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‘You Should Try Harder’ - Women and Domestic Fiction

V.S. Naipaul’s vainglorious and conceited comments last week on women’s writing have enraged me far beyond the bounds of mere irritation. Such literary spats usually fail to attain more than a raised eyebrow or tiresome rolling of the eyes from me (Ah, Naipaul, that cantankerous old toad) but this one ignited a deeply-rooted, gut-wrenching emotion which almost had me running to Hatchards to hold a ceremonious book burning (Have you seen the size of A House for Mr Biswas? It would burn for hours!) whilst reciting the relevant passages from Diana Athill’s Stet. I have nothing against the man himself, apart from being very wary of any novel which exceeds 500 pages. And sadly enough, I’m sure he was merely articulating the sentiments of many a bombastic male author. The difference is that most would be smart enough to realise that such comments would only serve to make them look attention-grabbing and desperate – perhaps his sales are looking a little peaky of late, or the novelty of winning the Nobel has finally worn off.  Consequently he has emerged as a bitter and cynical; some would argue misogynistic, old man so far distanced from reality that the most recent female novelists he could cite for evidence are Austen and Athill. One wonders whether he has read anything by a woman since…

What I resent most is the attitude to women’s fiction these comments demonstrate. His main bugbear with Austen is her ‘sentimental ambitions, her sentimental sense of the world’ which he ‘couldn’t possibly share.’ He seems to be suggesting that because Austen’s novels relied on themes such as the family, home, emotion and marriage, this was the extent of her ambition. Has he entertained the idea that perhaps she chose to write about real life, basing her stories on the social circles she belonged to and the customs and curiosities of the period. Austen was fascinated by the intricacies of the human heart, the nature of the family and the strict conduct imposed by the laws of society at the time. She had the foresight to know that others would find this limited and insular world fascinating too; her works are true studies of the human condition.  As novelist Manju Kapur states;

‘That’s when imagination comes into it. Austen is using a small microcosm to reflect every issue under the sun.’

Why is Naipaul (or any other successful male writer, as he seems to imply) incapable of writing about such topics or portraying ‘a sentimental sense’? Is it because he believes that male writers are too busy putting the world to rights by producing novels dealing with monumental events of history, empire-building, colonialism and the ‘big’ questions of religion and philosophy, to concern themselves with domestic trivialities and emotion? Herein lies the root of my intense angst; the constant devaluing and criticism levelled at what has become broadly become known as ‘domestic fiction.’ This issue is raised every year when activity surrounding the Orange Prize for Fiction (a literary award given only to women writers, judged by women) begins to appear in the press. It seems particularly pertinent to discuss the issue now – Granta have just published their first exclusively female edition, The F-Word, focusing on ‘feminism, women and power,’ meanwhile the death knell is sounding for women’s hardbacks (see Emily Rhodes fantastic article for The Spectator here) but despite this, we are told that the Orange Prize nominees far outsell the Booker Prize shortlist.  Confusing? Immensely. What is clear, however, is that feminist issues in literature, far from being put to bed in the 1970s, are still bubbling away under the surface. The very fact that we continue to discuss this seemingly archaic issue, that opinions like Naipaul’s continue to exist and attract agreement, demonstrates that women writers are still struggling to be regarded equal to their male counterparts, irregardless of subject matter, book sales or prizes won. Furthermore, I think it is an issue that the book industry, despite being broadly female-dominated (it is estimated that 80% of people working in publishing are women) does little to change.

For example in 2005, co-editors Toby Litt and Ali Smith, in their introduction to an ongoing poetry/short story anthology collection called New Writing , complained that ‘on the whole the submissions from women were disappointingly domestic.’ Similarly in 2007, Orange prize judge Muriel Gray objected to the ‘sheer volume of thinly disguised autobiographical writing from women on small-scale domestic themes, such as motherhood, boyfriend troubles and tiny family dramas’. ‘Domestic’ is the criticism du-jour for women’s fiction. That one little word is so often used to dismiss and entire novel or collection of novels, to shrink an astounding and monumental work of literature into a mere kitchen-sink drama. When it emerged that 75% of the books reviewed by the TLS were by men, Editor Peter Stothard responded with the following:

We know (women) are heavy readers of the kind of fiction that is not likely to be reviewed in the pages of the TLS.’

