You Must Remember This – Joyce Carol Oates

I think there is an interesting comparison between this and Don DeLillo’s Underworld, which I reviewed a couple of weeks back. Maybe it says something about a male-female difference in approaching big issues, and maybe about why male authors are still valued above female authors (yes, some colossal generalisations there). This is a less overtly ambitious and monumental novel, a ’50s tale of an apparently ordinary family, and particularly the youngest daughter, centring on her incestuous relationship with her glamorous uncle.

But it addresses a lot of the same kind of issues as the mammoth Underworld: nuclear fear, changing sexual mores, McCarthy, the Korean war, political protests and so on. But where Underworld seems to have things to say about these matters, and constructs characters to express its ideas within its large canvas, this novel creates a human situation and brings out the big ideas as they affect them. This seems to me to be in general the kind of difference you might see repeatedly (though obviously not universally) between male and female authors, and it strikes me that it’s the overtly large scale of Underworld that gets the big critical heat, and the domestic teasing out of similar themes, the expression of them in their relation to ordinary people, that is still seen as somehow smaller, less important – this is not a fresh idea on my part, but a commonplace among feminist and PoMo critics for decades. I guess all I’m suggesting is that reading these books close together brought home to me that the paradigms and metanarratives of the literary establishment haven’t changed so much. I think this is a better book than Underworld, but it didn’t get the Great American Novel stamp of approval.