Subversion: Why Women’s Fiction is Scary

December 30th, 2004 · 18 Comments
by Booksquare

Let us begin with the idea that for a woman to write novels at the dawn of the format’s history, it required an act of bravery. Storytelling has been a human tradition for, oh, a long time, but the novel, such as it is, is a relatively new concept. For our purposes, let’s use Don Quixote as our starting point (1605 or thereabouts, what with leap years and calendar reform and all), though many pin the birth of the novel to the 18th century. But we like the idea of tilting at windmills, and, what the heck, it’s our rant. Whether you choose the 17th century or the 18th, it wasn’t a period renowned for educating females, and, for those females who did benefit from learning, the focus wasn’t on preparing them for a role in the world of arts, much less a career.

In visiting the public school in London, a few years since, I noticed that the boys were employed in linear drawing, and instructed upon the black board, in the higher branches of arithmetic and mathematics; while the girls, after a short exercise in the mere elements of arithmetic, were seated, during the bright hours of the morning, stitching wristbands . I asked, Why there should be this difference made; why they too should not have the black board? The answer was, that they would not probably fill any station in society requiring such knowledge. (Lucretia Mott, “Discourse on Woman”)1

The earliest female novelists were working in the mid-17th century, not long after Miguel de Cervantes excited the fiction world in ways likely comparable to Harry Potter fever today, though slower. Some names have survived, such as Aphra Behn. Others, like Lady Mary Wroath, are known only to those who are fascinated by this topic. Perhaps much of the work wasn’t memorable in the sense of Cervantes or other great storytellers, but it is noteworthy for the underlying risk taken by the authors. In The Female Pen 1621 – 1818, B.G. McCarthy says about trailblazing women authors:

If women were daring in even in attempting to write, it is not to be expected, at that stage, that they would have the extreme audacity to become innovators as well. If only, instead of being satisfied with diligently copying the headline set by men, they could have bridged the great gap between romantic and domestic fiction, then not only would hte development of the novel have been hastened by hundreds of years, but women would have been able to exert their talents on exactly the subject-matter they knew best, and consequently, there would have been far more women writers. (B.G. McCarthy, The Female Pen [Cork University Press, 1994], 2 [out of print])

In this case, romantic fiction does not equal the romances we know and read. McCarthy is referring to stories more along the lines of Heloise and Abelard and subsequent tales of chivalry and derring-do, up through the dearly departed Pastoral Romance. That’s not to say derring-do is no longer socially acceptable, but it should remember its place, especially during dinner parties. Domestic fiction, those novels of manners and sly commentary on society, has survived, though we do not believe it has been done justice in quite some time. Probably because of all the political correctness.

If you look back at the history you learned in school and the literature you either devoured or ignored (with good reason, in some cases), you’ll likely note a major omission: women. That’s not to say women didn’t exist during the Roman Empire (Cleopatra gets a nod, but mostly for her liaisons, not her leadership). Nor were women absent in the Renaissance (Artemisia Gentileschi generally benefits from lip service). Quite a few participated in the founding of what would eventually become the United States (though, sadly, much of their contributions to history classes tend to be in the form of discussions about the Salem witch trials, not necessarily a good time to be an uppity female). Oh sure, you have your Betsy Ross, Clara Barton, Florence Nightingale types, but they too feel like footnotes to history. Even Marie Curie seems less important than she really was.

For most of us, discussions about female contributions to literature began with either Jane Austen, the Bronte Sisters, or perhaps a wink and nudge to George Eliot. Serious exploration of women writers might have happened when Virginia Woolf could no longer be avoided or Gertrude Stein and the expatriate movement were taught (Stein, in addition to the Alice B. Toklas thing, offered comfort and aid, always popular literary traditions). For many Americans, more depth than this about female authors requires attending special classes with titles like “Women’s Fiction” or “Women in Fiction” or “Women Who Write Fiction”, or, hopefully, something slightly more clever. These are the classes where you study Fanny Burney, Ann Radcliffe, Maria Edgeworth, heck, even Zora Neale Hurston.

