The Argument For Gender-Neutral Fiction

March 25th, 2005 · 3 Comments
by Booksquare

We would submit that there’s nothing more intriguing on Earth than a marriage. Especially a marriage where the participants “tell each other everything” — a recipe for secrecy and deceit if we ever saw one. Though both Webster’s and OED fail us miserably on this regard, we remain convinced that families, by definition, contain more twists and turns than any spy novel. If your family is not like this, we are sorry. Also we have spare siblings if you want to jumpstart the process.

Exploring familial intrigue is the stuff of great writing. The Corrections did this fairly well, even if it fell on the overlong side. Sure, most of the time, we wanted the characters to put us out of our misery by driving off a cliff (and at least one made a valiant attempt), but the substance of the book was pure domestic drama. Jonathan Franzen received much attention for this book and deservedly so. But would the same level of critical attention have been paid if this story had been written by a woman? We ask because Ali Smith and Toby Litt stepped into it when they said (in their introduction to the New Writing 13 anthology):

It’s worth pointing out: a lot of what was submitted was dauntingly undaring. On the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic, the opposite of risk-taking – as if too many women writers have been injected with a special drug that keeps them dulled, good, saying the right thing, aping the right shape, and melancholy at doing it, depressed as hell.

Isn’t that pretty much the subject matter covered by Franzen in The Corrections? His characters weren’t hilariously depressed — they were tediously depressed. They are the last people you’d want to be stuck talking to at a party. Britain’s women writers are justifiably angry at Smith and Litt’s assertion because of the gender specificity Were the male stories all beyond belief incredible? Were they equally safe? Why were females specifically singled-out? Jane Rogers notes,

I co-edited the last edition of New Writing, (12), and we had good and bad submissions, from women and from men. When, having made our final selection on merit alone, we checked out the balance of male to female contributors, there were 21 men and 20 women. It is hard to believe that in 12 months women writers have suddenly become “dulled… aping the right shape …depressed as hell”. The only thing likely to make us depressed as hell is the resurrection of a dreary form of prejudice which interventions like the Orange Prize have done such valiant work to dispel.

We believe it is worthwhile to read Smith and Litt’s full statement (link below) because they had a point to make about the writing submissions in general. By narrowing their thesis and making it gender-specific, they undermined their own argument. Anyone who has ever judged a writing contest knows that the vast majority of entries fall on the awful side. But when a winner is found, it is generally work that takes yor breath away.

Alina Adams, in response to a posting at Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind on this subject (see the comments), suggested that all fiction is essentially domestic. It is about humans finding their place in this world, finding a home. Wars are considered big while managing a household is considered small. Men devised literary mores and, culturally, we still have a Victorian approach to domestic and public spheres. The provence of women is not considered on the same level as the provence of men.

The problem is that women writers are pre-categorized by gender. It is as if there is a special exit for books by women. Subject matter handled with dexterity by males or females is often positioned differentlly, purely on the basis of chromosomal structures. This ghettoization (whether realized or not) changes the perception of the work on various levels. Brenda Coulter notes:

If things had gone a little differently all those years ago and Nicholas Sparks had been born Nicole, we would call The Notebook and A Walk to Remember women’s fiction.

If The Horse Whisperer hadn’t been written by someone with a Y chromosome, we’d call that book women’s fiction.

If A Painted House had been written by Joan Grisham, we’d call it women’s fiction.

Are you getting this? “Women’s fiction” is not defined primarily by content or style, but by who writes it. Does that seem reasonable to you?

Because we are not a nice as Coulter, we would take this a step further. If Sparks were a woman, his books would be given the same critical analysis as a Harlequin novel. That is to say, none. This is likely a boon to Sparks as the schlock emotion in his books would have been found wanting if held to the standards of these shorter romances (we are setting aside the fact that the male romance often ends with the hero living a life of guilt and isolation — we do not pretend to understand why the male romanctic fantasy does not include happiness. See also: Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close). Luckily for him, his gender elevated his romance to a position of marketing dollars and critical (define however you wish) attention.

The Corrections did not break new ground in literary themes. The same subject matter is frequently examined, with an equally depressing approach, in Gray Lady Lit (thank you, Jennifer Weiner, for this label). The difference, of course, is that Gray Lady lit is filed under “Women’s Fiction.” The covers and titles*, together with placement on shelves, gives off a “no men allowed” vibe. By ghettoizing women’s fiction, this creates the impression that it is a lesser fiction, only suitable for part of the reading audience. Nevermind that it’s the bigger part of the fiction reading audience.

Fiction doesn’t require gender. Genre, yes. Genre performs the helpful task of providing a touchstone for readers. As Coulter noted above, the demarcation between women’s fiction and, well, fiction is the gender of the author. Collected Miscellany recently linked to an article that said, quite bluntly, that forcing young males to read Judy Blume (specifically Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret) would destroy their pre-pubescent-male reading minds. There would be no future fiction fun for these boys. We will forego our disappointment in the weakness this displays; millions of women manage to survive the irresponsibility of Tom Sawyer and go on to read even more. By defining Judy Blume as writer for girls rather than a writer who just happens to have female characters, her work is deemed less serious. This type of labeling makes A.L. Kennedy say:

It gives me another one of my pains when somebody tells me that love stories, or domestic stories are somehow a women’s speciality, when Raymond Carver and Richard Ford and Ernest Hemingway and lord knows how many men plunge into them on every side. As far as I am aware, human beings’ homes are quite often domestic interiors and falling in love is something human beings do. Why would they not write about it? Why make this sex-specific?

Carver, when he was on, explored relationships from very subversive angles (this is the highest compliment we can pay an author). He did not concern himself with gender-specific spheres; it was the story and characters who drove the work. Though women do often write about domestic matters, it is because the domestic is so very fascinating — it is, possibly, the one thing all humans have in common. Gender, when it comes to authors, is an irrelevant concept. Applying a male or female (or other, as the case may be) label to writing creates a divide. This type of divide is not a case of separate but equal, but a situation where one type of writing is given higher status.

This idea, of women’s writing versus men’s writing, has popped up in several places over the past week. Ali Smith and Toby Litt possibly made the biggest splash with their ill-considered (notice we did not say untrue) words. If we could begin by removing the idea of gender from the writing equation, will that change anything? We say yes. Fiction should be judged on the merits of the work. Adding gender to the mix implies bias.

* – We will hardly say anything on this topic except to suggest that pastels and seascapes do not work for us. We are a Fall and baby blue gives us a rash.

File Under: Square Pegs

3 responses so far ↓

  • Brenda Coulter // Mar 25, 2005 at 5:20 pm

    Woo-hoo, Booksquare has quoted me and linked to my blog! Does this mean I have “arrived” in the blogosphere? Will Terry Teachout take my coat and find me a chair? Will M.J. Rose offer me a glass of wine? Will Mad Max Perkins whisper his real name in my ear?

    Sorry. I was a little giddy there for a minute, but I’m okay now.

  • Brenda Coulter // Apr 8, 2005 at 10:30 am

    Had to tell you that just a week or so after I posted this silly comment, first M.J. Rose and then Terry Teachout linked to my blog. No kidding.

  • Booksquare // Apr 8, 2005 at 10:38 am

    That’s really cool. I’d, of course, love to take credit, but am far too humble. Oh wait, no I’m not….