An Investigation of Literary Greatness: Still a Battle of the Sexes

An Investigation of Literary Greatness: Still a Battle of the Sexes

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An Investigation of Literary Greatness: Still a Battle of the Sexes


"'I am an experienced writer and have some sense whether an idea can work or not...I wasn't sure it would work and I really thought about it for nine months before I put pen to paper. But I didn't feel intimidated by Melville's accomplishment. I felt inspired by it.'" Naslund quoted by Jamie Allen (CNN Interactive Senior Writer)(1999)

For most people the mention of "great literature" stirs up the classic images of such authors as Shakespeare, Twain, Hemmingway, Salinger, Fitzgerald, and Melville among many others. Without belittling those very talented authors I would like to question their superiority over lesser acclaimed or widely known authors. What makes great literature and who gets to decide what qualifies? Perhaps a book such as Ahab's Wife by Sena Jeter Naslund could be a "greater" book than its famous precursor, Herman Melville's Moby Dick. But who can one say that one book is greater than another? In the end the question of greatness comes down to who is measuring it.


Well first off, what does it mean to be great at anything? Perhaps it means to have succeeded gracefully at whatever goal there was in mind. Perhaps it is to be liked by others, or to be meaningful. Perhaps it is represented by being carried on through time. Or perhaps greatness is whatever people make it to be and can never be fully defined. Most likely any or all of those things contribute to greatness.

Given a flexible definition of greatness, what is great literature? Is it literature that has meaning (doesn't it all), invokes thought, is it defined by being likable, or achieving the authors goal, is it marked by the span of time and influence that the story has, or is a broad equation encompassing any or all, perhaps even none, of those characteristics?


Many would say that Melville's Moby Dick is great literature. Moby Dick is a classic novel that surely has had, and continues to have, a huge influence on the collective evolution of writing and literary thought. Melville's story of madness and obsession combined with his realistic old English style of writing has been mimicked and transformed to give rise to hundreds, possibly thousands, of new stories and an infinite number of thoughts have been born. There is no question that Moby Dick has been a very influential book. Does that mean it's great?

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Well perhaps, but does it mean it's greater than a story not as wide spread or mimicked? And what is it that is so great about this one book? Well some say Moby Dick is great because it invokes thought; while it is fantastical and adventurous, there is meaning in it that comes through to every human being who reads it. The book is praised for its openness to multiple interpretations and depth that can be achieved in those interpretations. It could be said that the greatness of Moby Dick lies in between the lines of writing, in the interpretations, and what is unanswered by the author.

Of the many stories to branch from Moby Dick, one such transformation inspired by Melville's famous tale was Naslund's book Ahab's Wife, which cleverly creates a female compliment to Moby Dick. Naslund creates a story that follows the text of Moby Dick, delves into many of the interpretations of Moby Dick, and spotlights the female experience with the main character being "the strong, adventuresome, intelligent, sensitive, successful woman -- successful in a very ordinary sense in that she feels fulfilled her life" (Naslund qt. by Allen, 1999). Ahab's Wife can be read as a supplement to or an expanding of Moby Dick or an entirely independent entity. Naslund herself says, "One of the most important things I want to say about the book is, you don't have to have read 'Moby-Dick' in order to enjoy 'Ahab's Wife.' 'Ahab's Wife' is designed as an independent, stand-alone reading experience."

When comparing the two books standing on their own, they appear very different. Melville writes a powerful archaic, gruff, and vengeful sequence of events along a short span of time, while Naslund writes a colorfully vivid, emotional, and romantic life story. Both books have adventure and passion but in very different contexts and styles. Is either style the example of great writing? Because Naslund's style is differs so greatly from Melville's does that mean it is less powerful, meaningful, or noteworthy? I think not! On the contrary, I found great pleasure in reading the sensual descriptions that Naslund used on every page; I was engrossed and quickly invested in the life of this woman. I saw clear pictures saturated with color and emotion, and I felt deep sorrow and delight (among other emotions) during my read. This was not the case at all with Moby Dick, during which I felt some emotion of sorrow and exhaustion but not out of a connection I felt with any of the characters. During Moby Dick I found myself searching for answers and meaning while during Ahab's Wife I found myself experiencing. Does enjoyment of a story not equate greatness? And a new flood of questions arise, was I just identifying with Naslund's book because she, the main character, and I were women, or was it just the style? It was most likely both, but was my enjoyment of the style in a correlation with the identification with the femaleness of the book?