Yet despite the fact that their work was largely ignored or discounted, women kept writing. Some quite successfully. It was literary hero Nathaniel Hawthorne who, frustrated by losing sales to more popular female writers (and expanding upon Alexander Pope’s2 complaint), decried the presence of “scribbling women” cutting into his annual income. Hmm, despite his lack of major influence on his contemporary readers, it is a bit surprising that he’s the one we suffer through in school; perhaps it’s because of his loving treatment of women such as Hester Prynne. Yes, that must be it. History is a matter of perspective, and most history is written by those in power. This may be the truism the Internet changes the most.

How is it that so very few female authors are remembered and taught today? Well, probably for the same reason that women’s fiction is treated as second rate by many. Fear. Women don’t necessarily write about the big things, the whales, the battles, the climbing of mountains. They write about the day-to-day aspects of being human. And they write about the emotional aspects of our condition. Emotions are terrifying things, especially when they aren’t physical expressions of anger. Early literary mores were largely informed by the spheres of the sexes, and then, as now, the female sphere was deemed lesser. Let’s face it, anything that revolves around cooking, cleaning, or children cannot be important. Now, conquering nations…there you have something.

We must also recall that successful female authors likely didn’t make the best of wives, or at least the most biddable of wives. Writing has a way of making time disappear, and if one is involved in fiction, one is not cooking, cleaning, sewing, and staring adoringly at her husband while he recounts his day of doing whatever he did. Writing also employs the brain in ways that cleaning never will. An active brain, especially one with a lot of imagination, starts to ask questions and explore concepts, and eventually challenges society’s rules. Like, oh, why does the woman have to do all this work at home while he gets to go out drinking with his friends? It might also lead to questions about commonly accepted facts like the relative intelligence of women to men. Yes, we all know the answer now, but back then, there was a large disinformation campaign. Superior intelligence was a big selling point for men being in charge.

Again, we note that despite all of this, women’s fiction survived. It coalesced in the late 18th century with the Gothic novel. This was the time, we would argue, that the subversive nature of women’s fiction manifested itself (for more on this topic, we recommend The Contested Castle: Gothic Novels and the Subversion of Domestic Ideology by Kate Ferguson Ellis). If we may mix our metaphors a bit (and really, who’s going to stop us?), by flying under the radar, women passed information in plain sight. Through fiction, women were able to examine their lives, discuss ways for bettering their existence, and hone their arguments. This approach, with precedent extending back to Biblical times, was used by authors such as Harriet Beecher Stowe3 to expose their views about slavery to a wider public. The idea carried forth to the suffrage movement:

The specifically cultural contribution of suffrage texts (in their widest sense) was that they brought together the different platforms of political activism, performative art and feminist fiction, so that, when engaging with suffragist thought, mainstream readers had to consider the political demands of the women’s movement, while political activists learnt to appreciate the socially transformative power of literature (Introduction: Words as Deeds: debates and narratives on women’s suffrage
Ann Heilmann)4

In her 1984 work Reading the Romance, Janice Radway concludes that romance reading both empowers women (readers) to challenge their roles within the confines of certain mores (particularly monogamous marriage and heterosexuality) while also reinforcing these cultural standards (the book was re-released in 1991, but we don’t know if the study was also updated). The romance serves as both a feminist manifesto and obstacle, which seems contradictory on the surface, but not when you look at our society as a whole. We would argue, however, that the novels studied by Radway and read by her control group represented the end of an era. The genre underwent a dramatic change in the 80s and 90s, much as the culture of this country did.

Radway’s study subjects exhibited a knowledge that romance novels were fictional while using them to inform their own lives. This is the subversive quality of this type of fiction. We grew up in a city where divorce was the exception, seen as weird; our youngest sister grew up in the same city, but the view of divorce had radically changed. Women’s fiction served as a sort of guide during this cultural shift, especially for women entering the workplace after growing up expecting something entirely different. The novels showed women rising above traditional female roles (earlier romances were rife with nurses and secretaries and nannies looking to leave the working world; in these stories, the women always played a subservient role). It took some time before the woman kept her job while attaining her man, etc, but that may be more of a reflection on publishing standards than the stories the authors wanted to write.

