When I first skimmed this article in The Atlantic about why 21st century students should read the "racy popular novels of America's past," I thought, "ah! This is good. The discussion concerning popularity versus/and merit in fiction is continuing, and it will keep some of the more interesting older novels from sinking into total obscurity."
Ah, sometimes I really am too optimistic. I haven't read Gura's book, but it doesn't sound like it's a continuation of the conversation that was pretty-well fleshed out by Nina Baym, Susan K. Harris, and others just over 20 years ago. No- from the looks of this article, Gura is acting like he's just discovered the things that earlier critics have known and discussed for years. Ironically, we have a male professor apparently uncovering women's novels that men had neglected, novels that female critics and professors had already talked about. (And if I see one more book that has some version of "The Rise of the American Novel" in its title, I am absolutely going to have a meltdown).
So, really?? Really?!
Ok, let me just quote one particular little gem:
...this is one of the things I hope the book will do--alert people to these books. What’s nice is that 15-20 years ago this kind of book would have been aimed for a much more academic audience. But now these books are accessible to anyone on their computers. Before you had to go to a rare books library to find them, but now many of them have been scanned or Google has done them.
Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Puh-lenty of these old books are not hidden away in the "rare books" section of university libraries because, you know, they're in pretty good shape because NO ONE HAS CHECKED THEM OUT IN A MILLION YEARS. And this whole "alert people to these books"? Does he think that the average college kid is gonna say to him/herself, "hey! Why go to that frat party tonight when I can read Augusta Evans's Vashti: Or, Until Death Us Do Part?!!" And scholars? Yeah, you don't have to worry about them- they'll find what they need.
But that's all beside the point. Many critics before Gura have gone over this ground, and I really can't stand when someone comes along and says Eureka! when twenty-five other people have already said it and said it well only a couple decades before. I understand that this is a book about both female and male authors, but the part about women writers is old, old, old news. Now, maybe he has some earth-shattering thesis that I can't know unless I read his book, but I kind of doubt that.