Bitch Goddess in Academia: Restructuring the Canon at Norman Mailer University
by Maria Bruno
The critic does not like the idea of women writers, does not believe women can be writers, and hence does not see them even when they are right before their eyes.
Nina Baym, "Melodramas of Beset Manhood"
Only ideological commitment could have gotten us to enter the minefield, putting in jeopardy our careers and our livelihood.
Annette Kolodny, "Dancing Through the Minefield"
He drew first blood.
Okay, so I'm back -- the resurrected Bitch Goddess in academe. I lost my old job to budget cuts and I got desperate, so I took this job at Norman Mailer University in upstate New York. Yeah, I know he's a sexist and stabbed his second wife, and he said women couldn't be real writers because the were made to have babies, and he said a real writer needs to have balls, and I know I've even made jokes about him. Like the one about how I think The Naked and the Dead is the way he likes his women . . . but it was either this, teaching graduate courses in American literature, or that standing offer from Moosehead, Alabama, teaching five sections of remedial composition five days a week to Animal Science Majors. So here I am and I need this job. I'm in the same tasteful tailored suit I always wear to interviews and the first days of anything with the silk bow collared blouse, taupe pumps, my face sculpted to perfection in a modest beige make-up base; I want to appear rational, competent, scholarly -- not shrill.
I'm not sure I want to appear younger or older, so I decide on a respectable middle-aged stance, whatever that is, and I wait for the meeting to begin.
I look around the room. There are antlers on the walls, lots of old white men sitting around a thick mahogany table. I feel like an intruder, like I've snuck into a meeting of the Order of the Most Solemn Elk. They eye me suspiciously. They know I am a token, a sacrificial lamb thrown into the den of academia to teach "all those older women graduate students coming back to school. "That's at least what they told me in my interview where they spoke of these older women as if they were dilettantes -- as if their late-in-life graduate program was as serious as an enrichment course in ceramics, flower arranging, microwave cookery.
I recognize there is a distinct pressure for studying female authors and hiring women professors to do so, and I feel safe in this knowledge for the time being. I want to tell them that I am committed to the idea that literature can renew our lives -- yet literature just isn't pulling the students in anymore. During my interview, one white-haired professor who was wearing one of those thin Fifties ties my dad used to wear to funerals, told me that one of those "older women" had the nerve to tell him reading post-Sixties male writers was like watching Porky's I & II over and over again. "These aren't my stories," he said she announced to the class. "This isn't even my language!" So they hired me, I guess, to "give these gals what they want. "That way they don't have to give up their forever allegiance to post-adolescent male characters who are on the run, on the road, or on the make.
I want to ask them why they think people weren't finding their heroes in literature anymore, that maybe the standard canon had exhausted itself, that maybe literature as presented and taught just wasn't accessible to most students. This generation's heroes are video mega-heroes: Rambo trudging through a Thai jungle, muscles gleaming, a magazine of bullets glistening across a Nautilus chest; a pre-verbal Arnold Schwarzenegger, thigh-necked and swarthy, playing Conan the Republican with total recall, a silk shorted Rocky Balboa who isn't allowed to die even after four sequels. I often liken these video heroes to the established literary canon; after a steady diet of them I hunger for a Meryl Streep, a Sissy Spacek, a Whoopi Goldberg. The established literary canon does not tell everyone's stories, does not speak everyone's language, and maybe that "older woman" student is right -- women students can't attach to forever juvenile male characters who feel post-modern angst and who run, hit the road, hop in and out of suburban swimming pools, and lose themselves in fleshy aim-to-please women. We saw through these guys years ago. They bore us. We want our own stories.
"Clit lit," snickers a reasonably young professor who's sitting under some large antlers in a corner.
"What are you afraid of?" I hear a little voice inside of me say. She's pretty quiet today. It's my Bitch Goddess and she knows I want this job. I've nicknamed her -- like any good feminist critic would do -- my "covert sub-text. "She's underneath, straight from the wild zone, giving me a running commentary on my life.
"Harumph-h-h," phlegms up a full professor. He comes over and sits next to me. "I hope you've been reading a lot of Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan, "he lectures. "They're very big around here. They've given us whole new avenues of study." He says this like they're the next best thing to Vitamin E and pre-dawn jogging.
"I have read them," I say. "But lately I've spent my time reading Kolodny, Hooks, Baym, Showalter, Gilbert and Gubar." No phlegm in my throat -- I say their names like clear bells ringing. He looks at me matter-of factly, like I have rattled off a guest list to a neighborhood Tupperware party.
"Oh, yes, Gilbert Anne Gubar," he sniffs. "Isn't she that gal out of Princeton?"
"How bad do you want this job?" comes the voice straight from the wild zone. I'll forgive him, I say; he's old, he somebody's grandpa. I say nothing. I'm getting prepared. I have my syllabus under wraps. I've reconstructed one of their traditional courses in American literature. The meeting doesn't start. I guess we're waiting for someone or something.
