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The Difference of Value Persists

The Difference of Value Persists

originally published in Canadian Notes & Queries #80

By Kerry Clare

“This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with women in a drawing-room. A scene in a battlefield is more important than a scene in a shop – everywhere and much more subtly the difference of value persists.” —Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own


In her July 15, 2009 column, National Post columnist Barbara Kay addresses her frustration with “Giller-endorsed but virtually unreadable CanLit,” singling out Lisa Moore’s February as an example. Kay’s criticism, somewhat undermined by her not having read February, takes the novel to task for not being Barometer Rising.

It is possible that Kay hadn’t read Barometer Rising either, or at least not lately, forgetting that Hugh MacLennan’s novel is also a love story set against tragedy, that both books “deflect attention from the tragedy to hover solicitously over a surrogate victim.” Barometer Rising is also a story about a woman, from whom February’s Helen is not such a departure.

I point out this discrepancy to establish that Kay’s literary criticism should be paid little mind. Still, her column is remarkable for its most unsubtle application of Woolf’s “difference of value.” The problem with February, according to Barbara Kay, is that Lisa Moore puts the 1982 Ocean Ranger disaster (in which an oil rig sank, killing all 84 crew members on board) in the background, focusing instead on the disaster’s aftermath and its effect on one woman who lost her husband.

This is an important book, Kay assumes, because it deals with oil, and storms, and shipwrecks. This is an insignificant book because it deals with women in a drawing room.

Barbara Kay’s assessment of February is only worth considering because it is not an anomaly. Her ideas share something in common with the legitimate criticism of Alex Good, who had actually read the book, and reviewed it three weeks previously in the Toronto Star.

Good writes that February “seems held together with a kind of teary hormonal paste.” The narrative is fixed to the female body – Good citing fetal kicks, leaky nipples, fecundity, fertility, and streaming orgasms. February’s, he reports, “is a deeply maternal universe,” and then he rearticulates his thematic concern as aesthetic:

There is no sense of evil, aside from nature’s rage in the sinking of the oil rig, and hence no conflict. The narrative doesn’t progress so much as gestate, rolling around through a series of flashbacks until the hatching and matching at the end.

The one scene Good uses to show “flashes of how interesting a writer Moore can be” is, notably, from the perspective of Helen’s son. As a reader, Good finds Moore’s maternal universe offering little of appeal.

The difference of value persists, however, not just in elevating one book over another, but in how one book is valued from separate points of view. It doesn’t help the argument for February that while on the one side critics dryly malign its emphasis on female emotions and its lack of explosions (orgasms notwithstanding), everybody else is hysterical.

“It makes me cry whenever there’s a conversation about it,” says Moore herself of the Ocean Ranger disaster, in a National Post profile by Katherine Laidlaw. It’s this profile that set Barbara Kay off, that Moore used her own experiences of grief as a touchstone to understanding her main character. “Moore didn’t know any of the 84 men who died when the Ocean Ranger oil rig went down,” Laidlaw writes, “. . . but that doesn’t stop her from crying about it.”

Caroline Adderson is crying too, in her Globe and Mail review: “I teared up on pages 157, 198, 206, 253, 261 and wept from page 291 pretty much straight through to page 300.” Her review is too effusive in both praise and tears, but at least Adderson considers February itself, beyond its failure to be another book. Applying close reading to a tiny scene about the removal of a tissue from its packet, she suggests the narrative is doing more than just rolling around:

The gesture is broken down into its constituent parts. The repeating use of “and” combined with the prose-poem-like structure of each short chapter, often starting with a present time moment, then jumping from memory to memory, lulls us and draws us in.

“Women’s literary fiction” is often distinct from literary fiction in general, either because it reads as such (with the squirting nipples, breaking water and placenta on a plate – if a man had written this book it would be surprising), or because it’s come into the world via a woman’s pen and is therefore received differently from literary fiction in general (which is to say, men won’t read it). Sometimes both of these things are true, sometimes one is, and sometimes neither.

In her essay “Shakespeare’s Daughters,” Rachel Cusk writes, “it seems to me that ‘women’s writing’ by nature would not seek equivalence in the male world. It would be a writing that sought to express a distinction, not deny it.” Still, it would be convenient for the purposes of some if there were no such thing as women’s writing. But it would be a fallacy to pretend that all fiction is universal; worse, to demand universality as a quality standard is to say that drawing-room women are insignificant, that sisters, wives and daughters do not matter.

Because for many readers, sisters, wives and daughter don’t matter, or at least their stories don’t. Or their stories do, unless these are stories about squirting nipples, breaking waters, or placentas on a plate. And I can’t help but wonder where the onus lies in the failure of women’s writing to achieve universality – what is it that lets us down, the stories or their readers?

