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April 25, 2010

More on "Domestic fiction", which, turns out, doesn't exist.

First, I want to point out that Twitter has become a lot more worthwhile since I started following Washington Post book critic Ron Charles. And it was his review of Sue Miller’s The Lake Shore Limited that made me realize that I’d become derailed with my “domestic fiction” epiphany (which was that it was not just the stuff of women’s fiction, that it’s universal. That the realm may not be as divided as I’d supposed). Ron Charles writes that Miller:

“might be the best poster child for the poison condescension bestowed by the term “women’s literature.” She didn’t publish her first novel, “The Good Mother” (1986), until she was in her 40s, but since then she’s been prolific and popular (another mark against her), writing about families and marriages, infidelity and divorce — what we call “literary fiction” when men write about those things. Last year, a grudging review of “The Senator’s Wife” in That Other East Coast Newspaper claimed that Miller’s novels “feature soap-opera plots,” a mischaracterization broad enough to apply to any story that doesn’t involve space travel or machine guns.”

You know, I really meant “women’s fiction” all along, which (the surprise is) is also often written by men. Except, yes, it’s “literary fiction” then. This all reminds me of Julianna Baggot’s piece from last winter (via SWB) that posited: “Women… are supposed to be experts on emotion. I’ve never heard anyone remark that they were surprised that a book of psychological depth was written by a woman. So men get points for simply showing up on the page with a literary effort.” I don’t know if the last point is completely true, but I do think that “psychological fiction” is something of a woman’s domain these days. That psychological fiction and what we call women’s fiction are often one and the same.

I am still bothered by Alex Good’s review of Lisa Moore’s novel February, which suggested that the novel’s most “gendered” elements were “so transparently the stuff of commercial fiction”. I continue to not understand what this means, exactly, but it seems similar to the “soap-opera plot” accusation thrown at Sue Miller (and in fact, Good bemoans the lack of a “fast-paced, and forward-moving plot” [space travel and machine guns?]). I continue also to still think that February was a stunning novel. Could a man have written it? Does it matter? Would it have been judged any differently if a man had written it?

It seems that for many critics, “women’s fiction” is a polite way of saying “bad fiction” (and that “bad fiction” is an impolite way of saying “women’s fiction”), but I’m not sure that judgment is entirely fair. In fact, yes, to bring this around to what I was talking about in the preceding paragraph, I know the judgment isn’t fair when women are writing some of the best fiction out there. And that when the men are writing it, then it’s “literary fiction”, as noted by Ron Charles.

So I don’t know what to think now: my revelation continues to be that fiction is not as gendered as I’d previously suspected, but that there might still be such a thing as “women’s writing”. Though it might just be a construct, a gap manufactured by critics who find it easier to catagorize things simply. It might also be a misunderstanding, women’s writing being judged by its lowest common denominator (Maeve Binchy, as opposed to Virginia Woolf, for example). Because there is truly some seriously shitty “women’s writing” out there,  but we could say the same about the men. Or are women writing books which are restrictive in their readership? Might the fault be with the readers though, who are prejudiced about what “Great Works” are constituted of? And then here’s the really complicating factor– what about discerning readers who thought that February was crap, full stop (and I’ ve met them. I think they’re crazy, but I’ve met them). Truly, me responding with, “You wouldn’t get it. You’re a man” is a pretty unfair response. And doesn’t say much for February, because shouldn’t great literature speak to everyone? (Though I really don’t understand why this great book wouldn’t.)

3 thoughts on “More on "Domestic fiction", which, turns out, doesn't exist.”

  1. Susan Telfer says:

    Maybe we should be all using names like Currer Bell, etc., like the Victorians. I could be Sebastian Trotter. Does that change how I’m read?

    1. Kerry says:

      It would definitely heighten your psychological acuity.

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