There is suddenly a grand silence, a calm before a giant storm. All straighten their books and click their pens. I feel for a moment I can hear distant trumpets. Norman Mailer flourishes in wearing a tan safari suit, looking a lot like Bwana Don Corleone, the great white Godfather. He looks rugged, virile, boyishly attractive -- and for a moment, I forget my speech. I forget I want to tell him his stories are not my stories, his language is male, his concept of universal literature denies fifty-per cent of the population whose experiences are different, who have, as Adrienne Rich argues, lived enforced lives inside a patriarchal culture and a patriarchal language.
"So you're the little lady we hired to take on those pushy graduate students," Mailer laughs, his teeth large and white in his mouth. He says every word like it should be italicized and I suddenly remember my book list tucked neatly in my valise. "I've never taken much to women writers," he says, eyeing me. "I can't read them."
"The more you read, the better you'll get at it," I say politely, staring at the brass buttons on the Bwana Don suit. ("After all, we've had to read all of you all these years," she hisses. She's quiet again. She's thinking of Moosehead, Alabama, and the Animal Science majors. She settles down and watches him.)
"You must remember, though," he says, crossing his legs like a real Sicilian. "You can't throw out years of literature and culture. You have to remember who the important writers are."
I look at him. He's not going to like my syllabus, I think. The Bitch Goddess begins to move. I can feel her stretch inside of me. ("Are they important because you tell me they're important?" she whispers.) I feel her crawling up my throat.
"Something is missing from that cultural history," I say, she says, I'm not sure anymore. "The lives, the stories, the rhythms of half of humanity."
There I've said it.
There is silence.
"You're like Erica Jong," he says glibly, winking. "You're both cute when you get angry."
"That's it," she says. "It's all over. He drew First Blood."
Suddenly I startle everyone, including myself. I feel heroic as hell. Things begin to whirl about me. I rip open my tasteful tailored suit and reveal a diagonal line of silver bullets slung across my bosom with the name of every woman writer shut out of literary history engraved on each and every one. My muscles bulge, my skin glistens. I jump on the table, my syllabus in hand; I feel strong, energized. Mailer freezes. It looks like it's Moosehead, Alabama, for me. But I feel good. I can rescue prisoners of war from a Thai jungle, match neck-to-neck Arnold Schwarzenegger's verbal prowess, and ride the plains bareback. Yo, Adrian.
I am suddenly Everywoman, real and fictional. I am Susannah Rowson, Mrs. E. D. E. N. Southworth, Kate Chopin, Zora Neal Hurston, Alice Walker. I am Lily, Celie, Isadora Wing. I am my one grandmother who worked the spinnies in a Pennsylvania mill, and the other who pulled fevers out of sick babies with her gentle hands. I am that gal from Princeton and that gal from Indiana.
"Please, please, Miss DiPrima, you're wrinkling my epaulets," Mailer cries. I awake from my daze. I'm shaking his shoulders, calling him Norm, looking for knives. The Bitch Goddess is standing tall, no longer crouching in silence.
"Please sit down," he says, "and pass out your syllabus."
When everyone has a copy -- Mr. Clit Lit, Jacques "You Really Want One Don't You?" Lacan, the guy who's somebody's grandpa, and every other Most Solemn Elk who hasn't changed his syllabus in 25 years -- I pause. There is an awkward silence. Norm seems to be fixating on some antlers looming above my head; Jacques fidgets, and the grandpa seems to be thinking gleefully ahead to my tenure review, mentally booking me a Super Saver to Moosehead. I want everyone in this room to know that feminist literary criticism is not narrow and reductive. It is expansive. It is life affirming. It is revisionary thinking. It breaks silences. It tells stories that have never been told but have longed to be told. I look around me. I see cigar smoke curling around a terra cotta sculpture of Cotton Mather, a framed glossy of the Big Two Hearted River on the wall, three unabridged Melvilles stacked in the center of the table. I rearrange my books, fanning them out into the shape of an eagle's wing. I clear my throat. I hear a palpable silence. I'm thinking about all the women students who want to be writers -- poets, novelists, essayists -- women who will come to this university who are unable to find any role models to guide them, who have stories to tell, but who may never tell them. I think of all their future silences and then I figure this silence isn't so bad. I take a deep breath and begin.
MARIA BRUNO, Assistant Professor in the Department of American Thought and Language at Michigan State University, teaches women's studies and writing.
Copyright 1993, The Women in Literature and Life Assembly of the National Council of Teachers of English (ISSN #1065-9080). Permission is given to copy any article provided credit is given and the copies are not intended for resale.
Reference Citation: Bruno, Maria. (1993). Bitch goddess in academia: Restructuring the canon at Norman Mailer University. WILLA, Volume II, 31-32.