In his review of February, Good addresses the notion of women’s fiction, how “men are cordially not invited to examine its mysteries.” But who is doing the uninviting? Apart from the women in his life who’ve advised him to “stay away” from Cat’s Eye, of course, but I suspect these women meant something different. I suspect that what they actually meant was, “Don’t even bother. You’re not going to like it. You’ll only just tell us it’s all held together with ‘teary hormonal paste.’”

“But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see, like a series of transparencies laid on top of one another. You don’t look back along time but down through it, like water. Sometimes this comes to the surface, sometimes that, sometimes nothing. Nothing ever goes away.” —Margaret Atwood, Cat’s Eye

Barbara Kay finally read February, and reported back that it was lacking in “prole-friendly dialogue, action, and, above all, plot.” If such things are what you demand from your books, then you’re probably not going to like women’s fiction. Alex Good’s point that February has less progression than gestation is probably true of most women’s fiction, though this, of course, is not the case for every book. It’s impossible to pin down what women’s fiction looks like, but it’s bound to be as distinct from men’s as that drawing room is from a battlefield.

The Cat’s Eye passage comes close to defining a structure for it, however. If “narrative” can be substituted for “time” the structure serves both for February and for Cat’s Eye, which Good cites as the quintessential women’s novel. The passage also defines the structure of grief, as expressed in February. Moore’s prose appears plodding, and rolling, taking 40 pages to contain a single moment (Helen watching orange sparks fly as a skate blade is sharpened), because that single moment contains the past and even the future. Because nothing ever goes away.

Instead of progressing, February’s narrative accumulates, sentences and clauses linked by a repetitive “and.” Other sentences are constructed as lists, to similar effect. Every moment is distinct from the others, belonging to itself, this one and this one and this one, which is the way that Helen, in her grief, manages to stay upright and breathing.

Such momentum, however stilted, charts the plot that lies at the heart of this book. Which, incidentally, is not the present day love story most critics scoffed at – Good refers to “the stuff of commercial fiction”; Nathan Whitlock’s CNQ review is titled “Highbrow Harlequin”; Emily Donaldson calls February an “overly sentimental love story” in Quill & Quire. Each of them overlooking the real plot implicit in a line like, “All of the families of the drowned men were waiting for the settlement, because how do you feed four kids and pay Newfoundland Light and Power?” Forget about Helen getting her groove back; the premise of a heartbroken widow left alone to raise four children is positively dripping with plot (direction onward, with one foot in front of the other) and conflict (she can’t go on vs. she’ll go on).

Of course, this plot is not straightforward, just as time is not a line. In a CBC interview about her first novel Alligator, Moore explained, “I think that a real engagement with a book means that the reader has to chase after the story,” and the reader has the same task before him with February. Looking down through Moore’s narrative, the plot is present, to be teased out from the whirlpool of churning cycles and repetition, but it’s a story as harrowing as a shipwreck, and Helen is its hero.

It’s a question of scale, I suppose. There are sock-matching heroics, and there are dead-in-a-shipwreck heroics, though it’s worth noting that only the former has a choice in the matter. It’s also strange that one gets to be a hero by merely being aboard a ship that sinks, but the story of those left behind is “deflection.”

The sock-matcher, however, has an awesome task before her:

Matching socks was an act that looked very much like matching socks. She looked exactly as though she were in the world, engaged in the small work of Here is one sock, now where could that other sock be? And when she was done there would be an actual pile of socks.

An actual pile of socks: it’s a small thing, a moment, but in February these moments are what life is constructed of. They’re entirely significant to a woman with four kids to feed, a household to keep together. A woman whose husband’s death has just rent a hole in her life, and the hole is threatening to engulf her.

The hole left by Cal’s death is as gaping and devastating as the one created the night Helen learns that his body has been found and her living room ceiling comes crashing down. The actual hole serves a purpose beyond the merely symbolic, making clear the practical matter that the falling-down house is now her problem because her husband is dead, and there will be those bills to pay, and socks to match, and always, there will be more socks to match.

In her essay, Rachel Cusk suggests a connection between the pattern of a woman’s daily life, the cycles of her body, and the use of repetition in her fiction: “She can look around her and see that while women’s lives have altered in some respects, in others they have remained much the same.”

And so it seems: the difference of value persists, more than 80 years after A Room of One’s Own. Though February is probably not as good as Caroline Adderson asserts, I must protest that neither is it insignificant for being a woman’s story, or therefore beyond (or beneath) any critic’s scope.