Evidently he means fiction written by women. At an ICA talk earlier this year entitled ‘Novel Women,’ it emerged that when judges are deciding which books should be considered for prizes such as The Man Booker  or the Samuel Johnson, one of the key qualifying characteristics (purported by men) is ‘Is the subject ‘big’ enough? Does it have enough reach?’ This simple sweeping question is enough to disqualify an entire generation of women who write exclusively on ‘domestic’ themes. This requirement excludes some of our most brilliant living novelists – Zadie Smith, Zoe Heller, Doris Lessing, Margaret Atwood and Marilynne Robinson to name just a few.

It seems that women writers are still contending with the same issues Virginia Woolf grappled with in her famous essay A Room of One’s Own over 80 years ago:

‘This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war. This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room.

This anxiety plagued Woolf; she was desperate to be remembered and regarded as a great novelist but feared her ‘tinselly experiments,’ or ‘feminine tosh’ (as Naipaul would no doubt call it) would never make the cut. In my opinion, Woolf is the greatest ‘domestic’ novelistic that has ever lived. Only the most gifted of writers could turn a day in the life of the ageing Mrs. Dalloway into something uniquely beautiful and consistently fulfilling. I think it is a greater challenge to write about the minutiae of everyday life and make it compelling and interesting to the reader than it is to describe world-changing, historical events on an epic scale. It certainly requires greater skill and imagination on the part of the writer. Here is novelist Helen Dunmore on Woolf’s To the Lighthouse:

There are novels which have an almost uncanny power to renew themselves in the reader’s imagination. Each time I return to To the Lighthouse I’m struck by something that I haven’t noticed before: a flash of description, a moment of double-edged intimacy between two characters, a touch of sensory experience so immediate that it brings a shiver. More and more, as we grow older, these great novels declare their authority. They will certainly outlive us, like sea or rock or sand. We can inhabit their world for a while, and be changed by it, but they are forever moving beyond us to the next generation.’

And here lies the power of this seemingly domestic novel; it is timeless, ageless, as novels dealing with human emotions generally tend to be.  This view is further supported by Michael Cunningham, author of The Hours

‘(Woolf) gave us to understand that even a modest, domestic life was still, for the person living it, an epic journey, however ordinary it might appear to an outside observer. She refused to dismiss lives that most other writers tended to ignore…she was better than almost anyone at conveying the pure joy of being alive. The quotidian pleasure of simply being present in the world on an ordinary Tuesday in June.’ (Read the full article here)

And who is to say that this extraordinary power is worth less than the work of James Joyce, or Ernest Hemingway, D. H. Lawrence, Herman Hesse or any other male writer of the period?

However this double standard in literature still prevails. Bestselling contemporary novelists Rachael Cusk and Helen Simpson have spoken at length about the risks involved in writing about female values and female experiences.  Female novelists face a continual pressure to avoid being defined as ‘feminist,’ or their work pigeon-holed as ‘women’s fiction,’ and often go to extreme lengths to escape the labels. Talking about her most recent short-story collection In Flight Entertainment Simpson states;

‘It does seem ridiculous that describing domestic work and life - the daily reality of most women in the world – is seen as letting the side down …partly in response to the suggestion that women write only on tame, indoor subjects. I thought, OK, I’ll show you. I’ll put everyone around a kitchen table, and I’ll absolutely stuff it with sex and violence. That was my brief to myself.’

Rachael Cusk takes it a stage further by arguing that this systematic disregard of domestic fiction is forcing women writers to lose sense of their identity;

It is in the places where honesty is most required… that it is most vehemently rejected. I am talking, of course, about the book of repetition, about fiction that concerns itself with what is eternal and unvarying, with domesticity and motherhood and family life. The sheer intolerance, in 2009, for these subjects is the unarguable proof that woman is on the verge of surrendering important aspects of her modern identity.’