Oh, and we can’t discuss this subject without mentioning sex. If women’s fiction has taught women anything (modern women’s fiction, we mean), it’s that being a sexual person is normal. This genre explores boundaries of sexuality with a frankness that is only shocking if you realize your grandmother is reading some of this stuff. Yes, it’s probably more than you want to know about her, but that’s okay, because your mom probably reads it, too. Given that women have been viewed as a sexless gender, icons of virtue, and what not, it’s reassuring to discover that we’re just like our peers. Well, maybe not all of them, but enough to make a difference.

Romance fiction is inherently conservative in that it focuses on a more traditional view of marriage; it is also inherently radical in that focuses on female satisfaction and desires at they relate to relationships, particularly marital*. These books walk a fine line, but the ultimate result is that women give voice to and read about options.

Despite the fact that it covers overhead and pays salaries and, frankly, subsidizes much of a house’s other fiction, women’s fiction, romance, is viewed as lesser fiction in the eyes of the literary world, again, because literary mores were formed based on a different society (evolution is a long, slow process, but we believe it will be worth it in the end). In some ways, this may not be an unfair characterization: much romance fiction has evolved to the point where quantity is goal, not quality. Authors don’t make much money, with notable exceptions, and romance authors make even less. Speedy writing, just as in the days of Thackeray and Dickens and their predecessors, is a necessity. This is one area where we don’t have a brilliant solution, but we’re working on it.

We cannot avoid the more embarrassing aspects of the genre, especially the covers. We remind everyone that authors are not responsible for this. Also, women’s fiction, like just about every other type of fiction, falls prey to the “superstar” quagmire. Certain authors are considered beyond reach. And they continue to publish what we can only say are bad books. On the flip side, apparently readers buy this stuff. Who are we to say it’s wrong when it clearly appeals to someone?

Okay, fine, but right now, we’re trying to make a point.

Romance is also viewed as playing into male dominance and being formulaic. We cannot overstate our aversion to the term “bodice ripper” enough. The very phrase implies physical, sexual violence toward women; that is it still used by modern journalists shows both a lack of education and reporting capability. Likewise, it is rare to see an article about the genre that does not contain the word “formula” in some form (we are doing our best to continue this time-honored tradition). And, to tell the truth, there is a formula. Pay attention because it is quite complex: a romance novel must have an emotionally satisfying (happy) ending**.

Yeah, that’s a tough one, and it’s the reason why authors such as Nicholas Sparks don’t qualify as romance authors. Sparks’ penchant for tragic endings make him more, uh, literary, from a marketing perspective of course. After all, it is very important that humans remember that life is filled with misery and loss. To live with hope or optimism (or, worse, to actually be happy) is not what our species is about. It’s not like we’re seeing living, fighting examples of the human spirit in the news. In other art forms, we want the hero to win; in literature, it is only good if everyone loses.

Yes, yes, a dramatic overstatement. You are welcome to write your own rant on the topic. If we sound cynical, it is because we’ve hit a real unhappy ending streak with our reading lately. We believe women’s fiction is undervalued because the literary tradition has undervalued women. Our subject matter is considered small, if life in any form can be considered small, and the subject matter necessarily requires an examination of emotions, particularly love. All of this is antithetical to what we’re taught is “good” fiction. As such, many literary purists proudly and cluelessly state that they don’t “read that trash”. We don’t know what they have against sex and love, but apparently they’re not enjoyable things. For that, we can only say we’re sorry.

Love — in all its facets, and that does include sex — is a universal aspect of the human condition (we would argue that more people are affected by love, good, bad, and ugly, than murder). The domestic nature of women’s fiction lends itself to discussing the breadth and depth of love in our world. And, by domestic, we do not mean housebound. Love is also the emotion that makes us weakest, and literature does not celebrate weakness when it’s worn on a character’s sleeve.

