A Writer, Her Reviewers, and Her Markets
"TO BE GREAT is to be misunderstood," Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, in his famous essay on self-reliance.
Kate Chopin, who had learned all about self-reliance from three generations of independent women, was a reader of Emerson, and so is The Awakening's Edna. (Happily alone, Edna "read Emerson until she grew sleepy" -- XXIV). And while Chopin might have hesitated to call herself "great" in public, she soon discovered a fact that is a great disappointment to all authors:
Their reviewers do not understand them.
Self-reliant and clever herself, Kate Chopin learned the basics of professional writing on her own initiative. She studied the experts, and she created in her salon a network of friends, supporters, and advisers. But the next career steps were beyond her control. Whatever happened would depend on the reading, writing, and thinking abilities of other people.
Reviewers, she found, were often enthusiastic, but nowhere near so knowledgeable as she expected. Readers were often worse. Chopin had to force herself to be gracious to those who misunderstood or patronized her writing, and when she travelled to her first writers' conference, she wound up as the center of a regional feud.
Chopin sometimes benefited, though, from other people's ignorance. When reviewers of Bayou Folk did not recognize the radical things that she was writing about women, they could not stop her from pushing against the boundaries of what was proper for American authors to say in print.