It is disconcerting that women are being forced to tiptoe around certain subjects which are fundamental to their very existence – particularly family and motherhood – in order to be taken seriously as writers.

Perhaps the most maddening part of all of this is that there are a plethora of successful male novelists writing what is technically classed as ‘domestic fiction’ but somehow this criticism is never levelled at them. John Updike, Philip Roth (winner of a Pulitzer and the Man Booker International Prize 2011) Paul Auster, Jonathan Franzen, often classed as the great American novelists of the 21st Century, all concern themselves with themes of marriage, family, fatherhood and domesticity. For a few British examples consider David Nicholls (author of One Day), Tony Parsons, Nick Hornby and even Ian McEwan; they rarely stray far from domestic sphere. When men write about domesticity it is viewed as a profound, original and universal experience, deserving of literary praise. Kate Mosse (novelist and founder of the Orange Prize) sums it up;

‘When men write about domesticity, it’s seen as great literature. When women do it, it’s seen as women’s issues.

There is no easy solution for aspiring women novelists or those who have suffered at the hands of dismissive male editors or critics; however there is one course of action I would recommend all women to take, and that is a position of utter indifference. This was illustrated gallantly by Diana Athill earlier this week in response to Naipaul’s unprovoked attack;

‘I was a ‘sensitive editor’ because I liked his work, I was admiring it. When I stopped admiring him so much I started being ‘feminine tosh…I can’t say it made me feel very bad. It just made me laugh … I think one should just ignore it, take no notice really. Why be such an irritable man?’

Plainly deflecting and trivialising the issue is also admirable. Take Aminatta Forna’s (Orange Prize Shortlisted author) response to being asked ‘what was most challenging about writing from a male perspective?’

‘Interestingly I have found other things - generation and class - much more challenging than writing from a male perspective.’

Or simply follow in the footsteps of the grand-dame of denouncing the ‘women’s fiction’  label, A.S. Byatt;

‘I don’t think it has been particularly difficult because I am female. I don’t think it is an easy thing to write and expect to be commercial, even if you are from Venus and a hermaphrodite.’


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2 Responses to “‘You Should Try Harder’ - Women and Domestic Fiction”

  1. Hi Alice,

    Thank you for directing me to this article. It really sums up all my fears about trying to be a literary novelist with the ‘autobiographical’ subject matter of motherhood and identity. I find it mind boggling that intelligent critical people can decide that one subject matter or another is more befitting or worthy as a device to explore the human condition, that the experience of the domestic, something each and every person has experienced either as a child or parent, something that shapes us, lays the foundations for our view of the world and ourselves, is not a subject as you say ‘is broad enough, has enough reach’. This particular qualification is ludicrous and artificial. If we decide to arbitrarily choose a subject that is seen to have more weight, e.g. war, abuse etc then we might be considered more literary. The advice is not to bow to literary pressure, to write what you need and want to write but if you hope to gain a seriously considered reputation, thus forwarding the position of writers who happen to be women, then you may need to steer clear of the purely domestic. I recently read ‘Too Many Magpies’ by Elizabeth Baines, a novel with a domestic setting, that cut to the heart of authentic experience of being, with quality writing. This is the kind of book that should be considered highly. My husband recently finished the much lauded ‘Corrections’ by Jonathan Franzen. He felt it was one incredulous roller coaster too many. He finished the book and flung it to the end of the bed. I’m not saying anything either way about men’s domestic writing, there are many male authors you mentioned that i enjoy. I would like to see the way out of this. Is it articulate women arguing for authentic writing in all spheres of experience, will our arguments be heard?

    Posted by alisonwells | June 8, 2011, 10:56 am


  1. Pingback: V S Naipaul’s ‘vainglorious and conceited’ comments on women’s writing | Kingston Publishing - July 4, 2011

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