Elaine Showalter’s A Jury of Her Peers

BY KATIE CONNOR, Managing Editor

JuryOn the whole, I tend to shy away from books on women writers. I feel targeted, for one. Because I am a writer and a woman, it is assumed that I want to read women writers. Secondly, these type of groupings often do more harm than good as far as marginalizing writing into a separate corner of the bookstore, a certain niche, much like writers of color. The separation of writers by gender can close them off from male readers, making them easy to miss or dismiss, as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “damned mob of scribbling women.” Finally, because writing is art, I feel that books should be classified according to art form. I don’t want to think of Virginia Woolf as a woman writer, but as a fundamentally modernist writer. I’m not interested in Aimee Bender because she has a vagina, but for her experimental, fantastical fiction.

That said, there is an important place for Elaine Showalter’s new book. According to Katha Pollitt at Slate.com, “The 350-year span of A Jury of Her Peers takes in more than 250 writers and covers sweeping tides of history and social change. It’s a long book, but it doesn’t feel long at all because it is so full of information, ideas, stories, and characters. The celebrated get their due—Harriet Beecher Stowe, Sarah Orne Jewett, Willa Cather, Edith Wharton, Zora Neale Hurston, Flannery O’Connor, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, Adrienne Rich, Toni Morrison—and so do the forgotten: Mercy Otis Warren, Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, Mary Austin, Mary Wilkins Freeman, Emma Lazarus, Anzia Yezierska, Nella Larsen, Meridel LeSueur, Ann Petry, and a host of others.”

My concerns about the classification of women writers are the primary reason why a book like A Jury of Her Peers should exist.  Rather than ignore the problem of under-read women writers, Showalter explores the gaps in the American literary canon through a novel rich in history and social analysis.  It will be interesting to see where it is placed in the bookstore.