I don’t usually go in for the complaints of remaining sexism in literary criticism. The issue faired up recently when Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner accused the literary community of unfairly fawning over Jonathan Frazen’s new book Freedom. Their comments sparked a lively debate about how women writers are perceived. At the time of the controversy, I had just read The Corrections and considered myself a devout Franzen partisan. I also am generally disdainful of genre fiction, although I don’t have much experience with it.
I, as did Lori Stein, felt that Picoult and Wiener were guilty of false populism. They write popular easily digestible fiction. They are not given attention by the literary community, because they are not worthy of serious critical attention. There are plenty of female authors that are taken seriously: Zadie Smith, Joyce Carol Oates, Alice Munro, etc.
I still feel as though Picoult and Wiener were probably in the wrong. Freedom is a fantastic literary achievement. Having not read the female authors in question, I can’t comment specifically, but the critical consensus seems to be that they are not on the same level as Franzen.
I just got done with The Dud Avocado, and it has gotten me thinking about the ways in which women are taken seriously. As Terry Teachout points out in his introduction to the 2007 New York Review of Books Classics reissue of the novel, the serious of Dundy’s book is likely to be overlooked because it is tremendously funny. He points to Americans’ reluctance to take funny literature seriously, and contrasts the books reception in Britain where they know how to take a funny book seriously (see Evelyn Waugh and Kinsley Amis).
There is more to it, though, than just the humor. Twain, of course, is seen as the godfather of American fiction, and he is a humorist of the highest order. No, the main character Sally Jay isn’t taken seriously, because she is too girly. While Sally Jay certainly is concerned with love and clothes, she is concerned with a great deal more.
In the NYRB Classics reading guide for The Dud Avocado, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night is listed as a suggestion for further reading. While I’ve not read this book and it may be a fine compliment, I feel that The Great Gatsby is a more apt companion to Dundy’s book. The books themes are identical. How should an American live the good life in the face of the end of the frontier? Gatsby and Carraway leave the Midwest to seek their fortunes in New York City. Sally Jay, following in the footsteps of Fitzgerald and his Lost Generation, goes to Paris to live an authentic life as an artist.
Dundy’s Sally Jay Gorce and Fitzgerald’s Nick Carraway have much in common. Both are naïve characters who head east to a culture that awes and intimidates them. Both get unknowingly mixed up with criminals. They both find the resolution of their characters by heading back west to a more simple life.
Or, at least, Nick Carraway does. Sally Jay seems to, but in the last pages of the novel she finds herself swept off of her feet again by jet setting photographer. I would guess that the critical reception of the novel would be a great deal different, if Sally Jay remained a librarian for the rest of her years. The fact that she doesn’t is very suspicious. The ending seems contradictory to everything that the novel has been leading up to. Sally Jay leaves Paris for Hollywood, but, as she is changing trains in Chicago, a childhood memory of her youthful attempts at escapes make her realize that she is finally done running. She will go back to New York City and become a librarian.
She does just that, but upon meeting one of her old friends from her Paris days, she is swept off of her feet, and marries the jet setting photographer. One can’t help but wonder if Dundy was forced to change the ending by her publisher or someone else. The Sally Jay that stays a librarian can easily become a feminist icon. The Sally Jay that gets married is easy to mock as naive, love sick, and accident prone.
Though Teachout’s introduction touches on the depth of the novel, very few of the other reviews seem to recognize it.