Wednesday, March 24, 2010
The reviews (or idea of reviews), both good and bad, continue to make me shiver. I’ve just had one that essentially positioned The Season of Second Chances somewhere “between Jane Eyre and Bridget Jones”. And, given those two options, I suppose I would rather be somewhere in the middle.
The academic reviewer seemed to enjoy the book, though it appeared to me that she felt uncomfortable in liking it as much as she did. Some of her discomfort seemed to stem from the fact that all in The Season of Second Chances does not come to a bad end, as she suggests we’d find in “real literature” – like Madam Bovary, or in the fates of the heroines of Joy’s (and my) beloved Henry James. The idea, apparently being, that “bad ends” are the mark of real life – and/or authentic art.
There was a piece in the NY Times yesterday about a UK prize for Women Writers. In the text, the Orange Prize’s Chief Judge, Daisy Goodwin, complains about the dismal, discouraging and distressing themes that mark all of the manuscripts up for consideration of this award. The explanation, as given by another of the judges, is that the writers, anxious to separate their work from that of Chick-Lit, at least in the eyes of critics and academics, now feel compelled to create stories that are so dark and so very depressing, one can hardly find a reason for reading on. Goodwin says that she feels like slitting her wrists.
I’ve just been on the website for the Orange Prize, and it took six “click-throughs” to get to any text that suggested (no less announced) the literal fact that this award is only open to women. And the first place I found its note, was in a comment from the Chair of Judges herself, Daisy Goodwin, as she accepted the position of chairing the prize: “I’m very honoured to be chairing a female judging panel. Too often the term 'women's fiction' is used pejoratively as if there was something wrong with the books that women write and read. As I am addicted to reading I am really looking forward to the next six months and finding some great new books that will appeal to everybody.” That’s it, as they say – that’s all she wrote. What does she think about the fact that ‘women’s fiction’ is used pejoratively? Where does this come from? What can we do about it? What are the consequences? And what does she think offering a prize for women writers – as opposed to what -- real writers (?) is likely to do to that position of “Women’s Literature”?
And so, the suggestion in my review that “real” literature might be known by its intent to show real life in all its grittiness and disappointment, struck home. I felt suitably chastened but even more concerned. I appreciate the fact that Chick-Lit is stuffed to the brim with Birkin bags and Jimmy Choos; and that this is, indeed, different in both intent and value from Bovary or Daisy Miller – even with the details of their dresses, and their dances and the candies from Schenectady, noted so freely. I appreciate the idea that most genre fiction, whether Raymond Chandler or Elmore Leonard, or Candace Bushnell or Dashiell Hammett, or Stephanie Meyer, is intended for a kind of disposable consumption. The Burger King of literature. But I don’t think that what we are so often calling “Women’s Literature” is Chick-Lit or genre lit. And it seems I’m not the only one grappling with this.
We all know lives that end well and phases in lives that end in joy or victory. And don’t we also find, in so much of the literature we love, the witty and ironic takes on triumph or disaster? What about Nabokov or Joseph Heller? Where would Holden Caufield be without wit? And we’re still talking about him. And what about the issues dismissed as “domestic”? In Far From the Madding Crowd, Bathsheba and Gabriel Oak are together at last. “Whenever you look up, there I shall be – And whenever I look up -- there will be you”. Framed in the homespun detail of the farm, tables set for holidays and harvest, surrounded by the mis-firings of nothing more weighty than love and partnerships, used as metaphors for a New Age, in contrast to the natural Old. But there is hardly today, across academe, a nose turned up, rejecting Hardy as a lightweight bit of “women’s lit”.
The development of Joy’s house reflects the opening of her life, as she can, at last, relax within her own authentic brand of comfort. And nowhere have we equated anything but personal discovery, authentic expression and an appreciation for beauty to the advancement of her home. The reviewer’s discomfort with that expression is part of the very discomfort and limitation I saw in Joy before the walls of her defenses began to crumble. The word ‘domestic’ is offered with a whiff of disapproval in this review. And Joy’s own denunciation of things domestic, of things of mere beauty, ornament, decoration or adornment is exactly in line with what the reviewer discourages here. The damning of the theme as Women’s Literature, bordering on Chick-Lit.
As I mentioned in my "Eye Entry 'It's Home'", there is a piece in The Season of Second Chances that speaks to this disassociation of academics and feminists from Style. “You’re not afraid of these things on the page” Bernadette says to Joy, referring to the style of Henry James, “Why are you so afraid of them in life?”
But I think that we can see that there is, indeed, a fear of it “on the page”. Women writers who, in text after text, find themselves beginning books with devastating scenes of violence or loss, so base that the rest of their book cannot possibly be misunderstood as ‘merely’ Women’s Lit or Chick Lit, are falling into a reactionary position that cannot begin to show us the fully expressed condition of women in the world today – which was, surely, the original intent of what I believe to be a well meaning, though misguided, prize – Orange or otherwise.
This is where, I suppose, the ghetto that is called “Women’s Literature” begins to spring to life in its most dangerous form, as we diminish the very things that were relegated to women, no matter how life-enhancing they might be (and, quite likely because they might be ‘life enhancing’). It is characteristic of the oppressed to most value the things long disallowed and held only for the ‘oppressors’, while discrediting their own gifts or worth. I would have hoped we’d be a little farther along by now.