Smart Bitch regular runswithscissors, in the comments to my “It’s not what you’re like, it’s what you like” post, mentioned a George Eliot essay entitled “Silly Novels by Lady Novelists.” And as I read Eliot’s barbed descriptions of the trashy novels of yore, I realized plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. (Yeah, I’m throwing in the French just to class up the joint, since it’s Friday and all, and Sarah and I are nothing if not a pair of classy-ass bitches. Yo.)
My favorite passage is one that runswithscissors already posted in the comments, but really, it deserves repeating:
The heroine is usually an heiress, probably a peeress in her own right, with perhaps a vicious baronet, an amiable duke, and an irresistible younger son of a marquis as lovers in the foreground, a clergyman and a poet sighing for her in the middle distance, and a crowd of undefined adorers dimly indicated beyond. Her eyes and her wit are both dazzling; her nose and her morals are alike free from any tendency to irregularity; she has a superb contralto and a superb intellect; she is perfectly well-dressed and perfectly religious; she dances like a sylph, and reads the Bible in the original tongues. Or it may be that the heroine is not an heiress—that rank and wealth are the only things in which she is deficient; but she infallibly gets into high society, she has the triumph of refusing many matches and securing the best, and she wears some family jewels or other as a sort of crown of righteousness at the end. Rakish men either bite their lips in impotent confusion at her repartees, or are touched to penitence by her reproofs, which, on appropriate occasions, rise to a lofty strain of rhetoric; indeed, there is a general propensity in her to make speeches, and to rhapsodize at some length when she retires to her bedroom. In her recorded conversations she is amazingly eloquent, and in her unrecorded conversations, amazingly witty. She is under stood to have a depth of insight that looks through and through the shallow theories of philosophers, and her superior instincts are a sort of dial by which men have only to set their clocks and watches, and all will go well.
Not since Mark Twain’s smackdown of James Fenimore Cooper’s Indians have I read such a hilariously scathing take on fiction.
Some of the reasons Eliot gives for the preponderance of awful fiction will also sound terribly familiar; to wit:
In the majority of women’s books you see that kind of facility which springs from the absence of any high standard; that fertility in imbecile combination or feeble imitation which a little self-criticism would check and reduce to barrenness; just as with a total want of musical ear people will sing out of tune, while a degree more melodic sensibility would suffice to render them silent.
But as runswithscissors points out, the main thrust of Eliot’s argument isn’t that there’s a great deal of bad literature out there (which is a truth so self-evident, I’m not sure it’s worth pointing out to any degree), but that the silly novels by lady novelists make it much harder for people to take women seriously.
If, as the world has long agreed, a very great amount of instruction will not make a wise man, still less will a very mediocre amount of instruction make a wise woman. And the most mischievous form of feminine silliness is the literary form, because it tends to confirm the popular prejudice against the more solid education of woman. When men see girls wasting their time in consultations about bonnets and ball dresses, and in giggling or sentimental love-confidences, or middle-aged women mismanaging their children, and solacing themselves with acrid gossip, they can hardly help saying, “For Heaven’s sake, let girls be better educated; let them have some better objects of thought—some more solid occupations.” But after a few hours’ conversation with an oracular literary woman, or a few hours’ reading of her books, they are likely enough to say, “After all, when a woman gets some knowledge, see what use she makes of it! (…) No—the average nature of women is too shallow and feeble a soil to bear much tillage; it is only fit for the very lightest crops.”
It is true that the men who come to such a decision on such very superficial and imperfect observation may not be among the wisest in the world; but we have not now to contest their opinion—we are only pointing out how it is unconsciously encouraged by many women who have volunteered themselves as representatives of the feminine intellect.
Eliot has a point, and this attitude—using individuals as stand-ins for the whole, instead of judging individuals on their own merits—is something people have used over and over again to affirm their prejudices. What Eliot doesn’t seem to acknowledge is that it stings just as badly when somebody uses you as a positive stand-in for your particular group, as in “she’s such a credit to her sex.” It’s rank condescending bullshit disguised to look like an accolade. For instance, I’ve been told in not so many words that I’m a credit to my race, and I find it simultaneously hilarious and offensive. Look, if I do something brilliant, or conversely, if I do something completely awful, shouldn’t any credit or infamy belong to myself? I don’t see how or what my sex, my race or any other incidental detail about my particular demographic has anything to do with it. Might as well say I’m a credit to people who wear size 5 shoes, or a credit to people everywhere who can roll their tongues.
But to get back to that damn mob of scribbling women and how they’re ruining it for all the smarteywomens out there: I’m still not convinced that reading, writing and enjoying silly novels is an accurate indicator of intelligence. The market is glutted with silly romance novels, but it’s more an indicator of how capitalism works than the IQ of the average romance reader. Making that sort of assumption engages in the same sort of obnoxious discourse that allows cheap provocateurs like Vox Day to make his pronouncements about why women shouldn’t be allowed to vote, for example. A bad book is a bad book, and at most you can say that the author is exceptionally bad at her craft, and that her publishing house needs a healthy infusion from a bottle labeled Standards, Dear God Any Standards, Please. Making judgments about the state of intellectual quality for a big, diverse group of people based solely on something like what we read is a silly idea, mmkay? Even sillier than the romance novels we love read, and we know many of them are pretty damn silly.