Vanessa Bell (1789-1961), The Artist's Daughter
On WMST-l I've been feeling dismayed by some of the people posting onto threads about fiction. A couple disdained popular fiction -- happily put down by Marge Piercy and Katha Pollitt (with me chiming in); one woman said how she has little time for fiction (with the usual implication Austen thought she was making headway against in NA) and when she cited what she was reading (or would read had she the "extra" time), it was Ian Fleming (!) or an action-adventure book with a female surrogate for male values and conventional heroic deeds.
So I write and put this here (edited for us) as food for thought:
By happenstance I today am reading good books on popular historical fiction, preparatory to trying to concoct a panel proposal on 20th/21st century historical fiction set in the long 18th century, and then a paper proposal on a enormously popular (and the first 7 books excellent) Poldark series by Winston Graham (who also wrote Marnie, travestied in Hitchcock's famous film). Popular fiction does indeed deal centrally with issues of concern in each era; there is escapism but there is also (let us be candid here) escapism in the most recent Booker Prize or other prestigious prize-garnering books (often using embedded history, e.g., Nuala O'Faolain's My Deam of You, an inset story in the time of the 1847-48 famine): Helen Hughes's The Historical Romance and Jerome Groot's Historical Novel.
More to the point about feminist books, what really fine about Diane Philips's Women's Fiction, 1945-2005 is she shows the continuities, strong similarities between serious women's fiction and popular women's fiction, so that in the same chapter Marge Piercy's Small Changes and Marilyn French's The Women's Room are treated with Rita Mae Brown's Rubyfruit Jungle.
You can find exactly the same motif in Andrea Levy's Small Island (post-colonial, anti-war, social protest) of giving up a baby treated in closely parallel manner to say the costume drama, The Duchess (Keira Knightley, the film out of Amanda Foreman's widely-selling biography).
Books that are given positive words are "post-colonial" and magic realism; switch terms to historical fiction and gothic and we are in "inferior territory" supposedly.
Last example: Emma Donoghue's Slammerkin (sold with an embarrassing -- - to me -- bodice-ripping cover) has the same critique of women's treatement as her The Room (Booker Prize nominee) and at least in the reviews Slammerkin it was brought up it was about prostitution, free sexuality for women, and hanging while to read about The Room you'd never know it was about continual coercive rape. The most important things about The Room were omitted.
To the function of fiction for girls/women: I'll frame it by saying that it bothers me that the choices I come across for books for high school and other reading groups where say 50% of the participants are girls are relentlessly -- so it seems to me -- books with a male protagonist at the center or action-adventure hero. Tamara cited the few fiction books she says she has time for an they seemed to be either action-adventure males (Ian Fleming) or a female surrogate for that (Nevada Barr). Summers I've a couple of times mentored young women (they are those who ask) who are in the BIS program where I teach (independently-put together Bachelor's degree) and they have been education teachers. What do they choose for reading but what I'd call boys' books where girls are marginalized or (to paraphrase Bobbie Ann Mason in her The Girl Sleuth) are presented as having four actions (menses, marriage, motherhood, menopause) or self-sacrificing mothers are not there. When I bring this up, they are even surprised as if they do not realize they are not there (meaning the young female college student). My daughter is now in a reading group and I see the same thing: for disability one gets a book called My Left Foot, Of course, a boy.
Vanessa Bell, this time her grandaughters, their books and their dolls
I know or have read that boys won't read books with girls at the center, but I'm not sure of that. If they are assigned, the boys read them. Boys will read Jane Austen if you assign it and frame it generally, even Northanger Abbey (big even when the heroine is a wallflower at a dance) where I've been told that Henry Tilney is just a stand-up guy (as hero).
For myself I read fiction all the time. I wake in the night and sit up for a couple of hours reading and when I don't have a novel which I call a comfort book -- not always by a woman (Winston Graham does for me) -- I feel bereft. Bereft. Right now my comfort book is Winifred Holtby's South Riding. Next on my pile is Rosamund Lehmann's Dusty Answer. Sometimes I go through a row of books by one woman: last summer it was Drabble's Pattern in the Carpet, I began with the memoir which was about puzzles, and when I read it, I felt a great emptiness when I saw there were no more pages so I started and reread it again. Favorites are women's memoirs and books of letters, life-writing as well as fiction.
Fiction & life-writing by women performs serious functions for girls -- and can for men too (and fiction there by men). Suzanne Juhasz's Reading from the Heart tells of this in her first chapter on the reading girl. (Although well-meaning I feel Janet Radway's famous book is actually condescending.) Carolyn Heilburn's Writing a Woman's life demonstrates about how such books enabled a conversation with the author and if talked about with other women begins a form of liberation from inculcuted norms and blindnesses. In her argument reading women's books can lead to writing good ones.
So when these sorts of books are not introduced and girls don't even know about them, it's a real loss for them. And when they are not frankly discussed, and the girl stays invisible to herself in them not as centrally truly useful as they can be.
And to turn to Austen's famous defense of novel reading and her argument that as non-fiction is mostly imaginative, it's significant that non-fiction presented as prestigious, what counts, what must be studied and can be influential so dull in comparison with fiction: I offer the idea that what's written to be socially acceptable to the large academic group at the time (and now too in part) is dull because the writer dare not speak the private (which directly influence the public) truths that count.
Germaine Greer by Paula Rego: she writes books which tell real truths of how people (women) get ahead, get positions, what gets in their way because these private experiences are central to women's public lives