingway, and Bob Dylan.
There are many areas of writing that are taken less seriously than others. So writers of humor, horror, and fantasy are often taken less seriously than they deserve, when they may be superb at their craft. This extends to any genre that smacks somewhat of lowbrow: science-fiction, westerns, thrillers, and certainly romance.
The rules of the game were made up by dead white men and, even after forty years of shifting the goalposts, they're still somewhat stuck. So novels which bring a completely fresh perspective (i.e. novels written from a feminine, alternative, or minority viewpoint, or novels from other countries) will often get under-rated, because their particular qualities may be hard to measure against more traditional models.