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
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.
- 1Lesson Two: Changing Methods and Reforms of the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, 1840-1920 “Discourse on Woman” (excerpt)
- 2More on Pope
- 3Harriet’s Life and Times: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Slavery, and the Civil War
- 4Women’s History Review, Volume 11 Number 4 2002