"Immersion in the life of the world, a willingness to be inhabited by and to speak for others, including those beyond the realm of the human, these are the practices not just of the bodhisattva but of the writer." --Jane Hirshfield

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Agony of Writing

I hate to write. I have to force myself every day to sit down and begin. This is the first thing that I always tell students, who have absorbed the peculiar modern notion that if you are practiced at something you must find it effortless and pleasurable. Sometimes they ask how I continue, and I reply, glibly, "Because of contractual obligation." But I only manage because I live a humdrum life, in which the drama takes place mainly on the page.
Anna Quindlen at the Wall St. Journal.
You don't know what it is to stay a whole day with your head in your hands trying to squeeze your unfortunate brain so as to find a word. Ideas come very easily to you, incessantly, like a stream. With me it is a tiny thread of water.... Ah, I certainly know the agonies of style.
Gustave Flaubert to George Sand, from The George Sand-Gustave Flaubert Letters, p. 29. The book can be read in its entirety there. Is writing always an agony? Are any writers crowing about how easy it all is? I haven't found them. I wonder. Maybe we love to hear and read stories because then the work is done for us, and we love them in direct relation to how much work we have not had to do. It would explain the love of "doorstop" books. So much harder to tell or write stories ourselves, and the longer they are, the harder it is.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Women's Literary Fiction

After recently having a frustrating "discussion" with a male friend who insisted that "women don't write big books," this NY Times article from Meg Wolitzer points out not only that we do, but are not taken seriously, but that when men write "women's http://www.blogger.com/img/blank.giffiction," they are taken much more seriously than women. Here she is on Thehttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif Marriage Plot:

'If "The Marriage Plot," by Jeffrey Eugenides, had been written by a woman yet still had the same title and wedding ring on its cover, would it have received a great deal of serious literary attention? Or would this novel (which I loved) have been relegated to “Women’s Fiction,” that close-quartered lower shelf where books emphasizing relationships and the interior lives of women are often relegated? Certainly “The Marriage Plot,” Eugenides’s first novel since his Pulitzer Prize-winning “Middlesex,” was poised to receive tremendous literary interest regardless of subject matter, but the presence of a female protagonist, the gracefulness, the sometimes nostalgic tone and the relationship-heavy nature of the book only highlight the fact that many first-rate books by women and about women’s lives never find a way to escape “Women’s Fiction” and make the leap onto the upper shelf where certain books, most of them written by men (and, yes, some women — more about them later), are prominently displayed and admired.'

Later, on the subject of big-in-size books:

'My sense is that like most men, most women are writing at the length they want to write — but they’re not always getting the same reward. Men like Ian ­Mc­Ewan and Julian Barnes have written very short, highly regarded and widely read books in recent years. Yet if a woman writes something short these days, particularly if it’s about a woman, it risks being considered minor. (“Spare” is the oft-used word of faint praise.) Yet if, on the other hand, a woman writes a doorstop filled with free associations about life and love and childbirth and war, and jokes and recipes and maybe even a novel-within-a-novel, and anything else that will fit inside an endlessly elastic membrane, she risks being labeled undisciplined and self-indulgent.'

And on the timing:

'It seems no coincidence that some of the most esteemed women writing today — Toni Morrison, Joyce Carol Oates, Margaret Atwood, Doris Lessing, Marilynne Robinson — came to prominence at an unusual moment in time when the women’s movement could be felt everywhere. Stories, long and short, and often about women’s lives, suddenly mattered to the cultural conversation. This period, the 1970s and to an extent the early ’80s, initially appeared to create an entirely different and permanent reality for female fiction writers. Men were actively interested in reading about the inner lives of women (or maybe some just pretended they were) and received moral kudos for doing so. Whereas before that a lone woman might be allowed on the so-called men’s team, literary women began achieving critical mass and becoming more than anomalies. But though this wave of prominent authors helped the women who followed, as time passed it seemed harder for literary women to go the distance. As Katha Pollitt, the poet and literary critic, says: “I think there’s always space for a Toni Morrison or a Mary McCarthy, but only one of them at a time. For every one woman, there’s room for three men.”'

Jane Smiley, on this phenomenon:

'Jane Smiley, who won a Pulitzer in 1992 for “A Thousand Acres,” said: “When I think about my own work, I think that it maybe falls between two stools, and sometimes this is good and sometimes it’s bad — not making the money that Jodi Picoult is making, not achieving the status of Franzen or Wallace. Nevertheless, one of the great things for our generation of women writers is the freedom we’ve felt to write about whatever subjects we wish to write about. Are we less innovative than the guys? I don’t see that. But if men aren’t much in the habit of reading women, then it doesn’t matter how innovative we are.”'

And the final, thought-provoking point:

'Recently, when the novelist Mary Gordon spoke at a boys’ school, she learned that the students weren’t reading the Bront√ęs, Austen or Woolf. Their teachers defended this by saying they were looking for works that boys could relate to. But at the girls’ school across the street, Gordon said, “no one would have dreamed of removing ‘Huckleberry Finn’ or ‘Moby-Dick’ from the syllabus. As a woman writer, you get points if you include the ‘male’ world in your work, and you lose points if you omit it.”'

Earlier in the article, Wolitzer points out that a literary woman writer can do very well without male readers, because there are so many female readers. It's likely that publishers are pandering to male readers just as the teachers above pandered to their male students, believing, possibly correctly, that males, who have to be enticed to read at all, would rather not read books by women, whereas women like to read and will read anything. Maybe it's time to put women's books back on the syllabus, and make it clear, again, that we expect them to be read. Otherwise, publishers will continue to spend a lot of effort on a group of reluctant readers while taking for granted the majority of the audience for fiction.

My friend, who does read women's fiction but only recent work, not having read any of the "big" women's books I suggested, still stuck to his argument about women not writing big books. At least, let's understand that men make this argument on the basis not only of their own biased reading taste, but of a bias in publishing in the last 30 years.