Last January I was just beginning to blog, and I was interested in expanding my reading of books by and about women globally. I was particularly interested in the types of stories women write. Browsing for possible challenges to get me started, I found and signed up for the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWW). I knew little about Australia, much less about Australian women writers.
Quickly I found helpful guidance on AWW, first on writings by Indigenous women writers, and then more generally from Australian bloggers who were reading irresistible books. I have ended up reading 22 books for AWW already this year, more than twice what I had intended. My reading led to the observations I make below. A longer version of this essay, which includes more books that are global examples of the patterns I discuss, appears on my blog.
When Women Write about Women
Novels by and about women are being published and recognized in ever increasing numbers. Are these books significant? What do these books say about women? What is traditional and what is new in these books? Should we consider them feminist writing? Although I am not a literary scholar or critic and not involved in the publishing industry, I am an avid novel reader. I care about these questions and wonder what they offer women in a changing world. I’d like to share my thoughts and possibly start a discussion about them.
What strikes me most strongly is the sheer variety of novels by women writers available today. Despite booksellers’ desires to market them as “women’s fiction”, the diversity of authors, plots and styles refuses to be ghettoized. Women’s novels remind us of the problem of lumping all women into any one definition. As long as we live in a gendered world, most men and most women will reflect a gendered difference in their writing. All authors write about what they know and gender is part of our experience. If men and women are to communicate, they need to read about each other.
Whether or not authors express and prioritize their own gender is their choice, not an inevitable result of their gender identity. Writing styles and subjects of male and female overlap. Some of the best recent writing by women does not reflect gendered sensitivity. Take, for example, novels by Australian Alexis Wright. Her Plains of Promise focuses on the experience of Indigenous women, but in her epic, Carpentaria, the narrative includes some forceful, interesting women characters, but centers on the lives of Indigenous men.
Of course, many women choose to embrace traditional roles and definitions in their plots and characters. The romance genre is alive and well among writers and readers, sometimes featuring strong women going after the man they want, not waiting passively for him. Novels featuring domestic life are also abundant and popular. This is as it should be. I would argue, however, that the attempts to ghettoize women’s writing in these genres are also misguided and belittling. Although some of the books in these genres may be simplistic, complex and compelling narratives about domesticity and romance are being written as well, which deserve the attention of both women and men. On the other hand, such novels often look to the past where some, but not all, women could live sheltered by the men they loved. Such novels do little to challenge the status quo or help women imagine alternatives. That is fine, but it is not feminism.
I am always hesitant to label novels as feminist. A basic component of feminism is that private lives are shaped by the public actions which determine economic and social structures. Feminism seeks to help individual women value themselves and consider their own interests; at the same time, it pushes for changes that make the larger world more fair and just for all women. Novels are great for exploring individual women’s sense of what it means to be a woman. When they try to analyse and address larger social problems, few succeed. One that does succeed is Finola Moorhead’s Remember the Tarantella. She has created a lesbian novel with deep meaning for all women about the possibilities of growing as individuals at the same time as belonging to a larger community.
The recent novels that interest me most are the ones I believe make a new, important contribution to literature by offering new narratives for women. I consider these as “women-centered” novels because they explore in new depth and variety what it means to be a woman. Although not explicitly feminist, they reflect changes and new options for women that have been emerging in the past thirty years. Their plots vary widely, and they encourage women to examine and value the parts of their lives often outside men’s notice, such as their bodies and their relationships with each other.
In 1989, acclaimed feminist scholar, Carolyn Heilbrun, wrote a book entitled Writing a Woman’s Life. In it she describes how we all live by the stories we tell about ourselves. She observes that the literary canon of the English-speaking people is full of plots featuring men engaging in various quests, but women are limited to romantic plots centering on a man in their lives. Even fine women authors like Jane Austen and George Eliot do not offer alternatives to this plot. Heilbrun urged women writers to create new plots that depicted women engaging in their own quests and telling about lives and events that did not depend on men choosing to care for them.
