The Economist has a useful summary of Elaine Showalter's massive new overview of women authors in America, A Jury of Her Peers:
Ms Showalter does not attempt to unravel the intractable moral and
legal conundrums raised by this unsettling parable, but she uses it as
a metaphor to ask questions about literary judgment. Certainly, in the
early 20th century, when literature was being defined as an academic
subject, establishment male critics who wanted to make American
literature “more energetic and masculine” actively attempted to exclude
female writers from the canon. In the 1970s, when Ms Showalter herself
started writing about women’s literature, many critics thought they had
to counter this trend with feminist polemic. In this book, however, Ms
Showalter’s admirable aim is less pugnacious: to rescue forgotten works
for a general audience, but not to shirk from making judgments
(robustly dispensed, for example, towards the “unreadable,
self-indulgent and excruciatingly boring” Gertrude Stein). All the
writers discussed here are interesting from an historical viewpoint,
but only some reach the peaks of genius.
One perennial factor for women writers, according to Ms Showalter,
is “how they reconciled their public selves with their private lives”.
Unlike more abstract forms of criticism, which seem to place the work
of art in a vacuum, Ms Showalter’s is grounded in the lived lives of
her subjects, for whom she provides vibrant biographical sketches. This
serves to counter Romantic (and, some would say, ultimately male) myths
about the self-sufficiency of art, thus offering a subtle statement of
her own feminist aesthetic.
I suppose I can't knock Showalter's critique of Stein until I've read it, but I'm far from finding Three Lives unreadable or boring. Self-indulgent, yes, and thank God Stein indulged herself.