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April 15, 2010

Unremarkable Underpants

“Your mommy hates housework, Your daddy hates housework, I hate housework too. And when you grow up, so will you. Because even if the soap or cleanser or cleaner or powder or paste or wax or bleach, That you use is the very best one, Housework is just no fun.” -Sheldon Harnick (from Free to Be, You and Me)

It has come to my attention that I’ve been mistaken about the label of domestic fiction. This came to my attention when I read Ian McEwen’s Solar, and noticed once again that he’s one of the few male authors whose fiction lives up to the standard set by woman writers (and I write that tongue-in-cheek, of course, but I mean it. My bias is showing.) He totally writes domestic fiction! When I emailed Steven W. Beattie with this outlandish statement, however, he politely set me straight– McEwen writes “psychological fiction” (and what that means exactly [if anything] is something to ponder for another day).

So this is what I’d always considered domestic fiction: stories about how people live and/or work together, the details of ordinary lives, how family members relate (or don’t), stories about parents and children, and what people eat for lunch, and sex for the 1500th time, and the birth of the third child, and what’s in the bedside drawer, and on the shelves in the pantry, and how you get to work, and whether the car is clean or dirty, and if there are balled up kleenexes in the pockets that keeping going through the wash, and who spills what at the breakfast table, and what kind of rug is on the living room floor, and the shower curtain pattern, and unremarkable underpants, what goes on in that room called “the study”, and who gets power of attorney? Sibling rivalry, all things Oedipal, they fuck you up your mom and dad, and marsha, marsha, marsha. And then some. Oh, and babies.

By my definition, Lionel Shriver writes domestic fiction. Carol Shields did it better than anyone. Alice Munro, and Margaret Drabble, and Lorrie Moore’s The Gate at the Stairs. Jonathan Franzen. AS Byatt, most recently in The Children’s Book. Siri Hustvedt in What I Loved. Anne Enright. Everything I’ve ever read by Lisa Moore. John Updike (at least in the one book of his I’ve read, which was Too Far To Go. John Irving. Virginia Woolf in To the Lighthouse. Rachel Cusk. Rebecca Rosenblum in her stories about Theo and Rae. Margaret Lawrence, particularly in my favourite of hers The Fire Dwellers. And Ian McEwen, at least in Solar, Saturday and A Child in Time.

Basically, if the book was like a peek through a golden window that hadn’t had its curtains drawn, I thought it was domestic fiction. But what if I was wrong? What if I’ve been broadcasting myself as a domestic fiction devotee all this time, but I’ve really meant something different? What if I’ve been mis-applying this label willy-nilly and now everyone thinks I’m an idiot who refuses to read anything not written by Bonnie Burnard. And yes, her The Good House was domestic fiction as I see it, but one might consider that book a very-lesser To the Lighthouse, no? By which I mean, it hardly sets the standard.

I worry that my very gendered approach to reading has also been influenced by this mis-labelling, that I see my domestic fiction as a woman’s domain and a writer like McEwen as the exception, but perhaps things aren’t as divided as I suppose? And how wonderful it would be to suppose such a thing as that. Perhaps it’s time for a re-evaluation (and maybe even not just on my part).

10 thoughts on “Unremarkable Underpants”

  1. Mark says:

    Hey Kerry,

    Great post. But I am curious: what is the opposite of domestic fiction? I ask this without a hint of irony; I actually don’t know the answer. What writers/novels would you say represent the opposite of whatever domestic fiction is? I’ve always wanted to participate in a discussion (debate? argument?) about this apparent divide in literature, but nobody’s ever put a dollar bill next to the footprint for me, so to speak.

    Again, thanks for the awesome post. Keep up the good work.


    1. Kerry says:

      Thanks, Mark. This is all such a revelation for me. I am not sure if domestic fiction has an opposite. There are some who’d say the opposite is “good fiction” and I think this type of thinking is what I’ve always found so frustrating about this divide. In my opinion, the opposite is “bad fiction”. But anyway, I will keep thinking!

  2. Sara O'Leary says:

    There’s a nice piece by McEwan that ran in the Guardian a few years back that includes the following remark:
    “As in the 18th century, so in the 21st. Cognitive psychologists with their innatist views tell us that women work with a finer mesh of emotional understanding than men. The novel – by that view the most feminine of forms – answers to their biologically ordained skills. ”

  3. Mr. B says:

    I love Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches because of its focus on the mundane, daily, minutia of daily routine and life. Domestic fictions, I like it.

  4. Susan Telfer says:

    Very interesting post, Kerry. I was thinking that a lot of YA is the opposite of domestic fiction, in that it often about wilderness adventures, or fantasy or science fiction.
    Is any novel that takes place mostly outdoors not domestic? But I think The Outlander has a lot of “domestic fiction” in it, even though it is outdoors.

    1. Kerry says:

      Okay, Susan. You’ve nailed the answer to Mark’s question (in my opinion). The Outlander is the opposite of domestic fiction. (Keep in mind that I really didn’t like The Outlander). And the reason I think it was domestic fiction was because Mary (that was her name, right?) seemed to lack an inner life. I mean, I know she had one, but we really weren’t privy to it, and that’s why I found the book so terribly uncompelling. And it’s the inner life that I love about domestic fiction, and how external details give clues about that inner life, whether that life is lived indoors or out (or at the office, or on a train, or on a riverboat going downstream…). I was thinking that detective fiction might be the opposite of domestic fiction, as we see so little of what goes on inside the detective’s heads, or they’re just so methodical and focused, but I actually don’t think that’s the case. I think that detective fiction might be as “domestic” as any workplace fiction.

      Oh, more male domestic fiction– Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. yes!

      Anyway, I’m still thinking…

  5. Susan Telfer says:

    I mean mostly outdoors, or in the homes of others she is using as refuge.

  6. Susan Telfer says:

    Yes, inside her head was craziness. Where does Michael Ondaatje’s fiction fit into this inner-outer spectrum?

    1. Kerry says:

      Good question! This is quite a tangled web…

  7. Rebecca says:

    I’m three days behind, but…

    I have only encountered this term once in a formal way, in a class studying *Alias Grace*–domestic fiction in that it concerned the life and career of a domestic, and many details of how she practiced same.

    I don’t suppose I thought AG had the category to itself, but I don’t really think I consider the category a valuable one. Most people live much of their lives at home (undercover detectives being perhaps the exception) and to leave that part out entirely is to skew a story. I guess it is a question of emphasis, but very few realistic stories are entirely undomestic–everyone has underpants, parents, dishes to do, and mail to be opened. The undomestic stories must therefore take place in space or prison?

    Not helpful. I *do* think the term psychological fiction is somewhat helpful (though I don’t use it)–it concerns those books that are about inner life, and conflicts between one person’s inner life and another, or person’s own inner and outer lives. As opposed to books about making the rocket work, tracking down the thief, finding a rich husband, or international politics. What you’d call that latter category (categories?) is beyond me.

    Another thing that is unhelpful is likely this comment. Great post, anyway, KC!

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