I’m always stunned at the idea that people actually wander about saying things like “women’s literature” and “men’s literature”. Good glory. Who makes these distinctions? I mean is it the publishers, the media, authors, critics, readers?? And what, may I ask, is men’s literature anyway? Penthouse? (Does that even still exist? It’s been so long since I’ve perused the smutty shelf at the local Mac’s.) (Oh, and pardon me if I’m being sexist in a bad way.)
I read Kerry Clare’s excellent post today, which is what started all this off. I’ve heard, and had, these conversations before, but I think Kerry pretty well nails it when she suggests that the tag “women’s writing” has, essentially, been constructed to fill ‘a gap’.
She refers to a review by Alex Good of Lisa Moore’s novel February, in which Good says Moore is “an author of the female body.” I’m not sure what that means. The novel is about a woman who lost her husband the night The Ocean Ranger oil rig sank off the coast of Newfoundland in 1982.
I might not have been inspired to rant on this subject had I not just recently finished reading the book, and loved it. Because what I loved about it had nothing to do with bleeding, cracked, and milk-squirting nipples (I refer again to Alex Good’s take on the book).
What impressed me was the language, the sentences, the writing for pity’s sake. And the honesty that Lisa Moore was able to tap into. As a widow, a woman, a human being trying to function among other human beings, a parent, a sister, a friend. I loved how she took us to the event and made us see it through the eyes of someone who has tried to make sense of it for twenty five years but there is no sense because The Company has never admitted their fault. Those men needn’t have died. It wasn’t about weather. It was about stupid manuals that weren’t distributed, training that didn’t happen, equipment that wasn’t in place. Moore beautifully shows the searing hopeless frustration of this through the prism of a widow’s jumbled, broken interior, in the chapter titled “The Portal”… where we learn that Helen has been playing the night of the storm over and over in her mind, imagining what might have happened, inviting us to imagine it with her, in control of every element but the final one.
The story could easily be that of a man after losing his wife/partner (just strike the squirting breasts); the human elements of emotion are the same for both sexes. But maybe that’s the problem—do we attribute emotions only to women?
And mindless car chases to men?
An over-simplification, I know. But you get the point.
Hardly seems right on either count.
I agree, of course, that certain books may have primarily women or men readers (also gay or straight readers, young or old readers, etc.) but I don’t think the authors, or their work, can (or should be) be defined by their readership—it’s often those very definitions that act as Keep Out signs to anyone else.
In the spirit of how far have we really come?, I’ll leave you with Margaret Atwood’s delicious take on the subject in a piece called “Women’s Novels“.
Note: post first appeared in April, 2010.
—Purchase February online at Blue Heron Books.