On one hand, this bothers us because we want women’s fiction to be held to a higher standard. It is easy to become complacent in a genre, especially in a time when adventurous writing is not rewarded. We, and the writers we know, work very hard on craft. It is our long-held belief that each writer writes what he or she writes. You do not wake up one day and say “I’m going to be a poet” unless you have an affinity for it. Some writers never attempt fiction at all; they write non-fiction, they write essays, they write news. It is how their brain works. Some writers evolve over time, but you do not point to place and say, “I’m going there”, unless you were on that path already.

On the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for flying under the radar. It’s like the women*** of the world have formed a secret society, passing important information in a manner than can be absorbed during soccer practice or in the bathtub. Plus it’s nice to laugh behind the backs of the uninformed. We will not suggest that sometimes women’s fiction writers laugh at people who don’t get it, but things happen. Just because we believe in happy endings, it doesn’t mean we are all nice people.

Now, and it’s very important that you pay attention because even experts have trouble with this one, you must remember that the romance in a novel is not the plot. This is why Hollywood persistently (and, often, wrongly) throws a love interest into what would otherwise be an okay movie (thereby moving it into the dreck category). If romance novels were all focused on getting him and her together****, that would bore us to tears. The beauty of the romance genre is that it is really all genres. Once the single rule of the formula has been met, anything else goes. Romance writing creeps into pretty much all fiction, and, often, it is a matter of what label is applied to the work. For example, if the work of Laura Kinsale was called “historical fiction” rather than “romance”, her audience would be very different as would her position in book review sections. Likewise, if we spoke the truth and called Atlas Shrugged a really bad romance novel, that would probably stop a million overly impressionable college students from fashioning themselves Objectivists. This is important because it will ease the blow when they slip back into the more comfortable role of Capitalists.

History has taught that the subversive nature of fiction, all too often taken lightly, can transform society. Female authors belong to a proud tradtion by virtue of their participation in this transformation. Plus, it’s kind of cool that we scare the big boys, in a manner of speaking.

* – It has been suggested that if men read romances, they’d understand the female mind. We’re not the type to recommend things, but, uh, yeah.
** – Also, it is helpful if the actual romance is limited to two people, but this is not necessarily a formal requirement.
*** – And more than a few men.
**** – This is our particular bias; yours may vary.

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File Under: Square Pegs

18 responses so far ↓

  • Karen Junker // Dec 30, 2004 at 11:07 pm

    The happy ending *always* includes the man and woman either getting married or making a commitment in some obvious way. I think it would be wonderful for an occasional romance novel to end happily with the heroine realizing that she didn’t really need to have a man in order to lead a fulfilling life. What if friends and family and a decent job could be enough? It’s not so hard to imagine – but it simply isn’t done. What if two people meet, have conflict, resolve it with some great love scenes and then sensibly realize they are not, after all, right for each other? How is that not a happy thing?

    I’m not going for a particularly strident rant, here. Just wonderin’, that’s all…

  • booksquare // Dec 30, 2004 at 11:23 pm

    Ah, you’re asking me to get involved in controversy, and I’m such a non-controversial person. I have, in the past, advocated for, well, variety in the concept of an “emotionally satisfying ending”. Chicklit was supposed to give us this alternative viewpoint, but mostly it hasn’t, or it hasn’t in a way that leaves most readers unsatisfied.

    Do we need commitment for fulfillment in fiction? I’d argue no. I have argued no. Mores are powerful and expectations even more so. I’d like to see a situation where the characters ended up happy, but not resolved. That being said, I’ve always been a bit of a sap for the happy-happy ending (Johnny Tremaine? I finished that story to my personal satisfaction), but I want alternatives. And I want my fiction to give those to me.

    Hey, we have the bandwidth. Do the strident rant. This is the place!

  • Anne Killpack // Dec 31, 2004 at 2:42 am

    Just a wee teensy quibble: perhaps a mention of Lady Murasaki’s eleventh-century Tale of Genji? It predates just about everything else in the ‘novel’ range. Admittedly it had next to no impact on Western literature whatsoever. But it’s a nice point to fling at the heads of male-writer-chauvinists.

    I admit I get a little complacent myself about the romance genre, but that’s because it’s what’s easy for me to write, and not necessarily what I want to write. Personal drama, introspection, emotions, social dynamics and interaction – oh, I’m good at those. It’s the plot part that evades me, and the romance genre is forgiving of plot weakness, even as other genres (let’s take old-school hard science fiction as an example) are very strict on plot and scientific accuracy, but don’t mind particularly if the characters are cardboard cutout cliches.

