Chad Harbachs The Art of Fielding is the most reviewed literary novel of the fall, having already received extensive treatment in, among other venues, the New Yorker, the NY Times, GQ, and Slate. (Im currently finishing up my own review for Commonweal.)Almost every review has tried to critically situate The Art of Fielding by comparing Harbach to other, more established writers. Here is a brief list of authors that Ive seen mentioned as reference points: Jonathan Franzen, David Foster Wallace, John Irving, Mark Helprin, Mark Harris, Bernard Malamud.Something struck me about this list: it is composed exclusively of male writers. (I may be missing some review which mentions a womanmy own is going to compare Harbach to Anne Tylerbut still, the overall point stands.) This reminds me of a similar phenomenon in sports, by which, almost without exception, players are compared to other players of the same race. Who does everyone compare Dirk Nowitzki to? Larry Bird. Who do commentators mention as an analogue for Cam Newton? Not Ben Roethlisberger, but Michael Vick. Who forms the gold standard by which all white middle infielder are measured? David Eckstein. The list goes on and on.
Now, I do think that critics are on firmer ground when resorting to male-male and female-female comparisons in literary matters. You dont have to agree with all of V. S. Naipauls odious claims to believe with him that there are, very broadly speaking, differentiable feminine and masculine styles of writing. (Although there are female writers who write in a masculine style and vice versa. Keats, for instance, has always struck me as a feminine poet.)But this reflexive comparison of any individual writer to other writers of the same gender has two main problems. First, it serves to further ghettoize female writers (a longstanding process in literary history, for surethink of Nathaniel Hawthorne complaining about the damned mob of scribbling women in 1855.) Its a well-known fact that men are far less likely to read female writers than women are to read male writers. Always comparing female writers to other female writers only serves to solidify this gender gap: if Anne Tyler is always being compared to other female writers, then even fewer men are going to give this wonderful novelist a shot. (The real, lasting solution, of course, is to teach young male readers to read female writers.)Moreover, these knee-jerk, gendered comparisons impoverish the reading experience itself. One of the joys of reading is being able to draw connections between different texts: when reading The Art of Fielding, I think of all the other baseball novels Ive read, and my reading experience is all the richer for it. This kind of expansive, intertextual reading is seriously damaged if, even before sitting down with The Art of Fielding, Ive already ruled out, however unconsciously, the huge body of novels written by women as potential sources of comparison. To be a good reader means to be open to being surprised by what youve read. And, I suggest, being open to surprise means not so easily pigeonholing writers by their gender.