On the telegraph.co.uk today, (honestly, where else?) an interesting little article by Jojo Moyes sprang up about women’s fiction being unsufferably miserable. “There’s not been much wit and not much joy; there’s a lot of grimness out there… There are a lot of books about Asian sisters […], a lot of books that start with a rape. Pleasure seems to have become a rather neglected element in publishing,” says Daisy Goodwin, who is an Orange Prize judge.
Moyes sympathizes but ultimately concludes: “We’re damned for writing fluffy, upbeat chick-lit about shoes and cake, damned if we write about domestic abuse within a geo-political conflict… the biggest problem facing ‘women’s fiction’ (a term that is patronizing in itself) is that critics still don’t take it seriously.”
I found this article to be spotlighting the trends I see splattered and scattered on the shelves at Barnes and Noble, etc. By my estimation, a good 75 to 80 percent of modern “literature” on the market these days is this brand of writing – the fluffy, brainless kind, or the agonizing kind. So many of these are written by women. Even without having read many of them (listening to my gut instincts and running in the other direction), I’ve been wary of the great disparity between too much fluff and too little joy… mediocre microcosms of dysfunctional realities and self-indulgences. Very few of these novels seem to offer much in the way of “great literature”, but that is what sells. And, unfortunately, it is hard to tell the difference between literature and shelf-filler.
I remember back to my wrath over the historical fiction blunder The Illuminator (Brenda Rickman Vantrease), wherein the lady of a 14th century manor lauds the death of her husband who, as if you couldn’t guess, was an abuser; she has an affair with the illuminator who works out of her home; has to deal with the sexual innocence and unwanted pregnancies of the teenage children in her care (her son, the illuminator’s daughter)… even going so far as to attempt an abortion. (It seems so emotionally 21st century, I wanted to throw up.) Strategically-timed to coincide with the events of the Peasants’ Revolt, the lady’s twin sons end up killing each other, she is raped by the evil steward, and a poor, misunderstood dwarf marries the girl of his dreams. Sorry if I spoiled it for you, but believe me, I am saving you the trouble of wasting fifteen dollars… in case you happen to see its pretty cover and are lured in.
I am still trying to understand it. Again, to use Michelle’s term, this “emotional unkindness” about the past – especially an era of time that seems so cruel and backwater to our “enlightened” culture– is merely an excuse to fabricate a situation and write about misery and violence and its stereotypical manifestations, instead of a.) putting the 14th century in any sort of accurate or enlightened perspective; b.) showing exceptions to stereotypes, and making the characters more than empty vessels fulfilling predictable roles; and/or c.) to show any semblence of inner strength, redemption or character evolution to conclude and save a bitter story. No, this novel ends in rampant deaths… none of them peaceful, either. No fluffy, sugary or smiley-faced endings here. Just a high body count.
So… if I want to win a literary prize, I need to cram as much visceral misery as I can into my novel, a story about orphans or an abused and/or neglicted wife (regardless of whether or not I am one). But if I want to gain a huge reader following and lead the market, I must write about how much I like chocolate. Because, evidently, I am a woman and cannot write about anything else. (Or so it seems.)
As a woman who is a writer, I feel left out of this on-going discussion. My work doesn’t feel particularly feminine or fluffy or miserable… nor do I want it to be. It isn’t that I am deliberately running from the above mode of “women’s fiction” but that the stories I feel compelled to write are not restricted to them. I am interesting in more than one plain of existence… in breaking down barriers in literary themes and seeing where the writing takes me… not where I take it. I am not interested in having an audience primarily made up of women, but of men, as well.
I feel the camps of “the market” and “the critics” do not and cannot dictate my creativity or my taste in books. Neither can probably measure or answer why I get so much more out of George Eliot, Elizabeth Gaskell, Susanna Clarke or Flannery O’Connor than I do from anything that is “marketed” in my general (very general) direction. Not because they are women - because they write (or, wrote, as they case may be), stories that are not the status quo. Perhaps this means, scary thought, that I am thinking and writing less like a woman (gasp!) and more like… a writer!
Not, to clarify, that it this a matter of down playing my feminity, but not making it the sole source or shape of my creative fire.
(P.S. Susanna Clarke wrote Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, which is set in the early 19th century… Strange and Norrell are two competing magicians. Most of the characters are men, and yet this does not prevent Susanna from being true to her characters, male or female, or creating a fantastic, magically-intricate world. She is an exception to the “rule.”)