    And, as you’ve mentioned, romance writers are rewarded for quantity more than quality; a really, really good romance might in fact prompt one’s agent to suggest it be nudged into the “fiction” genre, where it might get the attention it deserved, or at least the paycheck.

  • Brenda Coulter // Dec 31, 2004 at 10:43 am

    Karen, if we took the kissy-kissy, happily-ever-after ending out of a romance novel, we’d no longer have a romance novel. Those predictable endings happen to be the very legs the genre stands upon. Romance readers buy the books precisely because they know what they’ll get in the end. It’s the JOURNEY they want to read about.

    “Whodunnits” are similar to romance novels in that their endings never vary. We know that in the last few pages we’re going to learn exactly who murdered Lady Althorpe and why. Are the books still worth reading? To many, the answer is a resounding yes. Because again, it’s the twisting path to the destination that the readers enjoy.

    I think we need to make a distinction between “romance novels” and “romantic novels”. A romantic novel need not end with a man and woman and the promise of forever. But once it takes that tack, it is immediately booted out of the romance genre–and rightly so. 😉

  • Brenda Coulter // Dec 31, 2004 at 10:58 am

    After I posted here, I realized that I had somehow missed the second half of this article. I’m sure glad I went back and (after several interruptions) read the whole thing, because otherwise, I’d have missed this gem: “Likewise, if we spoke the truth and called Atlas Shrugged a really bad romance novel, that would probably stop a million overly impressionable college students from fashioning themselves Objectivists. This is important because it will ease the blow when they slip back into the more comfortable role of Capitalists.”

    I love you, Booksquare. I really do.

  • Karen Junker // Dec 31, 2004 at 1:39 pm

    Brenda –

    The ‘rules’ of romance novels are clear in the minds of romance novel readers…but…I’m a reader who wants a romantic story in my reading (okay, I have to admit I find the ‘sex while investigating a child-serial-killer’ a bit less than romantic and something of a squick, in fact). How do we flag those books for people like me?

    For example – we know if we want to read a nice women’s fiction novel about the relationships among women, we go for a book with the front porch and perhaps an adirondack chair on the cover, right? If we want women’s fiction with family drama, we look for the covers that have the house in the distance, surrounded by a flowerbed of some kind. And so on.

    Who are the authors that have plot *and* a good romantic bit??? I know of Linda Howard, Terese Daly Ramin, Liz Wolfe, Diana Gabaldon, Jacqueline Carey…but finding these authors has been like looking for the needle in the haystack.

    I think we ought to force the publishers to give us a chart on the back of the book, like the nutritional content boxes you see on food. What is the percentage of romance? Of suspense? Of paranormal?

    Perhaps it’s too much to ask.

  • booksquare // Dec 31, 2004 at 4:15 pm

    Brenda — I aim to please. It’s my life’s goal (that and Chinese noodles).

    Anne — I would strongly recommend writing what you write best, but that’s advice from personal experience. Plotting is a tool, and like other tools in writing, can be learned. I think we all come into this specific strengths and weaknesses, and work hard to learn the rest. Ultimately, you find the story you have to tell…and it all seems to come together. Granted, it may or may not sell (which I learned the hard way), but that’s the book that changes you.

    Karen…plot? I think Mary Jo Putney does an excellent job of this. She’s not afraid to take risks, which, to me, is a great thing (she’s also taken flack from long-time fans for this, but I’d rather her try than not). Lois McMaster Bujold is also incredible — not romance, per se, but for romance, A Civil Campaign cannot be beat (plus Chapter Nine is the greatest piece of writing I’ve read in a long time).

  • Karen Junker // Jan 1, 2005 at 3:57 am

    Thanks for the recommendations – I’ve read some of Bujold online at the Baen free library and I keep meaning to get the actual books.

    I’m thinking of other things I want to say about romance from the rant perspective, but it’s going to take some time to gather my thoughts and put them out here in an ordered way. Stay tuned. And thanks for writing!

