Every year when the Orange Prize announces its longlist, or its shortlist, or its jury members, or an anniversary, or is mentioned in the press, people start to write long opinion pieces about the sad state of women's fiction. This year's award will be announced next week, and we've been enduring months of such complaints. Women's fiction is too domestic, too small scale, too dreary, too often about rape or abuse. It's not ambitious enough, not universal, not epic.It got me to thinking about many of the serious "women's novels" I've read recently. (And by the way, I have serious issues with the way novels written by women and about women are categorized as "women's novels." There's no such thing as "men's novels," now is there?) I read "Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name" by Vendela Vida, and "Breath, Eyes, Memory" by Edwidge Danticat, and "The Robber Bride" by Margaret Atwood, among several others, and the only one I could think of that didn't involve rape or abuse as a plot point was "Kinflicks" by Lisa Alther, which was written a quarter-century ago.
I am pretty sure I know what the standard reason given for this would be, at least according to some literary critics and aficionados. They would point to feminism, and they would say that it's vision of Woman as Perpetual Victim has so infiltrated the minds of modern women that it is impossible for us to create art that doesn't touch on these themes in some way. The idea seems to be that, until the feminist orthodoxy came along, women never felt like they had been pushed aside as a class, that they had been forced to deal with violence of the most intimate kind, and that they had been expected to just shut up and deal with it.
Furthermore, the categorization of such themes in literature as "dreary" and "small" seems to come from the perspective that writing about rape and violence and abuse is little more than an attempt at therapeutic navel-gazing, better left to tearstained bedside journals and women's writing groups that contain the word "heal" in their mission statements.
Obviously, I think this is bullshit. Not only have I written extensively about my own experiences with rape and abuse and molestation, but I think I have done so in a way that universalizes my particular experience and turns it into something that, while not exactly approaching art, certainly has the ability to communicate a facsimile of the experiences to the person who reads my words. (I've long considered myself more a communicator and less an artist, but I think that might just be my own insecurities at work.) Reading my writing on these matters is not pleasant, which is not the point, but I think it certainly makes the reader feel something, which is exactly the point.
Why do I write about these things? Because experiences like these have transformed me on a molecular level. They changed the hue of the world as I see it. I mean, it's difficult to see the world as a happy-go-lucky place of possibility when you know, at the age when most people are still learning to ride a tricycle, that people are capable of hurting each other in unspeakably awful ways. Obviously these subjects are not the only thing I touch on in my writing, but they do make appearances, simply because I recognize how important they were in my life, and as a result, how important they would be in the life of others.
For generations, men have written about their transformative experiences, and not all of them have been enjoyable adventures involving sex and travel and conversations with fascinating people. A lot of those experiences took place against the context of war, and war is vivid and brutal and painful, just like rape and abuse. Yet no one ever points to a novel about war and calls it out for being small and dreary, and for obvious reasons. War is epic, it changes the lives of thousands, if not millions, it remakes the geopolitical landscape.
But rape and abuse are no less insidious, and no less influential on the lives of those who have to deal with it (not just the victims, but those who love and live with them). It has changed the lives of thousands, if not millions. It has remade the emotional landscape of entire cultures.
My thoughts on the matter were perfectly summed up by Joyce Carol Oates, which makes sense, as she is Joyce Carol Oates and I am, well, me:
“If the lot of womankind has not yet widely diverged from that romantically envisioned by our Moral Majority and by the late Adolf Hitler (‘Kirche, Kinder, Kuchen’), the lot of the woman writer has been just as severely circumscribed. War, rape, murder and the more colorful minor crimes evidently fall within the exclusive province of the male writer, just as, generally, they fall within the exclusive province of male action.”(I came across this quote in a NYT review of Jessica Stern's "Denial: A Memoir of Terror," which also incidentally holds rape at its center. As you can imagine, I can't wait to read it.)
It makes sense that, as more and more women take to the literary arts to express themselves, they will write about their transformative experiences. Few of us ladies have ever been to war, but a whole hell of a lot of us have been raped or have been punched in the face by a lover, and as a result, those will be the things we write about, because those are the things we know. One of the cardinal rules of writing is that you stick to what you know. Well, this is what we know.