By the time she wrote this book, Heilbrun was already acting to correct this situation. In 1963, she had been a non-tenured professor at Columbia University in an English Department, not unanimously ready to treat a woman as an intellectual equal. She also had a husband and three young children. Writing under the pseudonym, Amanda Cross, she created a series of detective stories. Her lead character was Kate Fansler, a female professor like herself, but one without children. Fansler was sharp and witty and anything but nurturing or “womanly”. And she was extremely popular.
In the fifty years since Heilbrun created Kate Fansler, dozens of other women detective novels have followed. Other female sleuths include women, straight and lesbian, of every imaginable ethnicity, nationality, and class. Interestingly, some women struggle to combine their love for a partner and children with their professional ambitions and responsibilities. Part of their quests involves finding ways to be successful in what were once defined as the public and private spheres. Not many of us are going to go out and solve crimes, but their stories resonate with all of us who juggle careers and families, combining romance and quest plots.
Not all women’s new writing presents plots that are either quests or romances. “Coming of age” stories today deal more explicitly with girls’ physical changes and growing awareness of sexuality, but not necessarily marriage. Other recent books deal with midlife crises which require women to reinvent new life stories for themselves. Perhaps such stories could be classified as “coming of self”, since many women, in life or in novels, develop as individuals only after the loss of a marriage marks the end of their romance plot. Other crises can have the same effect. In these books a woman friend or a group of women offer alternative support.
Another way women writers are expanding our society’s conception of womanhood is the attention given to experiences that are typically those of women but not men. Traditionally these have been ignored by male writers and by literature in general. For example, menstruation has been a taboo, and when childbirth was included in a novel, readers have typically viewed it from the perspective of the anxious father in the waiting room. Today women’s experience of pregnancy and birth is described with relevant complexity. Since giving birth is a very human event, such accounts are a step toward the inclusion of woman in literature as fully human.
More generally, motherhood is being increasingly described from the perspective of the mother. Authors are writing about what it is like to raise small children and how the mother-child relationship changes as boys and girls grow up. While narratives of mothers and sons have been common in the past, today’s books often feature mother-daughter relations. My favorite is Francesca Rendle-Short’s Bite Your Tongue, published by the Australian Spinifex Press. This book is also unique in its inclusion of the physical nature of the relationship, another aspect of how women authors are changing how we think about women. Sisterhood is another popular new topic. Women’s friendships with each other are also being depicted and treated with dignity. In lesbian novels, a sexual dimension is also present.
Another change in publishing has been the growing availability of novels by and about women from varied backgrounds. Thirty years ago, novels in the libraries and bookstores in the United States were routinely by white authors, or occasionally by men of color. As readers and publishers have realized the quality and significance of women writing globally, books by women of color and other groups silenced in our traditional cultures are relatively easy to find. Women still are discriminated against in the publishing and reviewing (as the VIDA study reported by AWW shows) but the situation is improving. As more books by women about themselves get read by men and women, some men are also writing with more depth and sensitivity about women.
At the forefront of the increased prominence of books by and about diverse women are the feminist presses that specialize in making them available. The Spinifex Press in Australia produces a fine array of such books, fiction and nonfiction, many of them by global women.
Women writing about what it means to be a woman are offering new stories that move beyond stereotypes which are no longer adequate. Their novels are varied and significant because they expand our understanding of what it means to be human.
To ignore or denigrate novels because they are by women or deal with their lives slightingly is to continue the traditional assumptions that humanity is synonymous with manhood. Although not all novels by and about women are explicitly feminist, many treat women’s lives as significant and help us imagine new stories for ourselves. And this, after all, is a basic goal of feminism which we can all support.
Thanks for the opportunity to share my thoughts on women’s writing and my reading of books by Australian women this year. I hope AWW readers will suggest other Australian books that supplement or challenge my observations. I’d especially love to hear of more feminist or women-centered books by Australian women which are available as ebooks. I believe they would be popular here in the US.
Marilyn Dell Brady is a retired women’s History professor now living in the desert mountains of West Texas. She blogs at Me, You and Books about books, especially ones about women in all their diversity.