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Dear friends and readers,

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



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 17th, 2011 11:23 pm (UTC)

I am working on the importance of early fiction on the development of Dorothy Day, and find that early reading had a profound influence on the person she became--a person worked tirelessly both politically and charitably to improve the plight of the marginalized. Two novels--that we might dismiss (and they are hard to read) as sentimental (and they are) - had a profound influence on Day. They are novels by a woman, Susan Warner: Wide, Wide World and Queechy. (Jo March in Little Women reads Wide, Wide World, and like that book's protag. Ellen, Jo has a hot temper.) Both were best-sellers. A good book on children's lit is Gail Schmunck Murray's American Children's literature and the construction of childhood.

Why would these Warner novels so affect Day that in the last years of her life she was still rereading them? After all, they have all the sentimental treacle of a Shirley Temple movie. Day was anything but sentimental.

Yet, for a young girl, they had characteristics that Ellen notes are missing from much of the reading given to girls today: In both books the main characters are girls and morally strong girls who have to struggle with a harsh world. And while the books are rightly criticized for their piety and sentiment, they both show the protg. as strong--in both cases, morally strong--but yet with a form of power. Queechy goes to pains to underscore that women have moral agency. We can argue with much in these books, but there's no doubt that for Day,
and we have to imagine for other women, they were a source of strength and inspiration--women, these books say, can make a difference.

The books also attack unfair economics. Being rich never, ever
justifies greed or cruelty. There is always a higher good than money.

Here are some examples of Warner going to pains in Queechy to
underline women's moral agency:

In Queechy, the protag. Fleda’s beloved grandfather tells her that her father, whom Fleda has never known, “’had a better sort of courage than the common sort--he had enough of _that_--but this is a rarer thing--he never was afraid to do what in his conscience he thought was right. Moral courage I call it, and it is one of the very noblest qualities a man can have.’" ‘That's a kind of courage a woman may have,’ said Fleda.” (chapter 2)

Again, in the same chapter, the grandfather repeats his point lest it was missed: “’any man may walk up to the cannon's mouth, but it is only one here and there that will walk out against men's opinions because he thinks it is right. That was one of the things I admired most in your father.’" And once again, Warner reinforces the most salient point: "’Didn't my mother have it too?’ said Fleda.

"’She had about everything that was good,’” the grandfather replies.

Further, Fleda’s Aunt Miriam has been raised among the Quakers, and thus has “retained a tincture of the calm efficient gentleness of mind and manner that belongs so inexplicably to them.” (chapter 4) She had no “littleness of mind” and “always told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.” (ch. 7) Fleda emulates these morally powerful women and helps reform her world. By halfway through the novel, admirable people, like her aunt, Mrs. Rossitur, applaud Fleda:

"Fleda does everything." Mrs. Rossitur says. ..."Character! I don't know who has so much. She has at least fifty times as much character as I have. And energy. She is admirable at managing people-..."

I want to reiterate that there is much to criticize in these books. However, it seems that at least some girls, like Day, could pull out the good and leave the rest behind."
Apr. 18th, 2011 12:19 pm (UTC)
Old girls books and " feminist porn" (1)
In response to Diane,

The issue goes beyond that of girls and women as what is read by boys and then young men is equally important. Part of my devotion to the third part of my course called Adv Comp in the Humanities is aimed at making this point. I ask everyone to reread a favorite book from childhood (or their younger years) and write a paper comparing what they remember of it or the circumstances of their lives then and their reaction today. They can do research on the author of the book, its type (some are manufactured by syndicates) and children's literature. I put the best papers I've had over the years on line as I've gotten them. This one is about an apparently sentimental book which is still liked and read (I discovered young adults in my class this term have read it

Where the Red Fern Grows


Bob Dixon's books address the real problem that books are produced by adults and the truth that the overwhelming number of those written do endorse harsh competition, class exclusionary practices, and do not work against bullying, reinforce stereotypes about girls. Among the better type -- written by individual authors there too one must pick up what one can and leave aside what is harmful or bad.

I've changed the header to include _Aurora Leigh_ -- of which I read book 2 last night. I do notice no one but me posted about it or any issues relating to it. There are passages in AL about a young girls's reading, viz In the section which begins "Capacity for joy/Admits temptation ... "

Books, books, books!
I had found the secret of a garret-room
Piled high with cases in my father's name;
Piled high, packed large,­where, creeping in and out
Among the giant fossils of my past,
Like some small nimble mouse between the ribs
Of a mastodon, I nibbled here and there
At this or that box, pulling through the gap,
In heats of terror, haste, victorious joy,
The first book first. And how I felt it beat
Under my pillow, in the morning's dark,
An hour before the sun would let me read!
My books!

I realize that this is couched in such general terms -- unlike Carolyn Heilburn and also Diane's that it lacks an electric charge. _Aurora Leigh_ in general to some may also seem very sentimental (I complained about this last week) and gush (I tried to defend that last week). This week the story goes on about her awakening, that her cousin Romney Leigh wants her to marry him and become his wife and how she realizes this means she will be chained down to be his (have to follow what he does, serve him, be his -- and all that follows, including children). She does not want it. She is told there is nothing else. Then the aunt dies and luckily does leave her 300 pounds - the sum Elizabeth Barrett Browning had and which supported her and Robert in Italy or she could not have done it. She resolves to remain independent.

A summary of the book. It may not seem relevant again -- but I think it's central to women's books that they are so rooted in particulars and a particular era. For that's where women's chains often are -- that's what we need to have said to us to help us free ourselves or understand ourselevs or not let ourselves be erased. Women in my classes seem invisible to themselves - they are newly afraid to speak lest they be ridiculed as feminist and outcast.

(cont'd) Ellen

Edited at 2011-04-18 12:20 pm (UTC)
Apr. 18th, 2011 12:19 pm (UTC)
Older girls books and "feminist porn" (2)
Last comment: On WMST-l there then emerged from the same people endorsing these male hero books, an unexamined standing up for "feminist porn." I was glad to see that we've had an intelligent informed (and persuasive if anyone can be influenced by what they read -- see the scepticism here) series of threads saying there is no such thing. Feminist porn is a stalking horse for getting women to accept porn in silence or pretending to like or countenance it. To get them to ignore or not speak of its violence, pain inflictions, endorsement of triumph for the reader over someone's abjection and exultation in cruelty.

Each year or era brings it contemporary permutations against women. So Aurora Leigh doesn't argue against feminist porn because that wasn't the issue then, and perhaps years from now books arguing against feminist porn will seem (one hopes) outdated but the same underlying general characteristics of this sex warfare will be there and perhaps not very changed I fear.

Apr. 21st, 2011 01:16 am (UTC)
Ellen, I'm amazed that women in your group attack fiction. The novel is an art form, but many find it easier nonfiction for information rather than to consider style, story, explore moral issues, and all that fiction has to offer. But women are the great readers of fiction. Every study shows that.

Certainly girls' fiction helped shape my values when I was growing up. Standing up for what one believes--Anne of Green Gables, Harriet the Spy, or Little Women--but also respecting other people.

There is so much good historical fiction out there lately: I recently loved Jane Smiley's Private Life, Peter Carey's Parrot and Olivier in America, and Leila Aboulelah's Lyrics Alley (which is nominated for the Orange Prize).

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