Number 147 In A Series Of Feminist Rants

March 20th, 2007 · 6 Comments
by Kassia Krozser

Nothing boils our blood faster than the suggestion that today’s women authors lack imagination. Okay, maybe the suggestion that women writers simply cannot write as well as men authors, but we’ve ranted enough on that topic for this decade. Thus we’ll take the former topic for $500.

Presence in the classroom is not necessarily an indicator literary brilliance.

Novelist Muriel Gray has leveled this accusation at this year’s Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction finalists. They are, to quote, “…too narrowly on their own lives and personal issues.” For those who don’t enjoy the task of reading between the lines, this is a not-so-thinly veiled suggestion that these authors are focused on domestic concerns, not manly concerns like, oh, war.

Gray accuses women authors of falling into the trap that all authors trip over, at some point in their careers: the notion, she calls “rural schoolteacher syndrome”, that certain ordinary experiences are interesting enough to fill a novel. They say, after all, that most first novels are largely autobiographical, and we all know that just about everyone, writer or not, at some point thinks his or her life story is fascinating enough to write about. Generally, no.

It is true, you know, that many women write about so-called domestic issues. We will maintain to our dying breath that much conflict, interesting conflict, lies in the home. A family breaking into tiny shards can be as emotionally compelling as, well, a man sitting in a Paris cafe while the waiters watch, waiting to close for the night.

It isn’t the subject matter, it’s the execution. Perhaps Gray is complaining that this year’s crop of submitted works simply weren’t her cuppa. That is a fair enough complaint, but to suggest that works that don’t speak to her are the result of women writers failing to “escape” their own gender and/or circumstances is a bit precious, no? The females who do this, who write outside their proscribed literary boundaries, are often chastised for doing so, and are very often not eligible for the kind of prize that the Orange is.

Women, for example, write mystery novels with male leads and protagonists (Martha Grimes, Kate Atkinson, Elizabeth George). Women write science fiction and fantasy with male leads and protagonists (Lois McMaster Bujold and Robin Hobb). Women also write romance with male leads and protagonists (pick a name, any name; men, however, tend to get rather, shall we say, purple when it comes to writing from the point of view of women when it comes to sex and romance). Women are quite comfortable moving outside gender as part of their work.

At least five of the authors named above are working in worlds and circumstances far beyond their ordinary lives. We don’t believe that Bujold has been a malformed swashbuckling undersized male living by his wits as he lies and cheats his way into success on other planets.

Unfortunately, when this happens — for men and women — this type of writing often becomes known as “genre fiction” and the rules change. A whole new set of prejudices emerge.

Suzi Freay, writing for the Independent (still the most annoying page titles in online newspaperdom), notes

…the notion that women writers are primarily domestic – and therefore inferior – was once a staple argument in favour of the dead white male canon, at least until feminist readings opened up formerly belittled texts and exposed the self-serving, chauvinist nature of much male criticism.

This age-old criticism allowed works of women to be shunted aside in favor of “big” stories, stories of conquering mountains, that were taught in schools and awarded literary prizes. Can you argue, with a straight face, that Charles Dickens wrote anything more than domestic fiction? Hemingway’s adventures were big, but his focus was so often very narrow, some might even suggest relationship-oriented. Thomas Pynchon, yeah, there’s a lot of war and missiles, but also home and hearth, in a Pynchonesque way. Raymond Carver? So often stuck close to home. We’ll give Jules Verne bonus points for imagination, but would he be shunted in the genre ghetto today?

As with anything, there is good domestic fiction and not-so-good. Also downright excruciatingly awful. Makes you cringe, it does. Quite often, we are blinded by tour de force rather than actual craft. We are taught certain texts and sometimes — just sometimes — through the sheer force of an instructor’s enthusiasm, ascribe greatness to work that is merely ordinary. It is great in the context of the canon, but how many works, some by women, some by men, were shunted aside as one novel was elevated over another? Presence in the classroom is not necessarily an indicator literary brilliance.

But it does inform a student’s ideas of what makes for good reading.

We’re really sorry that Muriel Gray didn’t like the books she had to read while judging this year’s Orange Prize. Such is the danger of being forced to read works as part of an obligation rather than from the pure pleasure of picking a book off the shelf that one wants to read. But to suggest that women lack imagination is a narrow view of both the gender and the work.

And “whoo hoo!”, we made it through this without mentioning that publishers buy and publish what they think the public will buy. Sometimes it’s not the best fiction that we see on shelves, but the most, define it as you will, commercial.