  • MJ // Jan 1, 2005 at 7:53 am


    But I have a serious question. Atlas Shrugged has at its center a plot about great minds going on strike. It’s main plot is not woman and man meet and fall in love. That is very much the sub plot. So could anyone really call the book a romance novel? By definition doesn’t a romance have to have the romance as the main plot.

    And nothing pisses me off more than the fact that women’s fiction takes second place. There are far too many novels for me to list – that had they been written by women rather than men would have been called either domestic fiction or wormens fiction and been basically ignored. The Correcctions for one. It was domestic fictin but because a man wrote it it was LITERARY fiction.

  • booksquare // Jan 1, 2005 at 11:56 am

    While in shorter romances, the developing romance tends to play a larger role, it is not really the primary plot. But, in and of itself, the romantic plot isn’t enough to sustain a novel (or an entire genre). In Atlas Shrugged, for example, you have minds going on strike, you have a woman trying to fight what she thinks is the good fight, only to discover that her idea of what’s right and wrong changes, you have another character who gets what she thinks she wants, only to discover that’s not it all, you have family dynamics playing out, you have society imploding, and you have a romance between two (more, actually, but that’s another issue) characters. Some of these plots are bigger than others (for example the entire dropping out issue is the big plot, in my mind).

    This is the same basic structure any romance follows — weaving internal and external plot issues. It could be as simple as fighting city hall (kicking and punching your way through paperwork) or as big as saving the world (if you don’t do this, the planet will explode). Not only do two people find happiness, but other personal issues are resolved as well as the main storyline.

    If I’m not making sense, it’s the lack of caffeine.

    You’re so right about The Corrections, though I would argue even further: had it been written by a woman, it wouldn’t have been taken nearly as seriously as it was. And I found it to be a flawed novel on many levels (not the least of which was I found myself hoping they all died and put us out of our misery), and I think the author’s gender gave him more leeway than a female author would have been afforded.

    It is my belief that for women’s fiction to be taken seriously, we need to take it seriously ourselves. And part of that is working out the quality/quantity thing…and someday, a brilliant solution will come to mind!

  • Karen Junker // Jan 1, 2005 at 3:18 pm

    Good point. I think I’d take a lot more women’s fiction seriously if it didn’t include the heroine checking out the hero’s physical attributes quite so often.

  • Ide Cyan // Jan 1, 2005 at 8:42 pm

    How is it that so very few female authors are remembered and taught today?

    Here’s a suggestion: read Joanna Russ’s book, How To Suppress Women’s Writing

  • Yonmei // Jan 2, 2005 at 2:46 am

    Domestic fiction, those novels of manners and sly commentary on society, has survived, though we do not believe it has been done justice in quite some time. Probably because of all the political correctness.

    Oh, come off it. I am so tired of people randomly blaming everything on a modern desire to be polite and courteous to all – which is the essence of “political correctness”, when it’s not being used as a snide way to say “we hate feminism”.

    Rather, the comedy of manners has all but disappeared because novel readers no longer reliably live in a culture with set rules/conventions that the writer knows all her readers will know without having to have them explained to them. (Even now, Jane Austen needs footnoting.)

  • booksquare // Jan 2, 2005 at 8:23 pm

    I am going to respectfully disagree with you. To me, a comedy of manners is a comedy of social structure: a neighborhood, an office, a gang, a church, a school. Each of these structures has a set of expected behaviors (manners). It is how various characters behave in relation to these (often unwritten) rules that makes up a comedy of manners. In these, examples, the rules can generally be explained through text, just as they’re explained in Jane Austen’s stories (are they really footnoted? How terrifying, because I think she does an excellent job of laying out her world). We are familiar enough with the various modern social structures that we, as readers, have sufficient grounding to enter the story — and it’s the ridiculous aspect of the rules that create the humor and highlight the foibles of humanity.