It wouldn't be fair to say that a female reader will always automatically identify more fully with a female author and/or main character (or the opposite for men), nor would it be fair to declare that there is a masculine and a feminine way to write/think, however, it would make sense that there might be some differences in the way opposite genders approach a topic. Sharon Begley in the Newsweek article, Gray Matters (1995) attributes many of the differences between men and women behaviorally and psychologically to physiological differences in brain structure and function. She sites research that alludes to a clear difference in brain function among the sexes, such that women react and think differently than men in various situations. Perhaps, this means there are gender-defined ways of writing after all (to a point and not exclusively).

Whether or not there is a gender influence at play in the two novels or not, there are countless variations in the way each author approaches similar situations in the two books. While not entirely fair given that the excerpts are not from the same time or circumstances and no one ever really knows what an author's intentions are, the attitudes toward whaling might be used as an example of different approaches. Melville (a man) spends a chapter with Ishmael trying to glorify the act of whaling. Melville writes on page 100, "Whaling not respectable? Whaling is imperial! ... No dignity in whaling? ... I know a man that, in his lifetime, has taken three hundred and fifty whales. I account that man more honorable than that great captain of antiquity who boasted of taking as many walled towns." Naslund (a woman) depicts the main character, Una, as having a very different take on the lifestyle of whaling,
As for the innocent blood of the whale... I did my duty. I suppose many a soldier tells himself the same, and thus assuages guilt...I do not think dragons drained such sad blood. Nor were dragons female, and this whale evidently was for I saw her calf...grow frightened and swim away...Already Kit anticipated that a bloody reality would replace his fantasy of whaling (183).
There seems to be difference here, possibly related to gender, but getting back to the real question, is either of these more effective? Is one better literature? Who is to judge?

In 1999 Jamie Allen of CNN.com wrote a response to the list of 100 best books of the century put out by the Modern Library. In her response Allen wrote,
Aside from the usual brickbatting that accompanies any list that tries to encapsulate a century, the Modern Library's rankings has rankled both women and people of color... Only eight female authors were represented in the top 100, and minority authors were noticeably scarce, despite a considerable presence in literature over the past 100 years.
Is the rating system sexist (and racist)? Well, one can probably guess what sort of judges comprises such a group as the Modern Library... old, rich, white guys. After decades of "equality," it seems the battle rages on against the patriarchal society.

The point here is that members of the human race see things differently based on the human experience, sometimes as a result of biology and sometimes culture. As a result, each person's view of greatness might be different, and it's impossible to find a completely neutral party or fully encompassing and fair guidelines in order to judge. It seems that there are still a lot of effective and meaningful unrecognized authors out there. Interestingly all the "great" authors I (randomly) rattled off in the beginning of this paper were men, and I'm obviously not the only one who notes this still existing male domination. Perhaps female authors just haven't had enough time to spread their messages and see their influence, but one thing is absolutely clear in my mind, the explanation is not that men are just "greater" writers.

Works Cited

Allen, Jamie. (November 8, 1999). 'A 20th century response to a 19th century novel'. Retrieved 4/17/04 from CNN.com book News: http://www.cnn.com/books/news/9911/08/Ahab.wife/


Allen, Jamie. (May 6, 1999). The Top 100? Retrieved 4/17/04 from CNN.com book News: http://www.cnn.com/books/news/9807/21/top.100.reax/index.html


Begley, Sharon. (March 27, 1995). Gray Matters. Newsweek. Retrieved 4/14/04 from Lexis Nexis Database.


Melville, Herman. (2002). Moby Dick (Norton Critical Edition, 2nd Ed.). Parker, Hershel and Hayford Harrison (Eds.). New York: W. W. Norton & Company.


Naslund, Sena Jeter. (1999). Ahab's Wife. New York: Harper Collins.
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