Okay, we almost made it through. What are you going to do, fire us?
[tags]women’s fiction, fiction, women, orange broadband prize for fiction, muriel gray, lois mcmaster bujold, martha grimes, kate atkinson, elizabeth george, robin hobb, writing[/tags]

File Under: Square Pegs

6 responses so far ↓

  • Kate Douglas // Mar 20, 2007 at 10:18 pm

    I do love this column! I write commercial genre fiction–erotic paranormal romance–and I’ve got one hell of an imagination. It’s not easy to turn a werewolf into an object of sexual desire, but considering the fact my first book in a twelve title series just went into its fifth print run, I must be doing something right.( At least someone, somewhere is reading my books.) I will probably never win awards, nor even hit the major bestseller lists, but I give a lot of readers pleasure with tales of my shapeshifting Chanku. As an author, there’s not a lot more I can ask for, is there? Recognition isn’t all that important to me–writing stories that are fun and entertaining makes for a much worthier goal.

  • Kelly // Mar 20, 2007 at 10:22 pm

    I have to agree with both you and Gray here.

    a) With you: There are plenty of female writers with plenty of imagination.

    b) With Gray: This list is not good overall (2 on the list I agree belong there–the Adichie and the Desai). Where is, in fact, Kate Atkinson–one of the best writers writing today? So she wrote genre fiction. Who cares? “One Good Turn” was the best novel I read in 2006 hands down.

    P.S. How did Rachel Cusk’s novel end up on this list? At least “The Emperor’s Children” is absent.

  • KathyF // Mar 20, 2007 at 11:51 pm

    Unfortunately, 147 will probably not be enough. I’ve been ranting about this myself, starting with my daughter’s seventh grade teacher who assigned, once again, Hatchet. It became a running joke in our house, as every year, one of my daughters had to read that stupid book. Because, you know, boys only read boy books. Mustn’t allow any Annes or Charlottes into the middle school reading list.

    Uh oh, I think that was 148.

  • David Thayer // Mar 21, 2007 at 9:20 am

    My first thought upon reading rant 147 was of Natsuo Kirino who writes hair raising novels or Maria Flook whose character may alter the commonly held view that landscaping is a genteel pursuit ( where to bury the husband? Among the Perennials?) Kate Atkinson, Denise Mina, Mo Hayder, Sara Gran, Cornelia Read leap to mind as both imaginative and incredibly gifted writers.
    But, of course, your reference to the commercial is both accurate and discouraging regardless of gender.

  • Kassia Krozser // Mar 21, 2007 at 8:18 pm

    But, David, what you’ve never told me is what you thought about rants 1 – 146… It was a silly comment for Gray to make. Indicting a gender for lack of imagination? I would be much more open to indicting the species, but you know me, always wanting more.

    Kathy — your comment hits home for me. If it weren’t for “To Kill A Mockingbird”, my middle school official reading would have been very much lacking in X chromosomes. Of course, now that I think back, perhaps I read Mockingbird on my own. The truth is that there were very few women authors held up as role models during my formative years — luckily my mother, being the cool kids’ librarian that she is, made sure I had a steady diet of the greatest of all the books available for a reader to read. I got my fix outside the classroom.

    The genre fiction argument (raised by David and Kelly) is a particular bugaboo of mine. Yes, there are readers who stubbornly remain within a genre and never leave. Then there are readers who crave a good story, never mind the family tree. But I believe that certain prizes value certain types of fiction. Authors like Kate Atkinson get their due in other ways; whether or not this is satisfying is, well, I suppose, a matter of ego. When you’re good — and you know you’re good — does winning a prize really matter? I don’t know. It feels good, sure, but contests have their own culture, their own rules. Even the most brilliant novel in the world won’t do well if it doesn’t match the unwritten (or written) rules.

    Kate, it really is all about the readers, isn’t it? At the end of the day, prizes, awards, accolades, what do they mean if you haven’t made a reader happy? Also, if you haven’t made yourself happy?

  • David Queenann // Mar 29, 2007 at 3:22 pm

    “If people like it, you’re good.” –Mickey Spillaine.

    If they have readership, and their readers are buying their books, then they’re pros. Different people write about different things. I can think of a number of women authors whose work I enjoy, and a number whose work simply doesn’t appeal to me because it does have a narrower, more domestic focus. That doesn’t mean the latter don’t have an imagination, that their chosen themes aren’t valid, or that they can’t write. It just means I’m not their demographic and I’d rather be reading something else. More power to them.