Don’t Fear The Women

October 31st, 2005 · 2 Comments
by Booksquare

It is a fact that most of our history, as noted in textbooks, is men’s history. We know about the wars, the politics, the conquering of nations — we do not know so much about how people, regular people, survived. That, after all, is the story of women, and our history books cannot be bothered with such mundane information. It was only sometime in the late 18th century that women worked around the problem that men decided what merited recording for posterity: women wrote novels.

We often talk about the subversive nature of women’s fiction, and Rebecca Traister of Salon (staking out its feminist ground with a vengeance lately) notes:

“Charlotte Temple” has been through more than 200 editions and is read today in colleges and universities — not simply for the basics about what women wore and what their social season was like, though those things are there. Embedded in its reductive formula is half of our social history, a record of the female religious, economic and political experience that we can’t get from political treatises or war stories because women were shut out of public spheres that produced documentation. Charlotte is an immigrant to the States from England, as was Rowson, and the book itself; “Charlotte” provides us with a unique reading of the Revolutionary rupture between Britain and the nascent United States.

Recently we had a small discussion with Derik Badman (MadInkBeard) about the fact that a novel centered around the women’s movement of 1970’s wasn’t particularly gripping for him. We know his pain — girl children, especially those of our era, saw the world through the eyes of boys and young men. We didn’t know that women could do cool things. It seemed that so much time was spent marveling the wonders of vacuum cleaners and products that made dirt vanish. Traister says:

Many of the earliest English novelists (Defoe, Richardson and Fielding) are held in high literary regard today, but we hear less about some of their popular female contemporaries, whose fiction was regarded whose fiction was regarded with even more skepticism than most.

Heavens, what could she know about the world? She never leaves the house. She only speaks with other women, and that, well, that, it’s only the silliest of topics. Why the other day, I overheard a conversation about stretching a piece of meat over four meals because we have no money. Honestly, how important can that be? Worrying about feeding the family isn’t my concern.

Early — and contemporary — criticism of women’s fiction took root in the notion that women wrote about emotional, sentimental subjects. Well, yes, that’s true. Just as it’s true that much women’s fiction takes a domestic turn (though we continue to argue that saving the world is, essentially, a domestic topic. As we’ve said before (and will say again), there’s a lot more to women’s fiction. We learned feminism from Harlequin romances. You may laugh, and you will surely misunderstand if you’re a man — but you didn’t grow up reading books where all the adult characters of your gender were homebound, cleaning, cooking, and changing diapers.

Harlequin women, who paved the way for the chicklit novels discussed by Traister, had jobs, had husbands who walked out on them, had hopes, dreams, and aspirations. And unlike males in novels, these characters had to face the reality that life is full of trade-offs: if you have the kids, you have to raise them. Family requires care and feeding. Your job may be important to you, but you do not live in a plastic bubble.

We don’t believe all romance or chicklit novels are noteworthy. Quite the opposite. There are far too many books being rushed to market; publishing is, after all, a money-making endeavor, and no matter how much we all desire quality literature that elevates our minds, the fact is that you must publish what people will buy and read (this allows publishers to also indulge their desire for experimental, obscure, or non-commercial works; see, it’s a symbiotic relationship). A lot of bad fiction is published. Too much.

But, as Traister points out, when men and women explore the same topics, one gender gets a different reception:

This fear is valid, especially in a cultural atmosphere in which “women’s magazine” is a derogatory term but Esquire routinely wins National Magazine Awards, in which Weisberger and Bushnell merit a combined review but a first novel by a man about a single guy in his 20s looking for love and professional fulfillment gets lauded in a full-cover review on the front of the New York Times Book Review.

We look forward to the day when novels by women are accepted for what’s between the pages, not on the cover. We accept that some men will always fear the world of women (you know who you are — the items that lurk on the feminine hygiene aisle will not suck the testosterone out of you). We realize there are centuries of prejudice to overcome. We know that bad books are published in every known genre. And we know there is no shame in writing about the everyday lives of men and women — there is more to our society than political intrigue. Why do you think anthropologists and archaeologists spend so much time sifting through long-abandoned villages? At the end of the day, we want to know how people like us worked out this living thing

After all, if it weren’t for women’s writing, we wouldn’t know that beer was the preferred breakfast beverage for our nation’s early European settlers.

File Under: Square Pegs

2 responses so far ↓

  • derik // Nov 2, 2005 at 9:27 am

    My point was that the subject matter of the 70’s women movement would have been interesting if the writing were good, though not interesting to me enough that I wanted to suffer through the bad writing. The content in isolation from the art was not enough for me. I will go the other way, though and have the art in isolation from content be enough. If the writing is really great then I don’t care what it’s about.

  • Booksquare // Nov 2, 2005 at 11:59 pm

    Given the amount of reading you have versus the amount of time you have (presuming the standard 24-hour day, though that seems quite flexible for some), your position makes perfect sense (though I would argue with you on the quality of the writing — a perfectly subjective topic that makes arguing all the more fun! — while agreeing that the story had moments that should have been better developed, but that was due to the structural choices made by the author). I’ve hung out at your site often enough to know that you don’t make judgments based on gender.

    That being said, “literature” as taught in American schools is heavily male-centric. This is the result of many factors, not the least of which is the lingering notion that women don’t write real books (I realize this is not the view of smart men, but I’ve had more than one man tell me that women’s books are naturally inferior due to subject matter — one built his case on the notion that men write about things that go boom. I wish I were making this up.). For girls, there are many choices when it comes to reading for pleasure, but agreed-upon curriculums tend to feature Scout and Emily Dickinson and a few female characters/authors — though somehow the husband assigned himself a semester of Flannery O’Connor during high school. He’s still not sure how that happened.