    The problem with writing incisive comedy about our known world is that to do so requires absolute fearlessness on the part of the author, and that’s not easy. It’s hard to make fun, even in the nicest possible way, of people who are different than us. It is even harder to be brutally honest in fiction about those differences. With so many groups and individuals are quick to take offense, this is where an author’s fearlessness comes into play. This is not placing random blame on political correctness, it is, to me, a natural aspect of our times and the world we live in. It was easier for Jane Austen to write what she wrote because her identity was known to relatively few. She didn’t really have to inhabit the world she skewered, if that makes sense.

  • Janis // Jan 2, 2005 at 10:27 pm

    So women are ignored because we write about silly domestic nonsense? Oh yeah, like the world really wants to awaken to the idea of a woman writing about something big and scary and globe-spanning in a revolutionary sense. Books like that by women go out of print at lightspeed — witness the total disappearance of everything James Tiptree/Alice Sheldon ever wrote while shelves are still stocked to bursting with every piece of reactionary claptrap garbage that Piers Anthony and Robert Heinlein ever choked out.

    Romance novels by women are beloved by men as objects of well-deserved mockery. Where women cannot be mocked, we are ignored, because a woman who cannot be mocked is a frightening thing indeed — which brings us right back to what you said about fear.

  • Yonmei // Jan 3, 2005 at 2:07 pm

    She didn’t really have to inhabit the world she skewered, if that makes sense.

    It makes no sense at all: Jane Austen was very much an inhabitant of the world she skewered. Where did you get the idea she wasn’t?

    The problem with writing incisive comedy about our known world is that to do so requires absolute fearlessness on the part of the author, and that’s not easy. It’s hard to make fun, even in the nicest possible way, of people who are different than us.

    Actually, it’s very easy – as witness the vast number of racist jokes that regularly circulate.

    What is difficult is making fun, even in the nicest possible way, of people who are the same as us – particularly if, like Jane Austen, you are a denizen of the world you mock.

    This is not placing random blame on political correctness, it is, to me, a natural aspect of our times and the world we live in.

    It does appear to me that you have managed to completely misunderstand the nature of a comedy of manners…

  • booksquare // Jan 3, 2005 at 6:30 pm

    I think it’s more that we have different views of the subject. When I stated that Jane Austen wasn’t inhabiting the world she skewered, I meant that she published anonymously. She could be more incisive because (romance fiction to the contrary) relatively few people associated her with “Anonymous”, the author of the books (so much so that, if the story is correct, one publisher opted not to distribute Northanger Abbey because he didn’t realize it was the same author of other popular novels). If she had published under her own name, would she have enjoyed the same freedom? That’s really impossible for us to say, but the people she associated with would have been more cautious in their behavior around her.

    I wouldn’t put racist comedy in the same category as a comedy of manners — the latter requires a high degree of sophistication while the former is fairly easy to accomplish. And I should have been more clear in my response that when I was talking about making fun of others, I meant from a higher level, not the lowest possible level. I apologize for being unclear.

    And I would agree that it’s equally difficult to make fun of people who are the same as us. I still believe political correctness has more of an effect on incisive comedy than the lack of commonly-understood social structures. Where I live, if I were to write about any of the social structures, from business to a country club, it would necessarily include people from a wide variety of economic levels, sexual preferences, and ethnic backgrounds. Immediately I encounter a situation where I perceive roadblocks, even if they’re in my own mind. Sure I can move beyond these issues (and have), but the fact that it will be my name on the work (even if I were to employ a pseudonym, finding out the truth isn’t particularly difficult), and, even though the work is clearly fiction, there remains a sense of worry that others will think I’m expressing my personal opinions. Jane Austen did not have to face this level of scrutiny, and based on what I know, likely wouldn’t have published under her own name at any time in her lifetime.

  • wave panel // May 12, 2010 at 1:27 am

    The problem with writing incisive comedy about our known world is that to do so requires absolute fearlessness on the part of the author, and that’s not easy. It’s hard to make fun, even in the nicest possible way, of people who are different than us.
    I wouldn’t put racist comedy in the same category as a comedy of manners — the latter requires a high degree of sophistication while the former is fairly easy to accomplish. And I should have been more clear in my response that when I was talking about making fun of others, I meant from a higher level, not the lowest possible level. I apologize for being unclear.